The plain-clothes nun who won't listen to the Vatican

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The Independent Online
Sexuality and divorce are not subjects you would normally discuss with a nun. But Sister Margaret McCurtain, fast becomingIreland's most famous feminist, has no problems talking on either of these subjects.

Alongside the psychiatrist Dr Anthony Clare, the 67-year-old sister, who describes herself as "round, with a round chin and a round nose on a round face", took the platform at a press conference on the impending divorce referendum to say that the constitutional ban on divorce was causing deep distress.

"No divorce means no remarriage," she says. "People cohabiting but not allowed to remarry feel it keenly. There is still a stigma in Irish society."

Her decision to speak in favour of divorce was influenced by one incident: "Last Christmas I took a hamper into rural Ireland, to a woman who had been beaten by her alcoholic husband. She had a barring order to prevent her husband from entering the house, but the order must have elapsed. When I arrived with the hamper, the husband answered the door and took it from me with a triumphant smile. His wife stood white as a sheet behind him. His children were cowering in the corner."

Sister Margaret has been castigated for her outspokenness and her readiness to campaign as an individual rather than as a representative of the Dominican order to which she belongs. "Well," she laughs, "I've been called the daughter of Satan and I've received about 70 mildly abusive letters. They've accused me of letting down the sisterhood. They've expressed shock and horror. But then I asked my friend, a sister who's a great actress, to read them out with the appropriate regional accents and it helps the hurt." She also receives numerous letters of support. Four media interviews a day have taken their personal toll, but her views have made an impact. "I've made some church bodies aware of their responsibility to legislate for all the people of the state," she says proudly.

But what of her vows? What of obedience? The Vatican can hardly be overjoyed at her defiance of its edict. "My obedience is to my order," she says, "and to God."

Has God guided her in her decision to campaign for the right to remarry? "I'm not into all that mysticism," she says firmly. "I don't have a hotline to God. It's just what I believe."

At every level she turns expectations on their head. No habit, instead a nice maroon twinset. No denial that a life of chastity has its pitfalls. Instead a disarming frankness. "Of course it was hard when I went through my fiery thirties, when my sister had a child and I went to the garden to weep knowing I would never have one, when I looked back at the end of my forties and wondered if I'd chosen the right path."

Right or wrong, it has been passionate and exciting. Her mother was a suffragette and Sister Margaret has followed in her footsteps. She abandoned the idea of a contemplative order in favour of an intellectual one. She is a lecturer at Dublin University. She has heldintellectual posts in Boston and Baltimore and written three books on women in Irish history.

Sister Margaret's dream is of an Irish society where men and women treat each other with equal respect. She'll fight for that, as she will fight for the right to divorce and remarry until the last vote has floated into the last ballot box today.

"If I was faced with the Pope now," she says, "I would probably say that I was sorry if my campaign caused him any pain, but that at 67 years of age I've experienced enough of life to know when it's time to take a stand."