"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Nano Nagle, the Life and the Legacy, Raftery, Delaney and Nowlan-Roebuck

Nano Nagle, the Life and the Legacy, by Deirdre Raftery, Catriona Delaney and Catherine Nowlan-Roebuck, Irish Academic Press, 294 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-1788550574

The authors of Nano Nagle, the Life and the Legacy tell us that “Nagle brought the Ursuline order to Ireland; she also founded the Presentation order, which expanded very rapidly, in Ireland and around the globe, in the nineteenth century.” Nagle died in April 1784. Her legacy in this sense was the national and international success of the Presentation order of nuns following her death. The authors explain that it would be impossible to treat this vast legacy in one volume and that the main focus of the book is on Nagle’s legacy in Ireland.

It is possible to argue that in addition to Nagle’s educational legacy, her own achievements in Ireland had a political importance worthy of acknowledgement. Nagle, it could be said, was one of the earliest, if not the earliest figure, to indicate, through public action, the form which the ambitions of Catholic Ireland would take over the greater part of the following two centuries. These ambitions would involve an opportunist and incremental assertion of autonomy and the taking of power wherever possible within the Protestant polity. These political actions were based on a deliberately constructed and inclusive national Catholic identity which embraced all social classes and whose final logic was political independence. 

The first account of Nagle’s life was given ten years after her death by Dr William Coppinger, bishop of Cloyne, in a sermon delivered to raise money for charity. It was later published. For the most part, it seems, Coppinger’s work was hagiographical in style but it did also embrace the trope of transformation from dissipation and worldly pleasures to a life of austerity and spiritual values. The authors are not convinced there is any truth in this claim and point out that one of her contemporaries denied the charge of dissipation. Their suspicions are almost certainly well-founded. Such transformations were common in the accounts of male saints’ lives from the middle ages and it is likely that the bishop was clumsily and inappropriately transposing the motif to Nagle’s life.

Some negative tones occur amidst Coppinger’s general praise. When he complains of her “misguided zeal, her shameful indiscretion [and] her inconsiderate piety”, it is likely that he is reflecting his own irritation with an independent woman who got things done in his dioceses. Bishops often had difficulty with orders of nuns, who operated at a tangent to episcopal authority. They also frequently had similar difficulties with male orders. When Coppinger notes that on the streets of Cork Nagle was insulted and charged with “deceiving the world with her throng of beggars brats” and accused of running a “seminary of prostitution” it is likely that this is accurate.

Nagle was born into a wealthy and close-knit landed Catholic family of Norman origin whose estate was in Ballygriffin, Co Cork. The Nagles were regarded as one of the most important Catholic families to have survived the seventeenth century confiscations. Like many privileged Catholics during the penal era, Nano was educated in France, where many prosperous Munster Catholic families, including the Nagles, had substantial business interests. The family was shrewd and industrious and used numerous ingenious legal stratagems to retain their wealth during the high era of Catholic persecution. The women of the family were independently wealthy and enjoyed considerable autonomy over their lives. In 1768 Nano, for example, was in a position to lend her brother Joseph £2,150 to buy the Calverleigh estate in Devon.

The extended Nagle family’s alliances and associates were with those whose origins were Catholic Norman or “old English”, a segment of Catholic Ireland which fared better than landowners of Gaelic origin in the Williamite period. The family, who were English-speaking, do not appear to have intermarried with the remaining elements of the Gaelic elite. Edmund Burke, who was from the same social background, was a distant cousin. Nano attended dinner with Burke at her sister Elizabeth Ffrench’s house in Galway in 1766.

There were cultural similarities between this class and the Catholic recusant gentry in England. Interestingly, when sectarian tensions broke out in Cork in the mid-1760s James, Nano’s brother relocated to Bath and purchased an estate nearby, where presumably life for the recusant gentry was without the sectarian difficulties of Cork.

A political and military alliance between “Old English” Catholics of Norman origin and Gaelic Ireland was formalised in the Confederation of Kilkenny in the previous century in 1642. This alliance was not the first instinct of the “Old English” and they embraced it only when they came to feel that the Irish parliament did not regard them or trust them. Seven years later Cromwell’s new army defeated those who formed that alliance. For most of this class, the political ambition of freedom from religious persecution and independence under the old crown continued through the eighteenth century. Nagle’s father, Garrett, and her uncle, Joseph, were named in 1731 as being involved in a Jacobite conspiracy. It was a politics which, unless abandoned, inevitably pushed the “Old English” into ever closer alliance with the Catholic majority of Gaelic origin. In the mid-eighteenth century the late Norman element in Catholic Ireland were in a stronger position than their Gaelic co-religionists to offer leadership. Nagle’s life work can be read as an acting out of that process, as she worked to embrace and educate the Catholic poor based on their shared religious loyalty.

