CELEBRATING THE ST LOUIS SISTERS IN CARRICKMACROSS

THE NORTHERN STANDARD, THURSDAY 16TH MAY 2019

An evening of celebration and acknowledgement of the contribution made by the St Louis Sisters to the lives and fabric of so many people in Carrickmacross and south Monaghan was held last Thursday evening at the Nuremore Hotel. Over five hundred people gathered to give their personal thanks to the nuns and to watch a new television documentary telling their story made by the videographer Pat Byrne. The evening was introduced by his friend and companion from schooldays, Brian Mohan, a retired Garda officer. 

Mr Mohan told the audience the nuns of St Louis and their convent on the hill at Castle Street had been part and parcel of Carrickmacross over the last 130 years. In that time they had made a huge contribution, not only to education, but also to those in need. He said it was a matter of great sadness that the convent had closed its doors for the last time. “Fortunately Pat Byrne has completed a video documentary on the history, joys and sorrows of the convent in Carrickmacross and the personal stories of some of the sisters who resided there,” he said.

He continued: “I have known Pat for most of my life and as young teenagers we had a particular interest. In the convent, because girls lived there. Despite our best endeavours, we were unable to breach the nuns’ security! But we always kept out interest in the convent alive.”

“Pat has a wonderful knowledge of the origins of the convent building and those that lived within. He has painstakingly and respectfully put together a video documentary in which it is evident that there is a passion and emotion in its making. It is certainly something very special, which I’m sure will stir many memories for the viewers.” 

DVD set of two video documentaries by Pat Byrne

TOLERANCE AND RESPECT

“We will get only a flavour of the video tonight. What you will see is only an edited version. The entire video is two hours long and I have no doubt that it is so interesting and yes, asks hard questions that anyone watching it will feel it was only a very short time.”

“The convent and its members have been a beacon of inclusiveness and a shining example of tolerance and respect. They have lived together down through the years with their neighbouring Church of Ireland community, and nurtured long and loving relationships.” He then introduced Minister Heather Humphreys.

IMPORTANT CELEBRATION

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys TD said it was an important celebration and commemoration for Carrickmacross. She commended “the amazing women of the St Louis Sisters,” and gave a special welcome to those who had travelled from overseas, including as far as South Africa, to be with them. “Your commitment to service, charity and education is a sign of hope in our modern world,” she said.

She continued: “You are an inspiration to us all, and I am very pleased to have the opportunity to say ‘thank you’ for your outstanding contribution to this town, county and region over 130 years. Our Lady’s Mount Convent, Carrickmacross, was your home from September 1888 to October 2018. We were all very sad to see you leave your historic home, but your legacy in Carrickmacross will live on for generations. 

Not only have you made a hugely positive impact in the education of young women, you also revived and sustained Carrickmacross Lace, a world-famous local tradition and industry. For all of these reasons and more, Carrickmacross, County Monaghan – and indeed Ireland – owe you a debt of gratitude. 

As we know, the Sisters of St Louis started out in 1888 by opening a small primary school, but gradually introduced a secondary curriculum to older pupils and, in 1899, a boarding school was built. 

Today, the school is a vibrant Catholic Voluntary Secondary School for girls, and I know that the Board of Management and hardworking staff, under the leadership of the Principal, Karen Patton, inherited the great tradition of ‘high standards in a caring environment’ from the Sisters.

The school has a long history of academic and sporting successes, which lives on to this day. Only this year, for example, the Under 19 basketball team won the All Ireland Cup and League competitions. 

The Convent’s many famous past pupils are a testament to the high standard of education provided by the Sisters over the years. They include Mary Daly, Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD; Monica Barnes, former Fine Gael TD; Natalie B. Coleman, the famous fashion designer; Catherine Martin TD; and of course, Kate Beagan, a well-known local artist, to name just a few.

Very importantly, the Convent also has links with schools in Liberia and Cambodia, running annual fundraisers and projects to support students in less fortunate countries. Thank you, Sisters, for instilling a tradition of social responsibility and charity in our young people here in Carrickmacross.

I’ve always been a big fan of Carrickmacross Lace. It is renowned all over the world and of course it was Carrickmacross Lace that was famously used on the wedding dresses of Princess Diana and indeed Kate Middleton.

