Survivors of the emotional deep freeze – Maynooth’s class of ‘66 looks back

Students who gave up the seminary 50 years ago recall a suffocating atmosphere that infantilised seminarians, but also some rare acts of kindness and enlightenment

On a recent Sunday, some 40 elderly men gathered to mark 50 years since graduation. The Maynooth Class of 1966. Back in September 1963, dressed in uniform black suits and mandatory hats, they travelled by train to Dublin, assembled as a group, then took the bus to Maynooth. "I clearly remember the night. It was pouring rain and you had to line up at the cottage to sign in," recalls Kerryman, Tony Barrett. "The following day, you were given a number and that number dictated everything for the rest of your life together."

The number dictated not just your room location, but the lads – known as “immediates” – who sat either side of you in the refectory, in the church and in the classroom. The two further out were your “quasis”.

"I was number 7," says his old friend John Costigan. In that bumper admissions year for St Patrick's, Barrett was number 93.

Within two years, nearly half the class would have left – or as reunion organiser Denis Bergin puts it, "they had had joined those traditionally recorded in the institution's annals as departing 'ad vota [vows] secularia'". Today, he says, fewer than a third of that 1963 intake are priests.


They left discreetly. “There were no mass exits, angry defections or violent protests”, says Bergin. To leave quietly was the point, for both the college and the students. Even half a century on, some familiar names remain reluctant to identify themselves as former seminarians. That class would produce some top civil servants, several distinguished academics, businessmen, politicians and a slew of teachers who rose to run colleges and secondary schools.

Since many departed Maynooth after their degree year, it might be inferred that a few had entered the seminary to get a third-level education. In 1963, free secondary education was still four years off and a tiny number got to university.

Although the 1960s were an upsurge, life was tough.

When Tony Barrett’s parents died within a few years of each other, he and his two young siblings were split between two aunts. To support his brother and sister he had begun an apprenticeship, but was then offered a scholarship to St Brendan’s diocesan school. His late father’s words came to mind: “It’s either the books or the boat, boy; you make your choice.”

So Barrett cycled across north Kerry with a proposal for his eight aunts and uncles; if each gave him £5 twice a year, he would be able to clothe and feed the three of them and take up the scholarship. They agreed.

‘A time of huge idealism’

John Costigan – a future Tipperary county hurler, GAA luminary and secondary teacher – recalls it as "a time of huge idealism", with the majority of the Maynooth boys drawn from deeply conservative, rural backgrounds, the offspring of small shopkeepers and farmers.

“There was no wealth among the people and no choices. I was unique in my area for going to secondary school . . . You’d have speakers coming round to the secondary schools recruiting, putting the fear of God in your heart, saying if you had a calling and you didn’t answer it, you were nearly a candidate for eternal damnation.”

Pat Hunt, who went on to become an inspirational English teacher and commentator on education, remembers how "the diocesan college actively planted the seeds of a vocation, nurtured and brought the idea to a conclusion . . . I have no recollection of a speaker discussing an alternative way of life."

Farrel Corcoran frames it in cultural studies terms, comparing it to the Marines in small-town America, where a dominant ideology or "a powerful 'common sense' takes hold at a particular historical time and penetrates just about every corner of the culture".

In Maynooth, the outstandingly clever and ambitious lads were nicknamed "the guns", and among the top guns was Philip Pettit. He had arrived via Garbally College in Ballinasloe, a diocesan school that in his experience guided pupils towards responsible adulthood with sensitivity. Maynooth threw this pattern into reverse, he says, describing "an infantilising institution, where the guiding plan was apparently to break the spirit and induce obedience and obeisance . . . imposing a steely timetable and a cold discipline that communicated total distrust about what we might get up to. We had very little free time and were even instructed that we should form no special friendships, an unenforceable rule that most of us happily flouted".

A penal system was operated by deans who recorded misdeeds – one dean in particular is still remembered with anger. Then every year, on a day known as Black Friday, students were confronted with their list. One recalls that automatic excommunication was promised to any student who took a book from the library back to his room. And no, he does not believe it was a joke.

Female sightings were rare

A regular day began at 6am, when Vox Dei (the Voice of God, aka the bell) spoke and all jumped out of bed exclaiming Deo gratias and the praises of God. The main meal was eaten in silence while extracts from the Gospel were read from the pulpit (aka the "tub") above.

