Monday, August 01, 2011

Samantha Power and Sacred Heart nuns - Magan's World, Sept 2008

Sat 09 Sep 2008

Those vagabond nuns

MAGAN'S WORLD:RECENTLY, WHILE doing interviews for my book about a journey I made through Africa 18 years ago, I've been asked where my interest in travel came from. At first I thought there was no single factor I could point to: no intrepid explorers are hiding in the family closet. I come from a line of fervent revolutionaries on one side and placid dairy farmers on the other.

My revolutionary relations made occasional gun-running trips to Europe and fund-raising tours of the US, and they proudly traced their lineage back to a nomadic Gaelic poet of the 17th century, but other than that we were relatively sedentary- except for the few missionaries that every Irish family has.

So, up until April of this year I would have said there was no obvious motivating factor for my wanderlust, but then something weird happened at the Cúirt Literary Festival. I was due to give a reading from my book on India and while glancing through the festival brochure, I noticed that in the same venue, at the same time, the day before me, was the American academic, Samantha Power - senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Barack Obama until she made an off-record remark about the monstrousness of Hilary Clinton. The brochure listed her as Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and Professor of Practice of Global Leadership at Harvard, and when I googled her I found she was educated in Dublin until age nine.

I stared hard at the screen and gulped. My brain was trying to compute the words: ‘educated in Dublin until age nine.’ My very best friend between the ages of four to eight in Mount Anville, Montessori School at the Sacred Heart convent in Dublin had been called Samantha Power. We had spent every free moment together, gossiping and playing make-believe in our special den under a bush beside the tennis courts.

The photo of her in the brochure had the same long, red hair and freckles. It had to be her. Turning to Google, I found that she had spent the intervening years wandering the world’s war zones – Bosnia, Serbia, Sudan, Armenia, Kosovo. In one interview she even said, "If you really want to know how I got interested in war zones you'd have to go back to that first day of school in the Mount Anville uniform."

That got me thinking, was there something in the air at Mount Anville that had set us off wandering? The writer Kate O’Brien always maintained that convents were the most international of places, with sister houses all over the world, constantly passing missives and directives back and forth between them, and frequently housing nuns from far-flung destinations for extended periods. One was as likely to hear French, Spanish or Italian being spoken in the polished, parqued halls as English.

The foundress, of the Society of the Sacred Heart, Madeleine Sophie Barat, had managed to establish 99 communities throughout Europe, America and Africa by the time of her death in 1865. In comparison to hers my life has been positvely parochial. When I attended Mount Anville in the Seventies the Sacred Heart had schools all around the world from Argentina to Indonesia, Cuba to Korea. The nuns had acquaintances in many of them. I remember one ancient nun showing me a Pieta carved from a tropical nut that she had been given by an El Salvadorian friend – it seemed impossibly exotic.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly sets one off wandering – the writer Bruce Chathwin talked of a cellular impulse deep within us from our nomadic ancestry. My life of self-absorbed nomadism, interspersed with occasional efforts to document what I see in books and documentaries, can hardly be equated to Samantha Power’s agenda-setting exploration of genocide, tribal conflict, Aids in developing countries, etc. Yet, it’s worth questioning whether the pervasive sense of weltanschauung and internationalism picked up from a convent pre-school education might have played a part in focusing our gaze beyond the insularity of 1970s Ireland.