The gutsy Sister who defied the IRA

'Sr Gen' as she was known locally
Sister Genevieve was born Mary O'Farrell to a humble farming family in the Irish Free State in 1923. She was the youngest of their five children, and each morning went with her family to Mass. But as a girl she had no inclination towards religious life.

She said that the lifestyle of nuns 'revolted' her. In time, however, she became one the most dynamic nuns ever to teach in Northern Ireland, improving the lot of generations of Catholic women.

Her call came suddenly one day in secondary school. She heard a classmate talk about the Daughters of Charity. At that moment when she learned of a religious community so devoted to the poor she realised that her soul ached to be at the service of the destitute. In 1941, at the age of 18, she entered St Catherine¹s Seminary in Dublin.

As a postulant she hated the idea of becoming a teacher, feeling that life in the classroom would take her away her society¹s most marginalised people. But her superior directed her to train for the classroom, and so she went to Manchester to prepare unenthusiastically. From there, she went to Scotland where she spent six happy years as a teacher. 

In 1956 she was sent to teach in west Belfast. St Louise¹s School for Girls was situated in one of the most disadvantaged areas in western Europe, the top of the Falls Road in Belfast's Catholic ghetto. If anywhere, this was the place where she would live St Vincent de Paul's ideal of 'serving Our Lord in the person of the poor'. During her first years at St Louise's she had a very erratic teaching timetable, arranged to suit the working hours of 'the linen slaves', the children and young women who paddled around linen looms weaving linen.

In 1963 Sister Genevieve was made principal of the school, and became known for her die-hard dedication to the education of the Catholic girls. She had a school policy that no corporal punishment was ever to be used, but girls who upset classes were temporarily taught elsewhere, and every morning she held an assembly.

Sister Genevieve prioritised a Catholic ethos without borders, and the celebration of feast days had prominence in the school diary, and the crowning of Our Lady at the beginning of May was a celebrated occasion. She offered a good example of living a life of faith. Every morning she spent an hour in mental prayer, which prepared her for the challenges of the day.

The school activities honoured the cultural traditions of all the British Isles. St Louise¹s girls both learned Irish poetry by heart and performed Gilbert and Sullivan musicals.

It aggrieved Sister Gen (as she was known locally) that the employment opportunities for the girls were laundry, stitching hankies or the dreaded and dangerous linen looms. To remedy this she started calling in person to banks and businesses, asking the managers and owners if they would employ her students. More and more when vacancies arose, they phoned Sister Genevieve asking which of her pupils she would recommend.
It was, however, during the Troubles that Sister Genevieve¹s full leadership skills were tested. She described herself as, 'walking a tightrope between the paramilitaries and the Army'. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) wanted her to shut the school on the days of its funerals and the British Army was keen to check her school for the harbouring of weapons.

This steadfast refusal to ever let the school become a base for either side won her the reputation of 'the only man on the Falls'.

The school's close proximity to the Milltown Cemetery meant that she was under increasing pressure to close the school for the funerals of the hunger strikers. She was paid threatening visits by the IRA, yet she would not bend to their commands.

She was clear that 'as a nun, I have the advantage of being able to be more outspoken since I have no family who may suffer as a result'. On the days of the funerals for the hunger strikers her morning assembly went ahead as normal, as did normal school activities.

Sister Genevieve had to act swiftly to save her pupils from their environment and from themselves; dissuading them from joining any political and/or violent struggle while providing them with qualifications and real opportunities. 'Here we are only concerned with you and your education' was the maxim she used to encourage the girls. Simultaneously, she instilled  them with a sense of the sanctity of life. St Louise¹s School remained an invaluable sanctuary of peace for the local girls.

Increasingly during the 1970s Sister Genevieve made more and more contacts and alliances with British education ministers and worked with them for better educational policies that would benefit her pupils. British politicians gave talks to her sixth-formers, but Sister Genevieve refused Gerry Adams' offer. This in itself perturbed Republicans, and unkind reports of her circulated in the local paper.

The strange irony is that Sister Genevieve won support for her school from the ruling British politicians and was wronged by the Republicans for doing so, yet it was the daughters of Republicans who benefited from the education she gave them. The Republican spirit was offended when she was awarded the OBE in 1978. After she accepted it, they viewed her as a conspirator who was siding with British rule.

In response to Republican criticism of her, some of her sixth-formers got together to write a letter that was published in the local press, explaining that the school was a place of education for girls and that their Sister Gen had not 'betrayed any so-called Irish cause'.

The 1980s was a time of great development and success for the school and its pupils. One student, Mary O'Hara, went on to study at Cambridge. There was a much better understanding in the community of west Belfast at large for the mission of the school. Sister Gen introduced cultural studies and invited ministers from Protestant faiths to give talks. Tellingly, two thirds of the pupils were children of former pupils who wanted their children to have the same opportunities that the school had given them.

During Sister Gen's last years at St Louise's her mission seemed to come full circle. In 1964 few girls took A-levels, but when Sister Genevieve retired in 1988 it was customary for St Louise's pupils to take A-levels.The girls' job opportunities had improved from working on a linen loom and stitching hankies to seeking careers in teaching and journalism.

Cardinal Cahal Daly, the late Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, held the work of Sister Genevieve in high esteem because she convinced her pupils not to join any armed struggle and saved generations of women from the war machine.

The nun who abrogated the use of corporal punishment in her school and believed we should see Christ in everyone irrespective of political allegiances was the same nun who motivated tens of thousands of girls to reject violence and to make education their main concern, developing their talents and realising God's greater plan for their lives.

I wrote this article for The Catholic Herald.


  1. Mary, a truly professional journalistic post of great depth and quality - surely The Daily Telegraph must have you in their sights!
    The part about Sister Genevieve spending an hour in prayer each day is most telling. Any priest or religious that does that has the mark of holiness as well as greatness about them.
    Thank you.

  2. Thank you so much Richard for your encouragement. It is really kind of you, and it gives me hope. I was in touch with The Daily Telegraph this week about doing an article on the new Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland and how this will change the relations between Ireland and the Vatican, but I heard back that it's 'too specialised'. I'll be doing a biography of the nuncio for The Catholic Herald anyway, which I'm looking forward to. May I have a prayer that this goes well? I'll return the prayer for you - at an Extraordinary Mass!

  3. Prayers offered Mary (also at an Extraordinary Mass!)

  4. God knows what we need, and we need examples. Thank you for educating us on one such example.


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