Oonagh Shanley-Toffolo – Leitrim nun who became a confidante of Lady Diana

Oonagh Shanley-Toffolo: August 15th, 1929 - August 22nd, 2015

Oonagh Shanley-Toffolo: her father would see her only once again after she left home to go to the Convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Photograph: Glenn copus/Evening Standard

Oonagh Shanley-Toffolo: her father would see her only once again after she left home to go to the Convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Photograph: Glenn copus/Evening Standard

 

Oonagh Shanley-Toffolo’s life reads like a high-velocity 86-year-long fairytale.

She grew up on a Leitrim farm, worked as a missionary nun in the slums of Calcutta, then as a midwife in London; studied alternative medicine in China, met a French man in Paris – but he died – married an Italian on the 20th anniversary of her profession as a nun and nursed the Duke of Windsor in his final illness.

Later, when her husband was ill, Oonagh just happened to introduce Princess Diana to his doctor, whereupon the eminent Pakistani heart specialist Hasnat Khan and the errant royal embarked on a passionate fling.

Some time earlier Ooonagh met Japanese designer Issey Miyake, who sent her to Lord Snowdon, another peripheral royal, to be photographed. The British actor Geraldine James played the part of Oonagh in the 2013 biopic Diana, covering the last two years of the princess’s life.

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He did a bit of this and a bit of that, including some farming, though he disliked slaughtering his beasts; also some healing with ancient remedies and pishogues. And his “dreamy” daughter was the light of his life but he would see her only again once after she left the farm near Mohill for the convent in Kilmainham, Dublin.

Agnes Mary Shanley, always known as Oonagh, made her first vows on December 8th, 1948 and trained as a nurse. In 1952 she was sent to France for further religious study. Final vows followed on October 15, 1953 .

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At the age of 29 she went to India. Bombay first, then Calcutta. Being mendicants, the nuns had to beg for alms, in streets already teeming with beggars.

Her memoir describes a woman who had only a handful of rice insisting on giving the nuns half. Mother Teresa was working in Calcutta then. Shanley suggests that while her tending for the dying was inspiring, more might have been done for the living.

She was in India when her father died, Soon afterwards she was diagnosed with cancer and sent back to Europe.

Convent life in France did not suit her, and she left to study midwifery in London, qualifying in 1967. Around this time, she befriended an Italian architect, Joseph Toffolo.

But first an unnamed beau introduced Oonagh to the pleasures of the flesh. He died two years later, and Joseph Toffolo eventually reappeared and claimed his bride.

Apart from love she discovered acupuncture in Paris, and visited China to learn more. Thereafter her nursing of private patients drew on alternative as well as conventional medicine, and in this her father’s influence became more marked.

As a nurse her patients were well-connected, and included the duke of Windsor in his final illness, for which service the duchess gave her a Cartier brooch.

Healer