In Praise of Presentation Convent Castleisland, 175 Years on

In October 1843, during a Repeal Banquet at the Rotunda, Daniel O’Connell spoke about ‘the growing spirit of religious observances, moral conduct, and practical piety’ that was distributing itself ‘throughout the land’:


I see it in the youthful females of Ireland, educated under the sacred care of the religious ladies who in every town of note throughout the kingdom with the exception, perhaps, of Ulster alone, are establishing convents where the female children are brought up in the observance and the knowledge of every virtue, and let me tell you, that when we begin by purifying those who are to be the sources of life and of education in future generations, we ensure a continuance of the virtues and best qualities of our countrymen.[1]


In Castleisland, the movement was embraced by Archdeacon O’Leary, parish priest of Castleisland, and a supporter of O’Connell.[2]  At the request of Archdeacon O’Leary, Mother Joseph Harnett, of the Harnett family of Sandville House, Castleisland, founded a convent in the town.[3]


Archdeacon O’Leary, parish priest of Castleisland from 1814 to 1866, was described as a charitable and compassionate gentleman.[4] On Wednesday 7 October 1846, he headed the throngs of people who gathered to witness the arrival of the Sisters:


It was ascertained that some religious ladies of the Presentation Order, from Bethlehem Convent, Limerick, were expected in the afternoon under the superintendence of Ms M J Harnett.  The immense multitude who filled the streets and lined the Limerick road to a considerable distance, were much disappointed on the arrival of the mail coach, these ladies not having succeeded in obtaining the whole inside for themselves.  About four o’clock, however, Mrs Harnett arrived, accompanied by Sisters M A Byrne and M J Vise, natives of Limerick, and Miss Walker, an English lady, a postulant.[5]


A report of the event underlined the generosity of the Harnett family of Sandville:


Ms Harnett, after an enclosure of twenty three years, returns with this little chosen band to occupy our new convent, built almost exclusively by the munificent donations of the members of her own family, to diffuse the blessings of a moral and religious education among the poor of her native town and its vicinity.[6]


Indeed, the generosity of this family extended beyond the bounds of donations for building. In the same year, they procured 36 tons of Indian meal from Liverpool to feed the starving during the Famine.[7]


Presentation Convent 2021


One hundred and seventy five years have passed since the Sisters of the Presentation Order were so enthusiastically received in the town of Castleisland during one of the hardest years in Irish history.  They went on to become (and indeed remain) an intricate and beloved part of Castleisland life.


On 7 October 2021, the four remaining Sisters of Castleisland Convent will quietly mark the occasion in prayer.  Unlike the 150th festivities of 1996, there will be no formal celebrations, but nonetheless their wonderful services to town and society for almost two centuries will be quietly and gratefully acknowledged in the hearts of the people of Castleisland.


In these, the twilight years of the Order in Castleisland, the Sisters have most generously contributed another gift to the townspeople.  In 2020, they opened their 175-year archive to Castleisland District Heritage and permitted the recording of documents dating back to the foundation of the Order.


It is the most precious of gifts for it will aid the historian to set down the social history of the period, and also provide valuable insight into generations of local families who remained in or left the shores of Ireland.


Presentation Convent, Castleisland: Centre image depicts Sisters Margaret, Mary, Maureen and Theresa (Castleisland Convent) joined by Sister Miriam Pollard (centre). Tomo Burke and John Roche of Castleisland District Heritage are photographed with the sisters in the left image. Photographs by Noel Nash, Castleisland District Heritage


The Sisters of Castleisland – A Tribute
by John Roche, Chairman, Castleisland District Heritage


On this, the first week of October 2021, we mark the 175th anniversary of the coming of the Presentation nuns to our town.  At the same time we are making preparations to say a final farewell to the last of these educators of the generations – about seven generations in all – who benefited from their dedication and commitment to their adopted home.


I would consider myself about the fifth of those generations, with my grandchildren just emerged from their excellent tutelage – though of course in recent times, as numbers in the convent declined, the actual teaching has fallen to excellent lay teachers.  The transition has been seamless and a tribute to all.


The first of these sisters came on this week in 1846 – Black 47, a period of abject misery, was just around the corner.  The local workhouse was bursting at the seams, and numbers of our ancestors being dumped daily into permanently unmarked graves.  Mother Harnett and her team immersed themselves in the task of alleviating the worst of that misery while providing a regular education system for the town and surrounding area.  Our parents, grandparents and great grandparents emerged far better equipped to take their place in the wide world as a result. They got a good grounding in the three Rs, plus for girls the skills most needed then for housekeeping – namely cooking, knitting, sewing, etc.


