The Presentation Convent School

At the request of the Rev. Edmund Ffrench, Warden of Galway, a convent of the Presentation of nuns was established in Galway. His father, the Rev. Edmund Ffrench, had been for many years Warden of the Established Church, and had been elected Mayor in 1774. The name of the Rev. Edmund Ffrench appears among other signatures to the "black petition" against the Catholics in 1761. The petition was on the 10th November of that year presented to Parliament praying to prevent Catholic shopkeepers from manufacturing or selling their goods, or employing journeymen for this purpose. His two sons Charles and Edmund when very young became Catholics, and later on Dominican Friars. Edmund was elected vicar, and on the death of the Warden, Dr. Bodkin, he was in turn in 1812, elected Warden - an appointment which gave rise to great bitterness in the town. The other Vicars protested strongly against his election and charged the lay-patrons "with partiality and injustice". Hardiman writes:"A disunion was accordingly the consequence; the chapter declared the proceedings invalid, refused to confer institution on the newly elected warden, and finally appealed to the Pope, complaining against the innovation of a regular intruding on a secular chapter ... The election, however, was afterwards, on 18th June, 1813, confirmed by the Pope; and the piety, zeal and exertions of Warden Ffrench, since his accession to the wardenship, justly entitle him to the respect and esteem in which he is so generally held."

The Presentation Order was founded by Nano (Honoria) Nagle, a native of Cork. After an elementary education at home, where Catholic schools were declared illegal, she was sent to France to complete her education. Some of her relations were then living in the suite of the exiled King James, and she entered on a brilliant social life in the court circles of Paris. Deciding to devote herself to the education of Irish Catholic children she spent a short time as a postulant at a convent in France. She returned to Ireland where she joined with some ladies who had privately organised a school in Dublin. On the death of her mother and sister she went to Cork, and in spite of the most adverse conditions in that city, she opened a school to combat the ignorance and vice there prevalent. Her first pupils were gathered secretly. In less than a year she succeeded in establishing two schools for boys and five for girls. She also organised and conducted an asylum for aged and infirm women at Cork. For the support of her schools and asylum she personally collected money from door to door in the city. In 1775 she founded the Presentation Order and established a convent, and the order spread rapidly all over Ireland. She adapted the rule of St. Augustine and a habit similar to that of the Ursulines.

Rev. Bartholomew Burke, one of the Catholic vicars of Galway, who died in 1813, bequeathed 6,000 (a great part of which was given him for charitable purposes) for founding a convent of the Presentation Order for the education of poor female children in Galway. The convent was established on the 27th October, 1815, in a house in Kirwan's Lane and a school was opened in November, 1815. A larger house was opened in Eyre Square in the following March. Here the nuns continued until 1819, when they removed to their present convent. This building had been built as a Charter School under the Society for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland. On the 1st April, 1788John Howard described this school: "Twenty two boys, one an idiot. All had shoes and stocking; but in general they did not look healthy, which might be owing to their late recovery from the measles. Allowance for soap, candles and turf only 14 a year. No towels. The house in good repair, but wanted white washing. This is a good situation for a bath". After this report the Charter School declined and was closed in 1798. During the rebellion of that year it was taken over as an artillery barrack and continued to be used as such until 1814.

The nuns held the building by lease for 60 years at 60 annual rent. "Each nun on admission to this order pays a sum of 500 towards the general fund, which is now considered sufficient, with the aid of annual sermons and occasional donations, to support this valuable establishment", wrote Hardiman. In 1820 thirty female orphan children were fed, lodged, clothed and educated, and according to the first Report of the Royal Commission on education, 1825, 395 children were attending the day school. The curriculum was needle work such as Limerick lace, Irish point and crochet, reading, writing and arithmetic. John Barrow in his Tour Round Ireland in 1835, wrote,

"I paid a visit to the Presentation Convent, with which I was much interested. The nuns, two and twenty in number, are all ladies of good family, and employ a part of their time very usefully in the education of children who are received from the age of seven to fifteen or sixteen. It was said there were at this time no less than four hundred under their tuition. They are instructed in the English language, but what books they read I did not learn. They are also taught needle work, and, when sufficiently skilled, are employed in making lace and tambour-work, the materials for which are sent for the purpose in large quantities from Nottingham; and the girls are paid, by those to whom the lace belongs, a certain sum for their labour, which assists their parents in clothing them, and in the payment of their rent. There chanced to be about forty or fifty girls employed in this manner when I passed through the rooms, and I was much pleased with their work, some of the patterns being very rich, and designed with great neatness and precision. The chapel attached to the convent is small but neat, and there is a good painting over the altar. Three of the sisters went through the apartments with us ... One of the ladies was inclined to be conversable, and we had a long chat together regarding the regulations of the convent... I thought she seemed not to have altogether forgotten the world of which she was once a denizen: she asked me about a family who formerly resided in London, and in whom she seemed to take some interest."

Barrow also quotes a letter from an anonymous correspondent on the school,

"In a school of several hundred girls belonging to the Presentation Convent at Galway, and assisted by the National Board we found the great girls writing out themes on virginity, priesthood, and martyrdom. The one state was glorious, the other more so, and the last, of course most of all... Several classes of little girls in the same school had their books open upon a catalogue of saints, male and female, whom they were to call upon in prayer, filling two pages. The children were apparently learning these names by heart; but when I asked if I might be permitted to listen, the nun who had charge of the class instantly began questioning one of them on a different subject, in so low a tone, however, that I heard scarcely anything but the name of Christ, which had no place in the lesson before them... The lady who conducted us over the convent, a beautiful and well bred woman, of about 30 years of age, was recognised by Lord ____, who had just preceded us in a visit to it, as the daughter of a baronet of ancient family, and large estate in an adjoining county. A few years before, she was a Protestant, as all her family are, and mixing with them in the world. This lady told me, that the estimated expense of entrance and profession in her convent was about 500. She expatiated to me with great complacency on the flourishing convent of the same order, which has been lately established in Newfoundland, by a colony of Irish ladies, who have also large schools under their tuition. It is well known, by those who are acquainted with Newfoundland, what strong reinforcements of Irish popery are pouring into that country. "

The circumstances under which the Galway nuns went to Newfoundland are worth a note. At the request of Dr. Fleming, Vicar Apostolic of Newfoundland, Sisters Josephine French and Mother de Sales Lovelock went from Galway to Newfoundland where they established a house at St. John's. Shortly before the arrival of the sisters on the island Catholics, who were mostly Irish, were looked on as a proscribed class by the governors of the time, who were generally commanders of British warships. Priests were hunted and persecuted, people who harboured them or permitted Mass to be celebrated in their houses were fined, imprisoned, and flogged, and their houses either burned or pulled down. These acts were undoubtedly illegal. The penal laws of Ireland were taken as applicable to Newfoundland, and even when Catholic Emancipation was granted to Ireland it was claimed by the legislature that it did not apply to the colony. Dr Fleming fought strongly against these injustices and finally succeeded in obtaining full freedom for the Catholics, and the denominational system of education was established by law.

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