Nano Nagle – Lady of the Lantern

A Cork heroine: Nano Nagle was given the accolade ‘Ireland’s Greatest Woman’ by RTE in 2005, and at that time it was suggested that she would be a Nobel Prize winner if she were alive today. Why? Because she devoted her own adult life to helping – and educating – deprived Catholic families during the ‘Penal times’ in which she lived: she was born in 1718.

Header, tailpiece and above: images from the audio-visual display which can be seen in Nano Nagle Place, located on Douglas Street, Cork – only five minutes’ walk from the English Market

While Nano Nagle was actively agitating for – and lived to see – some relaxation of the laws against Catholics, particularly the repeals of 1778, she died in 1784 and it was not until 1791 that the Roman Catholic Relief Act saw some significant lessening of discrimination – although one of the sorest points, the continuing requirement for Catholics to pay tithes to the Established (Protestant) Church, was not fully overturned until the Irish Church Act of 1869.

Above – the landscaped gardens at Nano Nagle Place, Cork, are a city centre oasis, and contain Nano Nagle’s tomb and the graves of the sisters of the communities which carried out Nagle’s work from the mid eighteenth century onward

Nano herself seemed able to work ‘above the law’: she was born in Ballygriffin, near Mallow, County Cork into a wealthy family and experienced an idyllic childhood. The Penal Laws of that time meant that education for Catholics was not available in Ireland unless they were willing to attend Church of Ireland schools, and Irish Catholics were forbidden from travelling to the continent to be educated. Despite this, Nano was educated in France, where she experienced an epiphanic moment and determined to devote the rest of her life to the service of the poor back home in Ireland. 

Above – part of a painting in the Nano Nagle Room at Díseart Institute of Irish Spirituality and Culture (formerly the Presentation Convent) in Dingle, Co Kerry. The painting, by Eleanor Yates, shows the moment when Nano, travelling from a ball in Paris, sees pauper children suffering on the streets and realises that her life mission should be to care for and educate the poor

When Nano’s father and sister died, she moved to live with her brother’s family on Cove Street, Cork – now named Douglas Street. There she began to carry out her mission and opened a girls’ school around 1750 focussing on reading, writing, catechism and needlework. She had to work in secret as, under the Penal Laws, operating a Catholic school could result in imprisonment. 

Nano Nagle Place in Cork City incorporates some of the earliest buildings dating from the time of the Ursuline Sisters: the buildings have been restored and extended to form the present day Centre

Within ten years Nano was operating seven schools across the city of Cork, teaching both boys and girls. When her brother’s family moved to Bath, Nano took a small cottage on Cove Street. By day she visited each of her schools, and by night she visited the poor. This was dangerous work:  the city streets were neither lit nor properly policed. Nano travelled by the light of the lantern she carried, and she became known as ‘Miss Nagle, the Lady of the Lantern’.

Today there are displays in Nano Nagle Place showing some original artefacts from Nano’s time, including an early Convent accounts book and Nano’s cap

In 1771 Nano Nagle used a family inheritance to build a convent for the Ursuline sisters, a teaching order, whom she invited from France. The Ursuline Order, however, is ‘cloistered’ – unable to leave the convent and only able to teach within the convent. Thus,  to continue with her work in the schools she had set up all over Cork, Nano founded her own order – The Society for Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart – in 1775. The name was changed in 1791 to The Presentation Sisters, and there were from that time two religious communities both established by Nano Nagle, working side by side on Cove Lane (now Douglas Street), all living in mutual harmony and support, and continuing the mission of Nano Nagle across the world and into the present day.

Above – the death notice of Nano Nagle, and a recent water sculpture adjacent to her grave in Cork. Below – Nano’s gravestone and some graves of Sisters from the communities which were set up in Douglas Street

The Nano Nagle Heritage Centre has been established on Douglas Street and is open to all. It houses a very good visual presentation on the history of Cork in Nano’s time – and of Nano herself. It has beautiful landscaped gardens – quite a surprise in this urban setting – and Good Day Deli: a restaurant serving excellent food. Nano’s grave can be visited, and has recently been given a sculptural treatment which blends well with the historic buildings and graveyard of the early convent.

We are very grateful to Dr Danielle O’Donovan, Programme Manager of Nano Nagle Place, for personally showing us around the Centre and explaining its considerable historical significance

A Tale of Four Churches

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe is a magical place. The story of its four churches leads us from the dawn of Christianity in Ireland through turbulent times and many centuries when religious differences and sectarian strife marked all aspects of life in Ireland.

