The eighteenth century was a time of intense deprivation all over Europe. In Ireland, in particular, there was much suffering. The oppressive Penal Laws were being slowly removed or were falling into disuse but the great majority of the people were still enslaved by poverty, unemployment and hunger. Most of all, there was an almost total lack of educational facilities for the children of the poor.
Towards the middle of the century Nano Nagle, a member of a wealthy Co. Cork family, experienced a call to serve the poor, particularly through education. Her first school in the Cove Lane, Cork was a two roomed mud cabin with earthen floors, a garret and a thatched roof. By 1796 she was supervising seven schools all over the city, five for girls and two for boys. Her curriculum included the three Rs for all and home management for girls but her chief priority was religious and moral education. Nano herself was responsible for preparing the students for the sacraments and teaching them to pray. A special feature of her schools was her insistence on training her students to evangelise their peers. For this she prepared boys whom she sent to the West Indies to instruct Irish workers and the local people.
Some of the difficulties Nano encountered over these thirty years were opposition from her own family and wealthy Catholics, constant fear of the law, problems of administration, financial insecurity and failing health. All these problems were overcome by her inflexible commitment to her vision, her ascetical life-style and her intense prayer-life.
Nano Nagle is regarded as a pioneer of Catholic education. She introduced the Ursuline Order to Ireland, set an example for other pioneers like Edmund Rice and founded the Presentation Congregation for the education of the poor. Thus she laid the foundation for a voluntary Catholic school system in this country.
Each new age must examine its institutions and traditions and pass on what is of value. Each new age must respond creatively to the signs of its own time.