11 January 2001

An Irishman’s Diary:
A saint from Co Clare

Harriet Monsell, founder of the Community of Saint John Baptist, was born at Dromoland Castle, Co Clare

A nun from Co Clare who was also the sister of a patriot MP has been honoured among the saints by the Church of England.

A new prayer book, new liturgies and a new calendar of saints’ days have been in use throughout the Church of England since January 1st. The 1980 Alternative Service Book has been replaced by Common Worship, which includes some changes to the Calendar of Saints’ Days, with an eye to ecumenism and the addition of a considerable number of contemporary names.

Patrick and Columba (Colmcille) were included in the old ASB calendar, along with Jeremy Taylor, Bishop of Down and Dromore. But Ireland’s third patron, Brigid, now also features in the Church of England calendar. Another Irish woman named for the first time in the list of saints is Harriet Monsell, commemorated on March 26th.

O’Brien titles

Born Harriet O’Brien, she was a member of the Inchiquin branch of the family from Dromoland Castle, Co Clare. Her father, Sir Edward O’Brien, was a direct descendant of Brian Boru and the O’Brien Kings of Munster. When the Thomond peerages became extinct in 1855 with the death of James O’Brien, third Marquess and seventh Earl of Thomond, it seemed the ancient O’Brien titles had come to an end. However, Harriet’s eldest brother, Sir Lucius O'Brien, was surprisingly successful in taking his claim to an obscure and almost-forgotten 16th century title to the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords, and in 1862 he became the 13th Baron Inchiquin.

As a result of the decision in the Lords, Lord Inchiquin’s four surviving sisters and two of his three surviving brothers were given a royal licence to use “the style and precedence of the younger sons of a baron” – meaning, in effect, they could put the prefix “The Hon” in front of their names.

The other surviving brother was William Smith O’Brien, MP for Co Limerick; he had inherited the Cahirmoyle estate in Co Limerick through his mother, Charlotte Smith, whose father had bailed the O’Briens out of threatened bankruptcy. Charlotte was one of the founding lights of the women’s branch of the Church Missionary Society, and the MP was proud of his mother’s humanitarian work among the starving and homeless famine victims of Co Clare in 1847. A year later, on the 50th anniversary of the 1798 Rising, he led the Young Ireland insurrection.

After the failure of the Battle of Ballingarry, O’Brien was deported to Tasmania, but was eventually pardoned in 1854 and allowed home. Despite being snobbily snubbed by the House of Lords two years before his death, O’Brien is commemorated today by a statue at the south end of O'Connell Street, Dublin.

Three brothers

In the year the Lords snubbed William Smith O’Brien, his elder daughter, Lucy Josephine, married the Very Rev John Gwynn, Dean of Raphoe and Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin. At one time, three Gwynn brothers were prominent in TCD so that it was referred to jokingly as “Gwynnity College”. Dean Gwynn’s son, the Rev Robert Malcolm Gwynn, shared his grandfather’s radical political outlook: it is said that the concept of the Irish Citizens’ Army was born in his college rooms, and later, as senior master, he introduced social studies to Trinity. His daughter, equally active in campaigning on social issues, was the late Mercy Simms, wife of Archbishop George Simms.

Three of the patriot MP’s sisters were married into clerical families: Anne was the wife of Canon Arthur Martineau of St Paul’s Cathedral, London; Katherine was married to Bishop Charles Harris of Gibraltar; and in 1839 Harriet married the Rev Charles Henry Monsell, youngest son of the Ven Thomas Bewley Monsell, Archdeacon of Derry and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Harriet and Charles had no children, and after his death in 1851 she founded one of the first Anglican religious communities of women, the Community of St John the Baptist at Clewer, near Windsor in Berkshire. The order soon spread to India, South Africa and North America.

Today, the Clewer Sisters run the Clewer Spirituality Centre, with retreats, conferences and workshops. They also run St Anne's House for the elderly and St John’s Convent Home for mentally handicapped women, and some of the nuns are engaged in parish work, missions and retreats. Individual sisters are involved in a local day centre, the Thames Valley Hospital, work with the deaf and blind, and in ecumenical projects.

Modern names

A pioneering nun, Harriet O'Brien Monsell was the Mother Superior of the House of Mercy at Clewer for 25 years until she died at the age of 71 on March 25th, 1883. However, unlike the usual convention with saints’ names, she cannot be commemorated on the date of her death: March 25th is Feast of the Annunciation, and the day before has been reserved for the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was murdered while saying Mass on March 24th, 1980.

The modern names in the Church of England calendar include Archbishop William Temple, the author and mystic Evelyn Underhill, Mary Sumner of the Mothers’ Union, and two second World War martyrs, Maximilian Kolbe and Dietrich Bonhoffer.

Many people were surprised last year when Pope John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX in the face of strong opposition and criticism, although he has been slow to recognise the radical martyrs of the 20th century, such as Oscar Romero. But this year Oscar Romero joins the ranks of Anglican saints along with Harriet O’Brien Monsell, the patriot’s sister and radical nun from Co Clare.


This feature was first published as ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in ‘The Irish Times’ on Thursday 11 January 2001

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