Paul Durcan: Six Nuns Die in Convent Inferno

Six Nuns Die in Convent Inferno

[Please note that this poem contains criticism of religious organisations. Any views expressed relate to the poem only.]

This refers to a real event. In 1986, six nuns, Loreto Sisters, tragically died during a fire. They were retired teachers.  Though some may find it distressing, here's the original RTE news video. Interestingly, the nun who was interviewed on the morning after the fire referred to it as a "blazing inferno". The title of the news piece is "Six Nuns Die in Dublin Convent Fire".

The title reads like a newspaper article, not unlike Wife Who Smashed Television Gets Jail. It is both informative (six nuns die) and emotionally charged (inferno is hell), so there is juxtaposition in the title. There is further juxtaposition between the concepts of a convent and an inferno.
Myself, I never used the Clarendon Street entrance,
I always slipped in by way of Johnson's Court
To the happy memory of six Loreto nuns who died between midnight and morning or 2 June 1986

Despite some critical notes throughout the poem, the memory of the nuns is described as happy.

I.
We resided in a Loreto convent in the centre of Dublin city
On the east side of a public gardens, St. Stephen's Green.

It’s safe to assume that the poet is adapting the persona of the nun in this poem.

Grafton Street – the paseo
Or round the base of the great patriotic pebble of O'Donovan Rossa,
Knelt tableaus of punk girls and punk boys.

Here the language gets far more complex that in other poems by Paul Durcan.

The nun is so modest that she wouldn't even use the main entrance (Side entrance pictured above, front entrance pictured below)

…The Carmelite Church in Clarendon Street
(Myself, I never used the Clarendon Street entrance,
I always slipped in by way of Johnson's Court

The Carmelite Church in Clarendon Street

I could not help but smile, as I sucked on a Fox's mint,
That for all the half-shaven heads and the martial garb
And the dyed hair-dos and the nappy pins
They looked so conventional, really, and vulnerable,
Clinging to war paint and to uniforms and to one another.
The speaker is very endearing. She is empathetic as she smiles at the nervous bride and groom and the guests. The reference to a Fox’s mint adds a familiar quality to the image.

I knew it was myself who was the ultimate drop-out,
The delinquent, the recidivist, the vagabond,
The wild woman, the subversive, the original punk.

The nun is self-deprecating here. Based on the feelings the speaker previously described, it seems that she is genuinely unassuming and has virtually no insight into just how holy she really is.

Yet, although I confess I was smiling, I was also afraid,
Appalled by my own nerve, my own fervour,
My apocalyptic enthusiasm, my other-worldly hubris

The speaker is once again accusing herself, this time of hubris, i.e. excessive pride and possibly even defiance of God, if the reader uses a Greek tragedy interpretation. So far the image that we have of the nun embodies humility. The poet once again uses juxtaposition to enhance the image of the nun.

To opt out of the world and to
Choose such exotic loneliness,
Such terrestrial abandonment,
A lifetime of umbrellas drying out in the kitchens.

At the same time, the nun isn’t without insight: she seems to have had full knowledge of what she was getting into. She later refers to Christ as a common criminal while obviously having infinite admiration and love for him. It seems that this woman is very intelligent: she is able to see things from many points of view and develop her own opinions, rather than lacking insight.

Scuttling about our dorm, wheezing, shrieking, croaking,
In our yellowy corsets, wonky suspenders, strung-out garters,
A bony brew in the gods of the sleeping city.

Another self-deprecating image. The nun is making fun of her age. There are multiple images throughout the poem portraying the nuns as birds.

Many's the night I lay awake in bed
Dreaming what would befall us if there were a fire:
No fire-escapes outside, no fire-extinguishers inside;
To coin a Dublin saying,
We'd not stand a snowball's chance in hell. Fancy that!

The nun is wittily comparing their chances to those of a snowball in a fire. The innocent whiteness of a snowball, its fragility, but also the playfulness the reader associates with snowballs, all resonate with this nun’s personality. The reference to hell echoes religion and colloquialism, two distant concepts. This creates an allegorical, yet accessible and appealing image.

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Why is it that the nun didn’t take action to enhance the fire safety of the convent? Was it lack of initiative to correct an obvious problem? This ends tragically. Perhaps the poet is alluding to other situations where initiative could have proven so important. This would be consistent with Paul Durcan's strong stance on social issues. Was it a passive death wish that she would be ashamed to acknowledge? The nun doesn’t seem unhappy, but she is of advanced age and there are some conflicting emotions throughout the poem.

For we had done the weirdest thing a woman can do –
Surrendered the marvellous passions of girlhood
The innocent dreams of childhood,
Not for a night or a weekend or even a Lent or a season,
But for a lifetime.
Never to know the love of a man or a woman;
Never to have children of our own;
Never to have a home of our own;
All for why and for what?
To follow a young man – would you believe it –
Who lived two thousand years ago in Palestine
And who died a common criminal strung up on a tree.

Indeed, she does seem if not quite disillusioned, but, at least, not infatuated with the lifestyle she chose here.

