Beyond the ‘bad nuns’ stereo­type

Nano Na­gle founded a con­gre­ga­tion of pi­o­neer­ing teach­ers of poor Ir­ish girls

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - NI­AMH PUIRSÉIL


far-off New­found­land, where they were in­vited by an Ir­ish Fran­cis­can, Bishop Michael Flem­ing, who wanted them to pro­vide a good Catholic ed­u­ca­tion for the young women who worked in the fish­ing in­dus­try, that they might be­come “moth­ers ca­pa­ble of teach­ing their chil­dren in­tegrity and moral­ity”.

Four sis­ters ar­rived from Ire­land to find that the con­vent they had been promised had not been built and had to stay at the bishop’s res­i­dence for a month, find­ing it far too com­fort­able for their sim­ple ways. If they were wor­ried about com­fort, the pun­ish­ing cold, which meant they were obliged to cut milk with a knife, put paid to that. Around the same time they founded an­other con­vent in Man­ches­ter, also pri­mar­ily to teach the poor girls among Ir­ish im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties. The num­ber of Pre­sen­ta­tion con­vents con­tin­ued to grow dur­ing the 19th cen­tury both in Ire­land and abroad, to North Amer­ica, In­dia and Aus­tralia and, dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, New Zealand.

The Pre­sen­ta­tion sis­ters were pi­o­neers, lead­ing the way for the foun­da­tion of other Ir­ish con­gre­ga­tions and in­flu­enc­ing Ed­mund Rice to form the Pre­sen­ta­tion Broth­ers to ful­fil a sim­i­lar role teach­ing poor Ir­ish boys. The set­ting up of the na­tional ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in Ire­land in 1831 gave poor chil­dren ac­cess to non-de­nom­i­na­tional state-run schools, but the Pre­sen­ta­tion sis­ters con­tin­ued. Their mis­sion was not sim­ply to ed­u­cate the poor but to pro­vide them with an ed­u­ca­tion that was Catholic. The or­der’s schools joined the na­tional sys­tem, but barely paid lip ser­vice to its rules, which pro­hib­ited re­li­gious in­struc­tion or iconog­ra­phy in the schools.

Cru­cially, prior to the in­tro­duc­tion of free sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion in 1968, when many re­li­gious or­ders catered for well-off Catholics and charged pro­hib­i­tively high school fees, the Pre­sen­ta­tion sis­ters pro­vided free or af­ford­able post-pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion, of­ten in “sec­ondary tops”, which were pri­mary schools with ad­di­tional years for those who were will­ing and able to stay. The idea of ed­u­cat­ing work­ing-class women beyond pri­mary level was not with­out op­po­nents, and ef­forts to ex­pand pro­vi­sion dur­ing the 1940s brought some sis­ters into con­flict with their bish­ops, in­clud­ing Michael Browne in Gal­way and John Charles McQuaid, the lat­ter hav­ing re­jected two re­quests to open sec­ondary schools in Dublin. Work­ing-class girls were in need of ed­u­ca­tion, you see, just not too much.


The book is writ­ten by Deirdre Raftery, along with Catri­ona De­laney and Cather­ine Nowlan-Roebuck, both of whom com­pleted doc­toral re­search on Pre­sen­ta­tion Sis­ters school­ing in Ire­land, and was funded by the Nano Na­gle Post­doc­toral Fel­low­ship, which fa­cil­i­tated the use of ar­chives in Ire­land, Bri­tain, New­found­land and the United States.

Chap­ters on the sis­ters’ ex­pan­sion into New­found­land, the Dakota prairies, in­dus­trial Man­ches­ter and colo­nial In­dia il­lus­trate their com­mit­ment and fear­less­ness; the Clon­dalkin sis­ters’ ven­ture to Maynooth to learn Ir­ish after 1922, bring­ing with them a cow, is less ad­ven­tur­ous but more amus­ing.

This is an at­trac­tive book, well re­searched and schol­arly. As a book about nuns and their net­work it is very good. How­ever, there is all too lit­tle about the im­pact that their teach­ing had on the girls who at­tended their schools. We know what they were taught but not how they were shaped.

His­to­rian and Pres girl Caitri­ona Clear has de­scribed their out­look as one of be­liev­ing “that ev­ery­one should oc­cupy a pretty low sta­tion in life” and its alum­nae in­cludes the con­trar­ian Ger­maine Greer, who is quoted as say­ing of the Pre­sen­ta­tion sis­ters that “I’m more like them than I am my mother”. What­ever one thinks of Greer, surely the many thou­sands of ed­u­cated women with a healthy dis­re­gard for sta­tus is one of the great­est lega­cies pos­si­ble.

Ni­amh Puirséil is the author of pub­lished­byGil­lBooks


Kin­dling the Flame:

Nano Na­gle was the first Ir­ish woman to found a con­gre­ga­tion on the is­land since St Brigid

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