Feature

A woman of our time
Greg Daly learns how the story of Nano Nagle, Presentation Sisters’ founder, can inspire us even today

Ite, missa est. The tall young man standing behind the rock still had his hands raised. And then it happened: three sharp bird calls. To the untutored ear it sounded like the call of the wood pigeon, which frequented the area in spring and early summer. To the listeners gathered around the young man it presaged something sinister and threatening.”

Beginning with an iconic scene of a clandestine Mass, A Dream Unfolds: The Story of Nano Nagle dramatically places the origins of the Presentation Sisters against the backdrop of the persecutions that marked Penal Ireland. The book had its origins, according to its author Sr Noela Fox of Australia’s Wagga Wagga Presentation Sisters, in the 18th-Century Nano Nagle having in October 2013 been declared venerable, just a few years after an RTE poll saw her hailed as Ireland’s ‘Woman of the Millennium’.

“Columba Press decided they wanted to honour Nano Nagle and approached the Presentation Sisters saying they wanted to publish a novel about her – a historical novel,” she explains, saying that the publisher and sisters together decided that they should publish “a historically correct book that the person in the street could read, not an academic work – they wanted one that was challenging and inspiring, with the main thing being that the person in the street could pick it up and read it”.

Proposals

The sisters then sought proposals for the book from all over the world, with respondents being asked to submit an outline of their proposed book and a sample of writing from the book; the submissions panel reduced the number of entries to three, and then asked for extra writing samples for a fresh panel, with Sr Noela’s proposal winning out, eventually being published in Ballygriffin, Co. Cork, the village of Nano’s birth, on her feast day, April 26.

Cork, of course, is rightly proud of Nano’s heritage there, and Sr Noela looks forward to the completion of the new heritage centre being built in Cork City. Exclaiming “it will be wonderful when it’s finished”, she says it’s important to invest in such things as a way of spreading Nano’s story, “to inspire other people to do as Nano did, and show what one person can do if you have the courage and enthusiasm”.

Coming from Australia, Sr Noela is a case study of how the inspiration of Nano continues to bring light to the world. “Five sisters went from Kildare to Wagga Wagga in 1874,” she says, explaining how Irish people in rural New South Wales had wanted education for girls, and petitioned priests to bring sisters over from Ireland to build schools.  

The Wagga Wagga Presentation Sisters since spread through out New South Wales,  eventually going as far west as Perth, western Australia, and to Queensland in the north, becoming in 1966 motherhouse for a foundation in Papua New Guinea.

Noela herself went to school with the sisters as a boarder, and after finishing school and spending about six months at home returned to the sisters to join them for life. She was, she said, “very impressed by the sisters’ care of the poor, their scholarship, their care of their students and the whole atmosphere of that convent and school – I had received a wonderful education there”.

As a sister, she has had a long and varied life, principally as an academic and an educator, teaching from kindergarten to postgraduate level, though by her own admission she was “a total disaster” when it came to teaching infants. Time spent studying Australia’s indigenous history had led to friendships with aboriginal people in Victoria, which caused her superiors to think she might be a good fit to work in Junee men’s prison, about 40 km from Wagga Wagga.  

“At first I said no, I wouldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it, I’d never been in a prison and had no desire to go there,” she says, explaining that she was later writing and wondered what Nano would say about such a response. “She’d be so disappointed, she’d be so embarrassed about me. So I got straight back and said I’ll take the position until you can get someone else. And of course they said yes.

“And I went out, and was there 10 years,” she says, saying that while the leap from academia to prison was “a big shock”, it was also “a great opportunity” to see in practice something with which she’d long been familiar in principle.

Education

“Nano Nagle saw in penal times that the way out of poverty was for people to be educated, and I think it’s the same today. If people have an education and are given skills and a desire to better themselves, and shown an avenue to do that, it’s amazing what they can do,” she says, with her time in Junee showing her this in action.

Although A Dream Unfolds is Sr Noela’s first novel, it is far from being her first book, as nine other books have preceded it, including a history of her congregation and another detailing the history of Tasmania’s Presentation Sisters who came from Fermoy in 1866.

Two of these previous books were about Nano Nagle, she explains, one being “a small volume for busy people”, and the other being the much more substantive A Dangerous Dream, examining Nano’s educational and social work, and how seeds sown by Nano have blossomed in the southern hemisphere.

Constantly hailing Nano as “a pioneer”, Sr Noela describes her as a pioneer in the field of education, both for the way in which she educated people and because of her farsightedness in not setting up isolated individual schools, but establishing a whole system of education for the urban poor.

“Nano set up a whole system of schools, seven in Cork City,” she explains. “Most schools then were for boys because girls weren’t seen as needing them – they’d just do the ironing and the washing and the cooking – but Nano had seven schools, five for girls and two for boys.”

It took real courage, as well as foresight, to set up these schools, Sr Noela says. “With the Penal Laws, Catholics were forbidden from being educated anyway – they were forbidden to own a school, run a school, teach in a school, go to school – so she was very brave,” she says.

