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Ireland has a centuries-old, rich and proud history defending its people and attempting to take back control of the Island for the native population (predominantly Roman Catholics) from Britain. The countless men who have fearlessly mounted this defense have been elevated to iconic status. Nonetheless, no matter how wonderful, brave, and pioneering women have been throughout Irish history, they have never been elevated to the same level as their male counterparts.
One such woman was Honora (Nano) Nagle, known as the "Lady of the Lantern." The eldest child of a large wealthy family, she was born in 1718 in Ballygriffin, Killavullen, near Mallow, County Cork, on the banks of the River Blackwater. Baptized Honora Nagle, her father immediately gave her the pet name Nano, and she was always affectionately known by this name thereafter, by family and friends in their circle. Her siblings were Ann, Catherine, Elizabeth, David and Joseph. (Some historians mention another son, but little is known of him.)
The Nagles were connected to some of the most prominent families in Munster, and their ancestors had lived in the area for hundreds of years. Nano’s mother was born Ann Mathews. She originated from Tipperary and was a relative of Father Theobald Mathew, the temperance crusader, as well as Edmund Burke, the famous parliamentarian and orator. Ann was a pious and dedicated Roman Catholic, as well as a loving and caring mother. Nano's father, Gareth Nagle, was a wealthy landowner, whose lands allowed the extensive views that took in the distant Nagle Mountains. As the name suggests, much of this region was once the property of the Nagle family.
However prominent and wealthy the Nagle family may have been, they did not escape the harsh Penal Laws that the Irish Parliament had put in place to demonize all Roman Catholics and seize their lands. Between 1695 and 1728, this series of harsh laws affected the political, economic, social, and religious infrastructure of Ireland. The Penal Laws took a devastating toll on Ireland's Catholic faithful, who made up 75 percent of the nation's population in this era. This list below is not comprehensive, but does, however, give some insight into the reach of the Penal Laws. The laws:
* Restricted the right of Catholics to education and to worship, closing Catholic schools and banishing Catholic bishops from Ireland, banning Mass and introducing the castration of any priest not registered. Roman Catholic priests had to take an an oath of allegiance to the King, and were banned from teaching Catholic children. Inherent in the banning of education was the fact that Catholics could not send their children abroad to be educated.
* Prevented Catholics from buying land, and on death, Catholic property had to be divided among all sons, who had to adopt the Protestant religion to be able to inherit property or land.
* Prevented Catholics from bearing arms and owning horses worth more than £5.
All these harsh penal laws were designed to wipe out Catholicism and transform Ireland into a Protestant state. Having already lost quite a lot of his lands and property due to his Catholic beliefs, Joseph Nagle (brother of Gareth) converted to Protestantism to enable the family to hold property on behalf of the Roman Catholic members of his family, as it was required under the Penal Laws.
This then was the background into which Nano Nagle was born. Always knowing that the education of their children was paramount to the family, Gareth and Ann Nagle took it upon themselves to ensure that all their children were home-schooled. This was despite the Penal Laws and the risks involved. All the Nagle children were schooled at home by Eogan Rua O’Súilleabhán, who is thought to have been the main tutor to many wealthy children. (Some researchers say he was just one of many tutors serving these families.) The Nagle children excelled in all subjects, including geometry, Greek, Latin, and Catholicism. They were taught in French and excelled at this language, along with the written word.
Coming from this background of wealth, an elite environment and lifestyle, the Nagle children did not suffer from the harsh realities of the Penal Laws beyond their estates. They enjoyed an idyllic childhood surrounded by the vast countryside that they owned, swimming, playing with their cousins, and learning. However, when Nano and her sister Ann reached an age whereby they should have been entering a higher level of education, schooling them abroad was the only option open to them.
Despite the risks involved and knowing that the Penal Laws forbade Catholic children to travel to other countries to be educated, Nano's parents did just that. They requested the help and support of a branch of the family who were merchants in Cork City, using their strong connections to other merchants and family on the Continent, particularly in France. These are thought to be the channels by which Nano and Ann Nagle were able to travel to France, smuggled on board a cargo ship. From there they then traveled to Ypres, to pursue their educations. Opulent, as well as being highly respected by the wealthy Roman Catholics of Europe, this is where Nano and Anne finished their education. They enjoyed a full Catholic education and were introduced to a sophisticated lifestyle in French society.
When Nano and Ann finished their education, they went to live with relatives in Paris, where they led a lifestyle of luxury, indulged by their relatives with a hectic social life in Paris. Their social life in Paris became a round of balls, theatre, parties, and all the glamour enjoyed by wealthy Parisians. It was at one of these balls that they noticed a group of poor people huddling in a Church doorway begging for alms. Taken aback by the obvious ragged look and poverty of these French people, Ann took off all of her jewelry and fine clothes and gave them to these haggard souls. Nano and Ann soon became disillusioned with their wealthy and privileged lifestyle.
Left, a statue of Nano Nagle at her birthplace in Ballygriffin, near Mallow, County Cork.
So it was around this time, in 1746, their father had died in Ireland, and both Ann and Nano returned to Ireland to live with their mother and younger brother, Joseph, in Dublin, where the family had moved to in the intervening years. Having been shielded from the harsh realities of the Penal Laws in childhood, they were shocked and saddened to find that Dublin and the whole of Ireland were as poverty-stricken as France. This was in stark contrast to what they had experienced as children. The Penal Laws had endured and were widely enforced. These laws ensured that British Protestant dominance over Ireland endured.
