Cusack, Margaret Anna (‘The nun of Kenmare’) (1829–99), nun and author, was born 6 May 1829 at Coolock, Co. Dublin, the elder of two children of Dr Samuel Cusack and his wife, Sarah (née Stoney).
Early life and conversion to catholicism
She was educated privately, learning informally from tutors hired to teach her brother Samuel. While living at Monkstown as a child she came under the influence of the evangelical clergyman the Rev. Richard Pope (who famously debated the merits of protestantism with Father Tom Maguire (qv)). Dr Cusack developed a serious heart condition, his medical practice suffered, and the family became increasingly dependent on assistance from wealthy relatives. When Margaret was fourteen her parents separated, her mother taking the children to live with relatives in Exeter, where Margaret was sent to a boarding school. She came to resent her mother, who, she believed, had treated her husband badly and showed favouritism towards her son. It has been suggested that her childhood gave Cusack a deep sense of insecurity, a yearning for certainty, and a need for authority figures combined with an urge to react against them. She also acquired a strong social conscience and a desire to assist the poor.
Initially an evangelical protestant, Cusack reacted against the stringent puritanism of her relatives and came under the influence of the Oxford Movement through the writings of John Keble and E. B. Pusey. After the death of her fiancé, Charles Holmes, she met Pusey (the movement's leader after the defection of John Henry Newman (qv)) and decided to join a London-based Anglican sisterhood, which he had recently established. Although initially happy under the superior, Miss Langston, she became disillusioned when Langston left with a group of sisters to nurse soldiers in the Crimean war and the remaining sisters merged with another Puseyite order led by Lydia Sellon. Cusack's novel Hornehurst rectory (1872) portrays Sellon (‘Miss Dobbs’) as a self-indulgent, manipulative tyrant, who lives in luxury while driving her sisters to death through fasting and overwork; Pusey (‘Dr Humbletone’) is presented as a hypocrite, plagiarist, and self-deceiving agent of the devil, who resists submission to the pope because he wants to be a little pope over his followers. Cusack claimed to have witnessed cruelty to boys in a home run by the sisters and found that little effort was made to assist the poor around their convent in the East End of London. In later life Cusack stated that while a catholic convent was no haven of bliss it was an earthly paradise compared to the anglican variety. (The accuracy of her accounts of Pusey and Sellon has been called into question.)
Cusack decided that if the doctrines professed by Puseyites were true, certainty could be found only in the Roman catholic church. After some reading and instruction (and a stormy farewell to Pusey) Cusack was received into the catholic church on 2 July 1858. She joined a convent of the Christian Sisters of Penance in Staffordshire but found their rigorous asceticism too hard to bear. (She had recurrent health problems throughout her life; these appear to have been a mixture of rheumatism and neurasthenia.) On 2 July 1859 Cusack entered the Poor Clare convent in Newry, Co. Down, whose superior was Mary O'Hagan (qv), sister of Thomas O'Hagan (qv), subsequently lord chancellor of Ireland. Cusack received the habit on 12 August 1859 and was professed in 1860; she took ‘Mary Francis Clare ’ as her name in religion. (Many of her books were published as by M. F. Cusack.) She had received an inheritance from relatives and, after a sum equivalent to the standard nun's ‘dowry’ was invested on her behalf, the remainder was donated to the convent. In October 1861 Cusack joined O'Hagan and several others of the Newry community in establishing a new foundation at Kenmare at the invitation of the parish priest, Father John O'Sullivan. Her principal motive was attachment to O'Hagan, though she may also have been influenced by the fact that her brother had been making enquiries in Newry about her well-being: she bitterly resented this and feared that it might stir up Orange hostility to the nuns. The nuns set to work in spartan conditions to establish a school and convent. Cusack was horrified by the poverty of Kerry, which she thought far worse than anything she had seen in the East End.
