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Mary Kenny

Many nuns were horribly cruel, but others dedicated their lives to helping the less fortunate

Mary Kenny



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Inspirational figure: Sister Caoimhin Ni Uallachain

Inspirational figure: Sister Caoimhin Ni Uallachain

Inspirational figure: Sister Caoimhin Ni Uallachain

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.