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