This year Ireland should have been celebrating the 225th anniversary of St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, once the largest seminary in the world. Covid-19 put paid to celebratory events in this mad year, which also saw the loss of one of the college’s most illustrious alumni, John Hume (whose obituary appeared in last month’s Catholic Herald). Not that Maynooth is a stranger to mad years. In the 19th century, the 1845 “Maynooth question” was described by the Whig social theorist Harriet Martineau as “the great political controversy of the year, the subject on which society seemed to be going mad”.
The seminary, in the town of Maynooth, a little outside Dublin, was founded in 1795 by an Act of Parliament signed by King George III. The king said it grieved him more to establish “a Popish colony in Ireland than it did to lose the American colonies”. An ode recited by the lord lieutenant of Ireland at the laying of the first foundation stone was evocative:
Arise Ierne [Ireland]! dry thy tears,
The shades of night are chased away;
The blissful beam of morn appears,
And long shall last the coming day.
The “coming day” was to be several decades of strife, as Maynooth became entangled in English politics. The Maynooth Bill of 1845 was meant to soothe Irish hostility to the English by funding the seminary. Sir Robert Peel overcame Tory Party schism to get the law onto the statute book, yet it inflamed passions even into the 1850s and 60s. The Earl of Shaftesbury demanded the speedy destruction of Maynooth, while The Bulwark Protestant accused Maynooth of being a training centre for idolatry and sedition.
The Maynooth Bill initially funded the Pugin-designed college. The magnificent chapel was then designed by Pugin’s admirer JJ McCarthy; with 454 carved stalls, it is the largest of its kind in the world. The spire was added to commemorate the college’s first centenary in 1895, and when completed in 1902 it stood at 273 feet.
Today Maynooth is shared by three institutions: the seminary, the Pontifical University and the secular National University of Ireland Maynooth. While the seminary may decamp elsewhere, the pontifical and secular universities are expected to remain in partnership on the historic site. The seminary was built to train 500 Catholic priests annually, but numbers have dwindled with the fall in vocations and Church influence. New laws on divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage have confirmed the changed landscape of what was once “Catholic Ireland”.
The seminary’s reputation has had an interesting few years. In 2016 anonymous letters and blogs alleged that there was a “gay culture” among seminarians. The Archbishop of Dublin, and college trustee, Diarmuid Martin decided to send his diocese’s seminarians to Rome, citing Maynooth’s “atmosphere of strange goings-on … it seems like a quarrelsome place with anonymous letters being sent around”.
So what next for Maynooth? Archbishop Martin has said that the Irish bishops have worked on an initial framework. “Maynooth has the potential to play a new role in forming a future Irish religious culture,” he says.
St Patrick’s president, Fr Michael Mullaney, is equally optimistic “We are looking at how Maynooth can be the best resource it can be for the future.” How will the college adapt? “It is a well thought-through process. We will continue our denominational offering, but also bring in broader religious experiences, all faiths and interreligious dialogue.”
The process is also a response to the Vatican’s 2016 Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis and the new Apostolic Constitution Veritatis gaudium. Maynooth hopes Rome will not want to abandon a pontifical university presence in Ireland, and sees great potential in formation and lay education as a path to growth.
Fr Mullaney quipped that he was glad they were marking 225 years because he didn’t expect to be around himself for the 250th. “We have a rich history,” he says, but that isn’t all. “We can still celebrate a very clear commitment to help, through teaching and training, our lay people and students for the future.”
Dr David Cowan is an author, journalist and lecturer in law at the National University of Ireland Maynooth
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