Nano Nagle—an unconventional woman

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Volume 26

An innovative, tenacious pioneer, Nano Nagle transcended the narrowly prescribed boundaries of her time.

By Gillian O’Brien and Jessie Castle

Above: Eighteenth-century portrait (artist unknown) believed to be of Nano Nagle. (James Nagle Healy/South Presentation Convent, Cork)

Between the early 1750s and her death in 1784 Nano Nagle established schools in Cork to educate poor Catholic children, brought the Ursuline Sisters to Ireland and founded her own religious order, the Presentation Sisters, which at its height had over 500 schools across the world educating in excess of 20,000 students.

For one woman to have been the catalyst for all of the above is remarkable in any age, but in the context of the time in which it happened it is more remarkable still. As a woman and a Catholic in eighteenth-century Ireland, Nagle had limited agency. At most she might have been expected to marry well and run a substantial household. A woman’s domain was in the home. Although there was some opportunity for involvement in charitable and philanthropic activities, few chose to risk their fortune, freedom and safety to the extent that Nagle did. It was a radical, brave, even defiant decision to become a nun in 1770s Ireland.

Subterfuge

Nano Nagle was born in 1718 at Ballygriffin, near Mallow, Co. Cork. The Nagles were a wealthy Catholic family who owned large amounts of property in Cork city and county. Like many Catholics of her background, she spent much of her youth and early adulthood on the Continent, where she was educated in defiance of the penal laws in force in Ireland. As a young woman in France she felt that she had a religious vocation and intended to join a convent there. After discussion with her confessor, however, she returned to Ireland to dedicate herself to educating poor children. By the late 1740s she was living with her brother Joseph and his family in the South Parish. Mid-eighteenth-century Cork was thriving, thanks in part to Catholic involvement in the exporting of butter, salted beef and pork. Nevertheless, the city, described by one visitor as ‘one of the richest and most commercial in Europe’, was also a place of great poverty, and behind the grand façades was ‘the dullest and dirtiest town which can be imagined … one is stopped every minute by … hideous troops of beggars, or pigs which run the streets’.

Above: Thomas Chambers’s engraving of Cork c. 1750 in Charles Smith, History of the county and city of Cork. (NLI)

Nagle straddled both versions of Cork. Though her family was very wealthy and she had enjoyed a privileged upbringing, by 1750 she had rejected the luxuries such wealth could bring and devoted herself to the education of poor Catholic girls in the city—the most marginalised children of the time. Providing free education for poor children and a strong devotion to the Catholic faith were the driving forces behind Nagle’s mission.

Above: North Gate Bridge, c. 1794, by Nathaniel Grogan (the elder). Nano Nagle would have regularly crossed this bridge on her way to visit several of her schools. (Crawford Art Gallery, Cork)

Establishing a school was no easy task. Everything she planned to do was illegal and would put not only herself but also her extended family at risk. Despite the dangers, in the early 1750s Nagle rented a property on Cove Lane (now Douglas Street) and opened a school for poor Catholic girls. It is possible that the school was fronted by a bread shop to mask its real purpose, but no documents detailing the first school survive. What is certain is that some kind of subterfuge was key, for, as she explained later,

‘I kept my design a profound secret, as I knew, if it were spoken of, I should meet with opposition on every side … When this little school was settled I used to steal there in the morning—my brother thought I was at the chapel.’

Her attempt at secrecy did not last long, however. Soon after the school opened, a man approached her brother, asking him to try to persuade Nano to enrol his daughter in her school. Joseph thought the man deluded and that evening told the story, ‘laughing at the conceit of a man who was mad and thought I was in the situation of a schoolmistress. Then I owned [that] I had set up a school.’

The establishment of a school for Catholics run by Catholics was illegal and, if discovered, she faced the possibility of imprisonment for three months. Although by the mid-eighteenth century official repression of Catholic schools was rarely invoked, it remained a risk. Discovery would also put her family at risk but, despite their initial reservations, they became firm supporters of her project. The success of her first school was beyond anything Nagle had hoped for. She had anticipated that she ‘should not have more than 50 or 60 girls’ but within nine months was teaching 200 pupils, and within eighteen months 400. Nagle’s intention had been to educate only girls, but her sister-in-law, Frances, was insistent that boys be taught too, and by 1769 she was running seven schools in the city—five for girls and two for boys.

Ursuline Sisters invited to Cork

The rapid expansion of her schools meant that additional teachers had to be employed. Nagle travelled between her schools on a daily basis, overseeing the children’s preparation for the sacraments, while the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic and the supplying of a daily meal for each child was entrusted to those she employed. She was frequently dissatisfied with her schoolteachers, however, as she desired all those associated with her schools to see teaching as a vocation rather than a job; she wanted those ‘with true zeal’ rather than teachers who ‘only did it for bread’. After much discussion with Fr Francis Moylan (who was based at the Catholic cathedral in the city), they settled on what seemed like a practical solution to the problem: to invite an established order of teaching nuns to set up a foundation in Cork.

Fr Moylan (who, like Nagle, had spent some years in France) approached the Ursuline Sisters in Paris and requested that they consider opening a convent in Ireland. They agreed to train four Irishwomen as Ursuline nuns and send them to Cork on the condition that Nagle build them a convent. She readily agreed. By then she was independently wealthy, as her uncle Joseph had died in 1757 and left her a considerable fortune. This money was used to run her schools and to fund the purchase of land and the building of convents. Not only did Nagle pay for the Ursuline convent but she was also actively involved in overseeing the entire building project.

