Walking recently in the shade of a splendid oak on the grounds of the Presentation Convent, it occurred to me that the tree might well have been a slim sapling, when Bianconi personally drove the first Sisters to their new home in Greenane, on a pleasant day in June 1829.
It was a short but momentous journey from their first home in Clonmel, in a two-storey, two-roomed building (to which a third floor was eventually added), adjacent to St. Mary’s Church in Irishtown, which was still officially described as “a thatched mass-house.”
Three Sisters from Dungarvan arrived there on 2nd October 1813. The Presentation Sisters are now celebrating the bi-centenary of that arrival.
They were walking in the inspirational footsteps of Nano Nagle. Born near Mallow, Co. Cork, she was the daughter of a wealthy Catholic land-owning family. She attended the traditional “finishing school” in France and loved the silken gowns and fashionable balls of Parisian life, but when circumstances took her back to live in Cork city, she was appalled by the poverty of the swarms of children in the streets, all without any access to education. And so began her mission to teach poor children. But first they had to be fed.
In time, with the help of other women, she had established eight small schools in the back-streets of the city. The work was financed by her own money, and motivated by her deep faith, and her conviction that education was the catalyst to social change. It was only after several years, when she was surrounded by like-minded friends, that she founded the Presentation Order in 1775. By this time her health, affected by her unrelenting work, had deteriorated and she died in 1784.
Although Catholic Emancipation was still some decades in the future, by 1813 when the three Sisters arrived in Irishtown, amending legislation had already removed some of the worst excesses of The Penal Laws, with the resultant gradual emergence of a Catholic middle-class.
Clonmel was an expanding prosperous thriving town. Many of the thatched cabins in the streets had been replaced by splendid terraced houses, in places like Queen Street and Anglesea Street. With the prosperity came a growing population.
But a substantial segment of that population remained untouched by that prosperity. The local destitution was added-to annually with the arrival of migratory labourers from Cork and Kerry. These worked on farms, potato and grain-harvesting, and they brought their children with them. All without education.
In this period before the establishment of the national schools, there was only one Charitable School in the town which, in the early decades of the 19th century, accommodated 36 students, of whom 11 were Catholics.
Wild, poor, unwashed and malnourished children
The harvest was indeed ready, but the labourers were just three Sisters in two rooms in Irishtown. In the first school-year, there was an attendance of 500 children: wild, poor, unwashed and malnourished. And following Nano Nagle’s policy, before they could concentrate on lessons, they had to be fed.
To those of us who still remember the dimensions of the two rooms (ultimately the first home of St. Mary’s Choral Society), the modern mind boggles. Where do you put 500 children? How do you accommodate additional classes for 200 adults who attended for religious instruction, and also lessons in needlework, lace-making, and elementary hygiene?
If today, you were to submit an application for such an undertaking (or enterprise) for subsidy grant purposes, you would have to justify it with an attached professionally-prepared business-plan. The Sisters, now augmented in numbers by a few other women, just got on with it. Classes were held in relays and some expanded into the nearby church. They even found time to visit and bring comfort to some old residents of an neighbouring almshouse in Upper Irishtown.
Hardships get a brief mention in the notes on the history of the time. There was no domestic water-supply, no sewerage, no public lighting, no heating other than open fires. In cramped conditions, there was no space for privacy.
They had little money. Apart from some small donation from a struggling parish, the only money available was that brought into the community by the women themselves, through the generosity of their families and small endowments.
The Sisters prayed, taught, prayed, scrubbed, prayed, fed, prayed again. A touching note of the period said “they were all happy.”
The relocation to Greenane was achieved in 1829 through the good offices of a Mr. Davis of Clonmel, the father of a Presentation Sister.
Ireland in the 19th was unusually fortunate in the women who founded the religious orders, Nano Nagle, Catherine Macauley, Mary Aikenhead and Teresa Ball, and who achieved an enduring social revolution, at a time when women had little status and lived in a patriarchal climate. Those achievements now call for a re-assessment by our feminist historians.
And while our modern aggressively secular climate might now also discount and dismiss the values of a strong religious belief, a close look at the life and work and dedication of an extraordinary woman, Nano Nagle, would suggest that faith really does move mountains.