A Brief History of the College

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A Brief History of the College

Maynooth College was founded in 1795 as a seminary for the education of priests and by 1850 had become the largest seminary in the world. Over its history it has ordained more than 11,000 priests. Many of these have ministered outside Ireland and it has inspired two major missionary societies, directed to China (1918 – the Columban Fathers) and to Africa (1932 – Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society).

The College was founded because it was urgently needed. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had not been possible to educate Catholic priests in Ireland. Institutions had been established in Catholic Europe, where they had become concentrated in France. The French Revolution confiscated all of these in 1792 and 1793. In Ireland the Penal Code was being dismantled, and the British Government, at war with revolutionary France, was anxious to placate Irish Catholic dissatisfactions, and certainly did not wish to see ‘revolutionary’ priests returning from the continent. In consequence, a petition to Parliament by the Irish Catholic Bishops was successful, and ‘An Act for the better education of persons professing the Popish or Roman Catholic religion’ was passed in June 1795. It provided a modest grant to establish a college.

The Bishops began to look for a site. It was desirable that the College be near Dublin, but they found themselves not exactly welcome in several desirable locations. They settled on Maynooth because the local magnate, the Duke of Leinster, was benevolent, and his Duchess even more so. This more than compensated for the fact that Maynooth was a little more distant from the city than they would have wished. The College opened in the autumn of 1795 in a house recently built by John Stoyte, steward of the Duke. Though heavily remodelled in the 1950s, it is still distinguishable as the projection on the row of buildings facing the front gate, and it is still called Stoyte House.

Maynooth and the Fitzgeralds

Maynooth is a historic spot. It is Má Nuad, the plain of Nuada, a name that bulks large in early Leinster legend. But above all it is associated with the Fitzgeralds. This association began in 1176, when Maurice Fitzgerald was granted a manor there by Strongbow as King of Leinster. He began to fortify the spot where a small tributary joins the Lyreen river. The great keep had risen before 1200, and in 1248 a chapel is mentioned in the complex of buildings. In all probability it was on the site of the present Church of Ireland.

Created Earls of Kildare in 1316, the power of the Fitzgeralds peaked with Garrett Mór (1478-1513) and Garrett Óg (1513-34). When a complaint was made to the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, that ‘all Ireland cannot rule this man’ he is reputed to have replied ‘then this man shall rule all Ireland’. It was a situation the King had to tolerate. Ireland was indeed ‘ruled from Maynooth’. The Great Earl – and perhaps even more so his son Garrett Óg – seemed able to combine control of Irish tribal policies with a wider European vision, instanced by such things as the library they assembled at Maynooth and the claim to fraternal kinship with patricians such as the Gherardini of Florence. So, when Garrett Óg decided to set up a church where priests would pray for his father’s soul, it should be no cause of surprise that there were hints of hopes it might develop into that centre of higher education Ireland had always lacked. When the College of St. Mary was established in 1518 the Fitzgeralds were on the crest of a wave. It would seem certain that it occupied the site of the Church of Ireland and the adjacent tower beside the front gate.

It all went badly wrong. The second Tudor King, Henry VIII, was not prepared to let the Fitzgeralds ‘rule all Ireland’. Garrett Óg was summoned to London. He left his son Thomas in charge. The epithet ‘Silken Thomas’ is a piece of bardic whimsy that does not do him justice. Neither does the legendary image of his playing his lute under the great yew tree still known as ‘Silken Thomas’s tree’. (It stands on the left of the path leading up from the College gate.) Tree experts are agreed that it was there in his time and indeed well before him, but historians, while not necessarily denying the image of the lute-player, have to insist that Fitzgerald heirs had more serious preoccupations, especially in dangerous times. The revolt he led was a deliberate attempt to assert Fitzgerald indispensability. But the great castle was battered into submission and the garrison massacred. Already Garrett Óg had died in the Tower of London ‘of thought and pain’. Thomas surrendered and was executed at Tyburn with his five uncles. The sole survivor, a child half-brother, was spirited abroad into Italy. But his restoration began in 1552 and he was the founder of a line that was content with the new pattern of court nobility. In the mid-eighteen century Carton and Leinster House (now the seat of the Oireachtas) showed off their glory. James the twentieth earl was created Duke of Leinster in 1766. His son William Robert, the second Duke, was the protector of the fledgling ‘Catholic College’ in 1795.

