JOHN Smith, the new CEO of Nano Nagle Place, says that considering we spend so much of our lives working, it makes sense that our jobs should align with our values.
John, who worked for 18 years with Trocaire, commuting to Maynooth from his home in Blackrock (where he was also reared), as well as working from his house, is committed to the ethos of Nano Nagle Place.
It’s a charity called the South Presentation Charity. Nano Nagle’s mission was education for the oppressed, she founded schools for the Catholic poor in Cork at a time when Catholic education was illegal under the Penal Laws.
Today, Nano Nagle Place, which opened in 2017, is responding to contemporary social justice issues, providing care and support for people in need. It has become a hub for culture and community in Cork and it commemorates the pioneering Nano Nagle with a museum and heritage rooms. It also has gardens, the Good Day Deli Cafe, a gift shop, a Cork-focused bookshop, as well as the Cork Migrant Centre and the Lantern Project which does a lot of work with local vulnerable people.
The centre, in which three retired Presentation sisters reside, delivers programmes via education, spiritual engagement and community inclusion.
The nuns facilitate workshops “in the area of spirituality,” says John. “They put on different offerings for the community that comes in. This is in its early stages.”
John started his career with EMC Dell, spending seven years there in three different roles.
“I came from an economics and computer information systems background. I did a BA in economics and my post-graduate studies were in information systems and accounting.”
While John enjoyed working for EMC and got good experience there and travelled a lot, particularly to the U.S, the job didn’t fully satisfy him.
“I really felt that there was something else. I was always interested in international development and social justice. I asked myself some tough questions about my career.”
The upshot was that he did a diploma at night at UCC in international development.
“I loved it and made up my mind to go on in that area. I did a full-time Masters in social science through youth and community development at UCC for two years. I was around 30 when I started that.
"I focused on development and education. I knew I wanted to make a difference and to commit myself to that.”
John said to his best friend that he was thinking of travelling for a few years and gaining experience in the international development field. But his friend advised him against that plan, saying he would be brought down a certain road. Instead, he encouraged John to see what kind of jobs were out there that might suit him.
“The following day, I picked up the Irish Times and saw an ad for an education officer with Trocaire.
It looked like a fantastic job, travelling to schools all over the country and creating educational resources about global issues. So I went for it and got the job. I learned a lot there and wouldn’t have stayed for so long if it hadn’t been a rewarding experience.”
John held a number of positions with the Catholic charity. He worked in development education and became manager of a team for over four years. Then he moved into campaigning which included campaigning on climate justice and looking for more money for overseas development aid. He managed a team in that area for a number of years.
“Then I looked to get into senior management. I headed up an outreach department which was responsible for a volunteer programme with engagement through church networks. I was on a career path and it was really rewarding. I applied for a director role and was successful in that. I went on to join a senior leadership team.
“I spent the past five years as part of the executive leadership team in Trocaire. My role was director of public engagement. I travelled to the developing world which was a real privilege.
“Trocaire works in different parts of the world. I went to African countries such as Ethopia and Malawi. I was in Central America and Asia. I went to the Middle East and visited Trocaire’s work in Palestine, going to Gaza. There, Trocaire does a lot of work with women such as community development and gender issues. Gaza is a very difficult place to access. Getting there from the West Bank, you have to go through a long tunnel for about a mile. Gaza is a tiny piece of land with over one million people. It is facing a lot of challenges.”
John says he grew as a person while working for Trocaire.
“I learned a lot. My faith is important to me so from that perspective, working for an organisation that is the Irish international development agency for the Catholic Church, aligned with my personal values.”
Why did he leave Trocaire?
“There were different factors. I was five years in the senior management role, which is enough time to make your mark. Prior to Covid, I would have thought that once my kids got to the teenage years, I’d want to be more physically based in Cork and not doing as much commuting.
“Then Covid came along and we were all at home, 24/7 for two years. That postponed the decision. Then, after Covid, I was still up and down the road a lot and I was finding it tough. I spoke to my wife, Orla, and made a decision to start looking around for a new job.
"When I saw the Nano Nagle Place job, it immediately got my attention.”
Now settling into the latest chapter of his career, John says that there are similarities with Trocaire.
“We are a charity like Trocaire. The ethos of Trocaire is social justice like Nano Nagle Place. It’s about making a difference through education, inclusion and empowerment. Empowerment is something you hear a lot of in Trocaire as well.”
Nano Nagle Place prides itself on being a welcoming space, says John.
“It’s for vulnerable people whose needs aren’t being met. In the 18th century, it was children who couldn’t get a Catholic education. Obviously, needs are different today.”
John says that while most people in Cork have heard of Nano Nagle Place, he believes the message can be brought to a wider audience. Another goal is to “diversify our income streams to bring in more income to enable us to do the work we want to do”.
Above all, John wants to continue Nano Nagle’s ethos.
John attended Farranferris secondary school on the advice of the late Canon Michael O’Brien, who recognised the student’s strong hurling talent.
“He trained the Cork team that won the All Ireland in 1990. He was the parish priest in Blackrock when I was 12. I was thinking of going to Douglas Community School but he said to my parents that they should think of Farranferris. I bought a bike out of my Confirmation money and cycled up to Farranferris.”
Describing himself as both academic and sporty, John says he was always ambitious.
“I always had a good balance between working hard at school and then training in the evenings. I did OKA with the hurling. I played for Cork under age; minor and under 21. I played with Blackrock seniors for a good many years.”
John is delighted to be back working in Cork where he can spend more time with his children, Oisín (16) and Keela (14). Just as his career is important, so too is his role as a father. It’s all about balance.