Monday 22 October 2018

Nano Nagle - remains an influential educator

Pupils at Presentation Convent Primary School, Midleton, pictured in 2007. Children at Presentation schools now come from a wide
variety of backgrounds.
Pupils at Presentation Convent Primary School, Midleton, pictured in 2007. Children at Presentation schools now come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Pioneer: Nano Nagle founded the Presentation Sisters

She was once voted Ireland's greatest ever woman in an RTé poll. A case could be made for Nano Nagle as the most influential person in education of the past three centuries.

This month, members of the Presentation Order have been marking the 225th anniversary of her death.

The 18th-century nun from a rich Cork family set up the Presentation sisters.

She established her first school in a mud cabin in Cove Lane, Cork, in 1752 in defiance of the authorities.

Nano Nagle inspired Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers, to bring education to the poor.

Having opened her first classroom in the slums of Cork city, Nagle built a network of schools that became the template for Catholic education in the country.

The Presentation order that she founded has since spread to the United States, Canada and two-dozen other countries worldwide.

Although the direct influence of Nano Nagle's order has diminished in recent years, there are still 36,000 pupils at Presentation schools in Ireland, mostly at primary level.

Born Honora Nagle, the eldest of seven children, she was an unlikely champion of the downtrodden.

She had every opportunity to live a gilded life among her class of wealthy landowners and merchants.

In the eighteenth century the education of Catholics was severely restricted under the penal laws.

Nagle is believed to have attended a hedge school close to her home at Ballygriffin before she was sent to France for the rest of her education.

According to an account of her life on a website devoted to her, nanonagle.com, she had a hectic social life in Paris -- "balls, parties and theatre outings, all the glamour of the life of a wealthy young lady''.

According to one account, it was after one of these parties that she was taken aback by the contrast between her wealthy, privileged life and that of the Paris poor.

She noticed a group of wretched-looking people, huddled in a church doorway.

After a stint in a convent in France, she returned to Cork to begin her work among the poor.

Nano rented a thatched mud cabin in Cove Lane as a schoolhouse. She gathered 30 poor girls from the neighbourhood as pupils.

Her brother was concerned that she was at risk of imprisonment under the penal laws.

Rising at four each morning, the saintly figure is said to have educated the children during the day, at considerable personal risk, and visited and nursed the sick by night.

As a result, she became known in Cork as the "Lady with the Lantern''. The lantern became the symbol of the Sisters of the Presentation worldwide.

Her educational mission flourished. Within a couple of years, 400 girls had enrolled in her schools in Cork. By 1769 she had five schools for girls and two for boys.

Not everybody in Cork welcomed these schools with open arms. She was insulted in the street on occasion, and her pupils were dismissed as "beggars' brats''.

"Her approach was considered radical and subversive at the time,'' says Noel Keating of Presentation Order's Education office.

When Nagle eventually set up her own congregation she called it the Society of the Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The title was later changed to Sisters of the Presentation of the Ever Blessed Virgin Mary.

Historians have noted that when Edmund Rice began his educational work he followed the "rules of the Presentation Ladies, adapted to suit the requirements of men''.

When the Presentation Order was at its peak of influence in the 1940s, there were over 5000 sisters around the world, mostly involved in education. Now the Order is finding it almost impossible to recruit nuns in Ireland.

Although the number of sisters has undergone a rapid decline over the past three decades, the order still has a strong indirect presence in education. In Ireland there are 70 Presentation primary schools (17,000 students) and 35 secondary schools (19,000 students).

At second level, the schools are now under the trusteeship of CEIST, a body set up jointly with four other Catholic congregations.

Having relinquished much of its direct control of schools, the order is again focusing on tackling injustice and poverty in society.

"The values of Nano Nagle are very much alive,'' says Noel Keating of the order's Education Office.

"Nowadays it is very much concerned with a number of issues such as climate change and poverty.''

Among the Presentation Order's initiatives are Clann Credo, a social investment fund that finances community projects, and Notschool.net, which helps young people who are not attending school.

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