Writings, devotional and biographical
From childhood Cusack had been an ardent reader with literary ambitions. Before her conversion she had published anonymously in anglican religious magazines, and in Newry she began writing a Life of St Francis; she completed and published this in Kenmare. Other devotional works (both original and in translation) rapidly followed under the Kenmare Publications imprint. From the late 1860s she began to produce more ambitious works, including An illustrated history of Ireland from the earliest period (1868); The life of St. Patrick (1869, assisted by W. M. Hennessy (qv), who translated original documents); a biography of Daniel O'Connell (qv), The Liberator: his life and times (n.d., with the help of the O'Connell family and Archbishop John MacHale (qv)); an edition of O'Connell's Speeches and public letters (1875), which is still consulted by scholars; histories of counties Kerry (1872) and Cork (1875); and a life of Father Theobald Mathew (qv). She was assisted in the composition of these extensive works (her research being hindered by her enclosed status) by corresponding with scholars and borrowing books from the libraries of neighbouring gentry families. A nun's advice to her girls (1872), directed to emigrants, and Woman's work in modern society (1874) are of particular interest for her deeply ambivalent views on women's social role: while believing that women should be trained with potential employment in mind, that they should have the vote, and that they should be eligible to enter the professions she nonetheless expressed disquiet at the possibility that these opportunities might lead to the downgrading of marriage and family life. She also published several songs for which she herself composed the music.
Cusack displayed considerable skill in marketing her books to the burgeoning catholic school market and to American audiences. She attempted to overcome American non-recognition of European copyrights by working with American publishers such as Donohoe and Sadleir, though this strategy did not prevent her from suffering considerable American losses through fires, plagiarism, and embezzlement by a literary agent. She saw herself as undertaking a religious mission, declaring ‘The Press is now what the Pulpit was in former times’ and denouncing catholics who preferred to read protestant texts and works written by unbelievers rather than patronising catholic publications.
Cusack's Kenmare writings constantly assert that faith and politics are inseparable; even A. M. Sullivan (qv) is denounced for suggesting that the role of Irish priests in politics was diminishing with the march of intellect: ‘he will soon find out differently’ (Life of . . . Joseph Dixon, 1878). The roles and personal lifestyles of priests and nuns are exalted and idealised; any criticism of them is presented as the work of the devil seeking to draw souls away from Christ. Protestantism is presented as leading inexorably to political, moral, and religious anarchy; indeed, Cusack comes very close to asserting that salvation is reserved for members of the visible church. Protestant missions to the heathen (as well as those to Irish catholics) are dismissed as confidence tricks, the only result of which is to spread atheism. Converts to protestantism from catholicism draw particular scorn. In her Life and times of . . . Pope Pius IX (1878), Cusack writes of the Garibaldian former priest turned protestant missionary Alessandro Gavazzi: ‘No man works so hard for the devil. As an apostate he has flung the grace of God utterly from him, and he is at the mercy of the fiend’ (p. 290). In her harnessing of nineteenth-century publishing techniques to propagate an uncompromising form of devotional catholicism (presented as an embattled oasis of light and purity in a demon-beset world), the Cusack of the Kenmare writings can be seen as an Irish counterpart of the pugnacious French ultramontane journalist Louis Veuillot, who praised her and whom she admired greatly for his ability to ‘expose shams’.
The world portrayed in Cusack's catholic writings is a site of constant direct supernatural intervention. Her portrayals of Gavazzi and Pusey as directly controlled by Satan is characteristic of her view of adversaries, while she echoes Pius IX's self-image as a man of sorrows, renewing in his own person and in the church that he led the sufferings of Jesus; after his death she predicted his canonisation as St Pius the Great. Cusack proclaimed that miracles were a constant occurrence throughout the catholic church, proving that only the wilfully blind could dispute its position as the true church of Christ. Her life of the rather colourless Joseph Dixon (qv), archbishop of Armagh, attributes to him the gift of prophecy and the receipt of many spiritual favours through the intervention of St Catherine of Siena. Her comparison of Dixon to the French pastor and saint the Curé of Ars reflects her wider view of Ireland as sharing the experiences of a persecuted continental catholicism; she regularly denounced Irish and English catholics who advertised their scepticism about miracles, or who gave credence to stories of miracles elsewhere while refusing to acknowledge the innumerable miracles which, she believed, were taking place unnoticed in Ireland through the simple faith of the poor. (The Newry and Kenmare convents were the sites of vigorous devotions to the apparitions of La Salette and Lourdes.)
