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How Ireland changed Newman

Newman University Church in Dublin: ‘the most beautiful in the three kingdoms’ (Photo by David Iliff. license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

While John Henry Newman is regarded as the most English of saints, his story is intimately connected to Ireland. It is perhaps inevitable that any consideration of Newman and Ireland would centre on his time spent as rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, but I would like to begin by considering the university church built for Newman in Dublin during his time as rector there.

Throughout my time at the Birmingham Oratory, I have given tours of the Oratory church. While many come to see Newman’s church, the reality is that the present Newman Memorial Church was rebuilt after his death and the church he knew was a much smaller, simpler structure. It is with no small pleasure that I, as a native Dubliner, can say that if you wish to see a church which Newman built you will have to cross the Irish Sea and visit the University Church on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

Evoking both ancient Rome and Byzantium, the church was designed by John Hungerford Pollen, a convert and professor at the Catholic University. Newman described the church as “the most beautiful one in the three kingdoms”. Built with the most humble of materials and within a very limited space, it evokes both Rome and Byzantium in a remarkable way.

While Newman’s church in Dublin remains a hidden gem, the larger project of a Catholic university in the city didn’t meet with the same success. While the flourishing University College Dublin traces its history back to Newman’s university, they are fundamentally different institutions. The university that Newman was rector of simply no longer exists.

No one person can be blamed for the ultimate failure of the Catholic University of Ireland. Instead it can be reasonably argued that a variety of factors conspired to sabotage it from the beginning.

The economic and social conditions of Ireland in the 1850s were hardly conducive to the founding of a university. When Newman first travelled to Dublin in November 1853, it was less than five years after the end of the Great Famine which had devastated Ireland’s population. There was a lack of suitable Irish Catholic candidates for such a university and English Catholics appeared even more reluctant to attend an institution based in Ireland.

While Archbishop Paul Cullen of Dublin had asked Newman to become rector of the Catholic University, Newman never felt supported by him. It was, however, more than a personality clash. There appeared a fundamental disagreement between Newman and Cullen about what the university (or, indeed, any university) was about. While Newman was deeply shaped by his years as an Anglican at the University of Oxford, with its tradition of learning for its own sake, Cullen and many of the other bishops saw a Catholic university through the prism of their experience of ecclesiastical seminaries, which were run by bishops and populated by docile young clerics.

This clash of visions was exemplified by the Irish hierarchy’s refusal to countenance a lay finance committee to supervise expenditure. Newman was frustrated by their attitude towards the laity, whom he thought they treated like children.

While Newman always felt welcomed by the Irish, it is not clear that he felt understood by them. He was an Englishman in Ireland, a country still reeling from a famine which many Irish nationalists blamed the English for – not for sending the blight, but for the Westminster government’s disastrous response to it.

The most lasting legacy of Newman’s time in Ireland, apart from the University Church in St Stephen’s Green, is surely The Idea of a University, which is based on lectures which he gave in Dublin in 1852 in preparation for the setting up of the Catholic University. Newman’s conception of the university was as a place of teaching much more than of research, and of a broad curriculum rather than the increasingly narrow specialisation that we have become used to.

While we often consider the impact of Newman on the Catholic University in Ireland and on subsequent educational theory, we often neglect the effect which Newman’s Irish sojourn had on him as a man. In particular, Newman’s close collaboration with figures associated with the Young Ireland nationalist movement and how this caused him to revise his opinion and understanding of Ireland and the Irish people.

It might seem strange for someone whom we know primarily as a prominent Catholic, but as a young Anglican in Oxford Newman was an arch-opponent of Catholic emancipation, then being promoted by the Irish politician Daniel O’Connell. It was not that Newman was bigoted, but he feared that concessions made to Catholics would undermine the Anglican character of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, established in 1800.

When Newman eventually joined the Catholic Church in 1845, it was a body associated by many Englishmen with foreigners. The Pope in Rome was an Italian, and at the time the Catholic churches of England were swelling with Irish people who were to make up an increasingly significant part of English Catholic life in the second half of the 19th century.

It was only during his time in Dublin in the 1850s and in subsequent reflection, that Newman came to understand the challenges between the two neighbouring islands. Shortly before his death, Newman wrote to Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was then living in Dublin, seeking to offer him solace. The poet was experiencing the discomfort of being an Englishman in Ireland – a feeling that Newman had known only too well. While clearly distancing himself from Irish nationalist violence which was causing Hopkins so much anxiety, Newman confessed that if he were an Irishman “then I would be (in heart) a rebel”. This was a remarkable journey for someone who had begun his young adult life as an ardent Tory.

Newman’s journey of understanding was a gradual one, informed by spending time both in Ireland and among the Irish. Much earlier in the 1850s in one of his Dublin addresses, Newman had written with great apparent sympathy and understanding for the Irish, whom he described as having been mistreated by their nearest neighbour. Living in Dublin in the aftermath of the Great Famine, he had heard much blame being levelled at the Westminster government for the lack of action in alleviating the suffering. He wrote with great prescience about the role of both Europe and America in Ireland’s subsequent political development and the economic prosperity the country would enjoy more than a century later.

It remains to be seen whether the economic and social changes foreseen by Newman as part of God’s providence will be accompanied by a truly Christian and humanistic revival of learning. But he was surely right to suggest that a key to this success would be the diligent cultivation of the intellect.

What of Newman, Ireland and the possibility of a Catholic university today? While Newman’s experience of Ireland can generously be described as challenging, he is still fondly remembered and appreciated, not least by the Newman Society of Ireland, which meets to celebrate his life and share his works. While University College Dublin is only in a very loose sense a continuation of Newman’s university, it still celebrates him as its founding rector. The quest for a university which is both truly Catholic and motivated by a love of learning for its own sake will be forever indebted to the thoughts of Newman, seminal scholar of education.

Fr Francis Gavin is a priest of the Birmingham Oratory