The Mercy Convent of Doon closed last week. (relax, that is Doon, a small village in Co. Limerick, not DOOM as my children persevere in calling it).
Seven surviving Sisters packed their bags and left last Friday week.
The contents of the convent were sold, in 633 lots, at an auction that was held in the chapel and lasted seven hours. Viewing of the lots was by a tour of the convent. Every cranny of convent life was on display, large and small parlours, front and back kitchens and two floors of identical bedrooms.
In 1861, in the aftermath of the famine, a room of one’s own would have been unheard of. It would be easy for me to portray holy orders as a prison sentence but the fact remains that the nuns lived in safety and relative luxury.
All the same, the grille in the door must have some stories to tell. Ancient trunks and suitcases were lined up, evoking thoughts of young girls delivered to this entrance with their worldly belongings and habit-clad sisters ushering them into silence.
Did they have a calling to the service of God? It is my feeling that women crave security, predictability and order. These would have been assured in the Convent of Mercy but the price was exorbitant. Not only were they required to leave their reproductive urges at the gate, they abandoned their individuality, they even gave up their names.
Regardless of my opinions, the atmosphere of the convent was not one of sacrifice. Rather, it was of community and genuine sisterhood. The sisters’ private sitting room held what must, in its day, have been a very expensive record-player and a substantial collection of operatic recordings and popular musicals.
Seats were arranged around a fine piano and a small sideboard housed a touching selection of well-used board games. These women were not alone. They shared their lives and, most poignantly, went to a shared grave.
The assembled congregation included a sprinkling of dealers, restaurateurs with a nose for a bargain and locals seeking a souvenir, a holy relic of Doon.
The auctioneer, a man more often found selling livestock at the market in Charleville, sat behind the altar sipping a bottle of Club Orange.
‘Raise up your bidding cards,’ he admonished reluctant buyers, ‘raise them up and I will knock them down.’
The highest price, 1600 euros, was attained by a book. Granted, it was no ordinary book but a hand-illustrated, calf-bound Stations Of The Cross. A friendly farmer seated next to me commented sadly,
‘well, there’s that gone out of the country.’
Indeed, there was a sense that some locals had good intentions of protecting the nuns’ belongings.
The interesting thing about an auction is that the value is set by the buyer. One must decide what an item is worth, for its beauty or usefulness, for its symbolic or novelty value.
The convent library held several beautiful collections of encyclopaedias, educational tomes and lives of saints. I imagine it was their pristine condition and impeccable provenance which led to high prices.
It was surprising to note that, in Ireland of 2016, religious symbolism was worth almost nothing. The asking price for a lot of ten large statues of saints was knocked back from 1000 to 50 euros with no takers. The congregation sat in mortified silence until a woman at the back shouted that she would, ‘take them for thirty.’ Sold.
A small collection box, with a six inch carved wooden angel who nodded his head in acknowledgement of every coin dropped, sparked a bidding war between a local man and a dealer. The convent safebox, with its key, almost caused a riot. Money talks and, in an age where average people have lost faith in the banks, a nun’s safe is a better bet.
Bookending the convent itself were two large boxes of similar size and shape. At the Northern extremity, behind the back kitchen, was a walk-in fridge. It was probably quite old but the farmer at my side assured me it was likely to be in good working order.
‘It would be very handy,’ he said,’ you could hang a lamb in it.’
At the opposite end of the convent, sitting inside the back door of the chapel, was an ornate confession box. It most likely wouldn’t work if you didn’t believe it in it. One box sold for five times the price of the other. Can you guess?
Husband and I left the house on Saturday morning with few expectations and hoping for nothing more than a day out without the kids. In the end, we had an experience that we are unlikely to forget. The auction was immensely entertaining and the peek inside the inner sanctum was fascinating.Yes, we took turns bidding and made a few impulse purchases. My instagram followers have already had a peek at the haul. I shall return on the morrow to give you the full report.
When we turned into the drive at sunset our house seemed more homely than usual. I was more grateful than usual for my privileged existence, my quirky home, my skittish dog, the man at my side and my children who came spilling out the door to greet us.
My neighbouring farmer passed on the rumour that the convent is to be refurbished as accommodation for refugees. That seems remarkably fitting to the original purpose of a small group of nuns who travelled from Kinsale in 1861 to bring succour and comfort to a broken land.
‘The more things change…’ I said.
He nodded in agreement and passed the final judgement,’…the more they stay the same.’