The Catholics of the Blackwater Valley and Nano’s Early Life

The landscape of North Cork has not changed much since the eighteenth century. It is still a pastoral region of rich land and large farms. Beech trees pose on the horizon with the nonchalance of cavalier aristocrats. High estate walls of cut limestone line the long, straight, quiet roads connecting the spacious market towns of Mitchelstown and Fermoy in the east to the racecourse and former spa town of Mallow in the west. The river Blackwater is an impassive central presence. The Ballyhoura and Galtee mountain ranges swing a wide arc to the north and the Nagle mountains border the south of the wide river valley.

This region is still known as Nagle country in memory of the noble Nagle family whose branches extended through the centuries over a number of demesnes in this fertile river valley. Honora Nagle (who was known affectionately as Nano by her family) was born in this region in 1718, into the comfortable Nagle holding at Ballygriffin. She was the eldest child of one of the many Nagle men who were called ‘Garret’. Her mother was Ann Matthews, from a proud Catholic gentry family in Tipperary, who, like the Nagles, were of Anglo-Norman descent.

Carricagunna Castle in Nagle Country

When the poet Edmund Spenser (1552/3-1599) came into the Blackwater Valley as part of the Elizabethan colonial plantation of Munster in the 1580s he was disgusted by the Anglo Norman families such as the Nagles and the Mathews. In his vituperative tract, A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) Spenser famously describes these ‘Old English’ families such as the Nagles, as having forgotten their civilised Anglo roots buried in Ireland since the twelfth century and now these families, had become ‘almost mere Irish’; that is nearly purely Irish and close to barbarous: “They are degenerated and grown almost mere Irish, yes, and more malicious to the English, than the very Irish themselves.”

Some scholars insist, with quite subtle reasoning, that the dialogue enacted in Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland should not be taken as proof that Spenser was actually in favour of the ‘scorched earth’ policy which the text seems so firmly to recommend. However, Spenser’s View rehearses strategies to ensure a complete subjugation of Ireland and points to the successful defeat of the Desmond Rebellions which was secured with the destruction crops and livestock, resulting in widespread famine:

Out of every corner of the wood and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out of their graves; they did eat of the carrions, happy where they could find them, yes, and one another soon after, in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast… in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast: yet sure in all that war, there perished not many by the sword, but all by the extremity of famine …

Within two years of having penned his View, Spenser was forced to flee his North Cork estate at Kilcolman near Doneraile, (along with his holding at Rennie on the banks of the Blackwater) due to the threat of the mere Irish and almost mere Irish forces which were led by Aodh Mór Ó Néil/Hugh O’Neill and Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill/Red Hugh O’Donnell. Following the defeat of O’Neill and O’Donnell at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, the Blackwater Valley subsided into decades of peace. The passionate colonial vision that Edmund Spenser imagined in his tower on the rock at Rennie receded from any potential realisation and the power of the extended Nagle family continued to be quietly asserted as they ran their estates from a plethora of Nagle houses and castles. Spenser’s eldest son, Sylvanus, (known to the Nagles as Sylvy) joined the ranks of the ‘almost merely Irish’: he married Ellen/Elinor Nagle a daughter of David Nagle of Monanimy and converted to Catholicism.

There was hardly a corner of seventeenth century Europe that was untouched by wars motivated by, or at least strongly inflected with sectarian religious animus. By the 1640s Ireland was in turmoil again with the advent of the army led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). Edmund Spenser’s grandson, (Sylvanus’ son, William,) made a direct plea to Cromwell when his estates were confiscated by the New Model Army, claiming that he had renounced being a Catholic and reminding Cromwell that he was the grandson of that Spenser: “who by his writings, touching the reduction of the Irish to civility brought on him the odium of that nation.” Cromwell had evidently been impressed by Spenser’s View and restored grandson William to Kilcolman. The Cromwellian confiscations encroached on the power of the Nagles and the region saw new English Protestant settlers become established (such as the ancestors of the writer Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) who established Bowen’s Court at Farahy, near Kildorrery). Yet the Nagles were able to benefit relatively quickly in the power shifts which brought about the re-establishment of the monarchy and the Stuart King Charles II (1630-1685) to the throne.

