The exact origins of the Poor Clare Sisters in Galway are not easy to trace. We know there was a convent of Clares, if not Poor Clares, here before 1640, based on an inscription on a headstone which read “Here lieth the body of Elizabeth Lynch, the Foundress of the Order of St. Clare who died 14th December 1626”. James Hardiman describes another headstone inscribed thus: “Here lieth the body of R. Mother Maria Gabriel, alias Helen Martin, first Abbess and religious of the Poor Clares of Galway who died on 14 January aged 68 in religion for 40. Pray for her Soul.” This suggests the nuns were in Galway since 1632 when she entered the order.
In 1648, the corporation granted the sisters lands on “The next illand adjoining to the bridge of IIlanaltenagh” in what became known as Nuns’ Island. Their convent was burnt to the ground by the Cromwellians and a number of the nuns left the country. Some stayed and eventually returned to Nuns’ Island, but they were burnt out again in 1691. In 1698 and 1712, they were supposed to be suppressed, but somehow they survived in the city.
In 1816, their provincial saw the state they were in so he went to look at Nuns’ Island and found it an eligible place for a convent. As they had enough funds, he got them to engage an architect to oversee the business and in less than two years they had ‘a beautiful Convent, Chapel and Poor School, all under one roof’. They moved in on June 18, 1825. It was known as the Franciscan Nunnery and it was about this time that the placename Nuns’ Island came into use.
They gradually resumed full religious life, the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Night Office, Enclosure, etc, as they were not really interested in teaching. In 1865 there were six sisters there, and in 1888 there was a community of 16. In those days, anyone hoping to join as a novice had to bring a substantial dowry with her, but this idea was gradually phased out.
In 1895 they laid the cornerstone of the Extern Convent which was a major extension to the front of the building. Extern sisters were regarded as a separate body who assisted the enclosed religious, but since 1961 they have become an integral part of the Poor Clares. Their daily life is one of lived communion, holy unity, and poverty. They make, pack, and distribute altar breads for the diocese and beyond, and the monastery and garden have to be maintained, so there is work for all. They have been described as “A powerhouse of prayer, a spiritual asset to Galway”. Nuns’ Island and the city have always felt an instinctive need of one another.
Our photograph today was originally taken c1870 and shows the original convent before the extern extension was built. It is one of a collection found recently in Chetham’s Library in Manchester, and we thank the library for permission to publish it.
The sisters recently published a book of simple wisdom and prayer entitled Calm the Soul. It does exactly what it says on the tin and is an inspiring source of simple spirituality and offers faith and hope to anyone seeking solace in today’s world. No wonder it topped the bestsellers for a time. Available in good bookshops.
An Taisce is organising a tour of Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin on Sunday next. The bus leaves the station at 10am and the €25 fare includes the bus fare, morning coffee, and a guided tour of the cemetery. To book a seat call Martin Byrnes at 091 794 435.