Urn-ing Her Place in History

From one end to another

There has long been a superstition that there was some benefit to being buried (and memorialized) as near the altar of a church as possible – though the benefit was always more to worldly reputation than to the deceased person’s hope of eternal bliss. Clearly, Sir George Gilbert Scott had no time for such a superstitious belief: he moved memorial tablets around at will. Ironically, some of the better known names commemorated in the Abbey are on tablets on, or very close to, the west wall. Thomas Malthus, for example, the author of An Essay on the Principle of Population, is commemorated in the north-west porch, and tucked away behind the south-west porch is the memorial to the famous singer and concert impresario Venanzio Rauzzini. In the same dark, unfrequented corner as the Italian, is the unremarkable tablet to Mary, the wife of David Nagle.

The Nagles and their surroundings

The Nagles of Ballygriffin near Mallow (County Cork) were a wealthy Catholic family who owned large amounts of property in Cork, both the city and the county.  By the mid-eighteenth century, Cork was thriving, thanks in part to the export of butter, salted beef and pork; it was described by one visitor as one of the richest and most commercial towns in Europe. But it was also a place of great poverty, and behind the grand façades was “the dullest and dirtiest town which can be imagined”. Many of Cork’s merchant class never intended to live permanently in the city. Certainly this seems true of the Nagles: by the early 1760s David and his wife Mary had moved to Bath, a town described by John Beresford in 1795 as “a little Dublin to an Irishman”. Here they lived until Mary died, as the memorial records, in January 1784. Upon her death, David moved to Tiverton to live with his brother, Joseph, until his own death aged 81.

The most famous person you’ve never heard of?

But the most famous of the Nagles was neither David nor Joseph (nor the third brother, Pierce) but one of their six sisters – Honoria, known as Nano, who was born the year before David, in 1718. Like many daughters of rich land-owners, she spent much of her youth and early adulthood on the Continent, where she was educated, returning to Ireland following the death of her father. She moved from Ballygriffin to Cork in the late 1740s or early 1750s, after the deaths of her mother and sister, Ann. She began to devote herself to the education of poor Catholic girls in the city, remaining in Cork when her brothers left, and she opened a school in the poor South Parish. Because of the penal laws forbidding Catholic involvement in education, it was necessary, as she later recalled, to keep her school “a profound secret, as I knew, if it were spoken of, I should meet with opposition on every side”. She did not succeed in keeping it from her family for long, and, despite their initial reservations, they became firm supporters of her religious and educational project, both ethically and financially.

The success of her first school was beyond anything Nano Nagle had anticipated. Within sixteen months she was educating over four-hundred children, and by 1769 was running seven schools in Cork city. She soon recognised that it was impossible for this work to rely on one woman. She was frequently dissatisfied with the lay teachers she employed, and prudently foresaw that a work of this extensive charity could not long exist, unless the persons charged with the instruction considered it as a duty, and attended to it, not for a salary, but from motives of religious zeal. A practical solution to this problem seemed to be to encourage an established order of teaching nuns to set up a foundation in Ireland.

Nano’s progression

It was crucial to the survival of Nagle’s city schools to find educators who were at liberty to teach children outside the confines of a religious enclosure, so Nagle decided that her only option was to establish her own order. This decision may have been prompted by the existence of a decree issued by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749, allowing unenclosed convents. Nano Nagle became one of the first to take advantage of it.  On Christmas Eve 1775, Nano Nagle, Elizabeth Burke, Mary Fouhy and Mary Anne Collins began their novitiate, and on 24th June 1777 all four made their religious profession in the presence of the Bishop of Cork. Initially called the Sisters of the Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and later the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Nagle’s foundation was the first Irish order to be founded since the Reformation.

a pioneer of female education on Ireland

-Nano was nominated as Irish woman of the millennium in 2000

Beyond Nano to Now

Nano Nagle died in April 1784, shortly after her sister-in-law who is commemorated in Bath Abbey. The order she founded, nowadays known by the somewhat less wordy title of ‘Presentation Sisters’, continues to provide staff for schools to educate young people, especially young ladies, and these schools can be found across the globe. As of 2021, the Presentation Sisters are working in no fewer than 24 countries: Antigua, Australia, Bolivia, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Dominica, Ecuador, Guatemala, India, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Slovakia, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Text taken from The Friends of Bath Abbey Annual Report 2022 – Jeremy Key-Pugh.

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