Review of Cara Delay, Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism by Bridget Harrison

Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism, 1850-1950

Cara Delay

Manchester University Press, 2019

Delay cover

The impact of the Catholic Church on gender roles in nineteenth and early twentieth century Ireland has been a major theme in Irish social history since the 1970s.  Cara Delay’s Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism, 1850-1950 provides nuance and depth to the existing scholarship by instead examining  how lay women affected the Church.  Without omitting or minimising the darker aspects of Catholic culture’s impact on Irish women, such as the legal limitations placed on female employment and prohibition of contraception, Delay deftly illustrates the countless ways that women made space for themselves within Irish Catholicism, helping to shape the religion in the process.  In so doing, she presents a more complex view of Irish society.

Throughout the book, Delay repeatedly demonstrates that women and girls found power and autonomy within the structures of the Catholic Church, even when the Church was limiting their behaviours.  It presents many examples of this, such as how being partially confined to the domestic sphere gave some women greater financial freedom as the main buyers for the house and enabled them to present their homes as sites of religious devotion.  Delay also demonstrates the centrality of Catholic culture in women’s lives.  Developing on her previous work, she has ably demonstrated the importance of the home as a devotional space.  She has also demonstrated that women often interpreted even oppressive aspects of Catholic culture in order to confer themselves with agency.  For instance, while priests presented the Virgin Mary as an example of sacrificial motherhood, women often decorated Marian chapels and shrines, using their devotion to her as a means of occupying and controlling public space.  In the twentieth century, Marian apparitions gave women a means to express their opposition to secularisation.  Delay consistently centres the beliefs and behaviours of lay women, providing a valuable insight into their understanding of their faiths.

Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism sheds light on the ways women shaped their own faith, often without clerical support.  Delay highlights that religious iconography permeated female-centred experiences such as childbirth.  In one telling anecdote, she describes a young nineteenth century priest whose new female parishioners tricked him into performing churching ceremonies for them for free.  The story at once demonstrates women’s respect and engagement with Church practices and their willingness to challenge and undermine its authority.  Similarly, Delay notes that women played a pivotal role in preserving superstitions and folk beliefs into the twentieth century alongside more orthodox religious practices.  This further shows women’s ability to direct their own faith and that of their families.

The book also examines how religion affected the relationships of Irish women.  Two chapters on childhood and motherhood deftly outline the role of Catholicism within the family.  Delay shows that from an early age, girls were educated to take on the role of the spiritual heart of the family and that mothers were instrumental in the religious education of their children.  These chapters attempt to detail both the practical and the emotional realities of these connections.  The exploration of the interactions between lay women and priests are also illuminating.  She reveals a complex and often fraught relationship where many women relied on spiritual, social and economic aid from their local priests and bishops.  Building on Lindsay Earner Byrne’s research, Delay has shown how when women contacted clergy, they often consciously constructed their life stories to fit narratives which would elicit sympathy and support.  She also noted that priests often served as confidants to women and on occasion served as “substitute patriarchs” when women had trouble with their husbands at home.  In so doing, Delay presents an understanding of the impact the Devotional Revolution had on women at a community and interpersonal level.

In order to shed light on the lived experiences of Irish women, Delay makes extensive use of autobiographies and other life writing.  These allow her to provide details of small expressions of faith, such as a mother telling her daughter that menstruation was “a secret from the Blessed Virgin”, that would otherwise be difficult to trace.  They also provide an insight into the emotional experience of women and girls.  For instance, the book details the various reactions which children had to the presence of images of holy figures, ranging from fear to curiosity to awe.  There are drawbacks to using life-writing as a historical source.  Delay herself notes that they are naturally coloured by how authors understood their own experience, which in turn is shaped by the cultural landscape of the author (in the case of Irish childhood memoirs the Church scandals of the late twentieth century often loomed large).  Additionally, as they are written for an audience, they cannot give an entirely candid account.  Nevertheless, Delay uses them to present a vivid picture of the introspective elements of women’s religious practice, which would otherwise be all but invisible to historians.

Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism provides a new perspective on how the Catholic Church impacted the lives of women.  Focusing on the personal and community level, Delay has illuminated the myriad ways which women shaped Catholicism during and after the Devotional Revolution as well as how the Church impacted their lives.  The book places the experiences of lay women at its forefront, in so doing presenting an array of interactions with religious practice and the Catholic hierarchy, ranging from staunch support to covert resistance  It represents an excellent contribution to Irish religious history and women’s history.

Bridget Harrison recently completed a Ph.D. at Queen’s University Belfast, generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership.  Her thesis was entitled ‘Roman Catholic women religious in Ireland, 1849-1907: self-representations and public perceptions.’  She is currently working at University College, Dublin.