HomeIntroductionHistorical signifigance

Historical signifigance

These letters provide an insight into the political, social, and economic environment of Ireland in the late eighteenth century. In one of her earliest letters to Miss Fitzsimons in 1769, Nano describes Cork as a ‘place of great trade’. This was no exaggeration. At this time, Cork was a booming port city which thrived on the export of goods such as salted beef, pork and butter.[1] Surprisingly, this industry was almost exclusively in the hands of Catholics. This included members of Nano's own family, who had succeeded in climbing the social ladder despite the operation of the Penal Laws. Their anger at Nano's role in setting up Catholic poor schools is revealing, and exposes the precarious economic and social position occupied by the Catholic elite during this time.


The position of those below the Catholic gentry and mercantile class was however, significantly worse. Nano’s letters portray the lives of the urban poor as one of fever and disease, aggravated by poor living conditions and food shortages. In setting up schools to alleviate the conditions of this social class, Nano's letters provide a rare insight into the methods of instruction offered to the poor during this period. In Nano Nagle’s poor schools, both sexes were taught to read, write, and learn the Douay Catechism by heart. As part of Nano’s evangelical mission, young boys were prepared for missionary work in the West Indies.

Following the development of the poor schools Nano established two religious institutes: the Ursuline Sisters in 1771 and the Presentation Sisters in 1775. Through her involvement in the establishment of these institutes, the letters of Nano Nagle permit a unique insight into the development of Catholicism in the late eighteenth century. Since these were among the first female institutes to operate in Ireland since the reformation, these letters are also of particular importance to those concerned in the study of gender and the role of women. [11] The duties these women exercised as administrators, financiers and advisors, granted them a level of responsibility outside of traditional norms. 

 [10] Arthur Young, A tour of Ireland in 1776-1779 (London, 1897), p. 107.


[11] Paula Coonerty, ‘The Presentation Sisters and the education of poor female children in Limerick, 1837-1870’, in The Old Limerick Journal, no. 33 (Winter 1996), p. 36.