Agnes, nun who set up a woollen mill that transformed community

In her monthly column, She's Inspirational, NICOLA DEPUIS looks at inspirational Cork women - today, Agnes Morrogh Bernard, the Cork nun behind Foxford Woollen Mills
Agnes, nun who set up a woollen mill that transformed community

LEGACY: Agnes Morrogh-Bernard

ALTHOUGH Agnes Morrogh Bernard’s legacy remains largely in Mayo and not in Cork, it’s clear that her early years both here and in Killarney had a huge influence on her.

Born in Cheltenham, England, on February 24, 1842, Agnes was the eldest of ten children born to a wealthy Catholic family, the Morroghs of Glanmire.

Agnes returned with her family to Cork shortly after her birth and remained here until her father, John Morrogh, inherited the Bernard estates at Sheheree, Killarney, as well as the Bernard name.

In Killarney, Agnes witnessed first-hand the devastation the potato blight was wreaking on the lives of rural dwellers.

She would later recall how moved she was when, as a young child, she witnessed a starving woman enter her father’s kitchen begging to be allowed eat the nettles that were being boiled, such was the extent of poverty at the time.

Agnes’s father was a fair landlord. He was conscious of the double prejudice of being both poor and a woman in those times, and so he always made sure to provide work for the women tenants on his land.

It was in this early setting that Agnes learned the importance of providing people with an opportunity to make their own living.

Agnes was educated at home by her mother, Frances Blount, before being sent to the Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick for three years and then on to the Dames Anglaises Convent in Paris for a further two years.

Despite her father’s protestations, a few days after attending a ball held in honour of her 21st birthday, Agnes Morrogh-Bernard exchanged a life of privilege for one of self-sacrifice when she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity.

This order had been founded by Cork’s Mary Aikenhead in 1815 and appealed especially to Agnes because of its fourth vow of service to the poor.

On January 16, 1866, Agnes was professed Sister, Mary Joseph Arsenius, and a year later she was called to the poor town of Ballaghaderreen in County Mayo, where she was to spend the next 14 years as superior of a new convent.

During this time, she established a successful laundry, bakery, pharmacy, lending library, industrial school and national school.

In a bid to empower the women of the area, Agnes established a textile business and saw to it that the local girls were taught the arts of spinning, weaving, knitting, dressmaking, lace-making and crochet.

In 1891, having implemented huge changes in the town of Ballaghaderreen, Agnes was called to the neighbouring ‘God-forsaken town of Foxford’, which was one of the poorest districts in the west of Ireland.

Agnes arrived with four of her sisters and they immediately set to work, taking over the running of the national school and providing the starving children with a daily hot breakfast.

Agnes established a technical school that offered training in different farming methods and, in an effort to generate a sense of pride in their locality, she also initiated a competition for the best-kept garden.

Agnes’s most important challenge was to establish an industry that would enable the people of Foxford to earn their own living.

She looked to the neighbouring River Moy and the surrounding fields that were filled with sheep, soon realising that it was the perfect place in which to run a woollen mill.

With this in mind, she travelled to County Tyrone to speak with established woollen-mill owners, only to be dismissed and told ‘go home and say your prayers’.

Undaunted, Agnes contacted John Smith, owner of the Caledon Mills in County Tyrone, whose initial response was to dismiss them as “a pack of untrained women, secluded from the world, knowing nothing of machinery or business, how could they succeed where man failed?”

However, Smith was soon won over by Agnes’s determination and he began drawing up plans for the new mill.

Agnes applied to the Congested Districts Board that had recently been set up to provide loans to projects aimed at alleviating poverty in the west of Ireland. She was given a loan of £7,000 and a grant of £1,500 for training.

The loan was guaranteed by Agnes’s superior general, who mortgaged the head house of the congregation in Milltown - such was her iron belief in the work of Sister Arsenius.

In 1892, the Providence Foxford Woollen Mills opened with only two hand looms. By 1905, the mills were employing more than 150 people and turning a profit; their flannels, tweeds, shawls, blankets and clerical cloths could be purchased from Brown Thomas and Arnotts.

As the mill became more successful, Agnes had comfortable houses built for the employees and set about lifting the spirits of the Foxford community.

Her early efforts saw her set up a brass and reed band, a music school and a dramatic society.

Agnes Morrogh-Bernard continued to work for the betterment of Foxford until her death on April 21, 1932. She was 90 years of age.

At the time, the success of the Foxford Woollen Mills was at its peak, employing 230 workers.

The Mills are still open and successful today, and the community around it has gone from strength to strength, thanks in no small way to the work of Agnes Morrogh-Bernard.

NEXT MONTH IN HER SERIES: Nicola Depuis recalls the life of Castlemagner-born Edel Quinn, Roman Catholic lay-missionary and Envoy of the Legion of Mary to East Africa.

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