Colette Sheridan: An Irishwoman’s Diary about Nano Nagle’s legacy

In the newly opened Nano Nagle Place, immigrants are given free English lessons and the Lantern Community Project provides a welcome for people

 

When a bolt of silk that Nano Nagle bought in Paris went missing, her sister, Ann, admitted that she had sold it so that she could buy medicine for a poor family. That resonated with Nano who, forsaking her hectic social life in the city of light, was to establish seven schools in Cork city in the 18th century, in defiance of the Penal Laws which forbade Catholic education.

Nano, from a wealthy Co Cork family and educated in France, was, at one point in her demanding role as educator of the poor, worried about the future of her work. But this pioneering woman, declared venerable by Pope Francis in 2013, need not have fretted.

Her legacy shines brightly in the newly opened Nano Nagle Place on Douglas Street in Cork’s inner city where immigrants are given free English lessons and where the Lantern Community Project (Nano was known as the Lady with the Lantern) provides a welcome for people, regardless of their backgrounds, where they can voice their hopes and express their creativity to work towards a better world.

Generations of Corkonians know Nano Nagle Place as “South Pres”, the location of girls’ schools, now closed down due to changes in demographics. The pupils were taught by the Presentation Sisters, founded by Nano in 1775.

What many may not realise is that Nano Nagle Place occupies over 3.75 acres, taking in a triangle made up of Douglas Street, Nicholas Street and Evergreen Street. The €10.5 million Nano Nagle Place includes a heritage centre, a shop (selling Nano Nagle-branded note books among other items), a convent, five loft apartments, offices including one that houses the order’s archive, a cemetery where Nano is buried, close to an attractive calming water feature, “contemplative gardens” including a wild garden full of sun flowers and poppies, and a chapel. A cafe will open in a couple of months and there’s a building site that will become UCC and Cork Institute of Technology’s joint school of architecture, catering for 150 students.

Income

The investment comes from the 1,400-member strong Presentation Order, located in 24 countries and operating as a self-financing registered charity. Nano Nagle Place will need €500,000 a year to operate, says CEO Shane Clarke, a Dubliner with a background in urban design. The income will come from the school of architecture rental fees as well as the heritage centre and shop. Some of the apartments will be available for short-term rentals.

Nano’s secret teaching work started out in a mud cabin on Cove Street. Her venture, which also involved looking after the elderly and destitute of the over-populated Cork city, was bankrolled by her wealthy solicitor uncle, Joseph Nagle. (He converted to Protestantism so that he could hold property on behalf of Catholic members of his family.) But by 1778, Nano, despite being canny with money, was in debt, having spent most of her fortune on maintaining her schools. She had to beg for support from the rich merchants of Cork. Some were happy to donate. Others looked down on Nano and her illegal work.

There are many women forever in Nano’s debt. On one of the walls of the heritage centre is a quotation from feminist, Germaine Greer: “I think one of the reasons why I was never properly domesticated is because I was actually socialised by a gang of mad women in flapping black habits. I am more like them than I am like my mother. I owe them more in a way because they loved me more and they worked harder on me than my mother. They really loved us. I realise that now, although I didn’t realise it at the time...” (Greer is a past pupil of the Sea Presentation College, Victoria, Australia. The quotation is from a 2003 Virago-published book, Convent Girls.)

Brave decision

Today, there are just three nuns in residence at Nano Nagle Place. They include Sr Emma Rooney, originally from the Presentation Sisters’ Newfoundland Province. In her senior years, she made the brave decision to uproot and live in Cork as the order wanted an international presence at Nano Nagle Place. “My ancestors are Irish. I’m really enjoying it here,” says Sr Emma.

Energetic and full of admiration for Nano Nagle’s work as a woman operating in less enlightened times, she plans to give lessons in “eco-spirituality”. It’s a far cry from the days when the only ecological experience impoverished scholars had was being educated in hedge schools.