radio & podcasts

Behind the Veil – the story of Irish nuns

Olivia O’Leary. Photograph by Nick Bradshaw

A five-part series of The Essay for BBC Radio 3

Forthcoming: broadcast over five nights from Monday 2nd January 2023 to Friday 6th January 2023, starting at 22:45

Great empty buildings, which only a few decades ago were bustling convents, tower over most towns and villages in Ireland, but they represent a world which is disappearing along with the once all-powerful Irish Roman Catholic Church.

In this series of The Essay, Olivia O’Leary, convent-educated and a lapsed Catholic, asks where all the Irish nuns have gone.

Irish Catholic nuns were once almost as influential as the State. They ran most of the hospitals; were almost solely responsible for the secondary education of girls; and sent out an army of missionary sisters who helped to build an Irish Roman Catholic empire abroad. To Irishwomen who grew up in the fifties, they will be remembered in two ways: for fortunate girls like Olivia, they were the ambitious teachers who educated and valued young women when the Irish State did not. For others, they ran harsh institutions where unmarried mothers were locked away and separated from their babies.

Across her five essays Olivia explores how the position of nuns in Irish society has changed over her lifetime.

Olivia O’Leary is one of the best known voices and most admired journalists in the Irish media, in print, on radio and on TV. She also worked for a time at the BBC, becoming the first regular female senior presenter of Newsnight, before returning to Ireland.

Presented by Olivia O’Leary

Produced by Claire Cunningham

A Rockfinch production for BBC Radio 3

Link to Essay 1:

Link to Essay 2:

Link to Essay 3:

Link to Essay 4:

Link to Essay 5: