By Tom Bell
Many of those who devote their lives to a religious calling and/or the welling of others, frequently only gain recognition and acknowledgement posthumously, ie, after their deaths. So it was with Nano Nagle – a crusader for Catholic education and the founder of the PBVM (Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin). She was declared venerable in 2013 by Pope Francis, not a saint, but no mean achievement either.
She was born Honour Nagle in 1718, and soon adopted the simpler and less sophisticated forename of ‘Nano’.
Her father, Garret Nagle, was a landowner of considerable means, whilst her mother, Ann Mathews, came from a quite important Tipperary family.
Her family home was situated at Ballygriffin, near Mallow in mid Cork County, and adjoining the Blackwater valley. Born into such an affluent background, Nano could have elected to live an enjoyable life, which at at early age she decided was not for her.
Because of the British Penal Laws existing in Ireland at that time, it was considered a crime to practise the Catholic religion, or indeed to provide an education for anyone Irish. Edmund Burke, an Irish member of the British Parliament, was also a relative of the Nagle family through her mother’s side.
His summary of such laws was “Their declared object was to reduce the Catholics in Ireland to a miserable populace, without property, without estimation, without education”. Indeed his public stand on increased British trade with Ireland and Catholic emancipation, cost him at least one of the British Parliamentary constituencies he represented.
The same Penal Laws also forbade Catholics from travelling overseas to obtain a Catholic education, although many who could afford it and had the facility to travel did just that. The Nagle family had, fortuitously, some family connections in Cork City, and through this outlet, Nano and her sister, Ann, reached Paris. Here they underwent a full education, at the same time sampling some of the novelties and pleasures of the Parisian social scene. Returning from an evening’s outing, Nano was shocked to see a group of poor people sheltering for the night in a doorway. She and Ann returned to Dublin where she again saw considerable poverty and misery.
With the intention of joining the Ursuline movement, she went back again to Paris for that purpose.
There she was persuaded by an adviser in that order that she could accomplish more, by trying to set up small scale educational schools in Ireland. She set up her first school in Cove Lane in Cork City Centre, now re-named Douglas Street. A simple mud hovel dwelling done, so secretly, that not even her brother was aware of her illicit activities.
Initially she had 20 students in attendance, whilst some months later that number had risen to 200, and by 1757, seven such schools had been opened through her initiative.
Her actions were not welcomed by everyone in the city, where she often endured rudeness and abuse when walking around the city. Not content with working through the day, she took to evening activities, visiting all manner of poor people in the centre, providing them with basic education and material support to the needy. Through these evening excursions, she became known as ‘the lady with the lantern’ and it must have been a pretty dangerous and hazardous occupation.
With an ever increasing workload, it became obvious that Nano needed additional help. This was forthcoming in the form of the first Ursuline Convent which she set up in 1771, staffed by four nuns and a Reverend Mother.
Because of the British restrictions on religion, these helpers were confined to the convent and not permitted to work outside. Other assistants and Nano Nagle did not become nuns at this stage in order to avoid this restriction and to be able to continue with Nano’s work.
A considerable monetary legacy from her late uncle Joseph, enabled her to expand and improve her schools, and also procured extra help for those destitute. A few years later in 1775, she opened the very first Presentation Convent in Cove Lane on Christmas Day, and six months later received her habit there.
Her hard work and devotions to duty were soon to take their toll. On 21st April 1784, returning from an evening of helping and visiting, she collapsed at Cross Street and died from tuberculosis on the 26th April.
Her actions and sacrifices certainly inspired Edmund Rice, some 30 years later, to found the Presentation Brothers, and more recently of course she received Papal recognition in 2013. She was also voted as Woman of the Millennium for her efforts in laying the foundation for educating women in Ireland and is further commemorated by a Heritage Centre at her birthplace in Ballygriffin, Mallow.
Perhaps the most moving memorial to her is the Nano Nagle walk in Cork; here one can walk in her footsteps and consider what this remarkable woman achieved in her relatively short life.