Sister Ben / Margaret MacCurtain / Peig

by Maria on October 7, 2020

“They always bring up the toilets as an impediment to women. It’s always the toilets.”

In a seminar room in University College Dublin, some time in the spring of 1994, the historian and campaigning Dominican nun lectured final year students on twentieth century women’s history. I don’t remember if the examples Margaret MacCurtain gave us were from her own research – she was a copious and generous supporter and sharer of other scholars’ work – but her quotes from Irish politicians from the 1920s through the 1940s were bizarre and hilarious. Several generations of men had dutifully conveyed the sad but apparently insurmountable fact that women could not participate fully in public life because sports facilities and the buildings of state did not have women’s toilets. Margaret MacCurtain would rock with laughter, letting the ignorant men’s words speak to their own ridiculousness, and then barrel straight into a detailed and sympathetic analysis of why so many post-Civil War Irish women politicians were radically discomfiting. (Short answer; many were the widows and sisters of men shot by first the British and then by the Free Staters.) That was her to a ‘t’ – pulling together the cultural, the structural, the individual and the contingent practicalities that make history thick, urgent and real.

Ireland’s bravest and most beloved historian died on Monday night. Margaret MacCurtain, known to UCD students of the nineteen-sixties as Sister Ben (short for her assigned religious name, Benvenuta), was a Dominican sister and social activist who pioneered feminist history in a country (and a university department) that insisted there was simply no such thing. With other scholars, Sister Ben painstakingly established both a new area of research and the importance of women in the long struggle for Irish independence both before and after the foundation of the state. Working with Maureen Murphy of Hofstra University, New York, she established a channel of exchange between Irish and Irish-American historians whose scholarship first challenged then supplanted many complacent narratives of power with an almost infinitely diverse flora of ‘up from below’ reclamation any annaliste would be proud of.

Before Vatican II, she taught in her sweeping and impractical nun’s habit and became known throughout the country as a campaigner for social justice. She helped to inspire generations of history graduates in a department that saw its role as being a key part of the formation of our small country’s political and institutional leadership. The UCD history department was known for being ‘revisionist’ – a countervailing force to the pious nationalism that dominated the discipline until at least the nineteen sixties – but it drew the line at any re-ordering of research priorities to actively seek out the women it had eagerly cast aside. Best to stick with Countess Markievicz. She was more than enough to be dealing with. To be a woman and an Irish historic figure, you must be very difficult indeed. To be a women’s historian, it turned out, you needed to be similarly ‘difficult’.

One summer in the nineteen-eighties, she told me, she was appointed to a senior position in her order during the (then) long academic holiday. When she returned to UCD in the autumn, she found her office had been emptied and given to someone else. She was told by the head of the department that they’d all assumed she’d be too busy with her new job and wouldn’t be coming back. But Margaret MacCurtain was a doer whose order recognised – or perhaps demanded – that its intellectuals must also work directly ‘in the field’. She reoccupied her office and went on teaching, comprehensively ignoring the history department’s transparent attempt to sack her, all the while continuing her new responsibilities. It wasn’t the first time she’d done it. In the previous decade she’d built out a college of further education in one of the most deprived areas of Dublin. She enjoyed building the institution, but she loved teaching night classes in history, especially to bright and hungry adult women the education system had spat out at sixteen.

I mostly know of Margaret MacCurtain’s ‘Sister Ben’ incarnation as a UCD history lecturer from family members who studied there in the sixties. She went on demos and acted as a bridge between student activists (she’d been one herself in Cork in the forties) and the college administration. It was a time of hugely necessary rupture in a university long under the thumb of the Catholic hierarchy. My great uncle Michael Tierney was university president at the time and a strong defender of such rules as the one banning women students from wearing trousers on campus. Sister Ben had herself clashed courageously with the infamous Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. He heard about her teaching of the Catholic counter-reformation in early modern history, and wrote to the head of her order demanding Sister Ben submit her lecture notes to him. The story, which I heard her tell myself, is related here. She refused, and offered to resign from teaching adults and teenagers altogether, if she was to be censored. McQuaid backed down. It was nonetheless a frightening and hurtful incident, and few among us wouldn’t have had their confidence punctured. But at the time, no one else knew about it, and Sister Ben continued to be a national figure who exemplified the progressive social justice wing of the Catholic church in Ireland. With Sister Ben, there was always a mix of the practical and the academic. Her broad
experience of life enriched her scholarship and gave her the nous and staying power for the uphill struggle to establish women’s history as a formal and respected field.