James II of England (1633-1701). This is the man whom Richard Nagle followed to St Germain en Laye near Paris where he became Secretary of State and War
James II of England (1633-1701). This is the man whom Richard Nagle followed to St Germain en Laye near Paris

One of the most prominent of the Irish nobility who had supported the cause of the House of Stuart was Sir Richard Nagle (1636-1699), who was head of the Blackwater Nagles in the 1680s. Richard Nagle had been a prominent Jacobite since the 1660s, and a national leader of the Catholic aristocracy and gentry in Ireland. In 1686 he wrote a famously defiant open letter to the Viceroy of Ireland, Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell (1630-1691), decrying the deal that Charles II had made with the Westminster Parliament for the restoration of his throne whereby lands owned by Catholics in Ireland were to be passed into Protestant ownership. A little over a decade later, Richard Nagle was elected Speaker of the House in the Irish Parliament, which recognised the Stuart King James’ ‘divine right’ to the Irish crown and rejected William of Orange’s claim which had been sanctioned by a Westminster parliament. In 1689 Richard Nagle was knighted by King James and appointed Attorney General to Ireland and he is believed to have written the famous act which sought to return to the original (Catholic) owners the lands confiscated and settled in the seventeenth century plantations. King James stayed as a guest of Richard at Carrigacunna Castle in Nagle Country while on his way to Dublin. On James’ defeat to William at the fateful Battle of the Boyne in 1690, Richard Nagle followed the defeated King James to France and became the Secretary of State and War at the court in St Germain and he founded the branch of Nagles of Cambrai.

As the Nagle families had fought for King James in ‘Cogadh an Dá Rí’/The War of the Two Kings’, they retained their property under the treaties of Limerick and Galway whereby defeated Jacobites (supporter of James) were given terms of surrender. During Nano’s girlhood years, four branches of Nagles (including her own branch at Ballygriffin) were settled in the Blackwater Valley and the leadership of the region’s Catholic interest remained in their hands for the first half of the eighteenth century. The Nagles held a geographical territory that was one of the last bastions of elite Jacobite culture outside the western province of Connaught. The prosperity, indeed the survival of minor Catholic families in the area, depended on the security of the Nagles, who leased them land on generous terms. The security of this Catholic enclave was strengthened by marriages to the nearby South Tipperary Catholic gentry (such as the Matthews). There was no other region in the south, north or east of the island that had a comparable network of Catholic and nominally apostate, crypto-Catholic landowners. The affluent Catholic landowners of the western county of Galway are the only other group anywhere in Ireland to succeed in protecting the old Irish-speaking Catholic landed class under the restrictions of the Penal Laws and the encroachment of increasingly thriving middle class interests. In the 1750s the Nagles married into this affluent Galway society and into the Catholic gentry of the Dublin region, achieving a position of influence and connection unequalled by any other Catholic family in Ireland.

Paradoxically, the Nagles were surrounded by the largest Protestant gentry presence in the country. The extended Nagle stronghold in the Blackwater has been described by the scholar, Breandán Ó Buachalla, as “an island of Catholic hegemony in a sea of Protestant ascendancy.” The heart of the Blackwater Valley is about six miles from Mallow, which in the eighteenth century was a large centre of English settlement, with sporting attractions and spa waters which drew many visitors. Within five miles of Mallow there were some fifty seats, including the large estates of the ultra-Protestant Whigs who included the St Ledgers, Brodricks and the Kings. Perhaps inevitably, the Nagles attracted the wrath of the ruling Protestants of the area but it was fortunate that the clan could count on the wily powers of Joseph Nagle, who had been a lawyer before the 1704 Penal Law proscription on Catholics entering the profession.

Nano's cousin Edmund Burke (1729-1797), studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, circa 1769 or after
Nano’s cousin Edmund Burke (1729-1797), a painting by the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, circa 1769 or after

The political assaults by the Cork Ultra Whigs on the Blackwater Nagles which continued throughout the eighteenth century and the detail and scale of the effect of the numerous Penal Laws against Catholics must remain to be discussed. Nano’s kinsman, Edmund Burke (who as a young boy lived with his uncle Patrick Nagle at Ballyduff for six years) described the context of the Penal Laws which circumscribed every political, social and cultural facet of Nano’s life as:

A machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.

Yet we can end this description of Nano’s family background by noting that her father’s brother, Joseph Nagle (c.1676-1757), who was Nano’s chief benefactor, managed to defend and maintain not only the local power of the Nagle family, but also made successful interventions on behalf of the landed Catholic interest on a national scale. In one of the few letters that we have written in Nano’s hand she describes her uncle Joseph (perhaps with some modicum of pride but certainly with unquestionable accuracy) as: “the most disliked by the Protestants of any Catholic in the Kingdom”.

