March is Women’s History Month and we are taking time to brush up on our Nano Nagle Herstory by taking a deep dive into our collection. The first object in the collection that we are going to look at is Nano’s Bonnet!
Before we get deeply immersed in bonnets, here is some bonnet terminology – the caul: the back bit that covers the hair, the headpiece: the band that goes across the top of the head, the ruffle: the front frilly bit, lappet: an extension of the headpiece (and sometimes the ruffle) beyond the earlobe.
Nano’s bonnet is made of cotton lawn, and was worn by Nano before her death in 1784. The bonnet isn’t exactly the same as it once was, as pieces have been snipped from each side of the headpiece to send to new Presentation convents, and we aren’t sure how much. To understand what the bonnet may have looked like in the 18th Century, we need to go back to other sources.
The convent records from the early 1780’s describe the dress worn by Nano’s first sisters, the unenclosed ‘Society for Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart’ (later the Presentation Sisters). These Sisters, including Nano Nagle, wore:
“…a black gown plainly made without fashion – over it they wore a black silk handkerchief crossed in front – a plain cap made round which fitted close to the head and a broad black ribbon bound tightly about the head. When going out to attend the schools they wore long mode cloaks, the hoods of which they always threw over the small black bonnets worn by them on these occasions.“
We are also lucky enough to have a description of Nano Nagle by lady named Mary, a travelling companion of Teresa Mulally ( Irish educationist, businesswoman, and philanthropist). Teresa and Nano had corresponded about education, with Teresa hoping that the Sisters would come to Dublin and start schools for Catholic children there. Mary and Teresa travelled from Dublin to Cork to meet Nano in 1778. Mary describes:
“The first morning at 6 o’clock entered a little elderly woman with a shabby silk cloak and old hat turned up before, a soiled dark cotton gown and a coarse black petticoat, drabbled halfway and dripping wet for it had rained heavily…she announced her name to be Nagle…”
Both accounts mentions small hats or caps worn by Nano Nagle, but neither sound like the bonnet pictured below…perhaps we need to look at images of the bonnet instead.
Paintings of the Bonnet
This portrait of Nano Nagle, which has been attributed to Cork artist James Barry, depicts Nano in her later years. The painting, which we believe is from life, shows a small touch of white, most likely the ruffle of her bonnet, under the hood of the cloak Nano wears. Nano has no lappets coming down the sides of her face and nothing tied under her chin. If fabric was snipped from the sides of the headpiece of the original bonnet, it was only small snips.
The Charles Turner’s 1809 engraving of Nano Nagle shows the full bonnet, pristine white with a black headpiece, large lappets coming past Nano’s ears and a very predominant ruffle at the front. Looking closely at the Turner image, how do you read that central n-shape in the ruffle – as a n-shaped gap? Many people have read the top of the frill as an n-shaped gap where the fabric of the ruffle tapers into the central headpiece at the top of the forehead.
Could it be that a flamboyant ripple of ruffle in the Turner engraving has given rise to Nano being depicted wearing a very different bonnet from the one she really wore? Having the original bonnet leads us to raise some questions about later representations of Nano and her bonnet. The further from the original engraving these bonnets get, the less like the original engraving and our surviving bonnet. In later depictions bonnets look closer to a white latex turban!
Look at this image gallery of examples:
Lots more research is needed to see if bonnets with a central divide in the ruffle existed. Thankfully one fabulous scholar, Sherri Saines, has spent years looking at surviving 18th-century bonnets in America. Her blog https://capalog.blog/ is a mine of information, photographs of original bonnets and Sherri’s attempts to recreate them using traditional fabrics and methods. Her research has thrown up no such bonnet with the divided ruffle.
Recreating the Bonnet
After the opening of Nano Nagle Place, actor Judie Chalmers worked with the Presentation Sisters to create a play titled Path Through the Dark – The Story of Nano Nagle. It was decided that Nano’s bonnet, should be recreated as part of the costume.
Costume designer Joan Hickson took on the challenge, faithfully replicating the bonnet using the original cotton bonnet saved by the Presentation Sisters, as her guide. When Judie isn’t performing Path Through the Dark – The Story of Nano Nagle, the recreated bonnet and full costume are on display in our museum.
Here are photos of Nano’s bonnet. Joan is measuring it and Freda, our volunteer, is admiring it. Further down are photographs of Judie wearing the replica costume. Take time to admire how closely Joan’s recreation matches the original.
Where/how can I see Nano’s Bonnet?
Before Nano Nagle Place opened in 2018, conservator Karen Horton made sure the bonnet impeccably preserved for future generations to see. The bonnet is now housed in the oldest building onsite, the 1771 convent, in our Artefact’s Room. This room houses a living collection of objects of devotion to Nano Nagle, which was only fully locked behind glass in 2017! Each object has had a life of its own and a personal connection to Nano and her convent.
Our daily guided tours give visitors access to the Artefact’s Room, where you can view Nano’s bonnet in person. Book tickets to view this and the rest of our collection in our award winning museum.
Make sure to follow us on social media to see the rest of our Women’s History Month deep dives!