Nano Nagle – Our Founder
“If I could be of service in serving souls in any part of the world,
I would gladly do all in my power.”
Honora (Nano) Nagle, who in 2003 was named the “greatest Irish person of all time”, was born in 1718 at Ballygriffin in Cork, Ireland. For 200 years Ireland had suffered under oppressive British rule. The purpose of the Penal Laws imposed by the British were described by Edmund Burke, a famous parliamentarian and orator and a distant relation of Nano Nagle on his mother’s side, as “to reduce the Catholics in Ireland to a miserable populace, without property, without estimation, without education.” The Act of 1695 made it unlawful to open a Catholic School in Ireland or to travel overseas for a Catholic education. The Nagles had connections in France and they managed to send their daughters Nano and Ann to Paris where they lived for 16 years. They received a Catholic education and lived the life of well-to-do young women in French society.
After their father’s death, Nano and Ann returned to Dublin to live with their mother. Here Nano came face to face with desperate poverty on the streets of Dublin as well as with the generosity and kindness of her sister Ann to those who were living in poverty. After the death of her mother and her sister Ann, Nano returned to live with her brother at Ballygriffin. However, confronted with the misery, poverty and hopelessness of the Irish people, she went to France and entered a Benedictine convent at Ypres to pray for them. After a short time, with the help of a spiritual director, Nano realised that her vocation was to return to Ireland to address the injustice of the Penal Laws by educating poor Irish children and caring for those who were the most poor and oppressed.
Nano went to Cork where her brother Joseph lived and in 1754 at the age of 36 she began her first school for 30 poor children, in defiance of the Penal Laws and in complete secrecy. When her brother Joseph eventually found out what she was doing, he was fearful that the whole family would face recriminations. On the advice of his wife, he took the risk and supported Nano in her venture. Within a year she had 200 students. Within 15 years, she had 7 schools in Cork. Schools were for Nano a primary way of addressing the root causes of poverty and the systemic injustice of the Penal Laws. Education gave children a sense of their own dignity as well as practical skills and knowledge to earn a living, rise out of poverty and make their way in society. She also ensured that they had a sound religious education. As Nano herself said, schools were not her only object. Her other “lantern works” included visiting those who were sick, elderly, imprisoned and destitute – often at night, walking through the dark and dangerous streets of Cork by the light of a flickering lantern. In 1783 she built a home for aged and destitute women.
Nano used her own wealth, much of it inherited from her uncle Joseph’s estate, to support her many good works, and when this ran out she begged on the streets. Nano’s ongoing concern was to provide a solid financial and organisational structure for her schools and other good works so that they would continue after she was gone. She brought a religious congregation – the Ursulines – from France thinking that they could teach in her schools, but their rules and traditions did not allow them to give preference to those who were poor as a top priority nor to walk the streets to engage in Nano’s other “lantern works”.
In January 1775, at the age of 56, Nano invited two young women who assisted her in the schools to join her as the first members of her own religious order. Another young woman joined them later. Nano’s dream was to have a group of women who would be dedicated to the education of those who were poor and destitute and to other “lantern works” that would challenge the unjust social and political structures that made and kept people poor. On Christmas Eve 1775, Nano’s own congregation of sisters was established – the Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When in 1805 the Order was approved by Rome, the name of the congregation was changed to “The Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.
Nano became well known as “The Lady with the Lantern”. Her sisters were called “Nano’s Walking Nuns” because, like Nano, they walked the streets of Cork bringing assistance and comfort to those who were most in need. Nano Nagle died 26 April, 1784. Her last words to the small group of sisters at her bedside were “Love one another as you have hitherto done. Spend yourselves for the poor.” The Hibernian Chronicle announced Nano’s death to the people of Cork:
Last Wednesday the indisposition of Miss Nagle was announced in the sorrowing faces of the Poor of this city to whom she was the best of benefactors and patronesses. She died about noon this day, and truly indescribable is the universal lamentation for the departure of this lady who for many years was the object of unexampled admiration and unlimited esteem of all ranks of people.
Nano’s congregation spread throughout Ireland and throughout the world. The first mission outside of Ireland was to Newfoundland, Canada, in 1833. The first Presentation mission to Australia was to Hobart in 1866.
Nano Nagle Icon
This icon, created by Desmond M Kyne, presents with all the power of symbols and colour what bare words can do only very inadequately. Nano Nagle was a woman of the world in the best and truest sense. She was involved with people, yet totally absorbed in prayer for large parts of the day. Her life was spent totally for those who were genuinely deprived, needy and disadvantaged.
To communicate the eternally present relevance of Nano’s message and example, the artist has chosen a youthful image of Nano to occupy the central panel which is vibrant and alive with colour. The spiral motif behind her head is, as in Celtic times, a symbol of eternity, and it captures Nano’s love of the God within who compels her to mission. To her right the arm of the crucified Christ is pictured in a protective gesture, and the spiritual power coming through Christ is overshadowed by the wings symbolising the Holy Spirit. The image of the Sacred Heart in the centre of the icon, the heart on fire, symbolises Nano as a woman with a passionate love of God.
Nano’s hands are depicted just above the river Blackwater at Ballygriffin where Nano experienced the great elements of nature, the sun, the earth, the waters and the hills. In the left hand side of the icon, however, the valley of the Blackwater is gloomy under the repressive influence of the penal laws, the sad situation of Irish Catholicism known first hand to Nano.
At Nano’s feet is a group of children surrounding a lamb, the Lamb of God, with buildings representing the city of Cork to either side. The areas of the Southgate and Northgate Bridges were the centre of Nano’s apostolate to children, many of whom in those days in Cork were exploited and disadvantaged. By contrast with the deprivation and gloom of the penal days the bottom border of the icon depicts some of the more beautiful abstract symbols and ornamentation from the Golden Age of Irish art and learning.
In the left hand panel at the top we see the Christ, whom Nano contemplates in the Eucharist, is the same Christ whom she meets in the poor and “heart speaks to heart”. This is followed by a scene in which a tiny cramped window illuminates a room, suggesting the poverty-stricken conditions of the cabin schools. Beneath that is a poignant reminder of the condition under which the people of Ireland lived in penal days. Nano appears in consultation with her formidable uncle Joseph Nagle in the next section. Joseph gave Nano a great deal of encouragement and support. Below that Nano is depicted caring for the sick, perhaps the hallmark of her life. Her care was always for those who were deprived, poor, old or lonely. This aspect of her apostolic life is shown in the next panel where she is seen moving through the dark streets of Cork with her lantern.
(Adapted from Heart Aflame by Miceal Ledwith and Desmond M Kyne)