300 years on... saluting Nano Nagle, carer of downtrodden

The anniversary of Nano Nagle takes place on April 26. John Arnold pays tribute to the woman who saw education as a right of everyone.
300 years on... saluting Nano Nagle, carer of downtrodden

RICH LEGACY: Nano Nagle saw education as a right of everyone, not a privilege for the few

ON a bitterly cold March day, I walked through the fields at Ballygriffin, near Killavullen. The mountain range across the valley which bears the name of the area’s most famous family was capped with snow.

In the distance I could see Ballymacmoy House, ancestral home of the famous Hennessy ‘Brandy’ family. Not far distant was Monanimy Castle — truly this is a place of story and history.

It was in August, 1170, that Jocelyn de Angule first came to Ireland with the army of Strongbow. Following on the pattern of so many ‘invaders’, de Angule became more Irish than the Irish themselves.

Jocelyn’s second son, Richard, came down to the heartland of Munster and soon owned stretches of fertile land in the Blackwater valley between Fermoy and Mallow. Over the centuries the original de Angule name became de Nangle, Nangle and finally Nagle.

The family were Catholic and despite the strictures of the Penal Laws, they managed to hold on to much of their North Cork estates.

In 1717, Garrett Nagle married Anne Matthew of Co. Tipperary — a cousin of the Apostle of Temperance, Fr Mathew. Garrett and Anne married in Flanders and then returned to the ancestral acres of Ballygriffin in North Cork. The following year their first child was born, a baby girl whom they christened Nano. She was eventually to be educated in France.

From a priviliged ‘landed gentry’ Catholic background — with Protestant ancestry on her mother’s side — Nano Nagle would go on to change the face of Irish education. She was born exactly 300 years ago — two centuries before women would get the vote in Ireland — yet Nano was a champion of women, children and the downtrodden.

As I trod the paths and slopes where the Nagle children played in the early 1700s, I reflected on the huge contribution one of these made to the lives of so many poor and destitute — in Cork city initially but later all over the world through her Presentation Sisters.

As I left Ballygriffin a song came into my head, or rather a few lines, but in reverse if you know what I mean!

Back in 1969, the year I started in St Colman’s College in Fermoy, Peter Sarstedt had a big hit with Where Do You Go To My Lovely? It’s all about the beauty of Marie Claire and her desire for fame and success. She was one of;

Two children begging in rags

Both touched with a burning ambition

To shake off their lowly-born tags

Nano Nagle was the exact opposite, born with privilege, power, status and wealth; she abandoned all these material trappings to help those with nothing.

Though 300 years have passed since her birth, she remains a truly Irish icon we should proudly remember, celebrate and commemorate.

Hanora was the eldest of Garrett and Anne Nagle’s seven children, from an early age she was known by the ‘pet name’ of Nano. The era when the Nagle family were growing up was a dark and troubled time for those who held the Catholic faith in Ireland. The Penal Laws had been introduced and, according to the orator and statesman Edmund Burke — a maternal cousin of Nano’s: “Their declared object was to reduce the Catholics in Ireland to a miserable populace, without property, without estimation, without education.”

All forms of Catholic education were barred though many children furtively attended ‘hedge’ schools and more than likely the Nagle youngsters received some basic schooling at such an institution in North Cork.

In the early 1730s, Nano and her sister Ann, who was four years younger, were sent to France to further their education. The Nagles had business and family connections in France which facilitated the girls making the arduous journey.

In Paris, Nano and Ann benefited from a French Catholic education and as young ‘socialites’ enjoyed society life in the French capitol. Some say that when returning late one night from a soiree, the girl from Ballygriffin came upon a number of unfortunate, hungry and homeless people sheltering in a Church porch. Nano was shocked to see such abject poverty in Paris — a city of plenty. The image stayed with her and made a deep and lasting impression. When Garrett Nagle died in 1746 his two daughters returned to Dublin to be with their mother, Ann.

Now in her late twenties, Nano felt drawn to a life of religious service. Her mother died in 1748 and after another short sojourn in France, Nano Nagle returned to Ireland — this time to Cork. Here, in a small thatched building in Cove Street, she set up her first school.

She was conscious of the grinding poverty in the city and the complete lack of educational opportunities for poor children. It was still completely against the strictures of the Penal Laws to open a school for Catholics but this did not deter her in the slightest. Her brother, Joseph lived, in the city but so secretive was Nano initially that he was unaware of her altruistic endeavours!

Later, Joseph and his uncle of the same name were great supporters of the burgeoning educational programme set up by Nano. From her first effort in Cove Street in 1754, within three years seven schools had been opened. Nano Nagle saw the value of education as a means of improving the future of the poorest children in Cork city.

Though her work was admirable, she did not receive acclaim from all sides. In a class-ridden society, many felt education was more suited to the ‘upper classes’ and not needed for the poorest of the poor.

She was really ahead of her time because Nano had her own vision of what education should be. She had experienced the French system and remodelled it to suit the Irish needs. Temporal and spiritual elements were needed and Nano strove to get the correct mix. She saw that ‘the harvest was plentiful but the labourers were few’ so invited the Ursuline Order to Cork — with Irish-born, French-trained nuns to help expand her schools project. Thus, in 1771, the initial Ursuline Convent was set up in Ireland.

Nano’s vision of education was based on involvement with ordinary people in the streets and lanes of Cork city. Because the Ursuline Order were ‘enclosed’, the Sisters were unable to be as ‘hands on’ as Nano wished so the idea of founding a new Order remained foremost in her mind.

By the mid-1770s, Nano Nagle’s work had expanded from education to include visiting and caring for the old, sick and lonely people of Cork. Her frequent visits to the destitute in the city earned her the title ‘The Lady With The Lantern’.

On Christmas Day, 1775, Nano Nagle and three friends opened what became the very first Presentation Convent in Ireland. From that modest beginning in Cork, the Presentation Order soon spread, not alone all over Ireland but all over the world.

Within a decade Nano was dead, having worked fearlessly and tirelessly for those with no voice and no hope. Truly, The Lady With The Lamp lit a pathway that so many others followed, and still follow to this day.

She saw education not as a privilege of the wealthy few but as a right of everyone. During this year of 2018 many events will be held in Cork to celebrate and commemorate the life of arguably Ireland’s most famous woman. At the Nano Nagle Centre in Douglas Street in Cork city where she is buried, and her birthplace at Ballygriffin, Killavullen, her life and legacy will be properly and deservedly remembered

Nano Nagle was born 300 years ago. She died in 1784 — the anniversary of her death is on April 26.

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