Socialist and work for the poor
As a young woman and in the last years of her life Cusack saw herself as English, but in between she unequivocally described herself as Irish. She could be scathing about English upper-class catholics and their social-climbing Irish counterparts, who despised the Irish poor; her ‘faith and fatherland’ version of history promoted an image of the catholic Irish as a faithful martyr race, who must maintain a sense of collective solidarity since they have endured centuries of persecution and may yet face more from continental anti-clericals and British bigots. Critics such as Sister Philomena McCarthy contrast Cusack's reputation as a social radical with patronising expressions in her own works, and suggest that her advocacy of vocational education as superior to the academic model for the lower orders derived from snobbery as well as practicality. There is no doubt that Cusack's outlook was primarily maternalistic, and that her advocacy of help for the poor was driven by a conviction that she should be the one to help them.
During the near famine of 1879–80 Cusack used her organisational skills, extensive contacts, and international reputation to develop a network of relief committees in Kerry and other western areas, and there can be no doubt that she played a significant role in assisting the starving, for which she attracted considerable praise. She became involved in a public controversy over the treatment of tenants on the Lansdowne estate, and wrote pro-Parnell articles in the Daily Chronicle; her work The present case of Ireland (1880) denounced absentee landlordism. When Cusack received an anonymous death threat from London, a protest meeting was held in her honour on 10 October 1880.
Life at Kenmare and the foundation at Knock
Cusack's writings made a significant contribution to the convent's finances (though her claim that they provided almost its sole source of income is untrue). She was allowed a room of her own (a privilege normally extended only to elderly and infirm nuns) so that she could write undisturbed; as her handwriting grew more illegible she employed a secretary, Janice Downing (who became a close friend), to transcribe her manuscripts. She received special permission to have a bank account of her own, separate from the communal fund, in order to deal with publishing expenses. Oral tradition in the Kenmare convent (deriving from nuns hostile to Cusack) claims that O'Hagan allowed Cusack to absent herself from some of the sisters’ communal prayers and to remain awake until the early hours of the morning whenever she thought her writing required it, and that Cusack's sensitivity to noise led her to seize the veils and pull the hair of sisters who caused any disturbance near her room. After 1876 her position at the convent grew less secure, following the deaths of O'Hagan (whose successor proved unsympathetic) and of Bishop David Moriarty (qv) and Father O'Sullivan, who had encouraged her work. The clashes of personality liable to occur in any enclosed setting were exacerbated by Cusack's feeling that her adversaries were uneducated upstarts and by their view that she was arrogant and patronising.
As her standing at Kenmare became more precarious, and the prospect grew that Andrew Higgins (with whom she had clashed when he was parish priest of Kenmare) would become bishop of Kerry (1881–9), Cusack turned her attention to Knock. Her Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1880) contains a chapter on the Marian apparition of 1879, which she saw as a sign of divine favour to the famine-stricken west, and in 1880 she published The ‘Irish Lourdes’: the apparition of the Blessed Virgin at Knock, Co. Mayo (1880).
On 16 November 1881 Cusack left the Kenmare convent, ostensibly to return to Newry (where several of the sisters were hostile to her). In fact she made her way to Knock, where she announced her intention of founding a convent and industrial school. After acrimonious financial negotiations she secured a canonical release from the Poor Clares and the bishop of Dromore, and received conditional permission from Archbishop John MacEvilly (qv) to found a convent. MacEvilly and Cusack later fell out over the question of exactly how conditional this permission had been; Cusack did not increase MacEvilly's confidence in her by writing to him privately to claim that she possessed the gift of prophecy and had herself received Marian apparitions – claims that he dismissed as ‘all bosh’. Cusack's belief in direct divine approbation appears to have allowed her to reconcile her sense of purpose with her vows of obedience. In other historical circumstances this might have proved an empowering resource; in the increasingly well-disciplined and centralised Irish catholic church of the late Victorian era it brought her into conflict with a tightly disciplined network of superiors.
