It was 1966 and popular culture, as expressed by music, was about to change the world and long before the technological information revolution. We were allowed to write two letters a week and spoke long-distance only in extremis, from a pay phone in the hall. Knowledge came from books and from the radio. We were ninety girls in a white-painted four storey building down a narrow lane-way from a famous Catholic Church.
We were within walking distance of Ireland’s 3rd city, Limerick, but we were in a ship out in the ocean, utterly dependent on the Reverend Mother captain and the nuns and lay sister oarswomen. With conviction and firmness, but also with respect and often affection, they saw to our insulation from the shifts in global fashion and to our education in culture, Catholicism and “la politesse.” Some of the ideas and ideals were daft, and some, as an enclosed religious community due to their own self-imposed isolation from the outside world. But in the main, these women were intelligent well-educated and kind.
We had our own vocabulary. Having visitors was “Going to the Parlour”, going to the bathroom was “Being Excused” and “Shoe Days” were mornings when, if we didn’t want to attend Mass at 6.30 a.m., we put a slipper outside the white starched curtains of our dormitory cubicles. On or birthdays, our privilege was to sit beside a trusted Child of Mary or Head Girl in a pew at the top of the church and under her guidance, to ring the bell at Mass.
We were the class of ’66 who wore white mantillas to church on Feast Days. We used fish knives and forks on Fridays. We left this ship with its bells and smells of candle wax and wood polish, its harps and hallways, to go out into a world of war, of peace, of love – and more – we would play our part. In all – and more – we would be influenced by our time in Laurel Hill as daughters of the FCJ’s, the Faithful Companions of Jesus.
It is 50 years since we went out those gates. There were 24 of us. Some of us obtained PhD’s or became medical doctors, one a specialist, another a consultant, some became nurses, one a dentist, one a nun, a few became teachers and academics, one wrote a novel. Fifty years later we returned. We had lost 2 of our number, a few were uncontactable, a few couldn’t make it. We were older and wiser. We were delighted to be back. The main doorway had shrunk. There were no longer harps in the rooms off the hallway, which no longer smelled of wax. There were no bells, no rustle of long robes, the Study is now the Library – no longer is there a Laurel Walk outside its long windows. But we slipped back into the old familiarity, we belonged. Sustained by tea and coffee, divine sandwiches, tarts and cakes, we talked and laughed, mediated and prayed, and argued when our memories did not coincide. We remembered those who had died. We felt grateful. Whatever our life experiences – and some did, and still do have it rough in between times – we were grateful for the few fleeting, interminable years we had spent in Laurel Hill, glad for what it had given us.
On our tour around the old building I was delighted with the signs “Drop Everything and Read”. Over the years I have written thousands of words about Laurel Hill. The school, its ethos, education, teachers and girls. I dwell often on the similarities between Laurel Hill in 1966 and Laurel Hill in 1906 as described by alumnus Kate O’Brien. Read “The Land of Spices”. There you will find the bells and echoing corridors, the goodness and the ethos and the daft ideas that lived on into our day when “The Land of Spices” was banned.
Soon many of you will be out in the world, a world with no boundaries or barriers for you, for communication or for your hopes and dreams and aspirations. Believe that you have been well prepared. Be grateful and be happy, know that you are beautiful and that if you return in 50 years, you will still be beautiful, having walked the path for which you are now laying the stones. Know that you are privileged, that you have a better life because of Laurel Hill, where you, your talents and trials are understood and respected. Know and act on the knowledge that women are the stronger, superior sex, never feel insignificant or afraid. Be proud.
Isabel Healy, Class of 1966