It’s easy now for a more ‘enlightened’ generation to dismiss the nuns’ contribution to the generations gone before in darker times.  Worse still, to link them to the excesses of industrial schools of the last century.  Of course most people have had bad experiences of their schooldays when corporal punishment was part and parcel of education.  I know of numerous examples of far worse punishment meted out in other schools in the locality.  It’s also worth noting that only in latter times did the government recognise them as teachers entitled to a teacher’s salary.


Very soon the last of these special members of our community will depart from Castleisland for good.  I hope they take with them our gratitude and good wishes for a herculean contribution to the advancement of our educational and social development over the last one and three quarters century.


Bon Voyage Sisters.



[1] Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier, 12 October 1843.   Elsewhere, it was reported, ‘A notice was posted on the chapel gate of Castleisland on Saturday night threatening to punish a man for not paying Repeal Rent’ (The Age, 4 November 1843).

A few years later, it was reported of O’Connell that ‘When the Liberator entered the town of Castleisland, every voice was raised to cry ‘God bless him.’  Loud and repeated cheers were also given for Smith O’Brien and Repeal.  Nor was his illustrious ancestor, the conqueror of the Danish invader, forgotten, and never was his name coupled with more glowing eulogium that in this little town of Castleisland’ (Freeman’s Journal, 7 October 1845). 

[2] In 1844, Fr O’Leary was taken ill: ‘The Very Rev Jeremiah O’Leary, PP, Castleisland was taken ill in Dingle while accompanying the Right Rev Doctor Egan on his visitation.  The anxiety felt by the people of Castleisland is indescribable, and the joy expressed by them for the recovery of their beloved pastor who, we are glad to say, is out of danger, afforded sufficient evidence of the strong and lasting title he had earned to their respect and attention’ (Tipperary Vindicator, 17 August 1844).

The following is recorded for researchers of church and clergy: ‘Rev James Fitzgerald, on his retirement from the parish of Castleisland, county Kerry, where he had for a considerable length of time discharged the duties of Catholic curate, has been presented by the parishioners from whom he is about to withdraw with an address and a silver chalice, as a small testimonial of the respect entertained for him by persons of every denomination in the union’ (Freeman’s Journal, 17 September 1840).  ’Rev Denis O’Sullivan, RCC, has been removed from Liselton to Castleisland’ (Limerick Chronicle, 19 September 1840).

[3] A marble plaque in honour of Mother Joseph Harnett, who was born in Sandville House in 1798, was unveiled in the Church of Ss Stephen and John in Castleisland on 13 October 1998 to mark the bi-centenary of her birth.

[4] See ‘Castleisland: The Early Roman Catholic Church’ on Castleisland District Heritage website,

[5] Kerry Examiner, 3 November 1846.  ‘Mrs Harnett, of Bethelem Convent, Sexton-street, Limerick, has undertaken the superintendence of the new convent, Castleisland, accompanied by Sisters Byrne, Vize and Miss Walker, an English lady’ (Cork Examiner, 13 November 1846).  Further reference, ‘The Presentation Sisters and the Education of ‘Poor Female Children’ in Limerick, 1837-1870’by Paula Coonerty, The Old Limerick Journal. Winter Edition 1996.  ‘On 8 May 1837, M Joseph Harnett, M Stanislaus Drinan and M Francis Cantillan arrived in Limerick.  The first named was the superior and had an interesting background in terms of the Limerick foundation.  Both she and her sister, who were natives of Castleisland, Co Kerry, had joined the South Presentation community specifically for the Limerick mission in the early 1820s.  Clearly, a foundation was contemplated at that time although it never materialised.  Unfortunately, the second sister died in 1833 of tuberculosis and it was left to Joseph Harnett to fulfil their ambition.’

[6] Kerry Examiner, 3 November 1846.  An account of the Harnett family is given in the Michael O’Donohoe Collection Castleisland (2018) pp387-394.  See also ‘Castleisland Schools: Presentation Convent Girls’ on the Castleisland District Heritage website,

[7] ‘The Relief Committee have succeeded, through the kind assertions of the Messrs Harnett, in procuring 36 tons of Indian meal from Liverpool.  These gentlemen liberally afford their gratuitous services, and the present supply obtained through their instrumentality is most seasonable – the scarcity of provisions having become frightful in the district and the prices enormous’ (Kerry Evening Post, 7 November 1846).