Nano Nagle Place a community space containing a heritage centre, gardens, café and gift shop opened just over a year ago in Douglas Street, a few minutes’ walk from Cork’s city centre.
When we visited last week, I had some idea of what to expect but little sense of how it would feel. It is a peaceful spot, seemingly far removed from the city just outside its walls and the warm sunshine of an autumn day invited exploration of the gardens. Much of the original layout remains, existing in harmony with new planting and water features, which add to the sense of calm. It is not difficult to see how this lends itself to being a space for spirituality and wellbeing – or just a nice cup of coffee – and to imagine generations of women walking here in quiet contemplation.
Some of them are buried in the small graveyard here, among them, Nano Nagle in 1784. Born into a wealthy Catholic family, she devoted her life to helping the poor of Cork and founded the Presentation Sisters. Her achievement in opening seven schools across the city is all the more remarkable when you consider that is was done in secret during Penal times. The Heritage Experience invites you to discover more about this story and life in 18th century Cork, a city of merchant princes and appalling poverty.
Physically the exhibition echoes the journeys Nano Nagle would have made through Cork’s dark alleys, before opening out into a wider space which shows the history and work of the Presentation Sisters and the Goldie Chapel. Old maps of Cork and audio set the scene; touch screens offer the opportunity to learn more. There are places to pause and sit, stools and colouring materials for children. Placed in front of the pews in the chapel, tall boxes house screens, where you can quiz yourself on what you have just seen.
In a side room, a small screen shows a BBC documentary made in 1960s about a young woman’s last days at home before joining the convent. I was struck by the contrasts in the reactions of her family to that decision: Her father’s pride that his daughter was following in a family tradition of religious life; her mother’s understandable sadness at the prospect of her daughter leaving home, her brother’s surprise at the choice she had made. It showed an Ireland familiar and not long distant but far away now.
What I liked most is that Nano Nagle Place is more than a heritage centre telling the story of a remarkable woman of faith who sought to empower others through learning. But that that story has been respectively preserved and imaginatively told in a space, once in decline which has been rejuvenated. It is an open and welcoming community space and most of all, a centre for learning where the story continues to be written.