Cold Cork – Nano’s City in the Snow

It’s most likely that Nano Nagle would have been un-phased by the snow that blanketed Cork City in early March 2018. She walked the streets of Cork during the 18th century, when Ireland was in the grip of the ‘Little Ice Age’. Winters were far harsher than they (usually) are today.

Nano moved to the city in the 1750s. In doing so she missed the biggest freeze up Cork had ever seen. From Stephen’s Day in 1739 till 4 January 1740 the river Lee froze over. It was one of the sharpest frosts in human memory and was known as ‘the hard frost’. The people of the city took advantage of the extra space the frozen river afforded and ‘tents were fixed on the River Lee from the north strand to Blackrock and several amusements were carried out there [sounds like great fun], which continued even after the commencement of the thaw [sounds rather dangerous]’. We don’t have any illustrations of that ‘frost fair’ but this one of London at a similar date gives an impression of what went on. It was said that they even walked an elephant across the frozen river Thames.

Image of a London Frost Fair with Tents and Swingboats from the Museum of London
A London ‘Frost Fair’

This great frost was the harbinger of a terrible drought that continued into the harvest of 1741. The famine this caused killed about one quarter of the population at the time. The impact on Cork city and county was particularly bad – and the death rate might even have been higher than that of the ‘Great Famine’ one century later. Cork institutions like the North Infirmary (founded 1744) and the Poorhouse/Foundling Hospital (founded 1747) were most likely prompted by the suffering experienced by the poor in the early part of the decade.

When Nano came to Cork in c. 1750 she came to work with and for the poor, founding schools for catholic girls (and later boys) who may not otherwise have got an education, and ministering to the poor and sick. Nano lived in Cork city for the rest of her life, at first with her brother Joseph, on Cove Lane, and from the 1760s in a small house on Douglas Street. Nano would have seen the river Lee ‘freeze up’ in January 1767 and in January 1768 would have seen the city blanketed in 6ft of snow.

In the late 1760s Nano began a new venture by which she aimed to secure the future of her schools and charitable works after her death. She set about founding an Ursuline convent by arranging for Irish girls to be trained in an Ursuline house in Paris and began the building of a new convent in the ground behind her house. That convent building still stands at the heart of Nano Nagle Place today.

The original door of the convent Nano built for the Ursuline Sisters.
The original door of the convent Nano built for the Ursuline Sisters.

Not long afterward, in 1775, Nano founded her own order ‘The Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred heart of Jesus’ (later the Presentation Order). She did so on Christmas Eve 1775 and the following day held a feast for the poor to celebrate. One month later, on the 31st January 1776, the city was again blanketed with snow. Nano set about building a new convent on Douglas Street for her sisters in religion. Work started in August 1777, but like the best Grand Designs episode, the project was hampered by delays, including another unseasonable snowfall in May 1779! The sisters finally moved into their new house in July 1780, but did so in the middle of the night to avoid drawing attention to their endeavours … during Penal times building convents was a highly illegal business.

Nano died in April 1784. In the centuries that have followed further snowfalls have covered the simple graveyard in which she was buried – a state to which it has beautifully returned here.

The Sisters' Graveyard under snow, 1 March 2018
The Sisters’ Graveyard under snow, 1 March 2018

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