Nano’s childhood in Ballygriffin is perhaps not easy to imagine in that she was a daughter of a landowning family that had held tenure for centuries yet was surrounded by a powerful hostility that threatened this long-established position among the elite. The most powerful members of Nano’s family lived in the Stuart Court in exile on the Continent yet this association with an ancient Royal lineage that held the most claim to be rightfully considered Kings of Scotland, England and Ireland, had of course earned those Nagles who had remained in Cork pride of place among the anxieties of the Protestant Whig population of South Munster. Other fears of these South Munster Ultra Whigs were inspired by their proximity to the long Cork and Kerry coastline, with its many deep harbours. This was the nearest Irish landfall to the European continent from where a force might land; a force potentially led by recently exiled officers from the Irish regiment in the French army, comprised of men from Catholic gentry families such as were dependent on the Nagles, as well as rank and file Catholics from the Munster region.

This coastline facilitated a lucrative business of smuggling contraband goods and passengers as well as enabling the legitimate business of Munster Catholic merchants to flourish in trading overseas and members of the Nagles began to participate in maritime trade. If the increasing wealth of the Cork Catholic merchants did not greatly disturb the Munster Ultra Whigs, they were certainly worried by how powerful political families such as the Nagles, continued to develop business networks and financial power bases in continental Europe. Other dangers, as perceived by South Munster Protestant interest, included the close relationship between the Stuart court and the Cork Catholic clergy and hierarchy, and the potential that this clergy, (largely educated on the continent), posed for leading the Catholic populace in revolt. Prominent among these manifold threats to the peace of mind and tenure of the Cork Whigs was the all-pervasive engagement of the Cork Jacobites in the production of poetry; for this Irish language poetry was profoundly political in content and performance and it effected to keep a sense of resistant cultural identity, to catalogue grievances and to nurse hopes for a restoration of the Gaelic cultural and political order.

Nano's father Garret Nagle, note the ship seen through the window behind the sitter - perhaps a reference to his frequent journeys to the contient
Nano’s father Garret Nagle (d.1746), note the ship seen through the window behind the sitter – perhaps a reference to his frequent journeys to the continent, for political business or trade

While the fertile and tranquil landscape of Nagle Country might in some ways have been an idyllic place in which to be a girl, the air was thick with menace and intrigue. However much as Nano’s parents may have wished to protect her from an awareness of the threat to her relatively privileged life it was impossible to disguise the imminent danger as even the schooling that Nano received was deemed illegal. The Penal Law code which had been enacted in 1695 declared that: “No person of the popish religion shall publicly or in private houses teach school, or instruct youth in learning within this realm” upon pain of twenty pounds fine and three months in prison for every such offence. As her cousin Burke was to describe it, the Penal Laws’ “declared object was to reduce the Catholics in Ireland to a miserable populace, without property, without estimation, without education.”

Yet the oral history of Nano Nagle records that she was educated at a local hedge school (that is an unlicensed academy). The evocative Irish names for these schools include scoil chois claí, (school by a ditch) scoil ghairid, (school by a hedge) scoil scairte (a school within shouting distance). We do not have any record of who taught Nano, yet it is not fanciful to consider that she was taught by a Master O’Halloran who ran a hedge school nearby in the ruins of the Nagle tower at Monanimy which had been one of the original strongholds of the Nagle clan in the Blackwater valley and the site of the wedding between Sylvanus Spenser and Ellen Nagle.

Nano’s cousin, Edmund Burke, eleven years younger than her, attended O’Halloran’s school when he lived with the Nagles at Ballyduff. A classmate of Burke’s was a certain Richard Hennessy whose family leased lands from the Nagles. Richard, like many other sons of the Catholic ‘informal gentry’, would become an officer in the Irish regiment of the French army before retiring to Cognac and opening the distillery that still bears his name. Historians have coined the phrase informal gentry to describe this materially impoverished class who yet considered themselves well-born and proud descendants from a cultural, social and political elite. Nano and her sister Ann were more secure in their wealth and more advantaged in their connections than Richard Hennessy, yet their journey to pursue their education and live a sophisticated and free social life in Paris would also have involved subterfuge. Like Richard’s move to France, Nano and Ann travelled by being trafficked by smugglers on a cargo ship from one of the Cork or Kerry harbours: and that chapter is the focus of another post.

Huge thanks to Dr Katherine O’Donnell, Assoc. Prof. in the History of Ideas, at UCD School of Philosophy, University College Dublin for this fascinating insight into Nano’s early life and the world of the Nagles in the Blackwater Valley. Katherine has published widely in the intellectual history of Ireland; the history of gender and sexuality; and the aesthetics and political theory of Nano’s cousin, Edmund Burke (1729-1797).

Skip to content