In the early 17th century there were no convents of nuns in Ireland or Britain... you had to go to the Continent to become a nun.
The author Helena Concannon wrote that, even before the wars of the 1640s, there was a convent of Clares, if not Poor Clares, in Galway. She cited an inscription on a grave in the Franciscan Cemetery which read “Here lieth the body of Elizabeth Lynch, the foundress of the order of St Clare, who died 14th September 1626.” She also mentioned another headstone to Caet Daly “a nun of the Order of St Clare” who died in 1638. These inscriptions are evidence of a group of women dedicated to St Clare but they may have been Tertiaries and not Poor Clares.
The Poor Clares were certainly based in a monastery, Bethlehem, on the shores of Lough Riagh in 1631 and included a number of Galwegians. This monastery was burnt during the wars of 1641 and some of the nuns took refuge in Galway, probably with their relatives and friends. The decision to establish a community here was made early in the following year. It consisted of the Abbess, Sister Mary Gabriel Martin, 11 professed sisters, and two novices. Galway received them hospitably, and their numbers increased. In 1648 the Abbess wrote to the mayor of the city saying: “Your poore petitioners doe suffer much by the exorbitant rent they pay, and notwithstanding their due payment, are to be thrust out of their dwelling next May, their lease being ended. The petitioners humbly pray that you may be pleased to graunt them sufficient roome for building a monasterie and rooms convenient thereunto, a garden and an orchard, in the next illand adjoining to the bridge of Illanalltenagh.” The corporation granted their request on July 10 1649, and so they moved to what became known as Nuns Island.
Their convent appears on the 1651 map. It was burnt to the ground by the Cromwellians and an edict was issued that all nuns must marry or leave the country. Some left, but some stayed and eventually returned to Nuns Island. They were burnt out again in 1691, and they remained in hiding for some time, eventually securing a house in Market Street where they stayed secretly as a community. They were thrown out several times but managed to get back and live together under the plea of keeping a boarding house. It was their home for 130 years. They somehow survived and in 1825, as a community of 15, they were able to move back to Nuns Island where they have been ever since.
They gradually resumed full religious life... the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, night office, enclosure, all of which had to be abandoned during the Penal days and periods of persecution. Today theirs is a life of lived communion, holy unity, and poverty. Their main work is the making, packing, and distribution of altar breads for the diocese and beyond. Their monastery and garden have to be maintained so there is work for all.
They have been described as a powerhouse of prayer, a wonderful spiritual asset to Galway, a praying presence. Many can vouch for the encouragement, the support in faith and solidarity, the comfort and solace they have received from this monastery. There is a kind of mutual bond between the nuns and the people of Galway.
Our photograph today dates from the early 1960s and shows the secluded monastery and its garden. You can see the old Presentation School bottom left, and the field at the top of the picture is now a children’s playground. On the right you can see the Cathedral being built inside the old Gaol wall and the houses along the Gaol Road
Some of the Poor Clares’ buildings are now in urgent need of repair and they are about to undertake construction work that will better facilitate the external services of the monastery. They are obviously in need of funding to do this and so you are invited to help by making a contribution to this wonderful Galway institution at The Poor Clares’ Repair Fund, c/o Bank of Ireland, Eyre Square. The account number is 228 19439, sort code 90 38 16, or you can contact Anto at (087 ) 747 5458, and please be generous.