Wrestling with ‘foreign born professors’ at UCG

 A big man: Máirtín Mór McDonogh (hands behind his back, centre) on the steps of the Town Hall following the 1899 Galway county council election.

A big man: Máirtín Mór McDonogh (hands behind his back, centre) on the steps of the Town Hall following the 1899 Galway county council election.

It is easy to imagine the paroxysms of fury, outrage and purple faces that must have gripped the venerable membership of the UCG governing body, when they heard that the chairman of the Galway county council, Máirtín Mór McDonogh (who was also a member of this academic conclave ) soundly rap them on the knuckles.

McDonogh was asked to champion the students’ resolution asking for representation on the university’s governing body. He thought it a very proper request. But could not resist adding: “There are professors up there who are not able to educate students at all, and are making pious sneaks of them.”

The venerable body may have been able to swallow that hurtful observation, as they knew McDonogh usually shot from the hip in most cases; but the injury was even more gravely wounding as his comments elicited shouts of ‘hear! hear!’ and applause indicating the degree to which McDonogh was echoing the opinion of many of his fellow councillors.

Of course McDonogh became an instant hero with the students. As he arrived at the university boardroom to attend the governing body meeting at which the question of student representation was due to be discussed, he was enthusiastically cheered by them. The meeting, however, was a disaster. The members and the president were so incensed, barely able to speak from indignation and passion, that the meeting was abandoned.

It did not seem to phase McDonogh in the least. He was totally unrepentant and unruffled by his colleagues’ indignation, but wisely did not attend the next governing-body meeting of March 9 1916, where his actions were subject of an item on the agenda.

At that meeting Professor Seaghan Mac Énrí, who had calmed down sufficiently to make a coherent sentence, proposed that legal opinion be obtained as to whether the college had grounds for an action for damages on account of McDonogh’s statements, ‘and if the opinion be in the affirmative, that such action be immediately taken’.

There were probably shouts of ‘hear! hear!’

Astonishing energy

Máirtín Mór McDonogh was a remarkable man in Galway from the end of the 19th century until his death 1934. He has been dramatically brought back to life in Jackie Uí Chionna’s He Was Galway, which has been recently published.*

He was born in Lettermullen, the eldest son among three boys, and two daughters. When he joined his father’s steam sawmill and grocer business it was already a thriving concern.

But with astonishing energy and drive he significiently increased the size of the family business by importing numerous products such as coal, iron, timber and fertilisers; and used the growth of the railways to trade throughout Ireland. He was by far the largest employer in the west of Ireland, becoming chairman of both Galway’s urban and county councils. Despite his opposition to the 1916 Rising, and his support for World War I recruitment, he was elected to the Dáil in 1927 representing Cumann na nGaedheal.

He was a tall, imposing man, with great physical strength; but also a man who never married, lived a frugal and somewhat reclusive life, devoted to his racehorses. He did not suffer fools lightly.

Unionist sensitivities

But Professor Mac Énrí’s demand for legal justice was more bravado than a reality. The college at the time was struggling financially. Costly legal proceedings, conducted in the glare of both the local and the national press, was something the college just could not afford. Having vented their hurt and displeasure, the matter was quietly allowed to drop. McDonough resumed his seat at the next meeting, as if nothing had happened. The students won their representation.

But, in more subtle ways the college could strike back too. In the following month a row erupted over the question of the registrarship of the college. There was uproar at the attempt to oust Professor JP Pye from the position of college registrar. A large body of students were protesting at his removal; and they won the support of the urban and county councils. It appears that Professor Pye was a bit too nationalistic for the sensitivities of his Unionist colleagues, and things were hotting up throughout Ireland in March 1916.

The two local councils wrote a letter to the college president, noting that Professor Pye was

‘a staunch and unsupported upholder of Catholic claims at Queen’s College during a period of years when such a course was neither fashionable not profitable. That Dr Pye would many years ago have been president of the college but for the fact that he was then, and is now, an Irish nationalist home ruler...Dr Pye is at least as an Irishman and a Galwayman entitled to equal consideration with foreign-born professors of enemy nationality.’

Despite this strongly worded petition, and a further threat of withdrawing council representation on the governing body, the ‘foreign born professors’ refused to yield to pressure. The college secretary, Fr Hynes, was appointed as registrar instead of Pye. Maybe because the new appointment was a priest, nothing more was said.

A moral victory for the college.

More next week.

NOTES: He Was Galway-Máirtín Mór McDonogh, 1860-1934, by Jackie Uí Chionna, published by Open Air, and imprint of Four Courts Press, on sale €20. Jackie will sign copies of her book at Charlie Byrne’s this Saturday at 6pm.

The membership of the governing body at this time numbered 26, consisting of crown nominees, representatives from the National University senate, the graduates, the academic staff, and crucially the county councils of Connacht and Clare and the urban council of Galway. UCG was notoriously underfunded, and relied on the local elected councils for additional financial support. McDonogh was a member of the governing body from 1908 until his death in 1934.

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