The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Cork — The Ursuline Convent.

There is a large Ursuline convent at Blackrock, near Cork, and a lady who had been educated there was kind enough to invite me to join a party to visit the place. Was not this a great privilege for a heretic? I have peeped into convent chapels abroad, and occasionally caught glimpses of a white veil or a black gown; but to see the pious ladies in their own retreat was quite a novelty — much more exciting than the exhibition of Long Horns and Short Horns by which we had to pass on our road to Blackrock.

The three miles’ ride is very pretty. As far as nature goes, she has done her best for the neighbourhood; and the noble hills on the opposite coast of the river, studded with innumerable pretty villas and garnished with fine trees and meadows, the river itself dark blue under a brilliant cloudless heaven, and lively with its multiplicity of gay craft, accompany the traveller along the road; except here and there where the view is shut out by fine avenues of trees, a beggarly row of cottages, or a villa wall. Rows of dirty cabins, and smart bankers’ country-houses, meet one at every turn; nor do the latter want for fine names, you may be sure. The Irish grandiloquence displays itself finely in the invention of such! and, to the great inconvenience, I should think, of the postman, the names of the houses appear to change with the tenants for I saw many old houses with new placards in front, setting forth the last title of the house.

I had the box of the carriage (a smart vehicle that would have done credit to the ring), and found the gentleman by my side very communicative. He named the owners of the pretty mansions and lawns visible on the other side of the river; they appear almost all to be merchants, who have made their fortunes in the city. In the like manner, though the air of the town is extremely fresh and pure to a pair of London lungs, the Cork shopkeeper is not satisfied with it, but contrives for himself a place (with an euphonious name, no doubt) in the suburbs of the city. These stretch to a great extent along the beautiful, liberal-looking banks of the stream.

I asked the man about the Temperance, and whether he was a temperance man? He replied by pulling a medal out of his waistcoat pocket, saying that he always carried it about with him for fear of temptation. He said that he took the pledge two years ago, before which time, as he confessed, he had been a sad sinner in the way of drink. “I used to take,” said he, “from 18 to 20 glasses of whiskey a day; I was always at the drink; I’d be often up all night at the public: I was turned away by my present master on account of it;" — and all of a sudden he resolved to break it off. I asked him whether he had not at first experienced ill-health from the suddenness of the change in his habits; but he said — and let all persons meditating a conversion from liquor remember the fact — that the abstinence never affected him in the least, but that he went on growing better and better in health every day, stronger and more able of mind and body.

The man was a Catholic, and in speaking of the numerous places of worship along the road as we passed, I’m sorry to confess, dealt some rude cuts with his whip regarding the Protestants. Coachman as he was, the fellow’s remarks seemed to be correct for it appears that the religious world of Cork is of so excessively enlightened a kind, that one church will not content one pious person; but that, on the contrary, they will be at Church of a morning, at Independent church of an afternoon, at a Darbyite congregation of an evening, and so on, gathering excitement or information from all sources which they could come at. Is not this the case? are not some of the ultra-serious as eager after a new preacher, as the ultra-worldly for a new dancer? don’t they talk and gossip about him as much? Though theology from the coach-box is rather questionable, (after all, the man was just as much authorised to propound his notions as many a fellow from an amateur pulpit,) yet he certainly had the right here as far as his charge against certain Protestants went.

The reasoning from it was quite obvious, and I’m sure was in the man’s mind, though he did not utter it, as we drove by this time into the convent gate. “Here,” says coachman, “is our church. I don’t drive my master and mistress from church to chapel, from chapel to conventicle, hunting after new preachers every Sabbath. I bring them every Sunday and set them down at the same place, where they know that everything they hear must be right. Their fathers have done the same thing before them; and the young ladies and gentlemen will come here too; and all the new-fangled doctors and teachers may go roaring through the land, and still here we come regularly, not caring a whit for the vagaries of others, knowing that we ourselves are in the real old right original way

I am sure this is what the follow meant by his sneer at the Protestants, and their gadding from one doctrine to another, but there was no call and no time to have a battle with him as by this time we had entered a large lawn covered with hay cocks, and prettily, as I think, ornamented with a border of blossoming potatoes, and drove up to the front door of the convent. It is a huge old square house, with many windows, having probably been some flaunting squire’s residence; but the nuns have taken off somewhat from its rakish look, by flinging out a couple of wings with chapels, or buildings like chapels, at either end.

A large, lofty, clean, trim hall was open to a flight of steps, and we found a young lady in the hall, playing, instead of a pious sonata — which I vainly thought was the practice in such godly seminaries of learning — that abominable rattling piece of music called la Violette, which it has been my lot to hear executed by other young ladies; and which (with its like) has always appeared to me to be constructed upon this simple fashion — to take a tune, and then, as it were, to fling it down and up stairs. As soon as the young lady playing “the Violet” saw us, she quitted the hall and retired to an inner apartment, where she resumed that delectable piece at her leisure. Indeed there were pianos all over the educational part of the house.

