Born to a prosperous family in Cork three hundred years ago this month, Nano Nagle overcame many obstacles, including serious health problems, to found the Presentation Order of Nuns which would go on to play a vital role in the provision of schooling for girls throughout Ireland and the rest of the world, writes Deirdre Raftery.
Nano Nagle was truly one of ‘Ireland’s own’. Born exactly 300 years ago, she belonged to the prosperous Nagle family of Ballygriffin, Cork.
They owned and leased land in the Blackwater Valley, some of which was used for orcharding. Indeed, Nagles were one of the biggest producers of apples to the robust market for Munster cider.
As a child, Nano enjoyed the comfort of living in a large cut-stone house, surrounded by green fields. The Nagles would have had servants, and the comforts that educated Catholics enjoyed, such as books, entertainments, and visiting tutors.
Nano’s parents decided to send their two eldest daughters to the continent to be educated. It was not uncommon for wealthy Catholics to arrange to slip their children out of the country, to attend schools in France and Spain.
At under-supervised harbours in Dungarvan and Clonakilty, Catholics were illegally conveyed to France. Nano and her sister, Ann, somehow managed to make the journey, so that they could have a convent education.
It is likely that the girls were at boarding school in Ypres, with the Benedictines – who were known as ‘the Irish Dames’. There were many Irish nuns at the convent, and they would have mainly spoken English. Indeed, Nano later wrote that she had poor French.
The main purpose of a convent education was to teach girls ‘accomplishments’, such as music and fine needle work, and to form their faith. Around 1746, Nano returned to Ireland. Her father had died, and in the years that followed, she also faced the deaths of her mother and sister.
Wealth did not protect the Nagles from the dangers of living in Penal Ireland: they were Catholics, and outspoken. Nano’s uncle, Garrett, was accused of being a supporter of the exiled Catholic King James II. Another uncle, Joseph, was described by Nano as ‘the most disliked by the Protestants of any Catholic in the kingdom.’