I thought about titling this blog post: Bless me Father, Here we go again… But I’d like it to be instructive for budding researchers, who might avoid the mistakes I’ve made.
Rule No.101: The most difficult people to extract information from are religious orders. Take care to strike the right note – somewhere between assertive professional with a right to information and obsequious convent-educated girl.
Don’t blather on. Don’t reveal your disdain. Take what information they’ll give you and RUN. It’s sometimes like dealing with MI5. (I imagine.)
If you’ve been following from the start, you may remember that in Los Angeles I made the rookie mistake of contacting the diocese office for Hollywood the same day that a group of sex abuse survivors in LA announced that they were suing the Vatican. Last week I started contacting Sisters of Mercy to trace an old and special friend of Aideen’s. I was getting somewhere with a nice woman in Cork, until I mentioned that I knew little of Aideen’s mother. I meant of course, that this respectable, married mother had died young. Not, that she might have been one of the “girls in trouble” they took in in Cobh. Silence dropped. I could hear the pursed lips and the file slamming shut. Shut up, Ciara. Shut up. Too Late.
I was re-directed to the central office, and a number of answering machines and Out of Office messages. But I kept the faith (pun intended), and eventually reached the congregational archivist. Whatever kind of archives they keep in that congregational office, they’re eclectic but fascinating. So, let me introduce another woman in this saga: Sr Mary Monica, Sister of Mercy in the convent in Cobh. Or, to her friends, Martha.
All of the correspondence between Aideen and her sisters is chatty and intimate yet full of the usual sisterly squabbles. Another letter in the Shields’ Family Archive is almost searing in its honest affection. In 1953, Sister Mary Monica of the Convent of Mercy wrote to Christine, Aideen’s daughter. With a blue fountain pen, in writing clear enough for a seven-year-old Christine to read herself, she said: “Mummy was my friend from the time she was four … I loved her very much and I love you too.”
I thought Martha could have been a school friend or a cousin, but the archivist confirmed that she was in fact eighteen years Aideen’s senior. It’s more likely that she was a friend of Aideen’s mother, knowing her from her family home in Cork city. Martha entered the convent in Cobh six months after Aideen was born, and went on to teach in the primary school. Her subject was English and she had a particular interest in speech and drama. Along with the usual lessons in elocution and verse speaking, she encouraged her students to produce their own sketches, tableaux and plays.
Was this the first budding of Aideen’s love of performance – to impress her mother’s friend on holidays in Cobh?
I went to Cobh, and to Graham’s Terrace, where Aideen spent the summer of 1939. By the time of my visit, the Convent was already closed and up for sale. I would have liked to wander in the grounds, to see if I could spy the cultured, lady-like Sr Mary Monica through the windows. I am picturing her as rounded but always erect, with the kind of wrinkle-free skin that is the preserve of serene nuns. She was always happy to be involved in the community’s reading and singing. Her party piece, in her own fine accent, was the recitation of “Lorraine, Lorraine, Loreen.”
Did Martha understand that Aideen loved a married man?
Did she lecture or admonish Aideen?
After Arthur and Aideen married, Sr Monica prayed for the arrival of a baby to make the new wife’s happiness complete. When the child arrived, Aideen sent her long letters about the growing baby with photos. The nun longed for the day Aideen would come home to visit her with Christine.
Did Martha detect the growing despair in Aideen’s letters?
Did they speak of her loneliness, her unhappiness, her illness?
The answers to these questions are closely guarded, by people who may or may not work for MI5. If they haven’t been hired yet, they should be.