Nagle, Nano (Honora) (1718–84), nun, educator, and founder of the Presentation Order, was born 9 April 1718 at Ballygriffin near Mallow, Co. Cork, eldest among five daughters and two sons of Garret Nagle (d. 1746), landowner, and Ann Nagle (née Mathew), who was from Annfield, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. The Nagle family, of Anglo-Norman descent and related to many distinguished Munster families, retained their catholic faith and some of their ancestral lands; the poet Edmund Spenser (qv) was connected by marriage, while her relatives included Rev. Theobald Mathew (qv), Edmund Burke (qv), and Sir Richard Nagle (qv) (d. 1699). David Nagle (d. 1712), MP for Mallow (1689), was her grandfather. She was christened Honora, but was known by the family nickname, ‘Nano’. She appears to have been educated privately before being sent to France sometime between 1728 and 1733. Despite the lack of documentary evidence, the Benedictine convent at Ypres in Flanders has been suggested as a likely location for her schooling; a number of Nagles are listed as members of that community.
When her education was complete, she joined her sister Ann in Paris, where, together with other Irish émigrés, they mingled in society with French gentry and nobility, reputedly frequenting the court of Louis XV. On the death of their father (1746), the women returned to their mother's house on Bachelor's Quay, Dublin, where Ann became involved in charitable and religious work. Nano was deeply impressed by the dreadful conditions of the poor in Dublin and by her sister's selfless charity, and determined to devote herself to a life in religion. Consequently, she returned to France and spent a short time as a postulant in a convent, till a Jesuit, the Rev. James P. Mulcaile, recommended that she go home to Ireland. On her return, with both her mother (d. 1748) and sister Ann (c.1749) dead, she travelled to Cove Lane, Cork, to live with her brother Joseph and his wife, Frances.
It was in Cork (c.1754), that Nagle opened her first school for poor children in a rented mud cabin. Thirty girls who had been gathered together by Nano's maid were taught to read and to sew by a paid schoolmistress. Nine months later the number of children attending had risen to over 200, at which time her sister-in-law suggested that she open more schools, catering for boys also. The death (1757) of her uncle Joseph Nagle, a prominent lawyer, lightened the financial burden somewhat, as he provided generously for her in his will. By 1769 she had set up seven single-sex schools, five for girls and two for boys, where lay people taught basic literacy skills, while girls were also given training in domestic activities. In 1770 a gentleman gave her money to send some of her male students as teachers to the West Indies, where it was intended they would help educate the children of the black population. Nano Nagle regarded it as of paramount importance that all her students were also given religious instruction; she herself guided many of them in their preparation for the sacraments of penance and first holy communion. Rigorous in her instruction, she would spend up to five hours every day during Lent, expiating on Christ's passion. She wrote to a friend, Eleanor Fitzsimons: ‘I often think that my schools will never bring me to heaven, as I only take delight in them.’ The idea of educating the poor was still quite radical, and Nagle did not meet with support from every quarter; some catholics as well as the majority of local protestants, were suspicious of her intentions, whilst parents sometimes resented having to pay the small fee for the education of their children.
Recognising the strain that running the schools by herself was causing her (she experienced symptoms of tuberculosis), she made arrangements during the 1760s to set up a religious community in Ireland which would run the schools on a permanent basis. Supported by a young priest, Fr Francis Moylan (qv), who had recently returned from France, and by his uncle, Fr Patrick Doran, Nagle began negotiations with the Ursuline nuns at Dieppe, Normandy, France, and travelled there for discussions (1767). As a result, three women agreed to be members of the first Ursuline convent in Ireland: Nano's cousin Margaret Nagle, Eleanor Fitzsimons, and Elizabeth Coppinger. Elizabeth's cousin, Mary Kavanagh, joined them in 1770. Another of Nano's cousins, Margaret Butler, originally agreed to act as mother superior in 1768, but shortly after arriving in Cork she went back to France, before returning again to Ireland (1771) on the order of Dominique de La Rochefoucauld, archbishop of Rouen. On 18 September 1771 the women moved into a new convent in Cork, built by Nagle. A fee-paying school opened in January 1772. However, the Ursulines’ vow of enclosure meant that they could concern themselves only with a school within the convent, and could not go to visit schools in the city or deal with other aspects of poverty in the community.
To counteract this problem, Nagle set about establishing a new kind of order, based in her own residence, and she gave it the name of the Sisters of the Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; they were later known as the Congregation of Presentation Sisters. Nano Nagle, along with three friends – Mary Ann Collins, Mary Fouhy, and Elizabeth Burke – entered the novitiate on 24 December 1775. Nagle took the religious habit in June 1776 before making a formal declaration in the presence of the bishop, and was confirmed as superior of the order. She chose ‘St John of God’ as her religious name. A long-standing tradition was inaugurated in 1777 when the nuns invited fifty destitute people to join them in a Christmas eve meal in their new convent.
Francis Moylan, by then bishop of Kerry, who had earlier supported the Ursuline nuns in opposing the new order, urged Nagle to set up a community of her nuns in Killarney. Teresa Mulally (qv), another pioneering educator from Dublin, began to consider the possibility of establishing a congregation of Presentation nuns to help the poor of Dublin. In 1783 Nagle established a refuge for homeless women.
Despite increasingly serious symptoms of tuberculosis, which included ulcers on her legs, Nagle remained active in her charitable and educational work, and practised frequent austerities; she fasted on bread and water two days a week. After getting soaked by rain, she succumbed to a chest infection and died 26 April 1784. Contrary to her wish that she be buried in a public cemetery, the Ursulines had her buried in their own graveyard. After her death, her community was renamed the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Fr Laurence Callanan (qv) and, despite Nagle's original intentions, the order was enclosed by Pius VII (1805). The Presentation Order opened a number of convents and schools in Ireland, as well as in Africa, Canada, and Australia. Nano Nagle has been credited with setting an example for the founders of several other religious orders, such as the Irish Christian Brothers and the Mercy Order of Nuns. There have been efforts to secure her canonisation, and the Cork community of the Presentation Order has charge of her principal relics, including her rosary, walking stick, bandages, and a portrait.