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The discourses of higher education in Ireland

Religion, nationalism and economic development

Author - Nora French


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Higher education in Ireland before Newman

Trinity College was the first successful university established in Ireland. It was set up in 1592 by the English monarch, Elizabeth 1 whose letter to Lord Fitzwilliam, her deputy in Ireland, outlined the two reasons for its foundation: for the ‘education, training and instruction of youths and students in the Arts and Faculties, so that they might be better assisted in the study of the liberal arts and in the cultivation of virtue and religion’; and to counteract the new practice of Catholics who are sending their sons ‘into France, Italy, and Spain to get learning in such foreign universities, whereby they have been infected with Popery and other ill qualities, and so become evil subjects’ (O’Donnell 1987: 80).

The discourses of religion and politics were to remain at the forefront of concerns about university education in Ireland into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, only brought to resolution by the 1908 Irish Universities Act. In practice they continued to define Irish universities to a certain extent until the last three decades of the twentieth century when the economic imperative and the utilitarian purpose of higher education came to the fore.

Until the nineteenth century, Catholics tended to be educated in continental Europe where between 1578 and 1680, 29 Irish colleges were established in university cities to cater for their needs (O’Byrne 2001). The colleges in Leuven, Paris, Rome and Salamanca were the most well known, Salamanca the last to close its doors as late as 1951. The express religious and political purposes for which Trinity was established were not achieved.

By the early nineteenth century, the perceived dangers of revolutionary ideas that could be picked up on the continent together with political pressure to improve the rights of Catholics at home led to momentum to provide a university open and acceptable to Catholics in Ireland.

In 1845, Queen’s Colleges were established in Belfast, Cork and Galway as non-denominational utilitarian-oriented universities along the lines of the recently established University of London. However, they were not considered a satisfactory solution, not offering a comparable education to that available in Trinity and in the eyes of hierarchy, irreligious and a danger to faith and morals (Garland 1996: 276).

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