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church  2, Mass Rock 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church 4, Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church. 2, Mass Rock. 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church. 4. Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

We love going down to the Medieval church at Kilcoe or wandering the boreens along the Roaringwater River. Those boreens are now part of the Fastnet Trail Network and last weekend, at the Launch, we were treated to a talk about the locality from Fr Patrick Hickey, Parish Priest of Timoleague and a noted scholar of West Cork History. This blog post was inspired by that talk – thank you, Fr Hickey!

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Kilcoe gets its name from St Coch, a nun said to be a colleague of St Ciarán of Cape Clear, who preached Christianity in Ireland before St Patrick, in the 5th Century. It is possible she founded a church here, but what we do know is that one was built in Medieval times – a building that still exists although the ivy is doing its best to take it over.

It’s a beautiful and atmospheric place, on the water, overlooking Roaringwater Bay. Two castles are in view: Kilcoe and Rincolisky, a McCarthy and an O’Driscoll Castle respectively. Each has a fascinating history that deserves a post of its own sometime. Some special features remain in this ruined church – windows with carved ogees, a lovely arched doorway, a piscina (for washing vessels) or stoup (for washing hands), a recess for storing vessels and the remains of a possible altar.

We don’t know exactly when this church was built or by whom, but we do know it was in ruins by 1615. Perhaps it was destroyed by the same forces that laid siege to Kilcoe Castle after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 – a period that marked the end of the Old Gaelic Order in West Cork.

The Medieval church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background.

The Church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background

The rise of the Protestant Ascendancy class in the aftermath of that fateful battle privileged the Church of Ireland (transplanted Anglicanism) over the Catholic faith and a series of new laws, gradually getting harsher, were designed to suppress ‘Romanism’. This culminated in the enactment, in 1695, of the infamous Penal Laws. While attendance at mass was initially tolerated, churches could only be built from wood and away from roads. Eventually, priests were expelled from Ireland and after that mass had to be held in secret, with priests moving from hiding place to hiding place. At Roaringwater Pier Fr Hickey talked of the typical cargo of the smuggling ships that plied their trade from there: each ship to arrive from France would be carrying tobacco, brandy – and a priest!

From this period we find the Mass Rocks scattered around rural Ireland, identified on the basis of local tradition. The one at Ardura Beg is just up from a tiny pier that would have offered possibility of a quick escape. Many stories have come down of lookouts warning of the approach of the ‘red coats’ and the miraculous ways in which priests would make their escape. (See here and here for examples.)

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Places of worship must be located where they are accessible and the first two are close by the sea, which afforded the easiest travel routes in Ireland for most of its history. However, roads were constructed eventually and the next two churches were located along these new routes. The first one, we’ll call it the Old Church, was built along the new road that led from Skibbereen to the Beara Peninsula. After 1778 the anti-Catholic laws were gradually relaxed, although it was not until 1829 that full Catholic Emancipation was won by Daniel O’Connell. The Old Church was probably built around 1800 and was a simple ‘barn-style’ edifice which served an impoverished and famine-stricken populace for a hundred years.

Left, the Old Church near Roaringwater Pier. Right, an example of a simple ‘barn style’ church in West Cork

By the turn of the 20th Century it was deemed unfit for purpose. Nowadays it is a gentle green space, lovingly tended and in use as a grotto. Children were buried there – it was not a cillín, but a consecrated graveyard – and a memorial remembers them now.

Grotto and Chirdren Memorial. A place for contemplation

Grotto and Children’s Memorial. A place for contemplation

Catholic Emancipation ushered in a long period of church building by the newly-confident Catholic majority. The new road from Skibbereen to Ballydehob was constructed at the end of the 19th century and the New Church was built there in 1905, right beside the bridge over the Roaringwater River.

Kilcoe Church and Bridge

Bridge over Roaringwater River

The two styles of churches common at the time were Neo-Gothic, Influenced by continental cathedrals, and Hiberno-Romanesque which took its inspiration from the Early Medieval Romanesque style of Old Ireland and featured wonderful doorways and round towers. The Kilcoe New Church, the Church of the Most Holy Rosary, was built in the Neo-Gothic style, with a large rose window at the eastern end.