Pat Hunt describes "an emotional deep freezing" that resulted from their isolation from the world. Radio was not allowed; there was no television and just a single daily newspaper. Barrett, by now a Kerry county footballer, was not allowed to play for the team he had campaigned with all the way to the All-Ireland, because the final was held during college time.

Female sightings were vanishingly rare, and sex education never featured, even in physiology classes. Barrett recalls one of the more notorious Statutes of Maynooth: “Solus cum sola non est”, which decreed that no clerical student was to be seen alone with a woman, even if that woman was his mother.

There was no escape. During holidays, they were under the supervision of their local parish priest, living under threat of being reported to Maynooth.

Many are inclined to set the harshness and oppression in the context of a generally grim time in Ireland. The average religious boarding school for example, was fairly oppressive. But for idealistic seminarians, there were exacerbating factors. Farrel Corcoran recalls the brief, tantalising whiff of a liberalising church that blew in from Pope John XX111's reign, until it was "all but snuffed out" after his sudden death. The nadir was the arrival back at Dublin Airport from the Vatican of one of Ireland's senior theologians, who pronounced with supreme pomposity: 'No need for Ireland to worry about Vatican 11. There will be no change!'"

Seminarians, says Corcoran, responded with “disappointment, frustration, even rage, but then a great outbreak of coarse, earthy, ribald mocking humour (very sotto voce, of course) . . . It was a way “to sublimate our frustration with censorship, celibacy, excessively uptight rules of dress and behaviour, and obsessive-compulsive deans who tried to regulate the minutiae of daily life. Maybe it was also influenced by the wider youth restlessness that we could faintly perceive in the wider world.”

And so, the rate of departures accelerated.

Wearing coloured socks

Denis Bergin describes his conflicted state of mind in terms of one hand holding 20 pages of theology notes (the subject was scheduled for the four years after the BA), while the other clutched a slew of applications to RTÉ. When he broke it to his mother that he had left, she said she wasn't surprised. "When you were home at Christmas, you were wearing coloured socks," she told him.

For Farrel Corcoran, the tipping point was the shock of “moving from the intellectual delights of the humanities to what I saw as the mental prison house of theology and canon law – dry, dull, meaningless.” In defiance of the dean’s directive to leave quietly, the night before he departed, he had chats with several lads who indicated that they would like to go to but felt they could not.

Tony Barrett was only in year two when he told Fr Tom Fee (later to be Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich) that the priesthood was not for him. Would he not stay on for the degree? asked the priest. Barrett replied that he would give his right arm to do that but wouldn't have it on his conscience. "Fr Tom just looked at me and said, 'Well, can I say this much, Tony – you will have nothing on your conscience if you stay on the year. You've paid your dues to God.'" Barrett would go on to become one of four regional managers in FÁS.

For all the institutional idiocies and own goals, many individual acts of grace and enlightenment gleam through the stories. Philip Pettit, “ecstatic” at discovering philosophy, found a mentor in Fr Matthew O’Donnell, who prompted the young man to write an undergraduate thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre. “The intellectual experience of coming to terms with Sartre’s work remains with me still as perhaps one of the most exciting experiences of my life.”

Unknown to Pettit, “Matto” – although seen by many other students as one of the most severe and least communicative of their professors – also persuaded the bishop and the institution to let Pettit take a year off to do an MA by thesis. It changed the young man’s life. “By the end of the year, I was hooked enough on philosophy to leave Maynooth and take my chances in the outside world.”

Pettit also speaks of a cultural richness and courage among certain professors, of finding writers such as Eliot, Joyce and Beckett, of being tutored on the deep structure of music, and even being taken through the basics of special relativity. Pat Hunt found his teacher role models in the "inspirational" professors of history and English, Fr Tom Fee and Fr Peter Connolly. Farrel Corcoran too recalls Fee's ability to bring history to life in the lecture hall and Peter Connolly as "the most influential and memorable educator of all", one courageous enough to defend Edna O'Brien against "enraged, moral-crusading fanatics" at public meetings.

It is difficult to reconcile this generous, enlightened thread with the asphyxiating regimentation and oppression; or the systematic infantilisation of the seminarians with the notion that beyond the gates, communities placed these profoundly immature youths on pedestals so high, they could hardly breathe. “It’s as if keeping in my good books and prayers was an investment in their afterlife”, says Pat Hunt. Like others, however, he makes the salient point that “we are all creatures of the age in which we live. I loved those people then, and still do.”

