In April 2018 in Cork city women from all over the world gathered to celebrate the birth of a woman who inspired each one of them to become a Presentation Sister. This is their founding story …
Three hundred years ago in 1718 a valiant woman was born in north Cork. She was born to a wealthy Catholic landowning family at a time when to be wealthy and Catholic was a difficult position. The Penal Laws, which had been introduced at the end of the 17th century, had the express intention of dismantling the Irish Catholic power base. Under these laws Catholics would become too poor and too ignorant to present any challenge to the status quo in an Ireland now ruled by the Protestant ascendancy.
Nano’s family sent her away to school on the continent (an act that at the time was itself illegal). When Nano returned home to Ireland after twenty years abroad she was horrified by the ignorance and poverty of the Catholic underclass. She made up her mind to make a difference and secretly opened a Catholic school near her home on Douglas Street, in the South Parish of Cork City. Thanks to her determination and the backing of her family she was soon running seven schools across Cork City, unusually for the time, five of these schools were for girls. Nano was empowering the women of Cork through education to practice their religion with pride and better their lives through skilled work.
In 1775 Nano founded a new and quite radical religious order to continue her work, the Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart, later the Presentation Sisters. Their first convent was on Douglas Street, where a Presentation Convent still stands today. This religious order was tasked with educating poor children across the city of Cork and tending the needs of the poor, just as Nano ‘the Lady with the Lantern’ had done for many years. Nano’s sisters were not ‘enclosed’, they could leave the convent to perform their works of education and charity. Nano’s order at first struggled, but in the years after Nano’s death her congregation went on to found convents and schools across Ireland and across the world.
Last week, sisters from New Zealand to Zambia, India, Rhode Island and Manchester among many other places made their way to Cork. In a sense they came home, to where the story of the Presentation Sisters began. They visited the newly regenerated buildings of the South Presentation Convent and schools, now called Nano Nagle Place, a beautiful heritage, education and spiritual oasis in the heart of Cork City. They visited the many charitable projects that the Presentation Sisters are still engaged in across the city.
On Wednesday 25th April Cork’s North Cathedral was brought alive with the story of Nano by children from Presentation Schools. The sisters then set out across the city led by a beautiful lantern. They walked in the footsteps of Nano as she made her daily journey across the city to visit her schools. The sisters stopped along the way to reflect on Nano, at Nano Nagle Bridge, at St. Finbarre’s South, Nano’s parish church. The walk culminated in the beautiful Goldie Chapel at Nano Nagle Place were more Presentation students celebrated the work of the order throughout the world
It was a week of emotion, devotion, reflection and remembrance. It will live on in the memories of all those who were a part of this special celebration.
At Nano Nagle Place we are celebrating the tercentenary of Nano Nagle’s Birth this year. The year, 2018, marks another important centenary that will be remembered across Europe, the end of The Great War. While peace came to reign in much of Europe after the armistice, Ireland entered a period of violent conflict now known as The War of Independence or Anglo-Irish War.
The first shots of this war might be said to have been fired in Easter 1916 when a combined force of Irish Volunteers and The Irish Citizen Army mobilized an armed revolt which lasted just one week. This revolt was immediately labelled ‘The Sinn Féin Rebellion’ (although, ironically, Sinn Féin had had very little to do with it). In the wake of the Easter Rising and the subsequent execution of the leaders, along with the internment of many combatants, Sinn Féin became a rallying point for nationalist politics. Sinn Féin began contesting elections in 1917 and in December 1918 they contested in the general election where they secured a landslide victory. Had there been a ‘swing-o-meter’ then, they might have broken it, winning 46.7% of the vote. The newly elected Sinn Fein MPs refused to take up their seats in parliament in Westminster, instead they formed their own Dáil Éireann.
The new Dáil met on 21 January 1919 in the Mansion House, Dublin where they declared independence and ratified the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. On the very same day, two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were killed in the Soloheadbeg Ambush by members of the Irish Volunteers acting on their own initiative. Although the ambush had not been ordered by the Dáil, the assembly soon came to recognise the Irish Volunteers as the army of the Irish Republic and the Soloheadbeg Ambush as an act of war against Great Britain. The Irish Volunteers changed their name to the Irish Republican Army. With this escalation of events the Irish War of Independence or Anglo-Irish War began. It was a guerrilla war, which in the beginning took the form of the IRA capturing weapons and freeing republican prisoners. When the British Government outlawed both the Dáil and the IRA in September 1919 the conflict intensified.
Cork City and County were one of the epicentres of the conflict. The RIC and British Troops were bolstered by new armed forces, the Black and Tans (so called for the colour of their uniforms) and the Auxiliaries. The IRA waged a violent guerrilla campaign that focussed on ambushing of the various British forces and attacking RIC barracks, causing many isolated barracks to be abandoned. For many of these IRA attacks there was a reprisal by the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries, who were not bound by strict army discipline. Attacks and reprisals became so chronic in late 1920 that Martial Law was declared, designed to subdue and control the civilian population with strict curfews and military checks.
This was the state Cork City found itself in when Finbarr Barry’s grandfather John and great uncle Tommy lived on one of lanes bounding Nano Nagle Place, Nicholas Street. Here Finbarr takes up the story:
“Tommy was in the “Old” IRA and back then a curfew was put in place and no one was to be on the streets after a certain time at night. But one night Tommy and my grandfather John were out on the South Mall in Cork when the Black and Tans spotted them and gave chase. Tommy and John ran up the South Mall, turned into Parliament Street went over Parliament Bridge, along Georges Quay, and turned up Dunbar Street, all the time being pursued by the Black and Tans. The lads ran and ran, turned down Douglas Street, up Nicholas Street and ran in home at 33 Nicholas Street.
Tommy had a revolver and some ammunition with him, in order to hide it from the Black and Tans he put the gun and the bullets up the chimney in the front room and they ran out into the back garden, climbed up over the high wall at the end of the garden and dropped down into the gardens of the Presentation Sisters which was at the back of the house. Here they hid behind the sisters’ grave stones from the Black and Tans. ‘The Tans’ kicked in the front door of the house looking for the lads but never got them.
Later that night their mother Agnes lit the fire in the front room not knowing about the gun and bullets and there were a number of small explosions but thankfully no one was injured except the two boys … when their mother got her hands on them!”
John and Tommy were very lucky indeed to get away, perhaps Nano had something to do with it!
Thanks to Finbarr Barry for sharing a great story that brings history alive.
Read here about the first sitting of the Dáil and the Soloheadbeg Ambush
John Borgonovo here describes how Cork earned an international reputation for armed resistance against the British Empire
So many reasons to become a Member of Nano Nagle Place