Gaelic script reading "Coláisde na nGaedheal" (Irish College) on the gates of the Pontifical Irish College, Ro

A brief history of Irish Colleges in the 17th century

This post was inspired by a four-part series on the Irish Colleges shown in March 2015 on BBC2 NI. 

1592 was a pivotal year for Irish philosophy, the year it split along sectarian lines. In that year after decades of wrangling the University of Dublin was founded, along with its first (and only) college, Trinity College Dublin. However it was open only to those who accepted Elizabeth I as the head of the Church. Oxford and Cambridge were already effectively closed to Irish Catholics since graduands had to swear the Oath of Supremacy. This was only part of laws aimed at stamping out Catholicism in the kingdoms she ruled. In 1592 on a visit to Oxford, which was still a hotbed of Catholicism, Elizabeth I made clear in a speech that the requirement for the oath would not be relaxed.

Irish scholars had long studied on the continent. In 1592 an Irish College specifically aimed at training Irish priests opened in Salamanca. It was one of the first, and becamse the most famous in Spain. Now conforming Protestants would study at Trinity or Oxford or Cambridge, while the Irish Catholic presence on the continent would grow ever stronger.

Facade at Fonseca, Irish College Salamanca Courtesy Rita Larkin
Facade at Fonseca, Irish College Salamanca
Courtesy Rita Larkin

The Salamanca college grew from the efforts of Fr Thomas White, born in Clonmel, who had about ten students under his care in Valladolid, Spain. He sought a permanent home for them and sought accommodation for them at the English College of St Alban but was refused. He approached King Philip II (former husband of Mary I of England), who had already shown interest in the Irish as a pawn in his broader political strategies. With the King’s support and a papal bull from Clement VIII the Colegio de los Nobles Irlandeses was set up, housing two hundred Irish students between 1592 – 1611, with between five and twenty matriculating each year. The Irish students studied under the great Spanish theological masters of the age, in the Thomist, Augustinian and Laxist schools.

An early registration book (now held in the Salamanca Archive in Maynooth) includes the name of Florence Conroy, born in 1560 in Co. Roscommon. According to Luke Wadding, Conroy was one of the most distinguished of the Franciscan scholars in Salamanca at this time, being especially expert in the works of St. Augustine. He was also involved in the confederacy led by Red Hugh O’Donnell and Hugh O’Neill, returning to Ireland in 1601 with the Spanish fleet. Their defeat led to his return to Spain and Conroy administered the Last Rites to O’Donnell in 1602.

Sign commemorating the Irish College Salamaca Courtesy Rita Larkin
Sign commemorating the Irish College Salamanca. Courtesy Rita Larkin

Conroy felt that Salamanca was biased in favour of the Anglo-Norman (or “Old English”) applicants and against the Ulster Gaels. He petitioned King Philip III and the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, and in 1606 got permission to establish a new Irish College in Leuven (Louvain). In April 1607, five months before the Flight of the Earls, the College opened with the monks arriving in May. The new college became the centre of the Irish Franciscan “Grand Project”, which aimed to overthrow the long-standing view of the Irish as barbarians and establish the country in the European mind as one of the ancient cultures of Europe. This in turn would support efforts to defend the Catholic faith in Ireland.

The first books published in Irish were religious works commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I, from 1571. The first Counter-Reformation text was a catechism, An Teagasg Criosdaidhe, compiled by Bonaventure O’Hussey of Leuven (born in Enniskillen Castle) and published at Antwerp in 1611. He campaigned for printing to be carried out in Leuven and a press was established there from 1616 until 1728. Hugh MacCaghwell (also called Aodh McAingel), another Ulster theologian from Downpatrick and later Archbishop of Armagh, also wrote key counter-reformation texts and taught the likes of Hugh Ward and John Colgan. He also did important work on the philosophy of Duns Scotus, producing definitive texts and providing commentaries.

Entrance to the Irish College, Leuven (c) Wikimedia (Free Art License)
Entrance to the Irish College, Leuven
(c) Wikimedia (Free Art License)

Not only Counter-Reformation texts were produced at Leuvan, but works on works of hagiography, history and on Irish grammar. The key works on hagiography (lives of the saints) were compiled by John Colgan of Inishowen, Donegal and published in Leuven. These works, based on years of previous scholarship, worked to defend against Scottish claims on Irish saints.

Probably the most famous history developed by the Franciscans in Leuven was not published until the 19th century. The Annals of the Four Masters was a work commissioned by Hugh Ward of Donegal, who had studied in Salamanca and lectured in the Irish College in Paris before coming to Leuven. He was the original driving force behind the plan to publish the lives of the saints and a comprehensive history of Ireland. To provide materials for the latter he arranged for Michael O’Clery, another Donegal man to return to Ireland and copy as many Irish manuscripts as possible. This work, carried out with three others became known as the Annals of the Four Masters. This, along with efforts by others such as Patrick Fleming from Louth, ensured the preservation of much material that otherwise would have been lost. Fleming went to Rome with Hugh MacCaghwell in 1722, and was later sent to Prague to establish a College there.

The Pontifical Irish College, Rome. Peter Clarke/ Wikimedia, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While in Rome MacCaghwell supported the efforts of Waterfordman Luke Wadding to establish an Irish College in Rome. (Eventually two were founded: St Isodores and the Pontifical Irish College.) Wadding, who had trained in the Irish College in Lisbon and briefly been President of the College in Salamanca, called on two graduates of Leuven to join the new College: Clareman Antony Hickey and Corkman John Punch (or Ponce). These three worked from 1633 on compiling complete edition of Duns Scotus, which was published in 1639 as Duns Scoti Opera Omnia, published in twelve folio volumes. This edition also included valuable notes drawn from previous Scotus scholarship.