For my own part, in December 2016, I was delighted to announce an investment of €150,000 towards the redevelopment of the Market House as the Carrickmacross Lace Gallery. However, none of this would have been possible without the dedication and commitment of the St Louis Sisters. 

The area around Carrickmacross was very badly affected by the Famine. Lace-making made a great contribution to the survival of many families, but by the end of the nineteenth century, it was under threat of dying out as patronage ended and commercial demand declined.

In their fight against poverty in this town, the Sisters founded their own Lace School to revive the craft. The School kept the technique alive throughout the 20th century, rebuilding its high reputation and quality, which is known and respected all over the world.

In 1984, they assisted in the formation of the Carrickmacross Lace Co-operative, which maintains the tradition to this day. All that said, I don’t think they ever expected that their efforts would mean international media attention through Donald and Melania Trump!

But in all seriousness, without the Sisters, we most likely would have lost what is now one of Ireland’s greatest cultural assets, not to mention the economic lifeline it brought to the town throughout the years.

I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Pat Byrne, who has not only organised this event, but also made two documentaries to commemorate the history of the St. Louis Sisters, and Carrickmacross Lace. I know that Pat has put a huge amount of personal time and commitment into ensuring that this important part of County Monaghan’s rich heritage is protected and recorded. Thanks to Pat’s work, we have a record of their stories for present and future generations. 

In closing, I would like to once again say ‘thank you’ to the St. Louis Sisters for the enormous contribution they have made to the town Your legacy will forever be woven into the story of Carrickmacross, County Monaghan and this wider region. We are deeply grateful everything you have done and continue to do.” 

Brian Mohan then called on Pat Byrne, a school pal from national school days, to introduce his video documentary on the St Louis Sisters. It was the first of two DVDs he has recently produced, the other dealing with the history of Carrickmacross Lace.

Pat Byrne thanked Minister Humphreys for her support. He pointed out that she had been instrumental in getting the government to accept a piece of legislation drafted by local solicitor Tony Donagher and Professor John Wylie, a leading land law academic, as a result of his documentary on ground rent, “What’s next for Carrickmacross?”, presented by this reporter. “That bill was entered in the Seanad by Senator Robbie Gallagher, accepted by Minister Charlie Flanagan and received cross part support. The bill is now due to be entered into the Dail for its final stages. Hopefully we will have cause to celebrate this in the near future,” he said. He went on to thank Senator Robbie Gallagher for introducing the bill in the Seanad and Minister Humphreys for her continued support. 

DOCUMENTING THE LIVES OF THE SISTERS

Pat Byrne explained: “When I started out on this project a few years ago, what I wanted to do was to document the Sisters going about their daily lives pictorially, such as a picture essay, with the view of having a photographic exhibition. But as time went by, I started to create video documentaries and to date with these two documentaries, it brings my total to six.” 

“I approached Sister Marie Byrne with the idea of doing a video documentary; she agreed and asked if I would get a storyboard together on what I wanted and she would put it to the other Sisters.
All was agreed by the Sisters but we did not have a starting date. A short time later I received a phone call from Sister Marie saying that if I was going to do something I should “start as soon as possible because the Sisters would soon have to vacate the Convent building, because of electrical problems.” 

The first interview was conducted in April last year, when Pat got Sister Marie Byrne to interview Sister Mary Jo Hand in the parlour of the Convent. The only other interview in the Convent was with Sister Ann Matthews in the oratory, who provided a perfect ending for the documentary.

Pat continued: “It was obvious the Sisters were going through a difficult time, so I put a hold on interviews and concentrated on gathering footage to complement the documentary. The remainder of the interviews happened in various locations from Monaghan to Dublin. I knew at some stage I was going to have to face the problems the Sisters faced in leaving the Convent.”

“There were a number of topics I had to deal with:

1. What was going to happen to the building?  2. Where were the Sisters going to live ?
3. Who owns the building? and so on.” 

“I hope you like what I have put together in this edited short version of the documentary I am showing. Finally, I would like to thank the St Louis Sisters for their generosity and encouragement in allowing me to tell their story through difficult times. I hope that both documentaries will be viewed as an historical and social record of the Sisters’ time in Carrickmacross. There are a lot of people including the Sisters who encouraged me to create this documentary, I hope they are happy with what I have produced.”

HOW THE CONVENT WAS BUILT

The first video which includes spectacular aerial footage shot by Ken Finegan from Ardee using a drone was then shown to the audience.

Brian Mohan used the opportunity before the DVD started playing to delve into some 19thC newspaper reports around the time the original Convent building was being extended. 

On 20thApril 1889 The Dundalk Democrat carried a report on the new wing that was to be added to the Convent. It outlined how the good people of Carrickmacross put their own work in abeyance; got the stones, brick, sand and lime; placed themselves, their horses and carts at the disposal of the good nuns and delivered all to the site for the contractor.

“Not to be outdone by Carrickmacross, the people of Magheracloone sent horses and carts by the score to draw bricks from Kingscourt to the Convent. On hearing of this, brave old sterling Killanny stated that they would make a turn out for the new building that would astonish the natives. Donaghmoyne were eager to get in on the act and threatened to eclipse all other parishes.”

“So even then there was a rivalry between parishes to see which of them would perform the most work to lessen the expenses of a new building which the St Louis sisters found it necessary to erect for the efficient working of their schools. Obviously some things haven’t changed, with Killanny and Donaghmoyne still all talk and no action, and not a word from Corduff!” Mr Mohan said, prompting laughter amongst the audience. 

Following the showing of the first documentary, a representative of the retired teachers at St Louis Secondary School, Chris Johnston, was invited to make a presentation to the sisters of a painting of the Convent by past pupil and Donaghmoyne native, Kate Beagan. Kathleen Tinnelly presented prints of the painting to Sr Maureen McShane for distribution to the other sisters. A bouquet of flowers was presented by former principal Art Agnew to Sr Enda McMullan. Sheila Murray presented Sr Hand with a book of well wishes. 

HISTORY OF CARRICKMACROSS LACE

Introducing his second DVD entitled ‘200 Years of Carrickmacross Lace’, Pat Byrne explained that there was no way anyone could tell the story of the St Louis sisters without looking at Carrickmacross Lace and the involvement of the sisters in the lace industry. Carrickmacross Lace has a 200 year history, he said. 

He continued: “I would like to thank Sister Enda McMullan for narrating the Carrickmacross Lace history, her help and support in this project was essential and apologise to her for cutting it in half in the edited version. 

I am not going to spoil it on you by talking anymore about it only to say that the lace industry is still alive and thriving in Carrickmacross today. In the documentary I look at the different styles the lace has evolved into. Martha Hughes has developed her style into a unique 3D modern take on the lace and the way Theresa Kelly has taken her style of lace incorporating it with organic material. Its important that the lace continues to develop and grow. Elizabeth Daly Chairperson of the Carrickmacross Lace Gallery talks about the new gallery and their plans for the future and I wish them well. 

Minister Humphreys was also interviewed for this documentary and a number of questions were asked of her in relation to the RDS Craft Fair, for the answers to those questions you will have to purchase the full version. 

I would like to conclude by thanking everyone for coming out tonight and supporting this event along with the sponsors who contributed to the refreshments which will come later. To all the St. Louis Sisters, too many to mention. They all know who they are, but there are a number of sisters who should be thanked because without their input in the project none of us would be here tonight. 

They are Sister Marie Byrne, Sister Mary Jo Hand, Sister Ann Matthews, Sister Bridin Maloney and Sister Enda McMullan. 

There are a also a number of people I have bounced ideas off and have viewed and given constructive criticism that fed into the finished project. They are Sean Egan, Brian Mohan and Dr Rory and Teresa O’Hanlon. I would like to thank the staff of the Nuremore Hotel including PJ and Pat Dignam. This is not the first launch I have had in this hotel and hopefully there are more to come. 

Thank you to Ken Finegan for his drone photography, thanks to Barry Jay Hughes for his music “Keystone”. To the people at the back of the hall that are selling the DVD’s thank you. When I asked them to do the job they never batted an eye they just said no problem, again thanks to each and everyone of you for that. 

Thanks to PJ McCabe for the use of his Carrickmacross Lace and help with the opening scene and looking after the visitors’ book. Thanks to Liam Connolly on sound; he has always been supportive. Finally to my wife Marie for all her help and support with this project, I have no doubt that her input has also fed into this project for the better and I thank her for that.” 

Before showing highlights of the second DVD on the history of Carrickmacross Lace (duration one hour), Brian Mohan introduced the group Starling Blue, consisting of Hannah O Brien, Liebe Kelly, Louise Steele and Patrice Doherty. Their unique acapella vocal sound has gained them much attention over the last number of years. One of the songs they performed was “The Parting Glass”. 

