Nuns who helped to shape face of Galway

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina visited the Presentation Order to mark the 200th anniversary of the order's arrival in Galway city. They are pictured with some of the sisters at the Presentation Convent. Front row: Sisters Angela Murphy, Gertrude Shortall, Columbiere Scully, President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, and Sr. Helen Hyland. Back Row: Sisters Esther Halvey, Bernadette Breathnach, Regina Walsh, Brid Leonard, Kathleen McDonagh, Imelda Walsh, Pauline Morris, Clare Hogan, Anne Fox, Maire McNiallias, Kathleen Fahy and Margarita Ryan. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Rambling through Galway’s bustling Latin Quarter these days, with its high-end bars and restaurants, where happy tourists rub shoulders with relaxed locals, it’s difficult to imagine the poverty that existed in this area 200 years ago when the Presentation order of nuns established their first Galway convent in Kirwan’s Lane.

Three Presentation Sisters had come from Kilkenny in 1815 at the invitation of the then Warden of Galway, Dr Edmund Ffrench, who pledged a sum of £4,000 towards their maintenance for a six-year term.

The Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary had been set up in Cork 1775 by Nano Nagle to help and educate the poor – forty years later, there was no shortage of poverty in Galway.

The nuns’ first base here was in a private house in Kirwan’s Lane where they began providing education to Galway’s poorest girls. They also set up a Breakfast Institute to help tackle the immediate problem of hunger.

When their Kirwan’s Lane house became too small, they moved to Eyre Square for a couple of years before another house – where they still live – was purchased. The Sisters settled there in 1819. Its address is now Presentation Road, a tribute to nuns and their work, but back then, this was part of the countryside and there was a farm attached to the building.

The house had been built in the mid 1700s and was used first as a Protestant Charter School, then as an infirmary for a military barracks. It had fallen into disrepair and needed restoration but it suited the Sisters’ needs and had room in its grounds for a school. In 1820 the nuns set up the West of Ireland’s first Presentation Elementary School, to accommodate 500 children. The curriculum included needle work such as Limerick lace, Irish point and crochet, as well as reading, writing and arithmetic.

In the early 1820s a space was built to cater for 30 boarders; these girls attended an industrial school also run by the nuns where they learned to sew and make lace, enhancing their employment prospects.

The tradition of the ‘Breakfast Room’ continued, and thousands of children received their morning meal at the Presentation Convent until 1891. This was a huge safety net in a time of extreme poverty when Social Welfare did not exist and famine was common.

Unlike many of the other religious orders which were tainted by scandals of orphanages and mother-and-baby homes, the Presentation Order has emerged with its reputation untarnished.

“The Presentation Order hasn’t been involved. We were lucky not to have had an orphanage,” says Sr Helen Hyland, who is Community Leader at the City’s Presentation Convent.

Since 1819 when it opened, 146 Sisters have passed through that building. And as with every religious order, numbers are declining, something Sr Helen is well aware of. The Laois-born nun taught in Galway during the 1980s before moving to Portlaoise and then Belfast where she was involved in social work. She was then based in Athlone for 10 years, where she worked in the Order’s Provincial Leadership team.

When Sr Helen moved back to Galway six years ago, there were 21 Sisters in the convent. Since then, four have died and two have moved to a nursing home. The average age of those remaining is the mid-70s.

But all have been involved in the celebrations, which have been taking place in their three schools – The Secondary, which is located on the convent grounds; Scoil Chroí Íosa, around the corner, and Scoil Bhríde in Shantalla.

"The celebrations have brought new life to the House," says Sr Helen, explaining that the nuns had worked in one or other of the three schools. Someone who did not live to see the bicentenary celebrations was Sr Gerard Duggan, who died in last October in her 90s. Sr Helen described her as someone who provided a major link with the Convent's history as she had lived with nuns who who joined during the early years, and was a huge source of knowledge.

