Wednesday 23 October 2019

Nano Nagle: Cork woman who built a global empire

History: Nano Nagle: The life and the legacy

Deirdre Raftery, Catriona Delaney, Catherine Nowlan-Roebuck

Irish Academic Press, €25

Nano Nagle, who was a pioneer of Catholic education in Ireland
Nano Nagle, who was a pioneer of Catholic education in Ireland

Rosemary Raughter

In 2005 listeners to RTE's Marian Finucane Show voted Nano Nagle Ireland's 'greatest woman', beating, among others, former President Mary Robinson, pirate queen Grace O'Malley and republican activist and medical doctor Kathleen Lynn.

Would Nagle come top of such a poll today? I suspect not. Her name, familiar to generations of Irish schoolgirls, is no longer common currency in our increasingly secular society, while continuing research has created a greater public awareness of women's role in Irish history.

Lynn's name, for instance, is arguably now better known than Nagle's as a result of her involvement in many of the events commemorated in the current Decade of Centenaries. And yet Nagle was by any standards a remarkable individual, as Deirdre Raftery, Catriona Delaney and Catherine Nowlan-Roebuck ably demonstrate in this study, timed to coincide with the tercentenary of her birth in 1718.

Born into a prosperous Catholic gentry family at the height of the penal era, the young Nano encountered discrimination as well as privilege. Sent to France for her education, she considered entering a convent there, but ultimately followed her 'inspiration' to return home and establish schools for the poor in her native Cork.

Zealous as she undoubtedly was, Nano was also practical and independent-minded, effectively negotiating anti-Catholic legislation and public disapproval and unafraid to challenge powerful clerics when their views conflicted with her own. When her longtime supporter, Dr Moylan, opposed her intention to establish her own community, she threatened to set up her foundation elsewhere. Moylan, unsurprisingly, capitulated, and Nano's new congregation - the first to be founded by an Irish woman in Ireland for over a millennium - became a reality.

The authors cite three chronological accounts of Nagle, the most recent published 60 years ago. The time is surely ripe for a new and more nuanced interpretation, and readers expecting a biography may be disappointed to find here only a single chapter devoted to Nagle's life. But, as the authors declare, their intention was to focus on her educational legacy as it grew out of the life, and in this they have more than succeeded, producing what will certainly be the definitive account of the Presentation achievement from the 18th Century to the 1960s.

Following a brief period of disarray following Nagle's death in 1784, the Order embarked on a process of expansion which took its sisters from Ireland to Newfoundland, Britain, North America, India and Australasia.

Conditions were often at least as challenging as those with which Nagle herself had to contend - one mission to Dakota Territory, for instance, survived a winter of epic snowfall and near-starvation in a rudimentary cabin, only to witness its collapse in the spring floods.

They persevered, set about fundraising, attracted four more sisters from Ireland to join them, and within a few years opened a school in the region for 50 pupils.

What is perhaps most striking in the Presentation story is the Order's adaptability. The chapter detailing its involvement in secondary education in Ireland is particularly telling in this regard, detailing the emergence from the 1850s of its 'day pension' schools, which provided further education to girls whose families could not otherwise have afforded it.

With the passing of the Intermediate Education Act in 1878 these schools were in a position to prepare their pupils to avail of employment opportunities currently becoming available in the post office and civil service. Later still, with the teaching of Irish incentivised under the Free State government, the sisters themselves returned to the classroom.

One group of eight from Nano's own South Presentation Convent, sent on a summer course to Ring Irish College, initially regretted the temporary removal as "a great departure from our old customs" but returned home some weeks later "looking… as if the sea breezes and Irish atmosphere … had done them good physically as well as intellectually".

"I began in a poor humble manner," Nano wrote, but "if I could be of any service in saving souls in any part of the globe, I would willingly do all in my power". From the beginning, it seems, Nagle's vision was a global one, but even she can scarcely have envisioned the extensive network her Order would create.

Drawing largely on convent archives, the authors of this comprehensive and infinitely rewarding account have drawn together the strands of the Presentation story, revealing the Order's national and international reach, the opportunities offered and the sacrifices demanded of its members, and the extent of its impact on the many thousands of females who attended its schools over the course of two centuries.

While there may well be debate about how that story played out in certain instances, there can be none about the scale or significance of the achievement, or about the compelling legacy of the extraordinary Cork woman who, in building a house, laid the foundations of a worldwide empire.

Sunday Independent

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