St. Joseph’s Square

Students flocked in. The problem was to find staff and to put roofs over heads. A long wing was run out from Stoyte House, called, not very imaginatively, Long Corridor. It was begun in 1798, and it might be said that each room was occupied as soon as it became ready. Today it looks very new, because it was heavily remodelled in the 1950s. The authorities had in mind to build a square, and the north side was completed in 1809, not without serious financial anxiety. Again, not very imaginatively, it was called New House. The first part of the south side to be built was a detached building at the western end, to be called Dunboyne House. At the back of this is a curious tale.

John Butler became Catholic Bishop of Cork in 1763. He was of an aristocratic family, and in 1785 succeeded to the title of Lord Dunboyne and to extensive estates. He became obsessed with the thought that he was obliged to produce an heir, and when Rome refused him permission to marry he joined the Established Church in 1787. He died childless on 7 May 1800, reconciled to the Catholic Church. He left all his property to Maynooth College. Inevitably, the will was contested by the family. At this stage the penal laws against Catholics owning property had been repealed, with one exception, still there, everyone agreed, simply because it had been overlooked. If a Catholic converted to Protestantism and reconverted to Catholicism he could not bequeath landed property. But could the religion in which Lord Dunboyne died be established to the satisfaction of a civil court? Faced with the prospect of endless litigation, the parties agreed to a division of the property. For Maynooth, this was wealth indeed, and it is genuinely hard to understand why it was decided to devote it all to postgraduate studies – there were two professors of theology and an urgent need for buildings for undergraduate seminarians. But that was the decision, and the building, Dunboyne House, opened for postgraduate students of the Dunboyne Establishment in 1815. It still keeps the same name and function.

The south side of what was now beginning to look like a square was completed between 1822 and 1824. St. Joseph’s Square has character, despite the ravages of time and sometimes questionable refurbishment. It may be that it is hard to go seriously wrong when building within a tradition (in this case the Georgian) and perhaps particularly difficult if there is not much money to spend.

South of the square is an untidy cluster of buildings which housed the lay college. At its heart is the finest heritage building in the College, the eighteenth-century Riverstown Lodge, which still survives the less worthy later additions that surround it. The buildings were incorporated into the seminary when the lay college closed in 1817, clearly made redundant by the opening of Clongowes Wood in 1814. Two large functional buildings, Rhetoric and Logic Houses, were built in the early 1830s and became the Junior House. In this area some relief is provided by the ‘Junior Garden’. It is outlined as the garden of Riverstown Lodge on a map dated 1809. It was rejuvenated by the late Cardinal D’Alton when he was President in the 1930s. He initiated what is its most notable feature, the rock garden.

Finding a Staff

In the 1790s it was clearly a problem to find teaching and administrative staff in a country when there had never been a seminary. Fortunately there was a solution in the many émigré priests who had fled the French Revolution. Some were French, some Irish, the latter being strongly French in culture. In consequence, the College had a strong ‘French’ flavour at the beginning. The passage of time brought its inevitable ‘greening’. A good place to get a sense of this is the cemetery, just beyond the Junior Garden, where the first burial took place in 1817. One might also reflect that the most famous of the earlier staff was neither French nor a theologian, Nicholas Callen, Professor of Natural Philosophy (or, as we would say, Mathematics and Physics) from 1826 to 1864. He was a pioneer of applied electricity, patenting an improved battery and a process for galvanising iron, and, it seems certain, making the first working induction coil, which, curiously, he did not patent. The apparatus he built for himself is in the College Museum, near the Junior Garden, and opened by request. The Museum also contains a collection of Irish-made scientific instruments and of ecclesiastical items.

Gothic: St. Mary’s Square and College Chapel

In the 1840s it became politically expedient ‘to do something for Ireland’, and part of that ‘something’ was a building grant of £30,000 for Maynooth. It was the height of the ‘Gothic Revival’, and its leading exponent, A.W.N. Pugin, was chosen as architect. He chafed at the financial constraints, but produced three sides of ‘St. Mary’s Square’ in plain thirteenth-century Gothic. While it dominates the humbler earlier buildings, it is much plainer than Pugin’s dream. His greatest grievance was that funds did not run to a College Chapel.

The Irish Catholics had by now begun the building of new churches, some in an ornate Gothic style. Yet the chapel of the national seminary was still a hall in the north end of Long Corridor, regarded as temporary when it was first used in 1800. But there were still more urgent needs, notably a new infirmary, built to the north of Pugin’s buildings in the 1860s. It looks like a Gothic sanatorium and tuberculosis was certainly in the minds of those who commissioned it. It has recently been remodelled (2002) as the headquarters of the commissions and agencies of the Irish Bishops’ Conference.

