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Sister Genevieve

By John Rae

This is the story of Mary O’Farrell, who became Sister Genevieve, one of the most remarkable yet little-known heroines of our time.

A woman of great courage and spirituality, she devoted her life to the education of the girls of West Belfast during the Troubles, defying the Catholic church, the IRA and the British army in her determination to give her underprivileged girls the best possible start in life.

When she arrived in 1956, Catholic West Belfast was one of the most deprived areas in western Europe. By the time Sister Genevieve left St. Louise’s, the secondary school she led for twenty-five years, she had transformed the lives of its pupils. Girls whose highest ambition had been to stitch hankies in the mills were inspired by Sister Genevieve to stay on at school and go to university.

More astonishing is that for nineteen of those twenty-five years, Sister Genevieve was running her school in the middle of a guerrilla war between the IRA and the British army. The girls were lifted by the army and brought in for questioning; their homes were taken over by gunmen or turned over by soldiers; their fathers and brothers were killed on active service or sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Yet through all this, Sister Genevieve remained loyal to her pupils whatever they did and was compassionate to all who suffered in the conflict.

Sister Genevieve is the biography of an inspirational headteacher and a fascinating and highly complex woman. It is also a unique insight into the Troubles from the point of view of the ‘civilians’ who were living on the front line.

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