He then explained that Martha Hughes, one of the leading figures in its recent revival, who was also interviewed for the documentary, was unable to be present owing to the death of her mother, Maddie Hughes, in Hollymount, Co. Mayo. He extended deepest sympathy to Martha and her family on behalf of everyone.

Mr Mohan again delved into the archives, explaining that in November 1964, Minister for Transport and Power and Monaghan TD Erskine Childers accompanied by Mr Ward from the National School and Mr (Pat) Drury, National School teacher, came to the Convent regarding Carrickmacross Lace. It was decided that classes for lace making directed by Miss Eithne Hughes would be held in the vocational school. He added that his own wife Gerladine had attended night classes at the vocational school, where she was taught lace making by Annie Finnegan. “Geraldine went on to make her wedding veil over an eighteen months period and it was featured on the front cover of a booklet issued by the Carrickmacross Lace Co-Op Society Ltd many years ago. Of course Geraldine was keeping up the century old royal tradition of having Carrickmacross lace incorporated in wedding dresses.”

He explained that the documentary was packed with history and interviews with lace makers, and how the tradition has been handed down from one generation to the next. “I sincerely hope that this tradition will continue for years to come,” he concluded.  

Following the screening of the DVD, he called on Elizabeth Daly, Chairperson of Carrickmacross Lace Gallery, to make a presentation to Sr Enda McMullan on behalf of the Gallery, which he reminded everyone was now located in the restored Market House and they were welcome to visit.

Sr Marie Byrne expressed a heartfelt thanks to everyone on behalf of all the Sisters. It was good to see such large numbers had turned out and the night would be long remembered, she said. She thanked Minister Humphreys and Canon Patrick Marron (a native of Carrickmacross and now retired Parish Priest in Fintona, who had celebrated Mass in the Convent oratory) as well as the large cohort of retired teachers and Sisters and visitors who had come to upport the night. She thanked the sponsors for providing the reception. 

“Pat Byrne has made an enormous contribution with his DVD. He was hard working and unobtrusive in his presence and it was a pleasure to work alongside him,” she said. The documentary had captured many reminiscences. Sr Marie thanked the people of Carrickmacross for always being so welcoming over the 130 years the nuns had been present at the Convent and caring for the Sisters. “It’s much appreciated,” she said. 

Sr Marie thanked the retired teachers for the gift of the Kate Beagan painting, which she said was a delightful picture. :It will be treasured and have a special place in our (new) house,” she told the audience. 

She also thanked the cantemus choir led by Lorraine Cotter, graduates of the musical tradition that existed at the St Louis Convent. Their repertoire ranges from haunting medieval to well-known standards, and from classical to rhythmic Celtic tunes.

SISTERS HAVE LEFT AN INDELIBLE STAMP ON COMMUNITY

Closing the proceedings, Brian Mohan thanked Sr Marie Byrne on behalf of the community of Carrickmacross, which he said had benefitted richly from the presence of the St Louis sisters. “May I take the opportunity to thank you all most sincerely for all that you have done and the indelible stamp you have left on so many people’s lives, who have reaped the rewards and benefits of your commitment to the education and betterment of people. He said the people of Carrickmacross were lucky to have someone like Pat Byrne in their midst and his documentaries had captured the essence of the nuns in the town. He hoped his work would stand the test of time for the next 100 years. He called on the Parish Priest of Carrickmacross, Monsignor Joseph McGuinness, to bring the proceedings to an end with a prayer. He said the spirit of the St Louis Sisters had been so closely woven into the fabric of the parish of Machaire Rois that, even when the physical manifestation of their presence had gone, their generous and benevolent spirit would continue to enrich the local community for many years to come. “There is a sadness in the parting, in the closing of a chapter, but also a deep sense of joy in what has been achieved, and an enduring sense of gratitude.”

Afterwards a collection was taken up for the St Louis missions in Africa, such as the communities in Ethiopia and Lagos in Nigeria, where the nuns are working with the survivors of human trafficking. It raised a total of €2270. Further report next week on the two DVDs by Ciarraige Productions which are now on sale at David O’Rourke’s in Carrickmacross and at the Lace Gallery for €20.

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