An appreciation by Felix M. Larkin
Sr Margaret MacCurtain, who died on October 5, aged 91, was an outstanding academic historian, but was better known to the public at large as a feminist and social activist. She taught for 30 years in University College Dublin, where she was revered by generations of students.
A member of the Dominican Order since she was 21, her name in religion was Benvenuta – shortened by her students to Sr Ben – but she reverted to her civil name when that became possible under canon law. She was ‘Peig’ to her family and friends.
She studied in Rome in the 1960s during the period of the Second Vatican Council and imbibed the radical spirit of the Council. She remained faithful to that spirit, and in a lecture in St Mary’s church, Haddington Road, Dublin, in 2012 she eloquently expressed her great regret that the hopes engendered by the Council had not been fully realised.
Margaret was always eloquent. Blessed with a beautiful speaking voice, she had a great presence on the podium and on radio and television. She was an exceptionally warm and sympathetic human being, and that shone forth when she spoke in public – as it did too in more private settings.
In the field of history, her career was bookended by her PhD thesis in 1963 on the seventeenth century priest-diplomat and native of county Kerry, Daniel O’Daly, and by the publication of that thesis to much acclaim in 2017.
In the intervening years she pioneered the revision of Irish history text books in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the aim of making the fruits of recent research in the universities available to the general reader.
She was the co-editor and a contributor to the 11-volume Gill History of Ireland issued between 1972 and 1974. She had earlier edited a set of three volumes on Irish history for secondary schools, co-authoring the final volume with Dom Mark Tierney of Glenstal Abbey.
She was also in these years the instigator and facilitator of the study of women’s history in Ireland. Her first venture in this was a Thomas Davis Lecture series on RTÉ radio, later published as Women in Irish Society: the Historical Dimension, co-edited with Donnchadh Ó Corráin in 1978. It was a landmark publication, and she regarded it as her most significant book. In 1989 she was a founder of the Women’s History Association of Ireland.
It is indeed appropriate that her last book should have been titled Metaphors for Change, for she was herself an agent of change in Ireland”
In recent years, Arlan House has published two collections of Margaret’s essays, Ariadne’s Thread (2008) and Metaphors for Change (2019). The former focuses on women’s history; the latter ranges more widely and reflects her other interests – especially, 17th-Century history and the history of education – as well as women’s history.
It is indeed appropriate that her last book should have been titled Metaphors for Change, for she was herself an agent of change in Ireland. That is how history will remember Margaret MacCurtain. She joins the pantheon of ‘rebel Irishwomen’ – to borrow the title of R.M. Fox’s volume of 1935, perhaps the first ever book of Irish women’s history.