In her 1882 pamphlet Three visits to Knock (in which she claimed to have witnessed a miraculous cure herself) Cusack initially praised Father Bartholomew Cavanagh (qv), the parish priest of Knock. But their relationship broke down over his attempts to assert control over her convent and his failure to support her against some trouble-making local people who were associated with his niece. (In her later writings she accused him of credulity bordering on dishonesty in his handling of the apparition.) The new school was boycotted, with Cavanagh's encouragement. Finding her plans frustrated, Cusack decided to abandon the project and move her small group of novices to England. In November 1883, Cusack left Ireland for the last time and went to London.
St Joseph's Sisters of Peace
On the advice of Cardinal Manning, archbishop of Westminster, Cusack established her order in the diocese of Nottingham, where the catholic bishop, Edward Bagshawe, was an eccentric well-known for his sympathy with Irish nationalism. In February and March 1884 Cusack travelled to Rome to secure approval for the rule of her new order, St Joseph's Sisters of Peace. The rule was formally approved on 18 May 1884 and convents were established in Nottingham and Grimsby. However, the formation of the new order was accompanied by the discovery that the priest in one of the parishes to which her nuns had been assigned had seduced several women in succession. Cusack was horrified to discover that the priest had been allowed to remain in his ministry after each successive offence was discovered, on the grounds that there was a shortage of priests and that calling his actions to public notice would spread scandal. She saw this cover-up as a form of complicity more disturbing than the original sin. Knowledge of this and other cases – most disturbingly the discovery that Pius IX's secretary of state, Cardinal Antonelli, whom she had praised as ‘raised up by God’, had been both financially and sexually corrupt – combined with her extensive disputes to undermine her idealised view of the priesthood (Life in the church of Rome, 1889, chapter 1).
In October 1884 Cusack left for the USA to engage in fund-raising. Although Bishop Wigger of Jersey City allowed her to open the American mother-house of the order of St Joseph's Sisters of Peace in May 1885, she met with little success. Her griefs were compounded when Janice Downing, who had accompanied her since her departure from Kenmare, died in North Carolina in November 1887. Cusack's difficulties with the American bishops were compounded by her contributions to the New York Sun on social problems and her publication of a pamphlet, Anti-progress and poverty (1887) in defence of Father Edward McGlynn, who had been excommunicated by Archbishop Corrigan of New York for supporting the radical economic theories of Henry George. After she was refused permission to expand her order into other American dioceses, and Bishop Wigger forbade it to accept new novices, Cusack resigned from the order and left her convent on 10 July 1888. Bishop Bagshawe refused to return her original dowry on the grounds that she had made it over to her order; she wrote often of the bitterness of being left penniless after a lifetime's work.
Cusack explained her actions in The nun of Kenmare: an autobiography (1888), which reprints much correspondence relating to her relief activities and her experiences in Knock and America. Although dedicated to Leo XIII, with the avowed aim of explaining how his approval of her order and its work had been frustrated by his jealous subordinates, it shows deep bitterness against the catholic church and expressly attacks the doctrine of papal infallibility (which she had formerly defended). It also contains sardonic and often acute comments about the tendency of religious orders to begin by serving the poor and end by serving the rich, on snobbery and class divisions within convents, and on the tendency of English and Irish catholic authorities to place more value on a small number of upper-class English converts than on the vast multitudes of Irish poor.