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Originally the side-aisles did not have seats – poorer people could stand there for mass, while those who could afford a penny would occupy the pews. As the church fund grew, thought was put into ornamentation and stained glass was commissioned for several windows. The rose window was executed by the Harry Clarke Studios in 1943 and shows scenes from the life of Christ and of Mary.

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Altar and side windows were the work of Sarah Purser’s Tower of Glass. The choice of stained glass – from Dublin-based Celtic Revival artists rather than the English or Continental firms that supplied most church glass at the time –  was a choice that demonstrates the nationalistic feelings that were rife in West Cork at the time.

Irish History is written large on her landscape. In this one small area – these sites are within a couple of kilometres of each other – we see encapsulated sixteen hundred years of history, starting with St Coch and ending with the latest incarnation of a church at Kilcoe. Their beauty and their peaceful settings have been hard won. They should serve to remind us that peace and tolerance must always be cherished and safeguarded.

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church

Were You at the Rock?

Mass rock along the Beara Way (see the look out above)

Mass rock along the Beara Way (see the lookout above)

An raibh tú ag an gCarraig? / Were You at the Rock?

nó a’ bhfaca tú féin mó grá / Or did you yourself see my love,

nó a’ bhfaca tú gile, / Or did you see a brightness,

finne agus scéimh na mná? / The fairness and the beauty of the woman?

This beautiful song speaks to a revered tradition in Irish history and folk custom – the mass rock. During the period of the Penal Laws (late 17th and first half of 18th Century) when the practice of Catholicism was outlawed, parishioners would gather at a secret location to attend mass. The priest travelled from community to community in disguise, a lookout was posted, and mass was celebrated on a lonely rock far from the reach of the law. The song encodes the message that the people still find ways to attend mass, despite the harsh prohibition against it.

Mass rocks are often in remote locations

Mass rocks are often in remote locations

Dr. Hilary Bishop, in her excellent website Find a Mass Rock says, “As locations of a distinctively Catholic faith, Mass Rocks are important religious and historical monuments that provide a tangible and experiential link to Irish heritage and tradition.” She also points out that, because of the imperative for secrecy, mass rocks are difficult to find. We certainly experienced this when we set out for a day of mass rock hunting recently. Working from a list generated from the National Monuments Service database we spent a day on the Sheep’s Head and the Mizen and had trouble finding all the rocks on the list. One, if it was still there, had disappeared under impenetrable layers of gorse. A second rock was last recorded in the 1980s: residents were no longer familiar with it.

Beach Holy Well and mass rock

Beach holy well and mass rock

Knowledge of mass rocks has passed down from generation to generation. In the deep countryside, the sites maintain a mystique and a sense of the sacred. Last year we wrote about the mass rock and holy well at Beach, where Mary conjured up a blanket of fog to confuse the English soldiers and allow the priest to escape. At Beach and at our first stop, the mass rock at Glanalin on the Sheep’s Head Way, mass is still celebrated occasionally.

The Glanalin rock, and the one we visited on the Beara Peninsula, are good examples of the remote locations typical of many mass rocks, high on a hillside or hidden in an isolated valley. You can picture the procession of worshippers, in ones and twos, slipping silently through the bracken, pausing to make sure they are not being watched, climbing higher, following an overgrown trail, arriving at the meeting place where the hushed crowd awaits the arrival of the priest.

Beara mass rock

Beara mass rock

One of the rocks we found looked for all the world like a fallen standing stone – and that’s probably what it was. (I wonder if I should go to confession, though – I’m sure that sitting on a mass rock would qualify as at least a venial sin.)

Fallen standing stone?  Mass rock? Both?

Fallen standing stone? Mass rock? Both?

A mass rock that is easily visited is the one at Cononagh Village, right at the side of the main road into West Cork, the N71. This site is beautifully maintained – Cononagh is obviously proud of its heritage: signage and flowers invite the passerby to take a closer look.

Another easily accessible site is Altar, at Toormore. This is a wedge tomb, probably over 4,000 years old and excavated in 1989. It remained in use through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. Dr. William O’Brien, in Iverni, says of this site: “…over time this tomb came to be regarded as a sacred place, housing important ancestral remains in what was a type of community shrine.” How fitting, then, that the flat capstone of the Altar wedge tomb became, in the Penal Days, a mass rock. And how intriguing to think of the continuation of this sacred space over the course of thousands of years.

Altar Wedge Tomb, later used as a mass rock

Altar Wedge Tomb, later used as a mass rock