Who among us will not have looked out of the school window and from the warmth of the classroom wish we were elsewhere? The very grass and bushes of an earlier Ireland tell the story of another type of classroom that was not so obvious. This classroom was fearful of being found out… it’s teachers afraid and it’s pupils afraid of being caught, not for mitching off school but for going to class. For Nano Nagle this was her first experience of school… Learning from the experiences of the headmaster among the bushes and ditches. This was the time of the Penal Laws and school was a precious hiding place.
Nano Nagle was born in 1718, the eldest daughter of Anne and Garrett Nagle. She had 4 younger sisters, Mary, Ann, Catherine and Elizabeth and two brothers David and Joseph. She was christened Honora, but was warmly known as Nano. The Nagle family home was in Ballygriffin near the small village of Killavulllen on the banks of the Blackwater River in Co. Cork. The children enjoyed a privileged upbringing for Catholics at the time. Their father was a wealthy man who owned a substantial amount of land. Nano was a high-spirited girl and something of a tomboy. Sometimes her mother wondered would she ever make a lady out of Nano. As the child grew older her parents decided that the time had come to send her abroad to continue her education, free from the oppression of Civil and Religious rights.
Nano and Ann travelled to Paris to continue to continue the learning that had begun in the humble hedge school. Even though this was deemed illegal under British law it happened that many wealthy Catholic families managed to defy the Authorities by secretly sending their children to France. Paris for Nano was a city of immense excitement. There was a hectic round of social activities…. Balls, parties, theatre outings, all the glamour of the life of a wealthy young lady. It was after one such event in the early hours of the morning that Nano caught sight of an image that was to have a profound effect on her life. In the quietness of her carriage with her companions half asleep, Nano noticed a group of poor people huddled together outside a church door. They were dirty, emaciated and wretched looking. She was taken aback by the contrast between her wealthy privileged life and their stark misery…. this was another side of the coin of life and it left her deeply disturbed……
It was only now that Nano began to discover that her sister Ann had sensitivity towards the poor which she had not seen before. Anne visited people in need and Nano accompanied her on a few visits, still horrified by what she saw.
In 1746 Garrett Nagle died and Ann and Nano returned to Dublin to be with their mother who was full of grief and sadness. Nano again noticed the poverty. Dublin in those days was no Celtic Tiger and she was overwhelmed by its poverty and stench. It was during this time that Nano was struck forcibly by another event, which was to have a great impact on her own direction in life.
Nano was searching for a roll of silk that she was insisting was in the linen press a week before, only to discover that Ann had given it to a poor family to sell for food. Nano was taken aback but Ann reminded her of the words “When I was hungry you gave me to eat” the words of the Gospel were staring her in the face, demanding to be heard. Two years after her father’s death, Nano’s beloved sister Ann died. She was heartbroken. She decided to return to Ballygriffin, which she felt was part of Ann’s legacy.
Nano began to take an interest in the children from the local village, their welfare, their education and the nurturance of their faith. Every effort was being made at this time to keep Catholic children from outwardly practicing or learning about their religion.
And then Nano made what seemed like a strange decision when she returned to France and entered a convent. She felt that the hand of God was guiding her and she was also overwhelmed be the poverty and oppression she saw around her in Cork where she felt unable to make any significant impact or change. Dedicating her life to God seemed to be the right path to take at the time. However, despite the support and approval of her family, Nano did not find peace of mind and despite involving herself in the daily duties of the convent she found herself constantly thinking of Ireland and feeling the need to alleviate the suffering she had seen so vividly there.
Having agonised over this new decision for quite some time she took her courage in her hands and returned to Ireland. In those days for a devout Catholic and for a well known wealthy woman to make a decision to leave the convent would have encouraged more than a little disapproval from her own circle. Besides, what was she to do having forsaken the convent? She could not have known then that the threads of her life would weave a tapestry of hope and love.
It was 1784 when Nano Nagle returned to Ireland. Her brothers were dismayed and ashamed that she had left the convent. Despite all that, Nano resolved to make things happen. Cork city with its rampant crime, poverty, open sewers and general misery became her new home again. Before long, Nano managed to gather the children and open her first school for the city poor in a cottage in Cove Lane. Her family were not aware of what she was doing and when the news eventually reached them it was met with shock and horror. However, in time they too gave her project their support despite the obvious risks to herself and them.
Bit by bit her schools began to flourish. Soon she was to open a second school in Philpott Lane. Single handedly she managed to gather the financial banking she needed to provide place of learning and refuge. In the evening, after work in the schools, she went to visit the sick and elderly and neglected and also became aware of the prostitution that so many young women engaged in order to feed their children. It wasn’t always an easy path and sometimes she was fearful of the children she taught, some of whom were hardened by poverty and neglect. Few people were willing to undertake the kind of work she did and money was needed for the upkeep of the school. On occasion she had to take on the appearance of a beggar herself to gather support for her little schools.
We were told of one such occasion when Nano visited a shop owned by a friend of the family. The owner was not around when she called and the assistant left in charge dismissed who he thought was a beggar woman, showing her off the premises. Nano bit her lip despite her hurt feelings and patiently awaited the return of the owner who indeed greeted her with a warm welcome. The owner immediately gave her money and goods. His shop-hand sunk back into the shadows, red faced and embarrassed when he realised that the woman he thought was a beggar was Miss Nagle from Ballygriffin.
In 1757 when Nano’s uncle Joseph died she was left money from her uncle’s will. This money she channels into her schools. At this point Nano realizes that her work will have no possibility of flourishing or taking on a life of its own without the help of dedicated and like-minded people. At a time of huge oppression Nano was inspired to invite the Ursultine Sisters to come from France to set up a foundation in Cork city. This reality flew in the face of authorities but somehow she managed to avoid confrontation.
A friend who normally gave her every support was opposed to her setting up her own order. Fr. Frances Moylan threatened her with his authority but Nano’s conviction was strong. “If you force me to leave this spot, Father” she told him with the same quiet respect she always showed him, “then I shall go, of course, but not to the other end of Cork. I will go to some city where I will meet no oppression and more encouragement in working with the poor.” Fr. Moylan withdrew his opposition, and on Christmas Eve 1775, Nano Nagle, Mary Ann Collins, Elizabeth Burke and Mary Fouhy dedicated themselves to the glory of God and became the first Sisters of the Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
And how can we explain Nano Nagle’s enduring influence? She was a champion of the poor, of the right to education for all and of religious freedom. She was a pathfinder and model for many other Irish religious congregations. She was a woman who in her simplicity, dared greatly and fearlessly. She has left a legacy, which lives, into the future; she is a ghost of the past whose voice echoes now in our memories with a love that will last.