Historical essay
Women, Prayer, and Household Authority in Irish History

Women, Prayer, and Household Authority in Irish History

Traveling through Ireland in 1909, writer Robert Lynd described “a strange crying—almost a lamentation” that one might hear “on some evenings, if you are in a Catholic house in the most Irish parts of the country.” This strange sound, he elaborated, “was the hour of family prayer.”1 In almost all Irish households, nightly prayers were led by women. By the late nineteenth century, in an age of increased Catholic piety, mothers’ and, sometimes, grandmothers’ supervision of household devotions, including family prayer, became more pronounced. The Irish home would continue to be a feminized devotional space right through the middle of the twentieth century. When they led their families in prayer, Irish women created a domestic sphere of Catholic piety and family unity, and established and maintained their authority within the holy household.

In her account of her life on the Blasket Islands in the 1910s and 20s, Máire Ní Ghuithín privileged the role prayer played in her household. In Ní Ghuithín’s girlhood memories, it was her mother who made the home a nucleus of prayer. Indeed, Ní Ghuithín’s mother prayed not only in the morning or evening, but throughout the day. She also taught her children to use prayer in daily life; Ní Ghuithín remembered that, in order to ward off bad dreams, her mother encouraged her to bless herself and say “‘May the son of Mary judge my dream to be good and may it please God and Mary today.’”2

Sometimes grandmothers, when they were around, and particularly when they lived with their children and grandchildren, established themselves as prayer leaders. Alice Taylor described her early twentieth-century childhood bedtime ritual with her grandmother in her memoir Country Days. As her grandmother put Taylor to bed, “[s]he said the rosary and many prayers and taught me one of them. For many nights we laboured over that prayer, and I thought that it was the longest prayer I had ever heard.” Taylor’s grandmother “drummed” the prayer “into [her] sleepy head”; Taylor could not forget it even decades later.3

A family with four grown sons, father, mother and new baby, plus a set of grandparents sit for a family portrait in their Sunday finest.
Dunphy family portrait, 1920. (Poole via National Library of Ireland/Flickr Commons)

Evening prayers, and the rosary in particular, formed the foundation of family devotion in modern Ireland.4 First-hand descriptions of rosary devotions from the 1870s through the 1930s consistently placed the woman of the house at the center of home-based religious practice. Rev. Joseph Guinan, well-known for his popular novels, observed in his 1903 Scenes and Sketches in an Irish Parish that the “simple” and “child-like” faith of the local people depended on the actions of Irish women, whose religious purity was demonstrated by their unwavering devotion to the saying of the rosary each evening.5

Writer John Healy remembered the women of his family in the early twentieth century as an inexorable force in the household’s religion. Healy’s grandmother, when it was time to say the rosary,

[gblockquote]put her sewing aside. From a nail on the wall she’d take the big Rosary beads, and without any more than her ritual ‘Let ye get down on yer knees, and we’ll say the Rosary in the name of God,’ we got up from our seats, knelt down with our backs to the fire and one another, leaned our elbows on the seat or the form, and made the responses.6[/gblockquote]

Most descriptions of the rosary resemble that of Healy: a matriarch, moving easily from her domestic tasks to her religious duties, directed the rosary, and the rest of the family “made the responses.” In early twentieth-century Tipperary, a folklore interviewee affirmed: “[t]he woman heads the Rosary in this locality. The man adds the “trimmings’” (prayers added onto the Rosary).7

A string of beads with a cross attached to it.
Catholic rosary. (Wikimedia Commons|Public Domain)

In prayer, Irish women led their families; men assumed a secondary role. Indeed, women memoirists and autobiographers remembered that, when it came to the rosary, the authority of their mothers was absolute. “She had streaks of uncompromising rigidity,” Alice Taylor of County Cork remembered of her mother. “The family rosary was one of these: sick, maimed or crippled, we were all on our knees for the rosary.”8 Historian Margaret MacCurtain asserts that household rituals and prayers throughout the twentieth century “reinforced the influence of the mother who assumed iconic stature.”9

Some Irish Catholics, particularly adolescents, came to resent the demands of household devotions and their mothers’ domestic authority. Reminiscing about the 1930s and 40s, Sinéad of Dublin found the rosary boring and increasingly came to begrudge the evening prayer. “‘You know, kneel down after tea and you were dying to get out and we would have to say this awful rosary,’” she claimed.10

