TV and Radio

Radio Review: Spellbinding story of ex-pat Irish nuns' sisterhood

Many women left Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s to join convents in the United States

Documentary on One: Sisters

RTÉ Radio 1

Journalist Emma Decker is Irish American and was just 23 when she made this gem of a documentary about her great aunts.

It’s beautifully scripted and paints a picture of another Ireland where women had few choices – teaching, nursing, motherhood or the convent.

Sisters are nuns, of course, but they are also sisters in arms – women who left Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s to join convents in America.

The documentary opens with angelic singing as Emma steals down to watch her aunts and their fellow nuns in the convent at prayer.

If you closed your eyes or you ignored the walkers and canes in the corner, they could be young girls, she says.

Over three years, she lived on and off with them in Texas and what she found among these elderly women was a youthful vibrancy “in the way they walked arm-in-arm like schoolgirls, how they giggled with each other... some spark there that has never left them.”

Emma’s great aunts, Jo and Gabrielle Murray, left Co Roscommon in the 1950s and took the boat like a million others to America.

On the deck, they watched.

“We stayed looking out over the railings, all that evening, all that day until we could see no more land. Five of us looking; waiting to see the last of Ireland,” said Sister Jo.

They became teachers at a time of the Civil Rights movement in America – the nuns walked with protesters defying the Catholic Church’s instruction to stay our of politics; they taught in all-black schools.

There were moments that stay with them.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated, Sr Gabrielle was working in a historically white school. A man walked in and said: “Oh good they got him.”

“He was delighted,” she said. “I don’t think I said anything... I should have said something I should have hit him.

“But I will never forget that and he was a big Catholic man belonging to these organisations... probably teaching religion.”

There are poignant moments – a nun holding her newborn niece and thinking: “I will never have a beautiful baby of my own.”

Emma Decker’s documentary is spellbinding.

Perhaps convents are more like nursing homes now. But her “sisters” are not frail old women.

“My nuns are resilient, powerful women; bastions of justice and pillars of time,” she says.

Her documentary is the “longest love letter I have ever written” – it’s a beautiful listen too.

TV and Radio