Wadding was also involved in debates on Jansenism, a debate that most intimately affected the Irish College at which the most Irish priests were trained, that of Paris. Irish students had been present in numbers in Paris since 1578, when a group led by Waterford priest Fr John Lee entered the Collège de Montaigu there. The group prospered under Lee and his successor Thomas Dease, whose departure for Ireland in 1621 resulted in the appointment of Thomas Messingham. Under Messingham (who wrote on the Irish saints, including St Patrick), the College gained legal recognition and the right to collect money under Letters Patent granted in 1623. In 1624 it was admitted to the University of Paris.

The buildings of the Collège des Irlandais (c) Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The buildings of the Collège des Irlandais, now the Irish Cultural Centre
(c) Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There was rivalry between students from the different provinces of Ireland, resulting in multiple colleges arising, all claiming descent from the original Irish College. Eventually in 1685 the College established by Munster and Ulster priests at the Collège des Lombards gained official recognition as the Irish College. Yet among these regional conflicts there was room for theological ones.

John Sinnich, a Cork priest who was rector at Leuven, had compiled the index to Jansen’s work Augustinus and defended it as conforming to Augustine’s original works in Homologica (1641). He defended Jansenism in Rome from 1643-5, and after its condemnation in print. In France, the Corkman John Callaghan and felliw Irishman Philip O’Lonergan also supported Jansenism. Callaghan’s printed Letters of support triggered the L’affaire des Hibernois in 1651, in which twenty-seven young priests in the Irish College led by Fr Richard Nugent of Cloyne published the “Declaration of the Irish against Jansenism”. The Meath-born rector of the Irish College, Edward Tyrell and the theologians Eugene Egan and James Duley also stood against Jansenism.

After the second papal bull against Jansenism in 1653, Sinnich developed other interests. Callaghan was celebrated by Port-Royal, the centre of Jansenism, and continued his involvement in religious and political controversies, including with John Punch. By the 1680s two Irish Franciscans distinguished themselves as anti-Jansenists: Patrick Duffy at Leuven and Francis Porter at Rome.

One of the most successful Irishmen in Paris (and one also accused of Jansenist leanings) was Dubliner Michael Moore. He received his MA in Paris, then went on to lecture in philosophy there and was elected rector in 1677, though he refused the honour. He retained links with Ireland and returned to Dublin in 1686. He played an important part in the Catholic revival under James II as vicar general of the Dublin Diocese. In October 1689 he was made provost of Trinity College Dublin and is credited, along with another priest Teigue MacCarty, as saving the library from the Jacobite soldiers. Moore disagreed with James II’s ecclesiastical policies and after preaching against them in 1690 was banished.

The brief junction between the Irish Colleges and Trinity College didn’t last. James II was defeated in July 1690 and returned to France. It is believed that around this time the oldest surviving Irish manuscript, the Cathach, also made its way to the Irish College Paris to be preserved there.

Moore published De Existentia Dei (1692) against the spread of Cartesian philosophy in the universities while searching for employment in Paris, but Jacobite feeling against him led him to move to to Rome. He returned to Paris in 1701 after the death of James II, taught and published Aristotelian courses and was again elected rector, which this time he accepted. Over the coming century the college expanded into the
Collège des Irlandais, played an important part in the preservation of Irish and trained hundreds of priests.

There were twelve Irish Colleges in Spain, France and the Low Countries by 1611. At their height there were close to 300 institutions across Europe. Many were forced to close after the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The repeal of the Penal Laws and the opening of St Patricks Maynooth also lessened the need for the Irish Colleges. Some re-opened, such as Salamanca, who moved to Fonseca due to the destruction of their original buildings. The College in Salamanca closed in 1951, almost 360 years after it was first established.

The role of the Irish Colleges of this time period was to preserve the Catholic Church in Ireland, through writing books and training priests. They left two other major legacies. The first was the development of the work of Duns Scotus, whose habit of frequent revision and early death left a challenge to his followers. Starting with Hugh MacCaghwell of Down, the Irish Franciscans produced a complete edition of Duns Scotus, complete with commentaries. Though much of it is superseded is still the only complete edition available.

Annals of the Four Masters Wikimedia, Public Domain
Annals of the Four Masters
Wikimedia, Public Domain

The second legacy was in their work on Irish identity. They promulgated an Ireland with its own history, culture and language; an Ireland that was rich with saints and scholars. They preserved old manuscripts without which knowledge of the Irish past would be impoverished. They built an Irish identity (as outlined before here and here) which was inclusive enough to erode the old divisions visible even in the history of the Colleges themselves: between Anglo-Norman and Gael and between the provinces of Ireland. Its linking to the Catholic religion was inevitable, and cast long shadows of its own.

Gaelic script reading "Coláisde na nGaedheal" (Irish College) on the gates of the Pontifical Irish CollegeFeatured Image: Gaelic script on the gates of the Pontifical Irish College (Coláisde na nGaedheal), Rome, Italy. Peter Clarke, Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

References and Further Reading

Monica Henchy (1981) “The Irish College at Salamanca” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 70, No. 278/279, pp. 220-227.

Russell Library Maynooth: Salamanca Archive

Leuven Institute

Centre Culturel Irlandais

Dr Liam Chambers THE IRISH COLLEGES IN PARIS, 1578 – 2002: HISTORY

Dr Liam Chambers Knowledge and Piety: Michael Moore’s Career at the University of Paris and College de France, 1701-20

List of Irish Colleges on the Continent

Scroll to Top