We were shown into a gay parlour (where hangs a pretty drawing representing the melancholy old convent which the Sisters previously inhabited in Cork), and presently Sister No. Two-Eight made her appearance — a pretty and graceful lady.

’Tis the prettiest nun of the whole house, whispered the lady who had been educated at the convent and I must own that slim, gentle, and pretty as this young lady was, and calculated with her kind smiling face and little figure to frighten no one in the world, a great six foot Protestant could not help looking at her with a little tremble I had never been in a nun’s company before I’m afraid of such I don t care to own — in their black mysterious robes and awful veils. As priests in gorgeous vestments, and little rosy incense-boys in red, bob their heads and knees up and down before altars, or clatter silver pots full of smoking odours, I feel I don’t know what sort of thrill and secret creeping terror. Here I was, in a room with a real live nun, pretty and pale — I wonder has she any of her sisterhood immured in oubliettes down below; is her poor little weak, delicate body scarred all over with scourgings, iron-collars, hair-shirts? What has she had for dinner to-day? — as we passed the refectory there was a faint sort of vapid nun-like vegetable smell, speaking of fasts and wooden platters; and I could picture to myself silent sisters eating their meal — a grim old yellow one in the reading-desk, croaking out an extract from a sermon for their edification.

But is it policy, or hypocrisy, or reality? These nuns affect extreme happiness and content with their condition: a smiling beatitude, which they insist belongs peculiarly to them, and about which the only doubtful point is the manner in which it is produced before strangers. Young ladies educated in convents have often mentioned this fact — how the nuns persist in declaring and proving to them their own extreme enjoyment of life.

Were all the smiles of that kind-looking Sister Two-Eight perfectly sincere? Whenever she spoke her face was lighted up with one. She seemed perfectly radiant with happiness, tripping lightly before us, and distributing kind compliments to each, which made me in a very few minutes forget the introductory fright which her poor little presence had occasioned.

She took us through the hall (where was the vegetable savour before mentioned), and showed us the contrivance by which the name of Two-Eight was ascertained. Each nun has a number, or a combination of numbers, prefixed to her name; and a bell is pulled a corresponding number of times, by which each sister knows when she is wanted. Poor souls! are they always on the look-out for that bell, that the ringing of it should be supposed infallibly to awaken their attention?

From the hall the sister conducted us through ranges of apartments, and I had almost said avenues of pianofortes, whence here and there a startled pensioner would rise, hinnuleo similis, at our approach, seeking a pavidam matrem in the person of a demure old stout mother hard by. We were taken through a hall decorated with a series of pictures of Pope Pius VI., wonderful adventures, truly, in the life of the gentle old man.

In one you see him gracefully receiving a Prince and Princess of Russia (tremendous incident!). The Prince has a pigtail the Princess powder and train, the Pope a — but never mind, we shall never get through the house at this rate

Passing through Pope Pius gallery, we came into a long, clean, lofty passage, with many little doors on each side, and here I confess my heart began to thump again. These were the doors of the cells of the Sisters Bon Dieu! and is it possible that I shall see a nun’s cell? Do I not recollect the nun’s cell in “The Monk,” or in “The Romance of the Forest?” or, if not there, at any rate, in a thousand noble romances, read in early days of half-holiday perhaps — romances at two-pence a volume.

Come in, in the name of the saints! Here is the cell. I took off my hat and examined the little room with much curious wonder and reverence. There was an iron bed, with comfortable curtains of green serge. There was a little clothes-chest of yellow wood, neatly cleaned, and a wooden chair beside it, and a desk on the chest, and about six pictures on the wall — little religious pictures: a saint with gilt paper round him; the Virgin showing on her breast a bleeding heart, with a sword run through it; and other sad little subjects, calculated to make the inmate of the cell think of the sufferings of the saints and martyrs of the Church. Then there was a little crucifix, and a wax-candle on the ledge; and here was the place where the poor black-veiled things were to pass their lives forever!

After having seen a couple of these little cells, we left the corridors in which they were, and were conducted, with a sort of pride on the nun’s part, I thought, into the grand room of the convent — a parlour with pictures of saints, and a gay paper, and a series of small fineries, such only as women very idle know how to make. There were some portraits in the room, one an atrocious daub of an ugly old woman, surrounded by children still more hideous. Somebody had told the poor nun that this was a fine thing, and she believed it-heaven bless her! — quite implicitly: nor is the picture of the ugly old Canadian woman the first reputation that has been made this way.

Then from the fine parlour we went to the museum. I don’t know how we should be curious of such trifles; but the chronicling of small-beer is the main business of life — people only differing, as Tom Moore wisely says in one of his best poems, about their own peculiar tap. The poor nun’s little collection of gimcracks was displayed in great state there were spars in one drawer; and, I think, a Chinese shoe and some Indian wares in another; and some medals of the Popes, and a couple of score of coins; and a clean glass case, full of antique works of French theology of the distant period of Louis XV., to judge by the bindings — and this formed the main part of the museum. “The chief objects were gathered together by a single nun,” said the sister with a look of wonder, as she went prattling on, and leading us hither and thither, like a child showing her toys.

What strange mixture of pity and pleasure is it which comes over you sometimes when a child takes you by the hand, and leads you up solemnly to some little treasure of its own — a feather or a string of glass beads? I declare I have often looked at such with more delight than at diamonds; and felt the same sort of soft wonder examining the nun’s little treasure-chamber. There was something touching in the very poverty of it — had it been finer, it would not have been half so good.

And now we had seen all the wonders of the house but the chapel, and thither we were conducted; all the ladies of our party kneeling down as they entered the building, and saying a short prayer.

This, as I am on sentimental confessions, I must own affected me too. It was a very pretty and tender sight. I should have liked to kneel down too, but was ashamed; our northern usages not encouraging — among men at least — that sort of abandonment of dignity. Do any of us dare to sing psalms at church? and don’t we look with rather a sneer at a man who does?

The chapel had nothing remarkable in it except a very good organ, as I was told; for we were allowed only to see the exterior of that instrument, our pious guide with much pleasure removing an oilcloth which covered the mahogany. At one side of the altar is a long high grille, through which you see a hall, where the nuns have their stalls, and sit in chapel time; and beyond this hall is another small chapel, with a couple of altars, and one beautiful print in one of them — a German Holy Family — a prim, mystical, tender piece, just befitting the place.

In the grille is a little wicket and a ledge before it. It is to this wicket that women are brought to kneel; and a bishop is in the chapel on the other side, and takes their hands in his, and receives their vows. I had never seen the like before, and own that I felt a sort of shudder at looking at the place. There rest the girl’s knees as she offers herself up, and forswears the sacred affections which God gave her; there she kneels and denies forever the beautiful duties of her being — no tender maternal yearnings, no gentle attachments are to be had for her or from her, — there she kneels and commits suicide upon her heart. O honest Martin Luther! thank God, you came to pull that infernal, wicked unnatural altar down that cursed Paganism! Let people, solitary, worn out by sorrow or oppressed with extreme remorse, retire to such places; fly and beat your breasts in caverns and wildernesses. O women if you will but be Magdalens first. It is shameful that any young girl with any vocation however seemingly strong, should be allowed to bury herself in this small tomb of a few acres. Look at yonder nun, — pretty, smiling, graceful, and young, — what has God’s world done to her, that she should run from it, or she done to the world, that she should avoid it? What call has she to give up all her duties and affections? and would she not be best serving God with a husband at her side, and a child on her knee?

The sights in the house having through the grounds and gardens. a fine yellow corn-field at the back melancholy-looking kitchen-garden; in all of which places the nuns, for certain hours in the day, are allowed to take recreattion. “The nuns here are allowed to amuse themselves more than ours at New Hall,” said a little girl who is educated at that English convent: “do you know the here the nuns may make hay?” What a privilege is this! We saw none of the black sisterhood availing themselves of it, however, the hay was neatly piled into cocks and ready for housing; so the poor souls must wait until next year before they can enjoy this blessed sport once more.

Turning into a narrow gate with the nun at our head, we found ourselves in a little green, quiet inclosure — it was the burial-ground of the convent. The poor things know the places where they are to lie: she who was with us talked smilingly of being stretched there one day and pointed out the resting-place of a favourite old sister who had died three months back and been buried in the very midst of the little ground. And here they come to live and die. The gates are open, but they never go out. All their world lies in a dozen acres of ground and they sacrifice their lives in early youth, many of them passing from the grave up stairs in the house to the one scarcely narrower in the churchyard here; and are seemingly not unhappy.

I came out of the place quite sick; and looking before me, — there, thank God! was the blue spire of Monkstown church soaring up into the free sky — a river in front rolling away to the sea — liberty, sunshine, all sorts of glad life and motion round about: and I couldn’t but thank heaven for it, and the Being whose service is freedom, and who has given us affections that we may use them — not smother and kill them; and a noble world to live in, that we may admire it and Him who made it — not shrink from it, as though we dared not live there, but must turn our backs upon it and its bountiful Provider.

And in conclusion, if that most cold-blooded and precise of all personages, the respectable and respected English reader, may feel disposed to sneer at the above sentimental homily, or to fancy that it has been written for effect — let him go and see a convent for himself. I declare I think for my part that we have as much right to permit Sutteeism in India as to allow women in the United Kingdom to take these wicked vows, or Catholic bishops to receive them; and that Government has as good a right to interpose in such cases, as the police have to prevent a man from hanging himself, or the doctor to refuse a glass of prussic-acid to any one who may have a wish to go out of the world.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thackeray/william_makepeace/irish/chapter6.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07