THE education of women has always been a pressing issue for feminists, who recognise a strong link between ignorance and oppression.
Nano Nagle knew that, without education, no permanent change in society could ever occur.
Born Honora Nagle in Ballygriffin, County Cork, in 1718, to Garrett and Ann Nagle, née Matthew, Nano’s father was one of the wealthiest Catholic landowners in the country.
At the time, the Penal Laws were in place, meaning Catholics were not allowed to vote, hold public office, buy land, practice law, own weapons or provide education; all of which were punishable by death. In this dangerous climate, Nano received her early education at a hedge school in the ruins of Monanimy Castle near her home. However, as the climate became more hostile and Catholic teachers and priests were being murdered for operating these hedge schools, Nano and her sister Ann were smuggled abroad to France in the hold of a cargo ship.
Here, they continued their education in luxury, surrounded by the most prominent members of the Irish émigré community.
Nano remained in Paris for years after the end of her schooling, enjoying the hectic social life of a girl about town. But her life was to change when, at the age of 22, while returning home from an all-night ball, she saw Paris’s poor huddling outside the gates of a church waiting to hear mass, and she was deeply moved.
Returning to Cork after her father’s death, she now saw the country with fresh eyes and was horrified by the rising number of children living in poverty. She was moved when on one occasion she went to look for some expensive material that she had brought home from Paris, only to find her sister Ann had given it away to the poor.
When Ann and their mother died in quick succession, Nano returned to France where she decided to enter the Ursuline Convent. But Nano couldn’t get the image of Ireland’s impoverished children out of her mind and, upon talking with her advisor, decided her energies would be of better use in Ireland where Catholics were being denied the human right of education.
In 1747, Nano returned to Cork and moved in with her brother Joseph and his family. While pretending to attend church, she set about opening a school for young girls in a two-roomed mud shack on Cove Lane (now Douglas Street). She soon had 30 pupils and within a year this figure had risen to 200.
By 1769, using her inheritance and money earned from begging on the streets and doing door-to-door collections, Nano had opened five schools for girls and two for boys.
These schools were illegal, and with stories abounding of Catholic teachers being hanged from trees and rolled through the streets in fire-engulfed barrels, Nano did her best to keep her work secret, hiding it even from her brother.
However, when a man called to Joseph’s house to enquire about enrolling his daughter in Ms Nagle’s school, the secret was out. At first, Joseph was horrified by the risk Nano was taking, but he was soon won over and even helped to finance the schools when he could.
Sparing no thought for her own safety, Nano educated children during the day and visited and nursed the poor, sick and elderly by night. She became known as the ‘Lady with the Lantern’ because she was often to be seen roaming through the streets of Cork at night holding one in her hand.
As Nano’s number of pupils grew, she decided to extend her educational work through an order of religious women. In 1771, she invited a group of Ursulines to Ireland to take over the running of the schools. However, she soon learned that the Ursulines’ rules would not permit her and the other nuns the freedom of movement outside the convent that they needed to carry out their work.
Nano decided that to continue with her important work, she would have to develop a new order of religious women.
In 1775, she established a community known as the Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. While taking her vows, Nano chose the name Sister Saint John of God. The pope elevated their group to a religious order in 1800 and they were named the Union of Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but became better known as the Presentation Sisters.
The first convent in Ireland was opened on Christmas Day, 1777, and Nano celebrated the occasion by throwing a banquet in which she personally served 50 of the local poor.
Nano continued to work every day in her schools while visiting the sick at home by night. She was frequently ill but would rarely let it be known.
On April 26, 1784, Nano suddenly began haemorrhaging but told her sisters: “I have a good mind to go to the schools and walk it off as I am used to do.” While walking, she collapsed on Cross Street and died shortly afterwards of tuberculosis. Her last recorded words were “Spend yourselves for the poor”. She was 65 years of age.
Since her death, Nano’s legacy continues in the education of girls and women across Ireland and the world. The Presentation Sisters spread so rapidly that as early as 1842 there was a Presentation Convent in India.
Nano’s popularity is such that in 1995 she was voted ‘Ireland’s Greatest Woman’ in a phone-in poll conducted by Marian Finucane on RTÉ radio. Nano remains the original champion of women’s education.