Nano (Honoria ) Nagle was born in County Cork in 1728. She was educated there and in France, where she eventually entered a convent as a postulant. She felt her mission lay in Ireland so she returned to Cork where she taught lessons in Christian doctrine. She sought out needy cases and established an asylum for aged and infirm women. In order to perpetuate this work, she formed, with ecclesiastical sanction, a religious community known as the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Later this title was changed to The Presentation Sisters. They received a set of rules, were approved by the Pope and finally, in 1800, raised to the dignity of a religious order.
In 1815, a ladies’ committee directed a school for 30 girls in Galway. To ensure continuity, Dr Edmund Ffrench, warden of Galway, asked the Presentation Community in Kilkenny for sisters. He had a fund of £4,800 left aside for the foundation of a convent. Three sisters, Mary Gertrude Breen, Mary De Chantal McLoughlin, and Mary Angela Martin, arrived and “were received with demonstrations of joy by the inhabitants, a great number of whom behaved with much kindness and liberality and were anxious on all occasions for their accommodation and happiness”.
Their first residence was in Kirwan’s Lane but it was not large enough to accommodate them and the children of the school (which had been handed over to them by the committee ), so they moved to a bigger house in Eyre Square. Finally, on March 25 1819, they moved into a building at the west end of the suburbs. It had been built as a Charter School and was later a military barracks which subsequently became vacant for a period. It was badly in need of repair so the sisters set about reconstructing it. On the bank of the river adjacent to this newly renovated convent was erected, in 1820, the first Presentation school in the west of Ireland. As time went on it was extended and remodelled.
Jonathan Bins described a visit in 1837 thus... “The children are admitted at the age of eight to the number of from four to six hundred and irrespectively of religious distinctions... and continue under the virtuous and vigilant care of the sisterhood, until fit to enter the active engagements of life. They are educated (gratuitously of course ) with reference to the situations of governesses, nursery maids, ladies’ maids, and confidential servants, and are sought by families all over Ireland. 180 of the pupils have breakfast given to them every day and 200 are clothed yearly. The funds arise from the subscriptions of the benevolent and the sale of the needle work of the girls, to which is added a grant of £30 from the Board of Education.”
James Johnson, in his book A Tour in Ireland With Meditations and Reflections, published in 1844, reported that, “The young children (in the Presentation School ) varied in age from six to ten years and the system of tuition appeared most excellent. I was present at several exploitations, and propounded questions to the girls myself... not without astonishment at the proficiency to which they had attained. They answered correctly all questions on the leading points of Christian faith, doctrine, and morals with remarkable clearness and intelligence. They were not embarrassed in the slightest degree by various cross-questions put to them by myself and others, proving that they were not crammed for the purposes of display, but were well grounded in the subjects of their study. Their knowledge of geography, astronomy, statistics etc, surprised me most of all. In reading, they displayed the same proficiency as to orthography, grammar, etc.”
Relief centre during the famine
During the Famine the average number of females attending the school was about 900. The sisters set about procuring food and clothing for their pupils with such zeal that their school developed into an important famine relief centre. Urgent appeals were penned by members of the community to relatives and friends, not only in Ireland, but overseas in America and Europe. They were in receipt of many generous gifts of food and clothing which were needed to feed some 500 children daily, principally by giving them breakfasts. Indeed a number of charitable organisations which sprang into existence to combat the Famine and its effects donated large quantities of food and clothing to the sisters on a number of occasions.
The school was a national school, primarily for girls, but a number of boys were admitted. It was essentially a woman’s realm but its influence on the male population was significant. Among its graduates were Pádraic Ó Conaire and Walter Macken, whose description is worth noting... “In the 1920s, there were quite a few boys in Galway who spent three years of their early life attending the Presentation Convent Schools. Then it didn’t have such a high sounding title, it was just ‘The Pres’, up near Canon Davis. You made three room changes, from Infants to Middle Babies, and then into First Class.... My memory of Infants is all about chalk. I remember trying to eat chalk, and somehow still have the taste on my tongue. Also, building blocks coloured with the letters of the alphabet on them, and those coloured beads on wire frames that taught you to count. I think there was a partition between Infants and Middle Babies which could be folded back against the wall, but already a sense of superiority was working.... you felt sorry for those poor kids in Infants. Middle Babies meant to me, ink. This was my first contact with ink. We sat at a desk with white ink bottles stuck in a hole, and one day, I drank the contents.
“First Class meant Sister Ursula who could wither a class with a look, and yet impress her personality on you so that you would never forget her and think of her with fondness. It meant the rattling of the beads of Sister Magdalen as she came down from the room upstairs if we were unruly and under the care of a daunted pupil teacher. The sound of the beads was enough to induce peace and apprehension without the (to us in our small desks ) enormously tall commanding no-nonsense presence of the Sister herself. All good things come to an end, like convent education, and time tempers even incipient misogyny. One felt a man going to a school where there was nothing but boys. But all the same, those three rooms in the convent left sort of tender trails of memory which one can always call up. It was only afterwards you realised that you left there with a most precious acquisition... you could read.... and you could write, and after all, that is the foundation of education, and the world of literature and history, art, and drama was yours for the taking.”
Development of secondary school
An intermediate class formed in the Presentation primary school in 1946 developed into a very successful secondary day school which was sanctioned in 1953. Increasing numbers pointed up the need for a larger building and so, to provide a site for the new school, the demolition of the 146-year-old building began in December 1966. During the construction, classrooms were provided in the newly erected gymnasium hall, Presentation Road, and in the new primary school, Scoil Chroí Iosa, Newcastle Road. The new secondary school opened in 1968.
As the Presentation Sisters approach their bicentenary in Galway, we can reflect on the enormous contribution they have made to the city, on how they have affected and improved the quality of life of many thousands of Galwegians, and of how much the citizens of Galway are in their debt. This week they are celebrating a jubilee in honour of Nano Nagle, their foundress who died on April 26th, 225 years ago.
Our first photograph shows a class from the mid 1940s. They are, back row, left to right: Aidan Naughton, High Street; Mossie Murphy; ---------- ; Jim Kenny; Joan O’Halloran, Woodquay; and Sadie Crowley, who is now a Presentation Sister in Rome. Third row: Seamus Murphy; Phyllis Monaghan-Devlin; Gertie McLoughlin–Kyne; Sean O’Carra; and Rose Heffernan. Second row: Marion Hallinan; Don Crowley; Betty Reidy; Peter Heffernan; Angela Lynch-Lupton; and Frank Hallinan. In front are Phyllis Naughton; --- Kenny; and Cecil Fleming.
The second photograph is an aerial shot taken about 1964 showing the old Presentation School which was built in 1820. The secondary school gymnasium had not yet been built.