Feminists before First Wave

Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Deirdre Raftery, Catriona Delaney, Catherine Nowlan-Roebuck: Nano Nagle: The Life and the Legacy, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2019

ISBN: 9781788550574 (cloth), also in Kindle, epub and pdf.

RRP: €24.95

I was curious about this book, having been educated by the Presentation Sisters in Brisbane, and knowing next to nothing about its founder or the order. Being enculturated in a system (I was enmeshed in it for 13 years), one picks up more than one realizes, but this book enlightened me on many fronts.  The book is more institutional history than biography, and the order’s founder, Nano Nagle, remains, in the words of the scholars who wrote the book, ‘enigmatic’. They don’t rehash what’s known, but attempt to account for the ‘culture’ of the order, and they do it in ways I found no trouble in recognising intimately.

The book celebrates the tercentenary of Honora ‘Nano’ Nagle’s birth (1718). She was a victim of the Penal Laws which debarred Catholics from education, though her wealthy family initially employed tutors. Born into a moneyed Catholic family in the Blackwater Valley, she and her sister, aged around 10, were illegally smuggled to France by merchants in her family and educated in Paris. There she lived the glamorous life of the wealthy (balls, theatre visits and parties), but she had an epiphanic moment when she observed poor parishioners at a church door, and she put her life’s energies into educating paupers and orphans, the victims of famines and cold weather, in Munster — a brave act under the Penal Laws. Several communities of benevolent secular women operated in Ireland, defining themselves as having a vocation to serve the poor. Because of the charitable work she was doing, Nano Nagle managed to avoid opprobrium, but she succumbed at 66 to tuberculosis, no respecter of rank or virtue. Although she evaded Penal Law enforcers, she did catechize when it was expressly forbidden.  In an era when priests were under interdiction, such women were useful adjuncts as catechists.

Her order represented a new phenomenon: it gave purpose to women who sought to live the life of a nun, not in enclosed orders, but together in female communities who went out into the world, gathering children from the streets. The authors describe her foundation as the ‘first of the “modern” congregations, and Nano became the first Irish woman to found a congregation on the island since St Brigid’ (p.31). Long after her death in 1784, her order would become a global phenomenon, and many girls have reason to be grateful (as am I) that she existed and that so very many young women were called to emulate her practice, even at the other end of the world, knowing they would never return to their country of origin.

What is fascinating is how dependent the convents became on wealthy novice’s dowries (they were set at between £500 and £600, but £200 was more common, and wealthy heiresses brought much more) and the bequests of their families. Women from noble houses or whose parent were successful merchants even brought maidservants with them to perform the functions that allowed them to teach, pray and further educate themselves. I did not see much evidence in Australia of the two-tiered system Nano Nagle pioneered in Ireland, but Lay Sisters did exist even in mid-twentieth century convents in Australia. I have no memory of recruitment of this ‘inferior’ class of nun, though all pupils were well aware of recruitment of girls to become ‘professional’ teaching nuns. It is astonishing that women could call on such immense sums in the early nineteenth century, and that so many responded to the call to teach the poor.

Not having a dowry did not exclude women from the higher duties but it seems that many moneyed novices were critical to the rapid expansion of the order in the nineteenth century. Again, it was a surprise to find girls from merchant and landed families entering to serve the poor. Even before emancipation in 1829, 22 houses in 14 counties were established. This is nuanced history with a big economic story to tell, and it is reinforced by the number of photographs in the book of the substantial buildings that the nuns were able to afford to build. This means, of course, that the women at the heart of the enterprise, in addition to pastoral and teaching skills, also acquired significant asset-building and management skills. The very extensive network of convents and schools, not only in Ireland but globally, stand as an enduring testament to the value placed on education by these Irishwomen, deprived of it for more than a century.

I’d not appreciated either how independent each convent was and that colonization of new convents was by nuns volunteering to go out to set up new foundations, and keeping strong ties with the motherhouse where they were trained. This ensured strong local cultures, able to respond to local conditions, and also that different Provinces could have markedly individual cultures. This was clear to me when I compared the experience of Victorian women trained by Presentations with those from Queensland. The provinces were quite different in culture.

Although the nuns were discouraged from taking touristic pleasure in new sights and cultures by the rule and culture of the order, the writers found evidence that some did enjoy such secular pleasures. Austerity and keeping one’s eye on the main game, and avoidance of worldly pleasures were very much features of the women I observed. To this day, I was amazed that the nuns wore black serge in many layers in the humid heat of Queensland, and wish they’d taken a lead from their sisters in Indian missions who wore white cotton. It seemed unreasonable, even unhealthy, self-mortification.

The book is strongest on what occurred in Ireland by way of new foundations, but also deals with those in England (a surprisingly difficult mission because of English racism directed at the Irish), Newfoundland and India in compelling ways. It is patchy on Australia and the US, and it indicates an opportunity to extend the scholarship. Nonetheless, the book makes an important point about how this order in particular significantly improved the access of girls to better employment prospects in the post office, civil service and a route to university, by providing them with post-primary education. The nuns’ example in battling often parsimonious male clergy must also have constituted a fine example of feminist engagement with powerful others, usually male, in the world.

This work casts a powerful gaze on the lives and culture of a body of women whose charism was particularly and importantly focused on girls, long before even first wave feminism was born. It explained a lot to me about their culture, history and modus operandi.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteáneditorial collective, a teacher and a card-carrying feminist from her earliest days as a student drafted into the Presentation culture at the age of 4.5 years.