Irish Women on the Move

Migration and Mission in Spain, 1499-1700

by Andrea Knox (Author)
©2020 Monographs XVIII, 252 Pages


Irish women on the Move: Migration and Mission in Spain, 1499-1700 is an original work, drawn from archival sources from across the Iberian peninsula. It examines the history of a dynamic and enterprising group of Irish women who migrated to Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, and throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in three distinct waves of migration. At the centre of this network of Irish women were a group of Dominican nuns who travelled from Galway to Bilbao in the Bizkaia region of Spain with the specific purpose of founding their order throughout Spain. They and their sponsors established schools and an academic curricula which facilitated assimilation into Spanish society whilst also marking them out as outstanding educators. They, along with Irish women spies and courtiers show how a dynamic and successful group of Irish women played a central part in the history of late medieval and early modern Spanish life.

Table Of Contents


At the end of the fifteenth century a group of Irish Dominican sisters travelled from Galway to Bilbao in the Bizkaia region of Spain with the specific purpose of founding a convent there, and to establish their own school for girls. This determined action led to a wave of female migration from Ireland to Spain and Portugal. The ambitions of this first group of Irish sisters sparked successive waves of female migration including women who were professed, and those who had an indirect attachment to the Irish Catholic church. Dominican sisters had a positive, pro-active mission which they successfully introduced into the Iberian peninsula from 1499 onwards. Irish Dominican sisters had female education at the heart of their order, and their schools came to be appreciated as excellent models both in terms of structure and curricula. The Dominican order in Ireland had a long tradition of putting out its tentacles in Europe and beyond. The pilgrimage tradition was just as prolific from Ireland as it was to Ireland, with female pilgrims prepared to travel as far as men, including to the Holy Land. What is less well known is the broader history of Irish women who migrated for religious and other reasons, developing permanent roots in a number of countries, with the express purpose of establishing their own home and culture.

This is a history which has not been written.

What this study does is to turn the focus, previously dedicated to scholarly attention upon the experience of male migrants, to the migratory experience of Irish women, both as distinct groups with shared identities, and as groups or individuals with little common purpose. Irish women chose to migrate as religious groups, family or sept groups and as single women. Their motivations were varied. Their class and status ranged from the most elite Irish women with some autonomous decision-making through to middle-ranking women with their own finance streams, to female religious with an intention of establishing their own orders in Europe, and those ←xi | xii→who were poor, but made the decision to move countries. These women were single, married, widowed, separated, some had professed, or were novices or pupils, and some were too young to be categorised. Some chose to develop networks between themselves, or with Spanish women. Some chose to live a more separate existence. This is their story.


This book has had a long gestation, and I have incurred many debts. I am very grateful for the help and support of all the archivists and staff at the many archives I have used over several years researching throughout the Iberian peninsula.

One of the first academics to encourage my academic interest in late medieval and early modern Spain was my late colleague, Alex Cowan, an esteemed early modern Venetian scholar. I remain grateful for all his encouragement and support. Other colleagues at Northumbria University have also been generous with their time, particularly Charlotte Alston and Neil Murphy, who both read through an earlier draft of the book, and provided comments which much improved the text. Other Northumbria colleagues have provided sound advice and suggestions, particularly Carlos Conde Solares, Lesley Twomey and Jacky Collins. Also at Northumbria University the Inter Library Loan team have been extremely helpful in tracking down so many diverse requests of mine.

In addition, other academics who have made various comments and suggestions about this work in its earlier stages. I wish to thank James Amelang, Virginia Blanton, Samuel Fannin, Gwenda Morgan, Colmán Ó Clábaigh, Veronica O’Mara, Ciaran O’Scea, Igor Pérez Tostado, Peter Rushton, Flocel Sabaté, Charles and Pat Smith, Brian Ward and Jane Woodruff.

I wish to thank Lucy Melville at Peter Lang press for all her editorial support, and also Phil Dunshea who approached me with the initial proposal. My thanks go to the two anonymous readers whose insightful suggestions have certainly made this a better book.

Finally, I owe my family so much thanks for the unswerving support of many years, in particular my father, Bill, my son John, and my husband, Robin.

A Note on Translation

I have retained contemporary linguistic expressions in Castilian and Catalan. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.


Irish Women on the Move

When a small group of Irish sisters from the order of Saint Dominic migrated to Bilbao in 1499 their intention was to found their own Dominican female mission in the province of Biscay, and beyond. The first recorded group of Irish sisters to profess in Spain joined the Dominican convento de la Incarnación, founded initially in 1499 for conventual tertiaries, but by 1523 included sisters who had taken solemn vows and were fully professed. Membership and profession in the convento de la Incarnación was followed by profession in eight other convents across the peninsula. These were the convento del Corpus Christi founded in Valladolid in 1545, the convento del Santa Clara in Esterri d’Àneu in 1560, the convento del Nuestra Señora de las Angustias in La Coruña in 1589, the convento del Santa Clara in Santiago de Compostela in 1590, the convento del Santa María la Real de las Duenas in Zamora in 1590, the convento del Nuestra Señora Bienventurada de Atocha in Madrid in 1592, and the convento de Nossa Senhora do Bom Sucesso in Lisbon in 1639. All of these convents were Dominican apart from the two in Santiago de Compostela and Esterri d’Àneu which followed the order of Saint Clare. All had an educational mission. In addition to this group, there were a number of other convents across the peninsula which Irish women joined throughout the two centuries under examination, where they were in a minority compared to the numbers of professed Spanish sisters. Irish women professed at the convento Dominiques de L’Ensenyança de la Immaculada Concepcio in Tarragona, and the convento de Santa Clara in Tarragona, helping to provide and garner funding for educational and medical missions, and also building financial and political networks. A number of Irish sisters also professed at the convento de San Salvador de Almonacid de Zorita de la Orden de Calatrava in Madrid, and the convento del Concepcíon Reales de la Orden de Calatrava in Madrid, from where they worked as spies for the Spanish crown. There is also ←1 | 2→evidence that a number of Irish nuns moved between convents, and even orders during their lives in Spain. All of these convents were supported by direct sponsorship by Irish and Spanish funders, and also by successive monarchs. These Irish women religious made it clear that their settlement in Spain was of a permanent nature, and this facet undoubtedly contributed to their acceptance and success.


XVIII, 252
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
Dominican order girl's schools Irish women migrants Irish Women on the Move Andrea Knox
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XVIII, 252 pp., 5 fig. b/w, 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Andrea Knox (Author)

Andrea Knox is a senior lecturer in Early Modern European History and Women’s History at the University of Northumbria, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Andrea has published on areas as diverse as Irish and Scottish female criminality, early modern female rebel networks, Irish women’s migration to Spain and Portugal, and girls’ education. Andrea has published in journals including the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Criminal Justice History, Immigrants and Minorities, and Quidditas; the Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association. In 2009 Andrea won the Delno C. West Award for the most distinguished paper given by a senior scholar at the Annual Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association conference, held in the USA.


Title: Irish Women on the Move
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272 pages