In the title of this piece, she is known by three names. The first, Sister Benvenuta, was given to her when she joined the Dominicans. It was a mouthful, and she went by Sister Ben in the outside world. After Vatican II, she set aside that name and the forbidding Dominican habit to become the modestly dressed lecturer Margaret MacCurtain, whose name was on my secondary school textbooks. That was the name I knew her by – always name and surname, never just Margaret – as one of her students. (That was down to my own shyness, not any insistence of formality on her part.) When I entered her class in my final year, she was pleased that in her first year of university teaching she’d taught my aunt Bairbre, who went on to become a history teacher and institution-builder in a similar mode, and in her last year she’d taught me. It was the kind of pleasing book-end a historian is alert to.

Her class opened a new world to me. It simultaneously showed that the department’s narrow, defensive view was not just inadequate, but silly (the toilets!). That class offered a living counter-example that was both capacious and gritty enough to spend your whole life inside. She sent out three successive generations of historians of women’s history and even those who went back into ‘mainstream’ scholarship afterwards (Diarmuid Ferriter was an especially well-loved student a couple of years ahead of me) were known to be as expansive in their vision as they were vigorous and thorough in archival research. I very much wanted to do a Masters under her, but she was retiring at the end of that year. I ran into her on the arts concourse late in the summer after my Finals. She’d just been down to the furnace to try and rescue my exam paper, she said, but had been too late. Would I write up a particular essay again, because she knew who would want to publish it? Again, classic Margaret MacCurtain – the practical and the academic, acting on a generous read of an essay that likely fluked an insight her superior knowledge could have made into something. I half-promised to do it, but had burned out on my Finals and was still unable to read even a newspaper article. Instead, I took a typing course and got a job with a TV production company. I sometimes wonder what might have been.

After college, I had the best of all worlds. I got to know her as ‘Peig’. As most Irish people know, it’s the diminutive for Margaret, and the name she went by in the Irish-speaking family of my closest friend, Caoimhe ní Bhraonáin. Peig contained the nun, Sister Ben, the teacher and public figure, Margaret MacCurtain, and someone else again, whose demeanour showed even more the love of fun and constant eye for a good way of doing something new. Now I came to know her as a speaker of lovely Munster Irish which she always said wasn’t very good (it was anyway far better than mine) and a member of The Three Amigos, a generation-spanning friendship group of Peig, my grandmother Éilis McDowell, and the brilliant and dynamic Maureen Murphy. They were actually Four Amigos, including Caoimhe’s mother Donla, whose family responsibilities meant she couldn’t gallivant as often with the others but who hosted us all on what feels like one endless, idyllic Sunday afternoon at Ardán Waltham.

Peig in retirement was at least as busy as before, and even more productive. Others can write knowledgeably about her later scholarship. I can only offer the observation that she was constantly cooking up books and other projects with Maureen, such as Peig’s contribution to the Irish Famine curriculum for New York state. When I call Peig to mind I see the two of them walking into the sitting room as they finish a rapid and joyous conversation about their latest scheme. I also see the pictures of them driving a convertible car to the Grand Canyon in their own tribute to Thelma and Louise.

In Britain, Peig would have been declared a national treasure and awarded an MBE. In Ireland, where people sometimes clamour for the establishment of a formal honours system but know in their hearts it’s too easily corrupted, she got a seemingly endless kick out of setting other people off on their own paths. She didn’t need the credit. She just liked to see the work get done. When I called my brother Henry yesterday to tell him she had died, he said it was such a pity she wouldn’t have the funeral she deserved, because of Covid. Or, more accurately, the funeral her legions of family, friends and admirers would have enjoyed. But she actually did have that celebration, and two years ago when she could enjoy it. Someone may correct me on this, but I think it was in the Mansion House in Dublin, in a large state room that couldn’t contain the huge numbers who came to pay tribute, declaim poetry, sing, play music and not grumble (too much) when Uachtarain na hEireann went characteristically overtime. Even the overflow room was packed with people watching the proceedings on a screen. I wasn’t there but am told she loved it, and probably enjoyed the ironies of a national establishment celebrating its apparently seamless absorption of some people, stories and ideas it once instinctively repelled.

Reading a long interview yesterday that Peig gave some years ago, I was struck by her use of the term ‘my formation’ to describe how she became a women’s historian and feminist. The term is usually employed by a nun or priest to describe how they assemble the conscious choices and happenstance of theological inspiration that form both their spiritual nourishment and life’s work. It’s partly something that happens because of what’s around you and partly something you decide to do. I think Peig – consciously or otherwise – made available the materials and the path, and provided a model for the formation of many whose lives she shaped. And in so doing, she made possible a slightly different kind of formation for the country whose history she, and the hundreds she sent out, helped rewrite. She made more stories and sources of inspiration available to draw on or chance on by luck or providence, and in her own path-finding she didn’t just stake out new territory but showed that it could and must continually be done.

It was an honour and a joy to be her student and her friend.



Seán Mac Nialluis 10.07.20 at 12:59 pm

Very interesting. Thank you. For some reason, a holy well at Teelin, Carrick, in the Glencolmcille peninsula in SW Donegal comes to mind. The well honours three women from long ago: Ciall, Tuigse and Náire (Sense, Understanding and Modesty for those who do not understand Irish). Náire nowadays means shame.
Many of us know or knew pioneer Irishwomen who went unnoticed . One example: in the latter half of the 20th century, three nuns from the peninsula where the holy well is, spent lifetimes teaching, setting up schools, colleges and university programmes, and rescuing girls and boys abroad – one in Singapore, one in Beirut, and the third in Kenya. I find it amazing that one small area of Donegal could contribute so much to education in the wider world.


Doug 10.07.20 at 1:11 pm

What a lovely tribute!

Thank you for sharing and teaching a different audience about an amazing woman.


Denis Bergin 10.07.20 at 5:47 pm

Thank you: a really lovely writing about a great and gentle woman. Thank you.


Alan Hayes / Arlen House 10.07.20 at 6:33 pm

Thank you for this superbly written tribute to a woman who has no equals. Margaret/Ben/Peig taught you well.


oldster 10.08.20 at 2:49 am

There’s a wondrous mystery to the fact that an institution rooted in misogyny and the oppression of women has so often been an incubator and haven for magnificently strong and independent women.

Not always, of course: the convents have killed, silenced, and stifled many women, too. But that’s we expect; it’s what they were designed to do (at least the silencing and stifling, and a bit of killing has been an acceptable side-effect.)

No it’s the proud, brave, unstoppable exceptions that beg for explanation.

I’m the wrong gender, age, and faith to have any insight into the matter. But as a mere outsider, the phenomenon is striking. Sister Ben is laudable and worthy of celebration. But she is not unparalleled — there are Sister Kathleens and Sister Rosas and sisters of every name who have defied the odds and defied their church to become women of power, speakers of truth, feminist revolutionaries.

Thanks for celebrating this one, and making her live on through your works.


JanieM 10.08.20 at 6:52 pm

Maria — as usual, beyond compare.

First you made me laugh: “Best to stick with Countess Markievicz. She was more than enough to be dealing with.”

Then you brought tears to my eyes: “When I entered her class in my final year, she was pleased that in her first year of university teaching she’d taught my aunt Bairbre, who went on to become a history teacher and institution-builder in a similar mode, and in her last year she’d taught me.”

I hope I live long enough to see my own country regain enough of its sanity so that we can travel again, and I can go to Ireland one more time.

That is all.

P.S. inspired by oldster’s comment: I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for twelve years. Then I put the whole thing behind me a year or two after I left home; I’m too literal-minded (not to mention gay) to live with the ambiguities of staying on the inside of such an institution. But one of my high school classmates is a nun in the mold you’re talking about — the president, now, of the order that taught us, after spending many years in social justice work, some of it at risk of her life. She’s now involved in ongoing efforts to change the place of women in the Church. I admire her more than I can say.


Barry 10.08.20 at 7:30 pm

Thank you!

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