It’s most likely that Nano Nagle would have been unfazed 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.
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.
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.
When we tell the story of Nano Nagle founding her schools in Cork in the 1750s, we mention that there were three free schools in Cork city for poor children. These were Church of Ireland charity schools called ‘The Blue Coat School’ just off Tower Street, ‘The Free School’ at St. Fin Barre’s, and ‘The Green Coat School’ next to St. Anne’s, Shandon.
The foundation stone of the ‘Green Coat School’ was laid on 6 March 1715. The founder was Reverend Maule, rector of Shandon, who stated that the children attending should ‘be real objects of charity residing in or near the parish of Shandon, and between the ages of 7 and 12 years.’ The school was to cater for 20 boys and 20 girls.
The school consisted of a central block with two wings that projected south and fronted onto the street, this street is now known as Bob and Joan’s Walk. The central block in turn was soon echoed just behind by another charitable building, Betridge’s & Skiddy’s Almshouse, the first stone of which was laid in 1717. The Green Coat School was demolished in 1955 but Skiddy’s Almshouse remains, having been saved from demolition in the 1960s by the Cork Preservation Society.
But what about Bob and Joan? Well, from the opening of the Green Coat School in 1716, a statue of a school boy and a school girl, in their Green Coat School uniforms, adorned the gates of the school. In true Cork fashion, they were immediately given names and those names, Bob and Joan, are recorded in the book Reverend Maule wrote about the school in 1721.
And wonderfully, you can still meet Bob and Joan if you go and climb the tower of Shandon Church, where the two lead statutes now live, surveying Shandon Street from the first-floor window. And having met them you can continue up and survey the city, including Nano Nagle Place, from that amazing vantage point.
But what has this all to do with Nano Nagle? Well, Nano began to open her schools in Cork because she saw that there was no educational provision in Cork city in the Catholic faith. The Penal Laws forbade Catholic schools and even forbade travelling abroad to be educated in a Catholic school. Nano’s wealthy parents had sent her away to be educated. Against the law. And Nano brought her education back to Cork and shared it with poor children in her ‘free schools’. This too was against the law.
Both Nano Nagle and Reverend Maule brought education to children who were ‘real objects of charity’ in eighteenth-century Cork. Bob and Joan represent those children, frozen in time for us to meet today.
Read more about the Green Coat School here on Cork Past and Present
Plan to visit Bob and Joan yourself by visiting Shandon Bells.
Read more about the work of Nano Nagle here.
Nano Nagle was born in the 18th Century at a time when Catholics were oppressed by the Penal Laws. Nano worked tirelessly throughout her life to make sure young Catholic children had access to education and made sure to take care of the poor and sick in her community.
Discover the inspiring story of Nano Nagle at our award-winning museum in Nano Nagle Place.
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