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with members of the Bicentenary Committees. Front Row: Anne de Burca, President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, and Netta Kennedy. Back Row: Back Row: L. to R.: Séamus McGuinness, Sr. Anne Fox, Eleanor Fogarty, Srs. Kathleen Fahy, Pauline Morris and Bernadette Breathnach. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Sr Gerard recalled a huge pot that had been employed by nuns to feed 1,000 children daily during the Great Famine and was
subsequently used on the farm as a trough to feed cattle. Despite attempts by Sr Helen to locate it for the anniversary, this item seems to have been lost. .

Feeding and educating the girls of Galway in the early 1800s was expensive work, and until the 1830s, when the National Board of Education was set up, the nuns received no State support.

"Most of the women who entered were well-educated and they brought dowries with them, which were used to support poor children," says Sr Helen. In the 20th century, circumstances changed again, and the nuns adapted to meet new educational needs. A new primary school, Scoil Chroí Íosa was formally opened in 1965, catering for girls from infant level to sixth class. Boys attended until first class and then moved on. Since 2014, the school has been fully co-educational. 

Scoil Bhríde in Shantalla, another Presentation Primary School opened in 1955. Shantalla was an area of the city that was affected by high unemployment and, from the beginning the nuns operated a strong home-school liaison programme. In 1989, Sr Helen was to the fore in establishing a pre-school programme in Scoil Bhríde, which was later taken up by the Department of Education. The nuns ran it voluntarily, and when the Department took over, it provided a salary.

Second-level education also became more common in the mid 20th century. In 1946, the Presentation Primary School began operating a 'Secondary Top', allowing girls to continue in school right up to Leaving Cert.

The City's population expanded in the 1960s and 1970s and the nuns responded, says Clíona Ní Neíll, the current Principal of Presentation Secondary School, who has been on the staff since graduating from the UCG in the mid-1980s. 

A brand new secondary school was opened in 1968, after the existing school was knocked to the ground. It now has pupils from 24 countries, including Ireland, although numbers are in decline. Currently there are 300 students, with 50-60 per cent of them travelling from the east side of the city - the traditional catchment areas of Presentation Road and Newcastle now have very young families, says Clíona.

Other factors have also led to the decline, The new Claregalway Secondary, which opened in 2013, has had an enormous impact on all schools in the City, including the Presentation and as far out as Headford, adds Clíona. A bus service from the City to Claregalway has made it more difficult to get students to travel into the City.

So, for its next phase, the Presentation Secondary will amalgamate with the nearby Convent of Mercy Secondary in Newtownsmith to create a new school. This ideas was first mooted in 2009, explains Clíona, but didn't happen then because of the country's financial crisis. "We were in agreement with it then, and we are still."

The new, amalgamated, school will be located on the site of the existing Presentation School and the nuns are giving some land to allow for expansion. 

Clíona and Sr. Helen feel it's a good move, the two schools have the same board of trustees in CEIST, so they have the same vision and ethos, the women explain. There will be changes, including a new Principal, and Deputy Principal, a new name, uniform, crest and mission statement.

The new school will open in September 2016 and Sr Helen is looking forward to this. "It will bring a new life to us. There will be 500 students coming in and that can only have a positive impact. We have a huge garden and are delighted to be able to contribute part of it for the future of Catholic education in the city.

"If we are dying out, at least we can leave a legacy. It's a positive thing."

And while she is sad that the number of Sisters in Ireland is declining, Sr Helen is pragmatic. "The way we knew is gone. The way I am now is not the way I was 25 or 30 years ago. It's a different way of life."

The traditional 'vowed' way of life will not continue unless something happens to change the current trends, she says. "But we don't know." 

And Sr Helen points out that there are Assoicated and Friends of Nano Nagle all over the world, carrying out the work of this wealthy Cork woman who used her money for the benefit of others.

"The most important thing is that Charism of Nano lives on." 

(Article courtesy of Connacht Tribune).