The 'cruel nun' stereotype has become a stock figure in contemporary narratives, and a real stinker appears in Marie Hargreaves' recently published memoir The Convent. She's called Sister Isobel O'Brien, and she beats children with wooden coat hangers, pulls their hair, pinches them viciously and, in a special humiliation, abolishes their Christian names, telling them "you have no family".
Marie Hargreaves was born in Oldham, Lancashire, to an Irish mother who went on to have 10 children. Her mother, though loving, was mentally unstable, and Marie and her brother were committed to an orphanage at Our Lady's Convent at Billinge, in Merseyside.
Marie, then six, was subjected to a reign of terror by Sister Isobel, who named her "Kibby" because her surname was "Kibblewhite" and described her as a "rag and tag orphan", although her parents were alive and would eventually reclaim her.
This was 1959-60, and the nun's constant physical and verbal abuse was accompanied by sanctimonious exhortations about a loving God.
Sister Isobel also encouraged older girls to bully and beat up Marie, and there was some sexual abuse from another girl too.
Marie had a terrible few years in the convent institution, from which some children were adopted, and others, eventually, returned to their families. The children were taken on holiday to Ireland, where there were no beatings, although they had to spend most of the time praying.
Now a mother and grandmother, Marie eventually took her story to the police, as part of investigations into historic abuse. In 2015, the authorities told her that there had been many other witnesses to Sister Isobel O'Brien's conduct: she was dead, but she would have faced serious charges had she survived.
The Archdiocese of Birmingham is now handling all claims, but Marie feels that this exceptionally cruel nun, of the Sisters of Charity of St Paul the Apostle, "got away with it".
Now for a contrasting nun story. Recently, a retired librarian in Co Kildare, Anne McNeill, wrote to me to tell me about a wonderful nun, Sister Caoimhin Ni Uallachain, who had done so much good work among troubled youngsters in Dublin.
Sister Caoimhin, who died in 2018 aged 90, set up the Ballyfermot Support Group, the Candle Community Trust and the Matt Talbot Trust, among other schemes, to support youngsters in trouble with the law and struggling with addiction.
Anne first encountered Sister Caoimhin as a schoolgirl at the Dominican school Scoil Chaitriona, then in Eccles Street, Dublin. The nun was an inspirational school principal and, in contrast to the 'bad nun' stereotypes, these Dominicans "brought out the best in us. They taught us we were unique and grounded us in self-confidence".
Sister Caoimhin had been a bit of a rebel herself. Soon after she went to teach at the girls' secondary school in Ballyfermot, she became interested in the plight of troubled street youngsters, often using drugs. She started bringing these lads back for tea to the convent, which didn't always go down well with all the sisters. She also started visiting Mountjoy Prison, where the governor, John Lonergan, came to admire her work. She famously coaxed protesting prisoners down from the prison roof - they actually requested her intervention.
Her care for "her poor boys", as she called these often difficult adolescents, prompted her to establish a reception site around Ballyfermot church (supported by Father Peter Lemass, a priest known for his social concerns).
Sister Caoimhin established a FAS training scheme - Anne McNeill says that she "took these youngsters under her wing", and many of them went on to learn trades and to qualify for decent jobs.
The Dominicans provided Sister Caoimhin with a small suburban house, and the young people used to visit her there, where she fed and supported them. This evolved into the Matt Talbot Community Trust Project.
A group of lads "planted hanging baskets, sowed seeds and sold vegetable plants around their own community - all mostly transported by Sister Caoimhin in her very old Toyota Corolla", wrote Eoin Hickey in a short history of the Matt Talbot project.
The goal was to empower younger people, and adults, who had been in trouble with the criminal justice system and often had drug and addiction problems. Matt Talbot himself was a famous Dublin reformed alcoholic.
Many people supported Sister Caoimhin in the care she gave to those on the margins. She had been a very spiritual person since the age of 12, but she also felt herself to be an unwanted child as she was born a second, unexpected twin, and she really identified with youngsters who had problems in their lives.
Anne McNeill feels there should be some form of public monument to her memory - there certainly should be some public affirmation of admirable nuns like Sister Caoimhin at a time when the spotlight is so often on the negative.
Matt Talbot's feast day on June 19 might be an appropriate occasion.