Praising Nano’s educational theory as “extraordinary”, she explains that while most schools of the day would focus on teaching children to read from the Bible, she says, with girls typically learning to sew while boys would learn to write, Nano’s schools wouldn’t teach just from the Bible, however, while girls were not limited to learning how to sew and mend people’s clothes. 

Overseas market

Rather, she continues, by being taught more complicated needlework and lacemaking they were provided with means to earn a living – and the Nagle family’s mercantile connections ensured overseas markets for the girls’ lace – all of which increased their wealth, status, independence and self-esteem. 

Another aspect of her pioneering approach to life, she argues, was her refusal to accept that people should simply remain in whatever social status they were born. “That was not her idea at all,” Sr Noela says, continuing, “she tried to educate young boys so they could become very skilled at their trades, whether it was sailmaking or navigation, because Cork was a great port city.  She trained them in those useful skills so that they could better themselves so that maybe they could become captains on ships or set up their own sailmaking industry or whatever it was.

“She did not expect people to stay in that stratum of society. She gave them the power and the will and the gifts to be able to move forward to wherever they wanted to go, which was totally alien to any concept of education at that time,“ she says.

Although best known for her educational work, Nano’s concerns were broader. Known in her time as “the lady with the lantern” because of how she would walk through Cork’s  lanes and alleyways and up into the attics looking after the poor and carrying medicines and bandages for them, she could not help but note how elderly Catholic men and women were neglected in dreadful conditions through the city, with widowed women being driven into prostitution.

“She built a home for elderly women and planned a home for men, though she died before that could be done,” Sr Noela says, continuing, “and she took the prostitutes’ children into schools and was reviled for that, and people called her names in the street.  She died before she could build a home for the prostitutes too, but she had planned for that.”

It’s only in recent years, Sr Noela explains, that this aspect of Nano’s life has become an inspiration for her Australian descendents.

“A lot of social work that she did that in Australia we’d never been aware of,” she says, continuing, “Now the sisters have moved out of the schools, because we’ve so many competent well-educated lay people, and we’ve moved into these social areas where a lot of people can’t afford to work for almost nothing – you can’t do that today, and there’s a great need for that.”

It’s important to understand Nano’s story in its entirety, she maintains, and to continue sharing it. “If you don’t tell the story, obviously no one hears it, then you don’t have an inspiration. I think that’s one reason why I really loved writing about Nano, because I think she’s a great example for us in these days when we have so much injustice, so much poverty, so many homeless people, and now millions of homeless people heading across the world, and people don’t want to help them.

“And that was Nano’s problem, she wondered ‘what can I do?’ It’s not as though it was very easy for her. Everything – social, economic, political, religious – was totally against her, and yet she went on, little by little by little in the actual place where she was.”

New experience

Telling this story as a novel rather than a straight history was a new experience for Sr Noela, though one she found highly enjoyable, if a little strange.

“Someone asked whether I had it planned what Nano would say, and I didn’t; she kind of went ahead, if I can explain it that way, and I just wrote what she’d said,” she says, continuing, “It was a bit strange writing it – I felt as though I’d stepped into Nano’s shoes. 

“I was very particular and made sure I had all the facts historically correct, where they were, what they did, when they died, where they were married, who was the Lord Mayor of Cork – I was very specific in all the historical detail, so I just had to weave Nano and the family in within the history of everything that was happening then.”

It helped in writing it, of course, that she was familiar both with the history of 18th-Century Ireland and the Europe of the day, and was steeped in the details of Nano’s own life, the recorded details of which are perhaps more trustworthy than those associated with the founders of older orders. “One of the things is that we’re not so far removed from Nano. She was born in 1718 and died in 1784, so we’re not so far removed as to build up legends, and at her death – the bishop and other people had written stories about her, and there were also the order’s annals, and her letters.”

Disappeared

Unfortunately, she laments, most letters directly linked with Nano have long disappeared, with the exception of those preserved by the Irish Ursulines, who had been founded in Ireland at her instigation in 1771. “The only direct letters we have that Nano wrote were saved by the Ursuline sisters,” Sr Noela says.

While she feels she didn’t learn anything new as such about Nano while writing the book – perhaps unsurprisingly for a Presentation Sister who had already written two books about their founder – she says writing the book nonetheless steeped her further in Nano’s story. “It became more experiential, more than anything else,” she says.

Delighting in how there seems to be a revival of interest in Nano afoot in Australia and in parts of the world as diverse as India, Africa and the United States,  Sr Noela says that Nano remains “a wonderful example in today’s world”.

“I really think that she’s such a model and an inspiration for our time, when so many people feel  powerless in a world which has so big and has so many problems, and most of us want the world to be a better place and our own lives to be better,” she says.

“For that reason, it’s very important for us to have models to show it can be done, and inspire us to say that ‘I, as one person, can do something where I live in my place’ because that’s all we can do,” she continues. “She didn’t go searching across the world. She stayed in Cork, in her time, in her place, and never gave in to discouragement, but little by little she fought on. 

“I think she’s a real model for us in today’s world.”