Galway University? a ‘godless College’

After Catholic Emancipation where for the first time Catholics won the right to be elected and to sit in the House Of Commons, the English government, led by an enlightened Robert Peel, believed it would be worth extending emancipation to third level education.

There were no such facilities in Ireland for Catholics. Peel also believed that such a development would be widely welcomed, while at the same time dampen Home Rule sympathies.

Heretofore, Catholics, anxious to pursue a professional career were compelled to study abroad; or attend Trinity College, the only third level university in Ireland, whose Anglican origins filled the Catholic hierarchy with fear and loathing.

In 1845, Sir Robert Peel passed an act to provide for the establishment of three Queens’ colleges, in Galway, Cork and Belfast, “In order to supply the want, which has long been felt in Ireland, of an improved academical education, equally accessible to all classes of the community without religious distinction”. The fact that enrolment was opened equally to Catholic and Protestant students should have been an attractive and democratic invitation.

What could possible go wrong?

Initially pretty well everything. The Catholic hierarchy, incensed at the idea that Catholics and Protestants would be educated together, dismissed the Queen’s Colleges as ‘Godless colleges’, and established a new institution, the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin, supported by no less than Pope Pius IX with Holy See approval.

Anxious for their project to succeed the Catholic bishops further appointed a formidable churchman, John Henry Newman (later Cardinal Newman ) its rector. It offered five facilities, including law, medicine and philosophy. Lectures commenced in the Autumn 1854 with the registration of 17 students, the first being Daniel O’Connell, grandson of the famous politician Daniel O’Connell who won Catholic emancipation in the first place.

Such a promising beginning however, did not quite eclipse the Queens’ colleges, even though the initial take up at the Queens was slow.

Bishop Laurence O’Donnell of Galway quietly supported the local Queen’s college. This infuriated Archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale, who fired off a nasty triade: ‘In Galway the college has lost this season the most part of the Catholic pupils who were seduced last year within its portals…seduced with the cooperation of Bishop O’Donnell who should be the first to obey His Holiness on having nothing to do with those ungodly institutions.’

‘A complete failure’

The Catholic University, however, did not succeed. As a private body it was never given a royal charter, and could not award recognised degrees. Initially supported by public contributions, these soon dried up leaving the institution in serious financial difficulties. John Henry Newman quietly retired.* Some feeder secondary schools were established, such as St Flannan’s College Ennis, but the project was disintegrating, and splintered into lesser Catholic colleges.

Peel, in an effort to appease the Catholic bishops began to fund Maynooth College through an annual grant, only to withdraw when it enraged Protestant evangelical opinion.

It was hoped that the Catholic bishops would soften their opposition over time, but whatever grounds for optimism as may have existed were dashed in 1859 when Archbishop Cullen of Dublin pronounced that the Queens Colleges had been ‘a complete failure’, and should be ‘reconstituted or suppressed’.

The enduring impact of the hierarchy’s condemnation on QCG is evident as just 38 Catholics attended the college in 1901 out of a total student population of 97, despite Catholics being the overwhelming majority of the population of Connacht.

‘Unaffected by manners’

Nevertheless, QCG limped along. Michael Kavanagh** tells us that during its early decades the students came from a variety of backgrounds including farming, medicine, merchants and clergymen, and the College’s scholarship schemes, however, provided an opportunity for some from less well-off backgrounds.

One such recipient was James Mullin, a Catholic from Co Tyrone, who entered QCG 1871. He provides a description of the students which has a healthy Chariots of Fire competence about the young men:

‘On the whole a body of young men of unaffected manners, healthy morals, and quite untainted with priggishness or snobbery, but willing to honour merit even in the poorest among them. In fact the only qualities which they rendered homage were scholastic attainments and athletic prowess.’


The opening of the Queens’ Colleges coincided with the development of organised team sport in Ireland and in March 1863 the Irish Times reported on the annual QCG Sports day. By 1893 the College’s Athletic Union encompassed rugby, soccer, tennis, cycling, cricket and handball clubs. Professor Senier, who held the chair of Chemistry, entertained the students ‘ in lavish fashion’ whenever they won a cup at rugby.

The academic staff and students of QCG in the early 1900s were predominantly Protestant yet there was an upsurge in Gaelic games. Queen’s College branch of the Gaelic League was in operation and recognised by the college in 1907.

James Mullin admitted that among the students were a group of ‘chronics’, but considered that many of these ‘by their good nature, geniality, and sporting qualities more than counterbalanced their idleness or incapacity for study.’

The author observes that this benign description is at odds with the nocturnal ‘outrages’ of students being cited as the principal factor for the location of police station in Salthill, in the early 1860s.

Fortunes changed

It looked, however, as if the Queen’s College in Galway was doomed when Prime Minister Gladstone argued that the cost of £10,000 to the exchequer for the education of 177 students was excessive. The bill was defeated by three votes on its second reading.

But fortunes began to change. The unresolved status of QCG reached a climax when it was threatened with a loss of status, becoming, at best, an affiliated institution of a newly constituted university. This, surprisingly, brought together the loyalty of the local bishops and at a public meeting, chaired by MacHale, they vehemently opposed such a move. It was clear that if the Catholic bishops withdrew their opposition to its members attending QCG its future was assured as part of newly constituted National University of Ireland. The bishops agreed to withdraw their opposition in 1908.

Next week: the university secures its place among the Galway community.


* Newman left the university in 1857. According to Lytton Strachey (in his book, Eminent Victorians ), ”Eventually he realised something else: he saw that the whole project of a Catholic University had been evolved as a political and ecclesiastical weapon against the Queen's Colleges of Peel, and that was all. As an instrument of education, it was simply laughed at ; and he himself had been called in because his name would be a valuable asset in a party game. When he understood that, he resigned his rectorship and returned to the Oratory."

** Third-Level Education in Galway, an essay in Hardiman and Beyond, The Arts and Culture of Galway since 1820 (page 26 ), Arden Publishing, on sale €45.


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