The project was not without its difficulties and it was at this point that Nagle had her first run-in with the Catholic hierarchy. John Butler, bishop of Cork, wanted her to seek permission from the Cork Protestant establishment before embarking on the construction of a convent, arguing that it would be best if ‘we had the Protestants’ consent’. Nagle refused, observing that her first schools had been established secretly; if she had told her family the truth they would have forbidden the project. The convent was duly built and by 1771 the Ursuline Sisters had moved in.

Protestant opposition … and support

The new Ursuline convent was built very close to the site of Nagle’s first school, but carefully situated well back from the road so that it did not attract attention. Nevertheless, despite its unobtrusive position, the new building did not go unnoticed. A letter in the Freeman’s Journal in February 1772 complained that

‘… we have had nuns brought in from the Continent … [T]hey mean to receive the children of Protestants for tuition; and … their teachers … will lose no pains to seduce and make converts of the young and weak minds committed to their care.’

Some members of the trade guilds in Cork also called for the suppression of both the convent and the schools, but Francis Carleton, a city sheriff and later mayor of Cork, argued that if the schools were closed the daughters of Cork’s Catholic mercantile class would be sent to the Continent for education, thus spending their money abroad rather than at home. He was confident that the Protestants of Cork had nothing to fear from ‘pious ladies who chose to live together, say their beads and drink tea’.

Presentation Sisters

Nagle’s vision for the Ursulines in Cork was far more ambitious than that, but the reality was not quite what she had envisaged. Far from going out among the poor as Nagle did daily, the Ursulines remained within their enclosure, only teaching in the two schools on the convent grounds. For Nagle this was unacceptable: she wanted them out among the people, educating the poor, rather than behind convent walls teaching the well-to-do. Rather than admit defeat, she decided that the only thing for it was to establish her own order of nuns—the Presentation Sisters—to teach the poor of Cork city. To do that she needed to build a second convent and, as she owned land adjacent to the Ursuline convent, she decided to build the convents cheek by jowl. This upset Fr Moylan (now parish priest of the South Parish), who feared that while one convent in the South Parish might be tolerated, two would not be. He confronted Nagle at the building site of the new convent and ‘threatened to have what was erected of the building, destroyed’. As always, she held her ground, refusing to seek a new site, arguing ‘that if he was pleased to drive her thence, she would never pursue her intended object in Cork; but would retire to some other part of Ireland, where she should meet with no opposition, and more encouragement’. Faced with Nagle’s extraordinary determination, Moylan withdrew his opposition and ‘remained ever after silent on the subject’. The convent was completed in 1780.

In the early years of her schools Nagle thought little of her own safety, and there are accounts of her returning to her house late at night guided only by a small lantern. By 1775, however, she was responsible for the security of several women who intended to join her new order of nuns. The area around Douglas Street where the convents were located was not a particularly safe one. Newspapers regularly reported robberies, murders and assaults in the area. At one point Nagle and the other women were confined to their home, as a boundary wall had been temporarily dismantled and they were fearful that the property would be attacked. Broader political events also made her cautious. When the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots broke out in London in 1780, Nagle feared that ‘the same contagious frenzy may break out in this kingdom’, and this fear compelled her to continue her ‘good works’ without ‘incurring any noise about it’.

For over 30 years Nano Nagle looked after the poor children of Cork, ensuring that they were both educated and fed. It was a fulfilling vocation and one she took ‘delight and pleasure from’, even during the bouts of ill health that preceded her death. Her friend Sr Angela Fitzsimons recalled:

‘On a very wet day she went as usual to all her schools, and was penetrated with rain … The next day … she was taken with a spitting of blood at a lady’s house … who … requested her to go no farther that day … N[ano] Nagle answered “What a coward you are! I have a mind to go to the schools, and walk it off as I am used to do”.’

Nevertheless, decades spent tending to her schools across the city had taken its toll and she died soon afterwards, in April 1784.

Legacy

Above: An 1809 engraving of Nano Nagle by Charles Turner. (British Museum)

By the time of her death Nano Nagle had educated thousands of children, overseen the building of two convents, brought the Ursuline Sisters to Ireland and founded her own order of nuns. In her time Nagle was innovative, tenacious and a pioneer, setting out on a path that many thousands would later follow. In addition to inspiring a number of women to join her new order, her work also compelled others to establish religious orders, including Edmund Rice (founder of the Christian and Presentation Brothers), Catherine McAuley (founder of the Sisters of Mercy) and Margaret Aylward (founder of the Holy Faith Sisters).

There is no doubt that Nano Nagle was a devoutly religious woman. In many ways her religious conviction was her driving force, but since her death many of the publications about her have tended to focus on this quality at the expense of her remarkable grit, determination and bravery. That is changing. At the recent opening of Nano Nagle Place, a heritage and education centre on the site of Nagle’s original convent, former president Mary McAleese paraphrased Seamus Heaney in the ‘Canton of Expectation’ when she called Nagle ‘one of those early intelligences … she was brightened and unmannerly herself as the most remarkable crowbar … an extraordinary woman’. She was indeed an indomitable woman who transcended the narrowly prescribed boundaries of her time, challenging all obstacles in her way (including, at times, Catholic clergy) to ensure that her vision became a reality.

Gillian O’Brien is Reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU); Jessie Castle is Visiting Research Fellow at LJMU and Historic Building Consultant at JCA Architects, Cork.

FURTHER READING 

J. Castle & G. O’Brien, ‘“I am building a house”: Nano Nagle’s Georgian convents’, Irish Architecture and Decorative Studies 19 (2016).
M. Peckham Magray, The transforming power of the nuns: women, religion and cultural change in Ireland 1750–1900 (Oxford, 1998).
T.J. Walsh, Nano Nagle and the Presentation Sisters (Monasterevin, 1959).

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