Sister Maryanne Welsh is the last surviving Irish member of the Josephite community in Adelaide. Her memories of growing up in County Kerry were revived when she attended a Mass commemorating the Easter Rising at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral on May 1. She spoke to Jenny Brinkworth about her journey.
Born in 1928 in County Kerry, Sister Maryanne Welsh remembers her grandparents talking about the “black and tans” (Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve) coming into people’s homes and taking everything they had during the Irish War of Independence.
Her parents were less inclined to talk about the bloody campaign and discouraged their five children from wearing Easter lillies to commemorate independence. The family lived on a small farm and her father worked in various jobs while her mother was a housekeeper.
100 years on from the Easter Rising, Sr Maryanne was pleased to be able to honour the Church’s Irish heritage at a commemorative Mass last month and to connect with other Irish-Australian Catholics afterwards. “We didn’t know each other, but we knew where we came from,” she said. “It was really wonderful – a great day.”
Another highlight was the opportunity to meet for the first time Father Sean McGearty, the last of a long line of Irish priests to serve the Adelaide Archdiocese, who hails from County Meath.
Sr Maryanne left Ireland as a 19-year-old to follow her vocation after two years of study at the Sisters of St Joseph convent house in Cork.
Having come into contact with the “Brown Joeys” when they visited her school, she was attracted to the order because she wanted to see the world.
The youngest of five children, one of Maryanne’s sisters had already emigrated to Australia. She said her mother “didn’t complain” but added, “I think it would have been very hard, I think it affected her”.
Arriving in Sydney in 1947, she spent two years in the novitiate and completed her teacher training before taking her first vows in 1951 and her final profession in 1957. Her initial posting as a young teacher was in the South Australian Iron Triangle town of Port Augusta, which she described as “hot, sandy and dusty” and couldn’t have been more different from her family’s small farm in Kerry. But she said she was “too busy” to take a lot of notice.
As was the custom in that era, Sr Maryanne was unable to return to Ireland – even for her parents’ funerals – and it was not until 1971, nearly 24 years after she had departed her homeland, that changes to Religious life meant she was able to go home and see her siblings and their families.
“It was very hard,” she said of her inability to go home, “the rules were strict but everybody was treated the same”.
Sr Maryanne taught at a number of city and rural primary schools including Croydon, Ottoway, Spalding, Plympton, Kingswood and Renmark but in 1971 she took up an opportunity to train in general nursing at St John of God Hospital in Western Australia.
In 1978 she trained as a midwife at St Margaret’s Hospital in Sydney and she also undertook a two-year counselling course at Strathfield. “I liked studying,” she said. “The teaching and nursing complemented each other…they were all good experiences.”
Sr Maryanne returned to Adelaide in 1991 and used her nursing skills in aged care facilities run by the Sisters of St Joseph and even after officially “retiring” in 1996, she was heavily involved in voluntary work at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, St Vincent de Paul Society and Meals on Wheels.
She has been back to Ireland 11 times, including for the funerals of her sister and two brothers, and keeps in close touch with her nieces and nephews. She has also travelled to Europe and in 2002 went to New Zealand as a carer for a few months.
Sr Maryanne said she had no regrets about her decision to “follow her heart” and come to Australia. “It’s been a really good adventure – I wouldn’t have had the scope and opportunity (in Ireland) to do what I did.”
Even the difficult times have been “part of the journey” for Sr Maryanne.
She recalled moving out of the Rosewater house, which was taken over by the parish priest, and into the Croydon convent: “We left Rosewater and caught the tram with all our luggage – one suitcase each – all we had were two habits and an extra pair of shoes,” she said. “We arrived at night and Sr Marie Foale and I had to go back to Rosewater because there were no beds.”
Sr Maryanne said it was a relief to be able to gradually transition out of habits into casual clothes after Vatican II. “It was terribly hot…the stiff coif and the neck band were the worst,” she said of the traditional clothing.
“The young ones don’t believe us when we tell them our stories. The various punishments like accusing yourself, even when something was an accident, were quite senseless.”
She said the companionship of the other Sisters helped: “If you were on your own, and had no-one to laugh or cry with, you couldn’t endure it”.
Asked if she has retained any Irish traditions, Sr Maryanne said her “greatest one” was tea-drinking.
“And I have the occasional Baileys (Irish cream liqueur) in my coffee,” she confessed.
Another link to the old country is a wall hanging near her door featuring the cross of St Brigid (one of Ireland’s patron saints) made of woven rushes: “People put them in stables to bring their horses good luck – so I thought if it’s good enough for horses it’s good enough for me.”
Photo caption: Sr Maryanne Welsh meets fellow countryman Fr Sean McGearty after the commemorative Mass for the Easter Rising. Photo: Ben Macmahon