Honora "Nano" Nagle (1718 – 26 April 1784) founded the "Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary" (PBVM) in Ireland (also known as the "Presentation Sisters"). Of the many schools founded by the Presentation Sisters - a number are named after Nano Nagle.
Family background and historical context
At the time of Nagle's birth, English supremacy in Ireland had been consolidated by force, and English determination to hold what had been gained lay behind the long series of laws which sought to destroy Irish Catholic identity, whether that identity found expression in land ownership, civic position, culture or religion. The great houses, traditional source of civic and social leadership, were for the most part destroyed. Exile of bishops, priests, religious, left the Church equally without leadership. Without legal right to exist, forbidden to worship, forbidden to teach, it was a Church seemingly without hope of future. In an economy controlled for the benefit of the powerful, the poor sank into sub-human conditions, beyond the touch of hope.
In Ireland's County Cork, on the road which runs between Fermoy and Mallow lies Blackwater Valley with views of the distant Nagle Mountains. Much of this region was once the property of the Nagle family. In the protracted struggle for the possession of Ireland, the Nagles' loyalty to the Catholic king and the Catholic faith cost them extensive lands. However, when Garret Nagle married Ann Matthew, the family still owned extensive property at Ballygriffin, Killavullen County Cork, as Garret's brother Joseph had converted to the English-imposed Protestantism so that he could hold property on behalf of the Roman Catholic members of his family as was required under the Penal Laws then in force.
Here in Ballygriffen in 1718, Garret and Ann's first child, a daughter, was born. The name "Honora" given at baptism was soon replaced in the family circle by the affectionate diminutive "Nano", the name which clung to her all through life.
She was the eldest of seven children - her brothers and sisters were Ann, Mary, Catherine, Elizabeth, David, and Joseph. She learned in those early years the truth taken for granted by the Nagles: that God comes first, and that for His sake possessions, freedom, life itself must be risked if need be. She learned in childhood that knowledge and learning are precious gifts, to be valued and shared.
As with many members of the Irish landed families, who had remained constant to the Roman Catholic faith, Nano Nagle was sent to France to be educated. Education was being denied to them in Ireland unless they agreed to convert to the Church of Ireland. Nano's life in Paris, where the Nagles had many important social connections, was without a great deal of heed to the plight of the less well off of her country people.
On her return from France she lived in Dublin for a while with her mother, but the deaths, in quick succession, of her father, mother and her sister Anne, caused her to return to her home at Ballygriffin (17??). Here she came to see with painful clarity, how thoroughly the penal laws had done their work, particularly in the material and spiritual degradation of the poor. Exposure to these political realities was significant in her decision to enter an Ursulines Convent in France. There she was gradually persuaded that her life would more usefully be employed among her own people and in her own country where under the Penal Laws access to education was still banned for Catholics.
The beginnings of Nano's Irish activity
Nano therefore returned to Ireland to live with her brother Joseph and his wife in Cork. There, in defiance of the laws which put a price on the head of a Catholic teacher, she began to devote her energies to the education of the poor girls. The proceedings had to be kept secret as what she was doing was outside the law. She proceeded slowly with a few children in a mud-cabin. It was not long before Nano had over 200 children and she decided that it was time for a new school. She opened one on Philpott Lane on the North side of Cork City and soon she had seven schools: two for boys and five for girls. At first alone, later with the support of her family, particularly her uncle Joseph Nagle, she established a whole network of schools in Cork. When the school day was over, she was to be seen walking the lanes of Cork to visit the sick and needy. She stole from hovel to hovel each day to gather the most needy people to teach, and night-time ministries to poverty-ridden elderly and sick in her hometown gave Nano the nickname The Lady with the Lantern. It was said of her that there was not a poor cottage in Cork that she did not know.
As her workload increased she realised that she would need help with her work. She came up with the idea to set up an Ursuline convent in Cork city which she would initially sponsor. Thus in 1771 the first Ursuline convent was established in Ireland; the first community was made up of four Cork women - who were professed at the Ursuline Convent in the Rue St Jacques in Paris. - together with a reverend mother.Nano had to go to a hedge school for her primary education.
The Presentation Sisters
The four vows of the Ursuline Sisters are poverty, chastity, obedience and education of all classes. Nano Nagle wished to concentrate on educating the poorest in society but this was incompatible with the Ursuline vow and so she determined to set up her own order: the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM).
In 1775 she entered with some companions on a novitiate for the religious life. The first house was on Cove Lane (now Douglas Street). That original Ursuline convent on now Douglas Street still survives and is a house of the Presentation Sisters to this day - known as South Presentation Convent. With them she received the habit on 29 June 1776, taking the name of Mother Mary of St. John of God. They made their first annual vows 24 June 1777. She founded the first Presentation convent in Ireland at Cork which was opened on Christmas Day, 1777. Her first order was called the "Sisters of the Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus", but it was later changed to "Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary", or the "Presentation Sisters".
Today lay people and sisters work to realize Nano s vision. Following the path of Irish emigration across the world, Nagle's work became known in England, Newfoundland, Canada, the United States of America, Australia, New Zealand, as well as India, Pakistan, The Philippines, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Papua-New Guinea, Mexico, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, and Ecuador. In all these places, the name of Nano Nagle is associated with vigorous enterprises, all tending towards the nurture of human and Christian growth.
Her impact has been out of all proportion to its external events. Recognizing in the degraded condition of her people not only the effects of political oppression and economic change, but a call from God and knew herself called to make some move against injustice. She felt compelled to help those deprived of hope and meaning, the opportunity to take hold of their unpromising present and to create a future for themselves and others.
Trinity Catholic College Lismore
Nano Nagle along with Marcellin Champagnat are currently the faces of Trinity Catholic College in Lismore. They play a major part in what the kids do, in fact, they are the inspirations for two of the colour houses - 'Nagle' and 'Champagnat'.
- Hutch, William, Nano Nagle (Dublin, 1875)
- Murphy, Rev. Dominick, Memoirs of Miss Nano Nagle (Cork, 1845)
- Walsh, T.J., Nano Nagle and the Presentation Sisters (1959)