…It reminded me of the snaps one of the sisters took
When we took a seaside holiday in 1956
(The year Cardinal Mindszenty went into hiding
And any of us would have given our right arm
To have been his nun – darning his socks, cooking his meals

During the fire the nun is reminiscing about a happy time in her life, a holiday. She is very tangential here with reference to what also happened that year. She remembers a Cardinal that was a hero for her community. Perhaps this is the poet’s way of addressing the attitude within the Catholic Church. The house is burning down around them, and all they can think of is how great the Cardinal is. Indeed, Cardinal Mindszenty was a real person. He opposed fascism and communism and promoted religious freedom. His going into hiding is interesting: it echoes the nun’s mentally hiding from the reality of a fire behind a happy memory. Perhaps the poet is implying that the Catholic Church in its entirety is hiding behind happy memories and heroes of the past? The tangential nature of the reference also implies that it is not one that a sound-minded person would make. This could also potentially represent a criticism of the organised religion in Ireland and beyond. This contrasts with the personality of the nun, who seems very innocent. This points at the poets appreciation of the idea that just because a given person is part of an organisation that he may not be fond of, this doesn’t in itself unfavourably characterise the individual.

Somebody – an affluent buddy of the bishop's repenting his affluence –
Loaned Mother Superior a secluded beach in Co. Waterford –
A cove with palm trees, no less, well off the main road.
Scampering hither and thither in our starched bathing-costumes.

This is an even more overt criticism of the Catholic Church. The poet is pointing out the continued buying and selling of indulgences: repenting affluence. The palm trees is an image commonly associated with the Bible.

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Tonight, expiring in the fire, was quite much like that,
Only instead of scampering into the waves of the sea,
Now we were scampering into the flames of the fire.
That was one of the gayest days of my life,
The day the sisters went swimming.

Here we see once again that the nun doesn’t lack insight. She didn’t just forget about the fire. The poet is demonstrating rich insight by showing the depth of this nun’s faith.

Often in the silent darkness of the chapel after Benediction,
During the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament,
I glimpsed the sea again as it was that day.
Praying – daydreaming really –
I became aware that Christ is the ocean
Forever rising and falling on the world's shore.
Now tonight in the convent Christ is the fire in whose waves
We are doomed but delighted to drown.

As another contradiction, the image of Christ as an ocean is beautiful and consistent with a positive view of religion. However, the speaker likens praying to daydreaming, which is making little of the act.

Gabriel, with that extraordinary message of his on his boyish lips,
Frenetically pedalling his skybike.
He whispers into my ear what I must do
And I do it – and die.

The image of Gabriel frenetically pedalling on a skybike is bizarre and funny. While the poem is critical, it seems to show cheerful aspects of religion too.

…And on the misfortunate, poor fire-brigade men
Whose task it will be to shovel up our ashes and shovel
What is left of us into black plastic refuse sacks.
Fire-brigade men are the salt of the earth.

The graphic image is sinister. It also shows a certain indifference with which the nun looks upon her life. She is more concerned about how much trouble their death would cause to the firemen, rather than the fact that she is dying. The nun is so full of simple human goodness, she cannot but appeal to the reader.

…The first thing I thought was that the brother-in-law's married niece
Would never again get her Conor Cruise O'Brien back

Again, the nun is incredibly magnanimous and thoughtful here: she is focused on those she leaves behind, not on her death per se.

Small wonder that the custom of snipping off the price
As an exercise in social deportment has simply died out;
The strange Eucharist of my death –
To be eaten alive by fire and smoke.

The juxtaposition continues: banal commentary on the price of books and deeper reflections on the circumstances of her death.

I clasped the dragon to my breast
And stroked his red-hot ears.

Christ, like an Orthodox patriarch in his dressing-gown,
Flew up and down the dormitory, splashing water on our souls

The nun is accepting of these circumstances. This once again shows her genuine and deep faith.

…Sister Eucharia; Sister Seraphia; Sister Rosario;
Sister Gonzago; Sister Margaret; Sister Edith.

This mentioning of the names and titles is very respectful, despite the otherwise criticising remarks.

II.
Clad all in mourning black, and grieving like an alley cat,
He was annulled with astonishment, and turning round
He declared to the gangs of teenagers and dicemen following him:
“I tell you, not even in New York City
Have I found faith like this.”

This image of Jesus is conflicting, modern, bizzare and appealing.

…And knelt together by the Fountain of the Three Fates,
Reciting the Agnus Dei: reciting it as if it were the torch song
Of all aid – Live Aid, Self Aid, Aids, and All Aid –
Lord, I am not worthy
That thou should’st enter under my roof;
Say but the word and my soul shall be healed.

The nuns remained together and full of faith even after their death.

See more on Paul Durcan:
Paul Durcan for Leaving Cert
Notes on The Girl With The Keys To Pearse's Cottage
Notes on Nessa
Paul Durcan Sample Answer: Rich Insights Into Human Experience (Paid Content)

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