The History of Nano Nagle Our College

Our Founder – Nano Nagle

Compassion         Hospitality       Simplicity

Nano Nagle was born in 1718 of a longstanding Catholic family at Ballygriffin near Mallow in North Cork.

Her father was Garret Nagle, a wealthy landowner in the area; her mother, Ann Mathews, was from an equally prominent family in County Tipperary. The Penal Laws of the eighteenth century limited Catholic worship and strictly forbade the education of Catholic children in school, at home or abroad, so the Nagle children were taught secretly by tutors, who were employed as ‘servants’ for their protection, and by itinerant scholars in hedge schools.

With the help of relatives who were merchants in Cork with strong connections in France, in 1730, Nano and her sister, Anne, were able to travel to the Continent to further their education. It is thought that Nano Nagle was educated at the Benedictine monastery in Ypres, Belgium after which she entered Parisian society. This historical setting which was a backdrop to her life is of great importance in understanding her significance.

Nano’s carefree Parisian life came to an abrupt end in 1745 when her Father died. Returning to Ireland with her sister to live with their mother, Nano was ignorant of the poverty and degradation of her countrymen – the curtailing by the English of Irish trade had brought destitution in its wake and many unemployed had turned to crime to survive; the Penal laws continued to demoralise Catholics, barring them from holding any office or access to basic religious training and education other than that offered by the Protestants; and the Great Frost of 1737—1741 brought disease and starvation and to which an estimated 20 percent of the population ultimately perished.

Nano Nagle and her sister aided the poor as best they could. One day, Nano sought to locate a length of silk fabric she had brought from France, only to discover that Anne had sold it to help a poor family in distress. It was this example of her sister’s compassion and hospitality to the poor that readied Nano to answer the call to God. Nano turned away from her comfortable life and returned to France to enter a religious order.

In the French convent, Nano was haunted by her memories of the plight of the poor people in Ireland, and on the advice of her spiritual director she returned to Ireland to assist where she could. Nano rented a small cabin in Cork, gathered the ragged, poor children around her and, braving the risk of the Penal laws, she taught them the basics of their Catholic faith. Such did her work grow that she sought, from France, the support of a religious congregation to foster her program and give her work stability for the future, however with the risks too great in Ireland, no one was willing to help her.

In time, an Ursuline congregation agreed to help Nano by training Irish girls in religious life if they would travel to France. Nano used her money to prepare these women for their training and their return to Cork to establish a community of Ursuline Sisters, only to be set back by their commitment to the Ursuline rule of enclosure, disallowing the Sisters to venture outside the convent and continue Nano’s mission to educate the poor children of the city.

Nano’s courage and hope were unfailing. By 1769 she had established seven schools in the city of Cork – two for boys and five for girls. As well as religious education, the children were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and home management. She didn’t withdraw her support from the Ursulines, but she went about seeking other young women to work with her in the schools.

On Christmas Eve 1775, three of these women joined her in living a simplistic religious life. The Sisters of the Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, led by Nano, adopted a strict prayer life and wholeheartedly spent themselves in the service of the poor through their teaching in the schools Nano had illegally established, through their visiting of the sick, and their care of the aged and infirmed. Nano was constant in her visiting of the poor in their cabins and making her way through the narrow streets in the evenings guided only by the light of a lantern, and she became known in Cork as ‘The Lady of the Lamp’.

When Nano Nagle died on 26 April 1784, there were five Sisters in the congregation. The justice of education was at the forefront of her thoughts even on her deathbed – her schools were a passport to freedom in a world of ignorance and oppression. When asked if there was anything she wanted seen to, Nano Nagle replied: “Only one thing, take care of the schools”. Nano was buried in the Ursuline burial ground at the boundary wall of the two convents she had established.

In the early years after her death, there seemed to be little hope that Nano’s congregation would survive. These years were dogged by poverty, sickness and death and it was not until 1805, some twenty years later, that Pope Pius VII set the final solemn seal of the Church’s approval on the new congregation, to be known as the Congregation of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Growth of the Congregation was small, but steady.

Nano Nagle was declared Venerable on 31 October 2013.