CLEANLINESS may be next to godliness, but for the Presentation Sisters, founded by Nano Nagle in the 18th century, hygiene was not easily facilitated with nuns’ habits rarely washed apart from “spot cleaning”.
As the programme manager at Nano Nagle Place, Danielle O’Donovan points out, Queen Elizabeth I had a bath twice a year “whether she needed it or not!”
On August 1, an exhibition will be launched at Nano Nagle Place celebrating the continued use of the site for 250 years.
The exhibition will chart the construction of the oldest building on the site, built in 1771 by Nano Nagle as a home for the Ursuline Sisters that she invited to Cork from Paris. (The Ursulines moved to Blackrock in 1825.)
The exhibition will then chart the foundation of the Presentation Sisters in 1775 and the changing ways of life on the site over the centuries. The exhibition is entitled Changing Habits: 250 Years of Convent Life.
Two academics, Dr Gillian O’Brien of John Moore’s University in Liverpool, and Jessie Castle, an architectural historian specialising in Irish history from the 18th and 19th centuries, have written the exhibition.
Danielle says it’s fortunate that the Ursuline and Presentation Sisters “have the most incredible records, making the archive really rich. All of their account books are there dating from the day the sisters walked through the convent door. There are annals which are like a narrative of the convents.
“There’s a lot of detail on what money was being spent on and there are deeds of property ownership as well as plans made by different architects. The plans of the gardens are there describing how they were laid out over time.”
But no actual habits that the sisters wore have lasted.
“That was the really tricky part of the exhibition. We wanted to show the habits. So we have a mannequin of Nano Nagle. She didn’t actually wear a habit so we have her in civilian clothes, the kind of black dress she wore and her black silk cloak.”
The archive, does, however, “have bits of habits, veils and things like that. But the more we looked, the more we realised what we didn’t have.”
To the rescue, an “amazing seamstress called Sam Wynn, who does really technical sewing, was able to take descriptions from Jessie found in the rule books of the convent that state how the habits were to be made.”
Sam worked alongside costume designer, Joan Hickson, making a number of habits that are almost replicas of the ones worn by the sisters all that time ago.
“The fabric was so hard to buy. We couldn’t find black serge. But Sam managed to find a place called Kerry Woollen Mills who came to our rescue. They have wool that’s comparable to serge and they dyed it black for us.”
The habit from Nano Nagle’s era was very heavy and the petticoat is made out of wool as well.
“There are under sleeves as well as massive outer sleeves that are permanent fixtures. The big habit has metres of fabric in it and was worn both in the summer and the winter. It was a uniform and comfort wasn’t particularly important.”
Danielle says that an animation frame has been made of Sam making all the different phases of the habit, showing all the layers in a sister’s garb.
“I think clothing is such an interesting way of accessing the past. The sisters must have worn some kind of stays (boned corsets) as there are mentions in the account books of laces for stays. They also wore a chemise in bed as well. This was washed about once a week.
“One thing we have which suggests that by the 20th century, the sisters really did wash things more often, is a very large steam drying cabinet. Garments would have been steamed dry and pressed.”
Trying to figure out how the veils the sisters wore were made took a lot of work.
“I think people might be surprised by how many pins went into the making of the veil.”
Sister Rosarie Lordan is the congregation archivist.
“She has been of huge help, She didn’t actually wear a habit herself as she was too young for that. But she enjoyed pulling out all these bits from the archive and having people make sense of them.”
Various artefacts, such as the bonnet Nano Nagle wore, will be on show at the exhibition.
Danielle says that trying to explain to people what Nano Nagle’s first convent looked like when it was built is hard because it’s now so surrounded by buildings.
“So we commissioned a really wonderful artist and illustrator, Brian Gallagher, who has drawn the various steps of the development of the convent. He has also done a beautiful picture of Nano showing the Ursulines to their convent.
“There’s a bit of guess work involved in figuring out what it would have looked like when it was just a stand-alone building.
“There are also pictures of the sisters in the garden before the Goldie Chapel was built. The idea is to try to peel back the layers of time and present images of the site as it might have been. We had to use historical sources and a bit of imagination. It has been an interesting exercise, almost experimental archaeology. Having made the habits for the exhibition, which we think are historically accurate, it’s nice to know that they’re there for posterity.”
Changing Habits: 250 Years of Convent Life runs from August 1 to November 30.