Saturday 21 September 2019

Cork's 'Lady with the Lantern' finally has her moment in spotlight

Biography: Nano Nagle: The Life and the Education Legacy, Deirdre Raftery (with Catriona Delaney and Catherine Nowlan-Roebuck) Irish Academic Press, hardback, 314 pages, €25

Leading the way: a stature to Nano Nagle of Ballygriffin, Mallow, Co Cork
Leading the way: a stature to Nano Nagle of Ballygriffin, Mallow, Co Cork
Nano Nagle : The Life and the Legacy by Deirdre Raftery (with Catriona Delaney and Catherine Nowlan-Roebuck)

Joe O'Shea

Some 300 years from her birth and after long decades in undeserved obscurity, the Venerable Honoria 'Nano' Nagle is finally having something of a moment.

She was Cork's own "Lady with the Lantern", the founder of a global educational dynasty and one of the most extraordinary women in Irish history. And now Nano Nagle's life and legacy are getting a long-overdue and fresh appraisal.

The renewed interest in her life and work has much to do with the recent opening of the impressive Nano Nagle Place in Cork city centre. Once the South Presentation Convent, the buildings and grounds have been brought back from near dereliction to become a visitor centre, community resource and inner-city gardens (complete with a busy, glass-pavilion housing a vegetarian café) which celebrates the story of Nano and her order in the place that it all began.

Nano Nagle Place is also home to the new Cork Centre for Architectural Education, a joint venture between UCC and CIT which has just welcomed the first cohort of 170 students to its purpose-designed buildings by the old convent. The school and the award-winning Nano Nagle Place are part of the regeneration of one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Cork City.

Nagle would have approved. As this new and timely biography affirms, what drove her was a passion for educating and empowering the young and the most disadvantaged. The order she founded, the Presentation Sisters, would go on to educate tens of thousands of young women all over the world.

The new biography, by leading education historian Deirdre Raftery (with Catriona Delaney and Catherine Nowlan-Roebuck), looks at the life and times of this enigmatic, driven Corkwoman, but much of the focus is on her legacy, on the religious order she founded, the Presentation Sisters, and on their more than two centuries of work in education, which started in Cork before spreading out to North America, India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

In many cases, the sisters followed the flow of Irish emigrants, to places like Newfoundland, New York and Melbourne. Generations of young women were educated by the Presentation Sisters around the world and the work continues to this day.

The funds to send the sisters out from Ireland, to minister to the poor and educate their children, came from many sources, including "dowries" from the young, mostly well-off women, who joined her order. At first, Nano Nagle relied on her own independent wealth as the daughter of one of the small number of Irish Catholic gentry families who were able to hang on to their lands and businesses at the height of the Penal Laws.

Born into the well-connected Nagle family in the Blackwater river valley in North Cork in 1718, Nano grew up at a time when wealthy Catholics like her father and his brothers and cousins had to use all sorts of ruses and loop holes to avoid ruination under the Penal Laws.

Her family had trading connections with France and the Low Countries and it was in Belgium (it's believed) that Nano, as a Catholic, had to go for her formal education in a convent. She is said to have enjoyed the normal life of a well-connected, relatively well-off, young woman in society, attending balls in Paris with her younger sister.

However, Nano did not, as was expected, make a good marriage. She stayed in Paris after her school days, then returned home to live with her family.

As this new history of her life records, what she saw in her native Cork in the 1740s was terrible poverty and privation - a series of failed harvests had caused famine in the country. And in the city, the poor Catholics were virtually destitute and uncared for. Nano, who appeared to have little interest in the life that had been held out for her - a life of comfort, country living and a husband and children - had found her calling.

She returned to France to become a nun before recrossing to Cork in 1750 to live with her brother on Cove Street in the heart of Cork and begin her efforts to set up a charitable school for the poorest children of the parish. The odds against her were considerable. As a Catholic woman with no husband to "speak" for her, Nano had to show incredible acumen, ambition and no little guile to establish first her school, then her convent and finally her order.

She had to be part property developer, part politician and part military general. This biography details how Nagle sidestepped disapproving bishops, navigated the minefield of prejudice and legal oppression for Catholics and galvanised a community of like-minded women to create a powerful new order that would become a global operation.

From the first, the Presentation Sisters guarded their independence. There was no rigid central control system as was seen elsewhere in the fiercely patriarchal church. The approach was practical and pragmatic. Seek out the poor and the needy, decide how they can be helped, find the funds and then get down to work.

Nagle learned from the charitable foundations and schools of Paris, from the Protestant orphanages and charter schools of Cork and from the hard-headed business skills she had seen in her father and his cousins as a young woman.

By the time of her death in 1784, she had already opened seven schools for the poorest children of Cork, an alms-house for poor women and - most importantly - the Presentation Order who would spend the next two centuries establishing schools around the world.

Nagle was, by any measure, an extraordinary woman. This meticulously researched and fascinating study of her life and legacy is long overdue and very welcome.

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