Having seen all of this poverty and deprivation in Ireland, Nano believed that devoting her life to God would help the destitute and poverty-stricken. She returned to Paris intending to enter the Ursuline Convents there, however, their Spiritual Director advised her to return to Ireland, as her time and energy would be better off spent teaching the deprived, downtrodden poverty-stricken Catholic children there.
She took this advice and returned to Ireland to live with her brother Joseph who was residing back in Cork with his wife and family. Knowing that she would be defying the Penal Laws (much as her parents defied the same laws by educating her and sending her abroad to be educated), Nano rented a mud cabin in Cove Street. She had done all of this in secret and it was unknown to her brother Joseph. Writing to a friend in Paris, she relayed that this had all gone perfectly well until a man had come up to her brother, begging for him to speak to Nano on his behalf to take his child into her school. Brushing the man away, Joseph sought out his wife and Nano, laughing at the conceit of the man who would think that Nano would defy the Penal Laws and be a head mistress of an illegal school. He was angry that she had concealed this from him because of the risks involved. However, in the fullness of time, he and his wife gave her their full support.
As the Penal Laws were always to the forefront of her mind, Nano fought off rumor and gossip, and she was always on her guard against government agents posing as poverty-stricken parents. Nano continued to teach the children and founded her school (illegally) in 1754 in Cove Lane, with approximately 30 students. The school was founded on the principles and philosophy of the Petites Écholes School of Teaching, which was very popular in the 16th and early 17th centuries in France. Nano travelled back and forth to France to gain the necessary understanding of this philosophy. Class sizes were never more than 25 pupils, to create a teacher-student relationship built on trust and discipline. It would encompass all the elements of a child’s development -- spiritual, emotional, physical, practical -- all interwoven into the child’s education so that it would all flow naturally together. In later years, this philosophy and system would be developed and adapted to form the basis of ‘child psychology.’
Not everyone in Cork welcomed her initiative, she was abused, and people shouted at her, calling the children she taught "beggars' brats." Building on her success at teaching the poverty-stricken Catholic children, she and her sister Ann started visiting the sick and elderly, always at night to avoid being caught by government agents. She brought them food, medicine and more importantly, comfort. Going from hovel to hovel in the dark nights, in all weathers, tramping all over Cork, in the mud and uneven ground, the lantern that she always carried with her got her the nickname "The Lady With the Lantern" by the sick and elderly who loved her. In addition, she made space available to teach adult classes in these homes.
Nano attended her cousin Margaret Butler's profession into the order of Ursulines in France in 1770, and came back to Ireland with thoughts of opening an Ursuline convent. She did, in fact, open the first convent of Ursulines in 1771 with her own money, which housed four Cork women who had been professed in the Ursuline convent at Rue St. Jacques, Paris, along with Margaret. Together with a reverend mother, they came back to Ireland with her to assist her in her endeavors. As always, there were hurdles in her way. As religious sisters, the nuns, according to the Penal Laws, should be enclosed in their convent, and therefore unable to teach or work with poverty-stricken Catholic children. They got around these laws by not registering as an established religious congregation, so they were able to continue to work with the poor.
By this time, she had gained the support of her family, and particularly her Uncle Joseph, and her brother Joseph, who funded her endeavors and helped her teach the poor Catholic children, and by supporting her to establish a network of schools in Cork. Both her uncle and her brother were wealthy merchants, and both of them and their wives contributed very heavily to all of Nano's projects. One stipulation by her uncle was that she should open up schools for Catholic boys as well as girls, and to keep it secret, for fear of a backlash from the Protestant hierarchy. As they would be able to censure him, all of her work was done in secret anyway. Always looking at how she could benefit poverty-stricken, sick and elderly people, and against the advice of the local bishop and her uncle, who had expressed fears of a Protestant backlash, Nano went on to found the Society of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, on Christmas Eve 1775, to offer alms and solace to the Catholic poor. The Bishop's fears of a Protestant backlash proved unfounded.
When her uncle died in 1757, he left Nano a very large sum of money and property, Nano devoted this money to developing Catholic school and convents, convinced that her role in life was to educate, and to provide nourishment for body and soul for the poverty-stricken, sick, elderly, disabled and downtrodden Catholic people. Secrecy was her byword in all her endeavors, although the authorities eventually relaxed their vigilance of her projects when they saw how beneficial they were.
Nano always maintained that her sister Ann was the biggest influence in her endeavors, starting in Paris when Ann went to chat and talk to the beggars and their children outside a Church waiting for alms, and took off all her finery and gave them to the beggars. Then back in Dublin, a length of the most expensive silk was given to Ann as a present, and she sold it to buy food for the beggar children.
After a lifetime of hard work, imposed upon herself in the never-ending pursuit of educating and providing for downtrodden Catholics, Nano Nagle succumbed to tuberculosis, which had killed many thousands of people everywhere she had gone to provide succor and comfort. She died in 1784 and is buried in South Presentation Convent, Cork. Her house in Ballyariffin is open to the public.
Nano's legacy is as much about inspiration, as it is about her financial, physical and emotional endeavors. During her lifetime. Nano’s endeavors spread worldwide. This is how she became linked with Teresa Mulally whose educational projects were concentrated in Dublin. (Mulally is another woman who did not reach deserved iconic status.) They would eventually join together and would become known as Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She also inspired Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers, to bring education to the poor and poverty-stricken.
Today, congregations of the Presentation Sisters exist all over the world, including Ireland, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, and in 23 other countries.
In 2000, Nano Nagle was voted Irish Woman of the Millennium. As a pioneer of female education, she was also once voted Ireland's greatest woman ever in a public poll.
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