A County Roscommon man told a similar story in which an adolescent girl and her mother battled over the rosary. “A girl home from England; she was a nurse, I think; She was McDonnell,” he said, “and they were at the Rosary this night & the mother was sayin’ the Rosary & she had a lot of prayers added on to it & this girl got up & said: ‘I believe in prayers & I believe in the Rosary, but I don’t believe in being all night on me knees.’”11

Two older women stand with brooms, facing the street and away from the camera
Two women take a break from church cleaning at St. Audoen’s Church, High Street, Dublin. (National Library of Ireland/Flickr Commons)

In the 1920s and 30s, Maura Murphy’s family prayed every night in front of a makeshift altar, “knees chafing against the concrete floor.” “As we got older,” wrote Murphy of herself and her siblings, “we couldn’t wait for this nightly ritual to be over. When we got bored we would pinch each other’s heels and start giggling. If we were caught, we’d get a whack around the ear for making ‘a mockery of the holy prayers.’”12

The waning of the nightly rosary recitation has been interpreted as one of the clearest signs of secularization in late twentieth-century Ireland. By the 1960s and 70s, remembered Maeve Flanagan, such household devotions were associated with older people. In Flangan’s case, her grandmother’s piety was not something that was shared with the rest of the family: “The most sacred spot in Granny’s corner was reserved for her prayer books and her rosary beads. I had to be very quiet every day when she said her prayers.”13 In Flanagan’s narrative, her grandmother, rather than being at the center of the family’s devotion, prayed alone and on the periphery. Angela Macnamara’s advice column in the Sunday Press in the 1960s and 70s reveals conflicts between mothers and children over family prayer.

The decline of the rosary as a family prayer may have contributed to a decline in women’s religious authority. Still, some older women interviewed for oral histories in the 2000s asserted that their faith in Catholicism remained strong even in their twilight years, and several credited, in part, the rosary for this. By maintaining their commitment to the rosary and other devotions in the late twentieth century, Irish women could attempt to maintain religious authority while also resisting secularization or modernization.


  1. Lynd, Home Life in Ireland (London: Mills and Boon, 1909), 217. Return to text.
  2. Máire Ní Ghuithín, Bean an Oileáin (1986), in Angela bourke, Siobhán Kilfeather, Maria Luddy, Margaret MacCurtain, Gerardine Meaney, Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, Mary O’Dowd, and Clair Wills, eds., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Volume IV: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 1406-7. Return to text.
  3. Alice Taylor, Country Days (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993), 12-13. Return to text.
  4. Nicholas Wolf, An Irish-Speaking Island: State, Religion, Community, and the Religious Landscape in Ireland, 1770-1870 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), 220-21. Return to text.
  5. Rev. Joseph Guinan, Scenes and Skeches in an Irish Parish; or, Priest and People in Doon, 4th ed. (Dublin: M.H. Gill and Son, Ltd., 1906 [1903]), 71. Return to text.
  6. Mary Kenny, Goodbye to Catholic Ireland: How the Irish lost the Civilization they Created (Springfield, Illinois, 2000), 47-8. Return to text.
  7. Recollections of Michael Renehan, farmer, age 49, Cappawhite, County Tipperary. National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, Manuscript 462: 341. Return to text.
  8. Alice Taylor, To School Through the Fields: An Irish Country Childhood (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 110. Return to text.
  9. Margaret MacCurtain, “Religious Conviction,” Field Day Vol. IV, 602. Return to text.
  10. Hazel Lyder, “‘Silence and Secrecy’: Exploring Female Sexuality During Childhood in 1930s and 1940s Dublin,” Irish Journal of Feminist Studies 5, 1&2 (2003), 78. Return to text.
  11. Recollections of John Gately, Castletown, Curraghboy, Co. Roscommon, National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, Manuscript: 195-6. Return to text.
  12. Maura Murphy, Don’t Wake Me at Doyles: A Memoir (New York: Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 2005), 27. Return to text.
  13. Maeve Flanagan, Dev, Lady Chatterley and Me (Dublin: Marino Books, 1998), 23. Return to text.

Cara Delay, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston, holds degrees from Boston College and Brandeis University. Her research analyzes women, gender, and culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, Britain, and the British Empire, with a particular focus on the history of reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth. She has published in The Journal of British Studies, Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, Feminist Studies, Études Irlandaises, New Hibernia Review, and Éire-Ireland and written blogs for Nursing Clio and broadsheet.ie. Her co-edited volume Women, Reform, and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950, was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015, and her monograph on Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism is forthcoming from Manchester University Press. At the College of Charleston, she teaches courses on women’s history and the history of birth and bodies.