The Chapel, to be built by public subscription, was initiated by Charles W. Russell, President from 1857 to 1880. A distinguished scholar and administrator, he is perhaps most widely remembered as the friend and confidant of John Henry Newman, who said of him that ‘he had perhaps more to do with my conversion than anyone else’. The architect was J.J. McCarthy, Professor of Architecture at the Catholic University. The foundation stone was laid on 20 October 1875, and it was finally opened for worship on 24 June 1891. It is in French fourteenth-century Gothic, more ornate than Pugin’s buildings, but still restrained. It may perhaps be too dominated by the massive tower and spire, added a decade later.

The architect for the interior was William Hague but the guiding spirit was Robert Brown, President from 1885 to 1894. They were not free of the perennial problem, of having ‘to do much with little means’, but the outcome was an unqualified success. In a large complex of plain and generally utilitarian buildings, a visit to the College Chapel can hardly fail to be a genuinely religious experience.

The greatest contributing factor is, inevitably, the stained glass windows. It was not a great period for glass, but the cumulative effect is impressive – the great Rose Window centred on Christ the King in glory, and the row stretching down the nave and round the apse depicting scenes from his public ministry. They were supplied by three firms, Mayer from Munich and Lavers and Westlake and Cox Buckley and Co. from London. N.H.C. Westlake of the first of these London firms gave a ‘pre-Raphaelite’ feel to the interior with his Stations of the Cross and the great heavenly procession of saints and angels that fills the ceiling (the panels were designed by Westlake and executed by a Dublin artist, Robert Mannix). This praise swelling towards the altar is echoed in the floor, where a psalm-verse in a marble mosaic calls for perpetual praise of the Lord. The massive organ was built by Stahlhut of Aachen. A most impressive feature, rivalling even the light from the stained glass, is the row upon row of carved oak choir-stalls that fill the whole church. Their detail does really suggest the medieval craftsmen, except that here it was produced by a Dublin firm, Connollys of Dominick Street. The five apse chapels are a notable feature of the design. The central one, the Lady Chapel, has mosaics depicting the life of Our Lady, carried out with Italian glass by Earley Studios of Camden Street. The complex of buildings at Maynooth had been substantially completed by about 1900. The architecturally undistinguished Aula Maxima was built in the 1890s, the equally undistinguished but more unexpected swimming pool in 1903, one of the very first in Ireland.

Academic Development

The student body fluctuated between five and six hundred, all of them of course seminarians preparing for the priesthood. Authority to confer degrees came slowly enough to what, by the standards of the time, was a large ‘third-level’ institution. In the centenary year 1895 a petition was sent to Rome for authority to grant degrees in theology, philosophy and canon law, and this was granted in 1896. The thorny problem of civil university education acceptable to Catholics was resolved by the Irish Universities Act of 1908. There was provision for Maynooth to become a ‘recognised college’, and this began to function in 1910, with faculties of Arts, Science, Philosophy and Celtic Studies. In 1966 it was decided to open the College courses to religious and laity, and student numbers grew. There are now about 5,000, of whom only a small minority are studying for the priesthood. Legislation in 1997 established the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, as a totally separate body. Its main developments are to the north of the road from Maynooth to Kilcock, but it maintains a significant presence in the older heritage buildings.

The Latest Years

Here a few noteworthy recent developments may be listed. A new library was opened in 1984. Named the John Paul II Library, its main door faces a bronze statue by Imogen Stuart of the Pope with Irish youth. This is surrounded by the ‘heritage wall’ recording the names of benefactors. Near the main west door of the College Chapel is a bronze statue of Our Lady Queen of Angels, a gift to honour the many Irish priests who have worked in Los Angeles. It was dedicated by Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney on 3 October 1991. St. Mary’s Oratory, in the Pugin buildings, had been allotted to the senior students in the1850s, over the protests of Nicholas Callan, who claimed that he had been promised the large hall as a laboratory. The plain space was slightly embellished after it had been gutted in the fire of 1 November 1878, but it remained utilitarian despite the insertion of two genuinely distinguished stained-glass windows in 1939. They survived an unfortunate refurbishing in the name of liturgical renewal, and remain a chief glory in a total and happier reordering carried out to mark the new millennium. This renewal was made possible with a generous grant from the St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society. The Oratory is adorned with works of art by Patrick Pye (Transfiguration), Imogen Stuart (Madonna and Child), Ken Thompson (St. Joseph, Altar, Ambo, Chair), Kim en Joong, O.P. (non-figurative) and Benedict Tutty, O.S.B. (Tabernacle and Cross).

Finally, there is the bicentenary garden, located in St. Mary’s Square, designed to symbolise man’s spiritual journey towards God. It really should be taken slowly and reflectively. A detailed leaflet is available.

If you live outside Ireland, check out our dedicated area for international students.

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