Woman sparked 1920s scandal fleeing convent to find refuge with Protestant family
When Downpatrick grandmother Maureen McKeown delved into her family history, she discovered that her great aunt led an extraordinary life. She tells Stephanie Bell how turning her relative's tale into a book proved hugely therapeutic and reveals how the story looks set to become a movie
When Maureen McKeown started to research her family tree, she unearthed a gripping true story about her great aunt that she went on to turn into a fascinating book.
Today, the Downpatrick grandmother and mother-of-five is celebrating news that the incredible tale of her great aunt, Brigid Partridge, is to be made into a movie.
Brigid caused a scandal in 1920s Australia when she fled from her convent barefoot in the middle of the night, wearing just her nightdress.
She took refuge with a Protestant family, and the fallout from her actions caused a religious storm unprecedented in Australia's history.
But as captivating as Brigid's story - The Extraordinary Case of Sister Liguori - is, Maureen has an inspiring tale of her own about the great personal challenges she faced while writing the book.
Brigid's tale helped her heal after the trauma of a horrific armed robbery on her Downpatrick home, during which she and her two youngest daughters were tied up by masked gunmen.
Just as she found herself starting to recover from that nightmare, there was an even bigger shock ahead.
Four years ago, and halfway through writing her book, which was published in 2017, Maureen was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND).
The rare neurological condition causes degeneration of the cells and nerves in the brain and spinal cord, which control the muscles in our bodies.
MND is progressive, meaning the symptoms worsen over time. It also severely reduces life expectancy.
Maureen was diagnosed in 2015, and the impact on her quality of life has been great. However, the book and the new film help her to stay positive about the future.
"It (MND) is horrible," she says. "I am four years into it now. I wouldn't have great power in my arms and legs, and my speech is slow and slurred.
"My wee story keeps me going. The good thing is that my mind is still alert, and I think that sets your body into the right mode.
"My wee book lights up my life, and now that it is going to be made into a movie, it's a dream come true."
Maureen (65) spent five years researching for and writing her book, travelling to Brigid's hometown in Kildare and to Australia to visit the convent where her great aunt's story began.
She found researching her family tree very therapeutic, particularly after the attack on her home.
Maureen was born in Berkshire, England, but moved here with her family when she was 11.
She began her working life as a personal secretary in the Civil Service at Stormont, later quitting to raise her five children - four daughters and a son.
She also helped with the administration and running of the car-dismantling business she and husband Charlie (66) set up nearly 40 years ago.
It was the sad loss of her parents, and her only sister at the age of 52, that inspired her to start researching her family tree.
Her father was born in Newbridge, Co Kildare. His mother was Brigid's younger sister, Kathleen, who married a carpenter from Cushendall, Co Antrim, called James Laverty, then settled with him in Coalisland.
Her mother was born in Kilkenny and, after being orphaned at the age of 16, she headed to England to find work.
She lost touch with her family, and Maureen is unaware of relations on her side.
"My dad, God rest him, was in the Army for 21 years, and was blinded in Palestine," she says.
"He moved to Northern Ireland because his aunt was here.
"I have relatives in Kildare connected to Brigid, and we do keep in touch.
"When your mum and dad are both dead and your sister is dead, there is nobody to turn to and ask about your family members.
"That's what made me start looking into my family tree - it was so that I could feel close to what I had lost.
"People say that stories find you, and I genuinely think Brigid came my way because of a particularly bad time for us.
"We had a burglary in our home in 2007. Seven masked gunmen tied up me and my two daughters and barricaded us into a wee back toilet.
"I took a heart attack out of it, but I didn't even know until a few days later.
"We eventually got free after my youngest daughter, who was 17 at the time, kept pushing slowly against the door until she got out and was able to untie us. I went to the doctor two days later with pains in my chest, and she told me to go straight to casualty because I had suffered a heart attack.
