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.
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.
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