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New DIB 'missing person': Mary Bonaventura Browne

10 January 2020

Our latest batch of 'missing persons' adds sixty-six fascinating figures from Irish history to the DIB. Today we're publishing Terry Clavin's new entry for Mary Bonaventura Browne, an abbess of the Poor Clares order whose writings are a valuable source for seventeenth century Irish women's history.

Mary Bonaventura Browne

by Terry Clavin

Mary Bonaventura Browne (d. ante 1694), abbess and chronicler, was one of at least four children (two daughters and two sons) of Andrew Browne, a merchant of Galway city with substantial landholdings across Co. Galway. Her mother was probably Helen Lynch, the earlier of her father's two known wives. By his death in 1640, her father was married to Catherine Bodkin who hailed from a large landowning family in east Co. Galway. Both the Brownes and Lynches were wealthy Old English merchant dynasties, long prominent in Galway city's civic life. She grew up speaking English and Irish in a city developing into a bastion of Counter-Reformation catholicism in opposition to the protestant royal government. Her grandfather Oliver Browne was elected mayor of Galway in 1609, but was deposed immediately for refusing to take the oath of supremacy; her father was deposed for the same reason upon being elected sheriff of Galway in 1632. 

That year she and her sister entered 'Bethlehem', a Poor Clare convent built c.1630 in a remote location along Lough Ree at Ballinacliffey, Co. Westmeath, on land owned by the Dillons, a powerful catholic family to whom the Brownes were related by marriage. When they were professed the next year, she took the name of Mary Bonaventura in religion with her sister taking the name of Catherine Bernard. The first order of enclosed women to be re-established in Ireland since the Reformation, the Irish Poor Clares adhered to one of the strictest rules in the church, St Collette's reformed version of the rule of St Clare. Maintaining them in this life of cloistered poverty cost their father a large dowry, payable in installments over about a decade. Two other Galway women were already there, one being their cousin Sr Catherine Francis Brown, and more would follow. The Browne sisters were also closely related to Valentine Browne, the Franciscan provincial in Ireland from 1629–35. The Poor Clares were the sister branch of the Franciscan order, which had a community near theirs that supplied chaplains for the nuns. 

The Bethlehem convent was a substantial two-story, stone structure, but the marshy ground meant the nuns were, amongst other menial tasks, continually performing maintenance with turf and timber. Defying their privileged upbringing, they also abstained from meat and ate simple food, wore clogs and coarse clothes, observed a strict silence and awoke at midnight to recite matins. Although Mary Bonaventura would hail this period as a golden era of austere piety, there are indications that the privations and practical difficulties attendant on Bethlehem's remoteness became too much, particularly as the community swelled to some sixty members. 

By early 1641 the families of those Galway nuns at Bethlehem were keen for them to be moved to a new foundation in or near Galway city, the better to support them. The preparations for this were accelerated once the October 1641 catholic uprising started a long period of religious warfare in Ireland, exposing Bethlehem to the depredations of the protestant garrison in Athlone. In January 1642 she was one of twelve professed sisters and two novices named as members of the new foundation sited in the comparative safety of Galway city. Some months after her departure, the thirty sisters remaining at Bethlehem fled from approaching protestant soldiers, who desecrated their convent. In Galway the nuns lived in a house in the vicinity of what later became St Augustine Street and Queen Street. Her later writings imply that the unsettled circumstances prevented them from adhering as rigorously to the rule of enclosure. 

She was abbess of the Galway convent from 1647 to 1650, as such assisting the foundation of a daughter convent at Loughrea, Co. Galway, in 1647. That year she also commissioned the renowned Gaelic scholar Dubhalatch Óg Mac Firbhisigh to translate from English into Irish the constitutions of St Collette and other documents elucidating the rule of St Clare, presumably with a view to recruiting more Gaelic Irishwomen into an Old English dominated order. She enjoined him to eschew Gaelic literature's typically abstruse wordplay for simplicity. Completed in December 1647, this translation augmented an earlier manuscript translation of the rule of St Clare from English into Irish, which was transcribed at Bethlehem in 1636. The translations were bound together and are held at the RIA. 

By the late 1640s the disruptions caused by the prolonged warfare meant the nuns' friends and relatives could not provide for them as before. Complaining that the Poor Clares were paying an exorbitant rent and facing eviction upon the expiration of their lease, she asked Galway corporation for a grant of land on Althanagh Island (Oileán Ealtanach), later Nun's Island, just outside the city walls on the River Corrib. The corporation granted her request in July 1649 on condition they make up a common and build a bridge to the adjoining island. In 1651, by when she had been succeeded as abbess by her sister Catherine Bernard, they had completed a wooden bridge and a convent made from timber and other materials. 