But it meant that reintegration into normal society was far from easy. The stigma of the “spoiled priest” still seeps through many of the memories. Even in Maynooth itself, “to leave” was “to cut” – “another unpleasant word”, says Hunt. While Hunt’s parents were unhappy with his decision, they were supportive at least. Such was the social humiliation for others, their sons simply stayed away from home and community.

For sportsmen such as Costigan and Barrett, the GAA was the great facilitator, offering fairly effortless re-entry to an established network.

‘It took me years to adjust’

The absence of normal relations with women had taken its toll of course. “I was 18 when I entered Maynooth, was 21 when I left it, but at an emotional age of about 15,” says one who requested anonymity. “I don’t regret attending Maynooth. But it took me years to adjust. I found it difficult to see girls as human beings, friends rather than sex objects, even ‘occasions of sin’.”

Another warns – again – that all this must be set against the cultural milieu of the time. No one of that era can forget the church’s fixation with “purity”. The notion that sex was sinful, dirty and not a natural part of life permeated Irish society, they say (though we do not dwell on who or what promoted that idea in the first place).

“I was 22 when I sampled alcohol,” says another describing re-entry. “I sat alone in a pub for an hour in ‘Will-I-won’t I?’ mode. After imbibing some Guinness I walked to a river and flung my Pioneer pin into the water. It was a symbolic moment of release from one of my inhibitions.”

For all that, they claim that no lasting damage was done. Denis Bergin says he “was probably more damaged by the events of recent times” than by any seminary experience. “It has been a bit of an embarrassment to be associated with Maynooth because of what happened there – and also to be associated with the church.”

"The Catholic Church over the years failed me," says another. "I hardly need to recount the scandals, but the worst for me was the notion of 'mental reservation' about coming clean about some wayward and nasty priests". He is one of several to mention that phrase in disgust. But he does not reject Catholicism. "James Joyce wrote about the 'net' of religion that was/is cast over us in childhood. I feel it all about my being. I can't escape it. As I get older I tend to be more tolerant and less dogmatic. Time to let go."

Philip Pettit has never regretted his decision, “not for one minute”. A decade on, at a merry, late-night party, a jaded English voice asked him what the hell made him so happy. “I found myself replying without hesitation, but to my own amazement: ‘Tis because I got out of Maynooth.’”

Farrel Corcoran reflects on the challenge for today’s seminarians. “Life must be very complicated, because the power of that dominant ideology has melted away almost completely”. He tells of one old classmate, who died, still a priest, still desperate for an answer to the big question: “Where did it all go wrong?”

Denis Bergin

Born in Kilkenny, Bergin grew up near Durrow, Co Laois. After leaving Maynooth, he worked in Brussels for a few years before beginning a 25-year career in technical publishing and public relations, during which he relocated to Charleston, South Carolina. He is a writer and editor on heritage subjects and director of the programme commemorating Kilkenny-born James Hoban, architect and builder of the White House. He now lives by the Grand Canal near Shannon Harbour in west Offaly, with Carol, his wife of 34 years.

Farrel Corcoran

Born in Borrisokane, Corcoran went to secondary school in St Finian's College, Mullingar, before joining the seminary. After some teaching in Ireland, Spain and Saudi Arabia, and a stint in RTÉ, he went to the US to do postgraduate work, earning a PhD from the University of Oregon. He worked as an academic in the University of New Mexico and Northern Illinois university. He and his wife reared three children in the US, and returned to Ireland in the mid-1980s, where he joined DCU as head of communications and dean of the faculty of humanities. He spent a second stint in RTÉ in the 1990s as chairman of the RTÉ Authority.

Philip Pettit

Born in Ballygar, Co Galway, Pettit went to school in Garbally College, Ballinasloe, and after leaving Maynooth, lectured at UCD before moving on to become a research fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and professor of philosophy at the University of Bradford. In 1983 he moved to the Australian National University and since 2002, has been Laurence Rockefeller university professor of politics and human values at Princeton University, where he teaches political theory and philosophy. He is also professor of philosophy at the Australian National University. He holds numerous academy fellowships, and honorary professorships at Sydney University and Queen's University, Belfast, along with many honorary degrees from around the world. The author of many books, he will be presenting the Locke lectures in Philosophy at Oxford University in spring 2019.