In these strange times of lockdowns and social distancing, we are finding more ingenious ways of keeping in touch with one another. While Zoom, FaceTime and Houseparty are leading the way technologically, some people have reverted back to traditional letter writing and sending correspondence to loved ones through An Post. With all this extra time on our hands, there’s nothing stopping you from sitting down and penning a letter to a family member or a friend whom you are missing (unless of course you can’t find a pesky stamp). Indeed it is incredibly special to receive a letter; the snap of the letterbox, the opening of an envelope (after leaving it sit for a certain amount of time making sure all the germs have gone…safety first!), unfolding the pages and reading word written especially for you by someone you haven’t seen in quite some time. There’s nothing like it!
While the tradition of letter writing died out with the advent of fax, then email and now text, it was a necessary means of keeping in touch in the 18th Century. Nano Nagle must have written thousands of letters in her lifetime! Of course, with letters being so numerous in the 18th Century, why bother to keep every single one you’ve ever received? Letters were tossed out or used for the fire. No one would have realised the meaning and significance letters would have in years to come. Especially letters written by Nano Nagle herself.
Importance of Nano’s letters
Not many of our readers may know this but there are seventeen of Nano’s letters surviving (that we know of). In 2018, to coincide with the tercentenary of Nano Nagle’s birth, the Nano Nagle Digital Project and Tercentenary Exhibition was launched by Dr Deirdre Raftery of University College Dublin. This project worked on digitising Nano’s letters and making them freely accessible online. This project represented a digital reunification of the surviving seventeen letters, collating material from The Presentation Sisters Congregational Archives Cork, Presentation Convent archive in George’s Hill, Dublin and finally the Presentation Archives, San Francisco, USA.
Out of the seventeen letters in the collection which span from 1769 -1783, there are eight letters written by Nano Nagle to Eleanor Fitzsimons between the years 1769 -1770. At this time, Eleanor was completing her novitiate with the Ursulines in Paris in order return to Cork and open the first Ursuline Convent in Ireland. The intention was for the Sisters to assist Nano in her work for the education of poor Catholic children during Penal Times. The remaining nine letter were written by Nano to Teresa Mulally, who had a similar mission to Nano, establishing a Catholic school for girls in Dublin. She was anxious to pass her school into the hands of the Presentation Sisters, her efforts continued even after Nano’s death on 1784. In 1787, she purchased a glassworks in George’s Hill, Dublin which later became a convent for Presentation Sisters.
The digitisation of these letters is highly important to anyone interested in Nano Nagle’s story and her schools, but at a basic level, they give a unique perspective of Irish women’s history in the 18th Century. Nano’s letters to Eleanor Fitzsimons and Teresa Mulally show how these women were trailblazers of their time, pioneering for female education at a time in Ireland where Catholic education was illegal, let alone the education Catholic girls. These were the first female educational institutions in Ireland at the time not only that, they were also run by women! They embodied the roles of administrators, financiers and advisors, giving them a level of responsibility outside of traditional gender roles in the 18th Century.
The letters also give us amazing historical insight into Nano’s activities during these years. Her letters detail the daily routine of her schools, her fear of the Penal Laws, and the implications for her family if she was discovered, even the toll of her work on her mental health. We are also afforded detailed historical evidence about how the Ursuline Sisters were established in Cork. These letters are also of great importance to historians or academics interested in 18th Century Ireland as the letters are primary resources of the Penal Times, giving us a greater understanding of Cork as a merchant city as well as the lives of the city’s poor Catholics. Finally some historians may be interested in the spelling and grammar of the 18th Century, which has evolved quite a bit since Nano’s letters, especially spelling which is notoriously changeable. The letters are hugely significant for this kind of research, the project of digitising them and making them publicly accessible is of huge benefit to historians. Of course scans of these letters are what appears online, so where are the physical copies of the letters?
Well some of the collection of letters are in Nano Nagle Place! Seven letters from Nano Nagle to Eleanor Fitzsimons were stored in the archives of the Ursuline Convent in Blackrock. After the Ursuline Sisters moved from the South Presentation convent to the Blackrock convent in 1825, the letters must have travelled with them. On the 8th of June 2018, the Ursuline Sisters gifted the South Presentation nun’s these seven letters. These letters are now housed in the Presentation Congregational archive in Nano Nagle Place, with one of Nano’s letters to Eleanor on display in our Heritage Museum. For those who are unaware, the Presentation archive houses a significant collection which tells the story of the beginning of the Presentation Order in 1775 and its expansion to five continents in the intervening years.
Fitzsimons letter 17th July 1769
Nano’s earliest letter to Eleanor Fitzsimons was written in July 1769. At this stage in her life Nano was in her fifties and had established her seven schools across Cork city. In her letter she details to Eleanor how she began her first school, returning from a convent overseas to begin her mission of helping the poor Catholics of Cork. As she was living with her brother Joseph and her sister-in-law, she had to keep her ‘design a profound secret’ for fear of what would happen to her family if she had been caught. The Penal Laws became more lenient in 1778, however it is clear that Irish Catholics continued to live in fear. Her letter tells of story of how ‘a poor man came to [Joseph], begging of him to speak to me to take his child into my school’. This was a turning point for Nano’s school, she owned up to her secret. Although initially was enraged, he soon saw reason and supported Nano. As did her sister-in-law Francis, however she ‘made it a point, and said she would not permit any of my [Nano’s] family to contribute to [her schools] unless…’ she included boys. Nano goes on to give Eleanor a schedule of typical day in her schools, and what she teaches the pupils, she recalls in the beginning she felt ‘incapable…being obliged to speak for upwards of four hours and my chest not being as strong as it had been – I spat blood.’ As her schools grow in number and word begins to spread Nano is aware that her schools ‘are beginning to be of service to a great many parts of the world’…little did she know the impact her schools would have on the world in years to come.
This first letter is just a taste of the insights Nano’s letters give us! If you would like to access all seventeen letters, you can find them at UCD Digital Library for no cost, and to learn more about Nano Nagle and the Nano Nagle Digital Project and Tercentenary Exhibition have a look at the wonderful digital exhibition on the UCD website.
Something else Nano details in this letter is the outbreak of the measles in Cork which has swept through the city like a plague…an interesting parallel to the events of today. However while Nano’s letter to Eleanor was out of necessity, today is simply a nice way to keep in touch with loved ones. So with all this extra time on our hands why not pick up a pen and send a letter. You never know, historians might look back in 300 years and wonder what our lives looked like during lockdown!