After Galway city's surrender in April 1652 all but completed the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, she departed later that year for Spain where King Philip IV paid for the refugee nuns then arriving from Ireland to be accommodated in various Spanish convents. (The Cromwellian regime confiscated the property of her oldest brother Francis Browne; in 1663 he was restored to his lands at Athenry, Co. Galway, following which he became a Franciscan and passed this holding to his brother Dominick.) She and her sister Catherine Bernard entered the Conceptionist convent of El Cavallero de Garcia, Madrid, but continued following the rule of St Clare. A fluent Spanish speaker, Mary Bonaventura was admired in Spain for her pious and austere lifestyle. She noted latterly that in her experience of various Spanish convents, none maintained the strict observances practiced in Ireland. Catherine Bernard died in El Cavallero de Garcia in 1654 following which miracles were associated with her and she became the subject of a biography, since lost, written by her confessor, James O'Neill. The Conceptionist sisters brought her remains with them when they moved to Calle Blasco de Garay, Madrid, in 1891. 

Before Mary Bonaventura died (at some point between 1672 and 1694, presumably in the convent of El Cavallero de Garcia) she wrote a huge quarto book in Irish, comprising eleven manuscript tracts including martyrologies, hagiographies, lives of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and devotional works. There is an emphasis on female subjects. Her preference for writing in Irish reflects the changing cultural affinities of Old English catholics and a Tridentine inspired preoccupation with instructing in the vernacular. This volume was still in existence in 1732 before being lost and only the titles of its tracts are known – with one exception. After the Poor Clares re-established themselves in Galway around 1672, she sent one of the tracts to the nuns there, a recent history of the Irish Poor Clares that she had finished no earlier than January 1669 relying on memory and on discussions and correspondence with Irish and Spanish nuns. Although this manuscript was destroyed during the Williamite siege of Galway in 1691, along with vestments, relics and ornaments she had sent also, the history survives in the form of a 1680s era English translation held in the Poor Clare convent in Galway. 

Starting in 1629 with the establishment of Ireland's first post-Reformation Poor Clare house in Dublin, her chronicle describes the suppression of the Dublin foundation by the authorities; the move to Bethlehem and the 'golden age' there during the 1630s; the destruction of Bethlehem in 1642 by protestant soldiers who, having incurred God's wrath, are duly stricken with terror and slaughtered by outraged catholics; the growth of various Poor Clare communities in the 1640s; their dispersal abroad in the 1650s; and the deaths in exile of various Irish Poor Clares. She sought to inspire current and future Poor Clares by stressing the widespread admiration evoked by the nuns' sanctity and perseverance amid persecution and hardship. As is typical in such chronicles, the emphasis was on the collective with individual nuns gaining recognition only on their deaths, which were accompanied, in some cases, by visions and miracles, including the subsequent preservation of their corpses. Her narrative is broadly reliable, allowing for a certain amount of pious embellishment, and is a valuable source for seventeenth century Irish history, for women's history especially. 

ODNBCSPI, 309; HMC, Rep. 10 (1885), app., v, 498; Martin J. Blake, Blake family records 1600 to 1700(1905), second series, 92, 97–8; Helen Concannon, The Poor Clares in Ireland (1929); Eleanor Knott, 'An Irish seventeenth century translation of the rule of St Clare', Ériu, vol. 15 (1948), 1–187; Helen Concannon, 'Historic Galway convents', Studies: an Irish quarterly review, vol. 38, no. 152 (Dec. 1949), 439–46; Benignus Millet, The Irish Franciscans, 1651–1655 (1964); Celsus O'Brien, Poor Clares, Galway 1642–1992 (1992); Celsus O'Brien (ed.), Recollections of an Irish Poor Clare in the seventeenth century (1993); Nollaig Ó Muraíle, 'Aspects of the intellectual life of seventeenth century Galway' in Gerard Moran (ed.), Galway: history and society (1996), 149–211; Geraldine Tallon (ed.), Court of claims: submissions and evidence 1663 (2006), 298; Bernadette Cunningham, 'The Poor Clare order in Ireland' in Edel Breathnach, Joseph Mac Mahon OFM and John McCafferty (eds), The Irish Franciscans 1534–1990 (2009), 159–74; Marie-Louise Coolahan, Women, writing and language in early modern Ireland (2010); Bernadette Cunningham, 'Bethlehem, Athlone and Killinure: the Poor Clares and the Franciscans in the seventeenth century' in Bernadette Cunningham and Harmon Murtagh (eds), Lough Ree: historical lakeland settlement (2015), 116–30; A. Holloway and R. Wray, '“O daughter … forget your people and your father's house”: early modern women writers and the Spanish imaginery', Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal and Latin America, vol. 93, nos. 7&8 (2016), 1387–1413; Bernadette Cunningham, 'Nuns and their networks in early modern Galway' in Salvador Ryan and Clodagh Tait (eds), Religion and politics in urban Ireland, c.1500–c.1700: essays in honour of Colm Lennon (2016), 156–72; Marie-Louise Coolahan, 'Nun's writing: translation, textual mobility and transnational networks', Patricia Phillippy (ed.), A history of early modern women's writing (2018), 257–75; Marie-Louise Coolahan, 'Early modern Irish autobiography' in Liam Harte (ed.), A history of Irish autobiography (2018), 38–53 

A new entry, added to the DIB online, December 2019

Image, of the ruin of Bethlehem convent, courtesy of: 'The Irish Sod' Blog

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