In 1892 hunger, poverty and desolation were endemic in the area around Foxford in Co. Mayo in the aftermath of the Great Famine and the Land War. It was in this context that Agnes Morrogh-Bernard, a member of the Irish Sisters of Charity, achieved what many thought was impossible. She was a pioneering and visionary woman who, in a male dominated society, managed to establish the world famous Foxford Woollen Mills, which to this day provides an important source of employment to the surrounding area. Margaret Molloy tells her incredible story.
Agnes Morrogh-Bernard was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England on the 24th February, 1842. Her father, John Morrogh, came from a prominent catholic family in Glanmire, Co Cork. While attending school in Bath in England, he met Agnes’s mother, Frances Mary Blount. The couple married in Cheltenham in 1841 and returned to Ireland, first settling in Cork, and later at Sheheree House in Kerry in 1849.
This area had been ravaged by the potato famine of the previous years and hunger and poverty had claimed many victims. A young Agnes, although cushioned by wealth, was not blind to the terrible conditions that prevailed among the poor.
The Kerryman newspaper reported that: The daughter of an Irish landed aristocrat might have been pardoned if she had closed her eyes to the poverty and misery of the Kerry countryside after the famine years. Instead the sight of a poor woman begging in the kitchen of Sheheree House, to be allowed to eat the boiled nettles that were intended for the poultry, set her on a path that led her to the doors of the Sisters of Charity Novitiate and ultimately to a unique place among the greatest women not only of Ireland but of the world – in a most unworldly sense.
Agnes, as a young girl, had witnessed a starving woman eating a mash prepared for the turkeys at the back door of their house, and it was something that she never forgot. Her work among the poverty stricken people of the West in later years would be evidence of this.
She attended the prestigious Laurel Hill convent school in Limerick. She was professed into the Sisters of Charity in 1866 and took the name ‘Arsenius’. Her father, who adored her, was distraught when Agnes entered the Order. She herself said the day she parted from him to enter the convent, her sorrow was so great that nothing ever again would pierce her so greviously.