"It left me traumatised. I was constantly looking at people as I passed them by, wondering if it was them who had done it (the burglary). I was watching all the time and had nothing in my head but those gunmen.
"It was only when I started getting into Brigid's story that I started to get over it. I found so much pleasure in the book."
Much of the scandal Brigid caused is a matter of public record, but Maureen still travelled many miles to her great aunt's hometown in the Republic and to the convent in New South Wales, where she found new details about the story.
And it is indeed an intriguing tale. Brigid entered a local convent and then left Ireland at the age of 17 to go to Australia because there was a need for teaching nuns.
In those days, nuns who taught were more highly thought of than lay nuns because they earned their own living.
All of the chores in the convent fell to the lay nuns, who had a tougher life than their colleagues.
Brigid proved herself capable and popular with the children she taught for six years.
However, her life took a dramatic turn after a teaching inspector was supervising her work on a particularly bad day when she was trying to keep a class full of unruly boys under control.
That led the convent to demote her to refectory duties.
Maureen brings the story to life as she describes what happened next.
"It was supposed to be for just two weeks, but that turned into two years, and it was very hard and demoralising for her because she had been teaching and loved children," she says.
"One day she wandered outside the convent walls. Tears welled up in her eyes as she called at a stranger's home.
"Her afternoon of tea and warm company by the fire ended all too soon, and Brigid was sent back to the convent, seen by a doctor and put to bed.
"The story really begins in earnest at this crossroads in Brigid's life.
"Drawing on every ounce of courage she had, she leapt from her bed that night and made a hasty escape, barefoot and in her nightgown, on a foggy winter's night in 1920."
Brigid found refuge in the home of Protestants, who refused to disclose her whereabouts to the Catholic authorities.
A bishop swore before a magistrate that Brigid was insane, and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was hunted down like an outlaw, and the local media attention created a level of sectarian tension rarely seen in that part of the world.
Eventually found in the home of the Reverend William Touchell and his wife, Laura, in a Sydney suburb, Brigid was arrested and taken to a hospital for the insane in Darlinghurst to be held for medical observation.
Appearing before a 'lunacy court' a week later, she was declared sane and released.
With no apology from the bishop for the slur cast on her character, she turned to the courts for redress, but taking on the senior cleric meant taking on the Catholic Church.
Those who helped when she fled the convent offered their support again - along with every member of the Loyal Orange Lodge of New South Wales - to sue the bishop.
An unholy war raged around her as the enmity between the two sides, rooted in history and religion, reached fever pitch.
Brigid lived the remainder of her life as a companion to the minister and his wife, passing away in 1966, aged 76.
Maureen, who has been fascinated with the story over the last number of years, is naturally thrilled that it is now to make it onto the big screen thanks to a movie deal with local writer and director Colin McIvor.
Colin, who made the film Zoo, which was set during the Belfast Blitz, has secured funding for the movie from NI Screen.
The first time he heard the story, he was impressed.
"To have optioned such a sought-after, powerful and timely book from a writer on my own doorstep is a great privilege," he says. "Audiences are currently demanding strong but also intriguingly flawed female leads in their films, and with Sister Liguori, it does not come more dramatic than this true-to-life David versus Goliath role.
"This is an extremely personal story to the endlessly impressive Maureen and her family.
"My goal, therefore, is to do the film adaptation justice and one day get it onto the big screen and to the audiences the book thoroughly deserves."
It will be 100 years next year since Brigid fled the convent, and it is Maureen's wish that the film of her life story can be made and released to coincide with the anniversary.
"I could not speak highly enough of Colin and the great work he is doing to bring my book to the screen," she says.
"My greatest wish is to see it on the big screen. I can only hope and pray that my health allows it. Filling my mind with positive thoughts keeps me free from darker thoughts about illness.
"Some people with MND describe it as 'living with MND' as opposed to dying from it'."
The Extraordinary Case of Sister Liguori, published by Leo Press, £8.99. For more information, visit www.theextraordinarycaseofsister liguori.com