Spike Island rejects claim of ‘cynical’ Little Nellie links

The Spike Island visitor attraction has rejected suggestions it has cynically exploited its link to Little Nellie, the “unofficial patron saint of Cork”.

It follows the recent blessing by Bishop of Cork and Ross John Buckley, of a room and exhibition on Spike dedicated to Ellen Organ, known as Little Nellie.

Ellen, who was born in Waterford in 1903, moved to Cork in 1905 when her soldier father was transferred to a British army base on Spike.

When her mother died, Ellen and her sister were placed into the care of the Good Shepherd Sisters at their Magdalene laundry at Sunday’s Well, Cork City. 

Despite her short life and chronic ill-health, she is said to have astounded people with her strong faith and holiness. 

She died there in 1908 and was buried in a single plot on convent grounds where priests and nuns are buried.

As word of her life spread, people began praying to her. Her story influenced Pope Pius X in a decision to lower the age for receiving Communion from 12 to seven.

Headstones in a nearby inaccessible plot record the names of 30 women who died in Good Shepherd institutions between 1886 and 1973. Campaigners believe more are buried there.

Maureen Considine, a director of the Survivors Community Garden Project, campaigning for public access to those graves, said they do not want to disrespect Ellen Organ or those who venerate her.

“We find the worship of Little Nellie to be upsetting for survivors in the way she is presented and honoured as a good and holy child, in direct opposition to the other girls who were portrayed as bad and impure,” she said.

“We can understand how some people find hope in honouring her. But for us, she’s Ellen Organ. She is one of the many girls and women who died there.”

Spike Island manager John Crotty said Ellen has a specific link to Spike Island, run on a not-for-profit basis on behalf of Cork County Council.

“This is very much a Spike Island story,” he said. “There is no cynicism on our part. We are just telling hers and our story. It is not our place to discuss the wider Good Shepherd issues.”


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