Return to protestantism
Soon afterwards Cusack announced her conversion to methodism and began a new career as an anti-catholic lecturer and author. A second autobiography, The story of my life (1891), rehashes the first with extra helpings of bitterness and provides more detailed accounts of her grievances. Both books give the impression of a host of injuries, doubts, and painful petty experiences pent up by her former idealisation of catholicism and now bursting loose.
It is sometimes suggested that the works published under Cusack's name after her reversion to protestantism were not written by her. This is almost certainly true of the posthumously published Revolution and war: Britain's peril and her secret foes (1913) which comments extensively on political events long after her death and displays a level of paranoia far exceeding her other work. But the other protestant writings (such as What Rome teaches, 1891, and The black pope; a history of the Jesuits, 1896), while drawing heavily on standard anti-catholic history and protestant apologetics and showing evidence of accommodation to her audience's expectations, display characteristic preoccupations: she simply idealised what she had previously demonised, and vice versa. Previously she had claimed that catholicism failed both to disseminate its message widely and clearly and to counter the attacks of the anti-catholic media, and that this allowed public opinion to be poisoned, and prepared the way for renewed persecution; now she purveyed an apocalyptic belief that Jesuit infiltration of the print industries was stifling the exposure of the evils of Rome and facilitating papal assumptions of temporal as well as spiritual power over Britain and America. Nonetheless, she retained enough connection with her former attitudes to emphasise that deliberately offensive or factually careless propaganda simply reinforced catholics in their faith and provided easy targets for catholic apologists. And she antagonised some protestants by stating that she had never witnessed sexual immorality in her convents, though she was prepared to believe that such things went on elsewhere in the world.
Cusack's last years were spent at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, with methodist friends, who are alleged to have watched her to guard against a possible relapse into catholicism. In her last days she was visited by members of the order which she had founded, and (according to their letters of the time) displayed indications of wishing to return to the catholic church; a letter of her own, however, written after the first of these visits, states that she would gladly return to their order if it she could do so without returning to the Roman catholic church. The Kenmare Poor Clares believed (on the basis of second-hand testimony many years after the event) that she had received the last sacraments from a priest before her death at 21 Lansdowne Crescent, Leamington Spa, on 5 June 1899. There are obvious contradictions between the sentiments Cusack expressed to the nuns and the denunciations of catholic beliefs in her later works. It may be surmised that, just as her earlier eulogies of catholicism masked niggling doubts, a degree of attachment to her former life survived under her later allegiance, and that for all her theological polemicising her views were primarily determined by anger at the church hierarchy, while she retained a deep attachment to her sisters.
In the decades after her death Cusack was almost forgotten. Her memory was revived from the late 1960s as a result of two related factors: second-wave feminism, with its interest in recovering women's history; and the upheavals in religious life after the second Vatican council, which led to a widespread reaction against the ideal of unquestioning obedience to religious superiors, stressed the frequent tensions between foundresses and the male clerical hierarchy, and emphasised social reform as central to the religious vocation. The first modern biography (by Irene ffrench Eagar) appeared in 1970, and in the same year Cusack's order, latterly known as the Sisters of St Joseph of Newark, formally recognised her as foundress – they had previously honoured Cusack's admiring lieutenant and successor, Mother Evangelista Gaffney, as their founder and diminished Cusack's role.
Discussions of Cusack fall into two camps: ffrench Eagar and other women's history writers (including two members of her order, Margaret Rose O'Neill and Dorothy Vidulich) base their assessment on the two autobiographies and see Cusack as a proto-feminist and social reformer persecuted by arrogant superiors; by contrast Sister Philomena McCarthy (representing the Kenmare Poor Clares’ tradition and drawing on the convent records) and James Donnelly (in his writings on the Knock shrine) regard her as a self-aggrandising neurotic who was largely the author of her own troubles. Both views are defensible, if it is realised that in her frustrations and (partly strategic) invalidism, her doubts and polemics, her aspirations as sage and social reformer, Cusack was a Victorian rather than a twentieth-century figure. In 1982 Radharc Productions made a documentary on her, Sister Suffragette, for RTÉ.