Honora "Nano" Nagle (1718 – 26 April 1784) founded the "Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary" (PBVM) in Ireland (also known as the "Presentation Sisters") and pioneer of Catholic education in Ireland. She was declared venerable in the Roman Catholic Church on 31 October 2013 by Pope Francis.
Nano Nagle lived in a period in Irish history when the English had imposed the Penal Laws. The Irish were denied access economically, politically, socially, and educationally to the rights and means that would have raised them from poverty and oppression. The parliamentarian and orator, Edmund Burke, who was a relative of Nagle on his mother's side, and had spent his early years in Ballygriffin (where Nagle was born), described those laws: "Their declared object was to reduce the Catholics in Ireland to a miserable populace, without property, without estimation, without education." Catholics who dared to teach were subjected to heavy fines, confiscations, and periods of imprisonment. It was equally treasonable for Irish children to be sent overseas for their education.
Nano Nagle was born in Ballygriffin, County Cork, in 1718, the daughter of Garret and Ann Mathews Nagle. The name "Honora" given at baptism was soon replaced in the family circle by the affectionate diminutive "Nano". She was the eldest of six children, the others being Ann, Catherine, Elizabeth, David, and Joseph.
She was born between Fermoy and Mallow in the Blackwater Valley in County Cork which possesses views of the distant Nagle Mountains. Much of this region was once the property of the Nagle family. They were connected to some of the most prominent families in Munster and their ancestors had lived in the area for hundreds of years. In the protracted struggle between the English and Irish for the possession of Ireland, the Nagles' loyalty to the Catholic king - James Francis Edward Stuart (James III of England and Ireland and James VIII of Scotland)- and the Catholic faith cost them extensive lands. However, when her parents married, the family still owned extensive property at Ballygriffin, Killavullen, as Garret's brother Joseph had converted to Protestantism so that he could hold property on behalf of the Roman Catholic members of his family as was required under the Penal Laws.
Nagle is believed to have attended a hedge school close to her home before she was sent to France for the rest of her education. The first "Act of 1695" made it unlawful to open a Catholic school at home, and also forbade travel overseas for education. The Nagles had a branch of the family who were merchants in Cork city, with strong connections on the European Continent, particularly in France. It was through these channels that Nano and her sister Ann were able to travel to Paris, smuggled, perhaps, in a cargo ship, where they received a full Catholic education and also enjoyed a sophisticated life in French society.
According to one account she had a hectic social life in Paris – "balls, parties and theatre outings, all the glamour of the life of a wealthy young lady". It was after one of these parties that she noticed a group of wretched-looking people, huddled in a church doorway and was taken aback by the contrast between her wealthy, privileged life and that of the Paris poor.
Work with the poor
After their father's death in 1746, she and her sister returned to Ireland and went to live with their mother in Dublin, where they found widespread poverty. She returned to Paris intending to enter an Ursuline convent, but a spiritual director advised her to return to Ireland and take up the education of deprived children there. She went back to Cork, where her brother Joseph lived, to set up her first school for the poor, in a rented mud cabin in Cove Lane, in defiance of the law, and in complete secrecy, even from her brother. He soon discovered her secret, as she described in a letter to a friend: "This passed on very well until one day a poor man came to him, begging to speak to me to take his child into my school. On which he came to his wife and me, laughing at the conceit of a man who thought I was in the situation of a school mistress. Then I owned up that I had set up a school." Her brother was very angry with her at first, because of the risks involved, but later became reconciled and gave her his full support.
Nagle founded her first school in 1754 in Cove Lane with about 30 students. This is now the site of South Presentation convent. Within nine months, she was educating 200 girls. By 1757, she had opened seven schools, five for girls and two for boys. These provided pupils with a basic education and religious instruction. At first alone, and later with the support of her family, particularly her uncle Joseph Nagle, she established a network of schools in Cork. Not everybody in Cork welcomed the initiative: she was insulted in the street on occasion, and her pupils were dismissed as "beggars' brats.
Nagle began to visit the sick and the elderly after school, bringing them food, medicine and comfort. She opened homes for aged women, and began conducting adult classes. She went from hovel to hovel each day to gather the most needy people to teach. Night-time ministries to poverty-ridden elderly and sick in her home town gave Nagle the nickname The Lady with the Lantern. The lantern later became the symbol of the Sisters of the Presentation worldwide.
Institute of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
As her workload increased she realised that she would need help with her work. She set up an Ursuline convent in Cork city which she initially sponsored. In 1767, she stayed with the Ursuline Sisters on Rue des Ursulines in Paris while visiting her cousin Margaret Butler who had been professed just one year previously. Thus, in 1771, the first Ursuline convent was established in Ireland; the first community was made up of four Cork women – who were professed at the Ursuline Convent in the Rue St. Jacques in Paris – together with a reverend mother. However, they were unable to work for or educate the poor because at that time religious sisters were required to remain enclosed in their convents.
Nagle and her assistants continued their work without becoming an established religious congregation so they were free to work for the poor without being enclosed. On Christmas Eve 1775 she founded the Society of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in Cork. She resisted the local bishop when he expressed fears that the establishment of the convent might provoke a Protestant backlash. When her uncle Joseph died, he left her a large sum of money which she devoted to building schools and convents, providing relief for the poor and the infirm. All of this was done in secrecy, initially, but even the authorities, seeing the beneficent nature of her institutions, relaxed their vigilance somewhat.
She founded the first Presentation convent in Ireland on Cove Lane (now Douglas Street) in Cork, which opened on Christmas Day, 1775. There she received the habit on 29 June 1776, taking the name of Mother Mary of St. John of God. The sisters made their first annual vows on 24 June 1777.
Maria Teresa Mulally was born in 1728 in Pill Lane in Dublin. By the time she was twenty Teresa had opened business as a milliner in her father's parlour. Winning a prize in a state lottery left her financially independent after the death of her parents. She started a Catholic school in Mary's Lane for the poor girls of inner-city Dublin in 1766, and sought an order of sisters to staff it.
The Presentation Sisters
Nagle died from tuberculosis on 26 April 1784. By the time she died she had established links with Mulally's Dublin group. In 1794, a group of women who had helped with Mullaly's projects in Dublin joined with Nagle's Cork group, and eventually this group became the congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In 2000, Nagle was voted Irish Woman of the Millennium in recognition of her importance as a pioneer of female education in Ireland. She was once voted Ireland's greatest ever woman in a public poll. She inspired Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers, to bring education to the poor. The Presentation order has spread to 23 countries worldwide. Some of the schools founded by the Presentation Sisters are named after her.
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- Murphy, Rev. Dominick, Memoirs of Miss Nano Nagle (Cork, 1845)
- Walsh, T.J., Nano Nagle and the Presentation Sisters (1959)