Around 1755 she started her first Catholic school in Cove lane in Cork, catering for thirty poor girls from the city. This was a brave, perhaps even a foolhardy, step. The English crown had not abandoned the ideal of eliminating the Catholic religion in Ireland and local Protestant power was very sensitive to the dangers of any Catholic restoration. Nagle’s family, while fiercely Catholic, had been secretive in the extreme, cautious and shrewd in protecting their economic status and wealth. For a daughter of such a family to set up a school, which among other things taught Catholic religious principles to its students, flew in the face of such caution and potentially put the family and its wealth at risk. Nano herself was worried that it would rebound on the family, particularly on her uncle, Joseph, an able lawyer and a Jacobite, widely believed to be the agent of James Francis Edward Stuart, the exiled son of James II, in Flanders. In 1733 a parliamentary committee was set up to investigate whether Joseph was sending funds to James from Ireland. Nano described her uncle as the Catholic most hated by the Protestants of Ireland and England alike.

Whatever apprehensions she may have had regarding the dangers of her enterprise were overcome. Within nine months she had two hundred pupils and personally took charge of their religious education. When her brother discovered what she had done he was furious but, apparently, he came around fairly quickly and actually helped the school. This is interesting and suggests perhaps that he initially regarded the enterprise as a threat but that he reconsidered when the school was not suppressed and recognised the project’s wider social and political utility. By 1757 Nagle had two schools for boys and five for girls. She was interested in pushing things further and in opening a convent in Cork. She left the schools under the management of trusted lieutenants and returned to France some years later to advance this scheme.

In 1767 she returned to Ireland with approval from the Ursuline order to open a convent in Cork. Setting up a Catholic convent in the city at this time was a direct affront to the state and to anti-Catholic sentiment in Cork city. It was nevertheless a city in which Catholic merchants were becoming numerous and prosperous through the export of butter, salt beef and pork. Nano designated her cousin Margaret Butler, an Ursuline nun, as first mother superior. It seems the clandestine rigours and general secrecy of the undertaking were too much for Margaret. Within a year she returned to her convent in Paris saying she could not “adapt to the rigours of a foundation”. This was a temporary setback and shortly afterwards the convent recommenced its life.

The buildings were designed not to be overly provocative. Nagle was careful to protect the institution, in which she had invested a good part of her fortune. She later calculated that she had spent £4,000 to £5,000 on establishing the Ursulines in Cork. The convent was built behind a high wall and without an ostentatious entrance. She reminded her colleague Eleanor Fitzsimons in a letter that they were in a country in which they could not do as they pleased.

The convent established a boarding school for young ladies in 1771, which led to some criticism. An article in the Freeman’s Journal complained that nuns brought from the continent would be offering tuition to young Protestants and alleging that they would “lose no pains to seduce and make converts of the young and weak minds committed to their care”. The fact that, despite such criticism, the school was allowed to continue confirms that the penal statutes were slowly relaxed in practice during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Nagle went on to found a new congregation which became the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Ursulines, she had discovered, were an enclosed order and also obliged to prioritise the education of the higher orders of society. Indeed, the Ursuline convent in Cork was proving very attractive to wealthy Catholics who had previously sent their children to the continent, especially to the Benedictines in Ypres, for their education. This, incidentally, caused problems for the Ypres convent school. As student numbers from Ireland fell off, they found themselves canvassing for pupils. It might, incidentally, be wondered if a project to educate elite Catholic boys would have been permitted at that time.

The bishop of Cork, perhaps fearing a backlash, tried to discourage Nagle, to which she responded that she would take her proposed foundation and money “to some other part of Ireland where she should meet with no opposition and more encouragement”. Bishop Moylan reconsidered his opposition. Nagle thus became the first woman to found a congregation of nuns in Ireland since St Brigid.

Nagle’s ambitions extended much further than the education of wealthy Catholic girls such as herself. She wished to educate the Catholic poor and she needed her nuns to be able to leave the convent to seek out those most in need. As the authors tell us, “ … with remarkable speed and decisiveness she set about founding an Irish congregation that would not be bound by solemn vows and that would have a specific mission to the education of the poor.”

This emphasis on the Catholic poor had a political dimension, in that it was contributing to the integration of the several parts of Catholic Ireland into a whole which had the potential of politically focusing the Catholic majority. In this sense it is not too fanciful to see Nagle’s work as prefiguring that of O’Connell and The Catholic Association.

The authors say that the Ursuline convent in Cork “made it possible for other Catholic boarding schools to open their doors”. The Loreto Sisters began in 1822, the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1842, the faithful Companions of Jesus in 1844 and the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny in 1860. These were among the great educational institutions of O’Connellite and post-O’Connellite Ireland, all following on from the bravery of a dogged, wealthy, astute and pious woman of “Old English” stock.

Maurice Earls
18/4/2019

Categories