Blairs opt to stay in Irish College during Italian trip

LETTER FROM ROME / Paddy Agnew: The Pontifical Irish College in Rome, an institution which has provided the backdrop to some…

LETTER FROM ROME / Paddy Agnew: The Pontifical Irish College in Rome, an institution which has provided the backdrop to some important moments in Irish history, wrote a brand new page in its annals last weekend when it played host to the family of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mr Blair, of course, was in Rome for Iraq crisis-related meetings, firstly with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and then, more significantly, with Pope John Paul II. While media coverage of the Blair visit was inevitably concentrated on the socio-political impact of the Prime Minister's first Vatican audience, it did not pass unnoticed that, intriguingly, the Blairs had opted to stay in the Irish College.

Why not stay at the British embassy residence of Villa Wolkonsky, or at a five-star hotel, or indeed the English Pontifical College, one might ask? One might indeed ask but, for reasons presumably linked to issues of privacy and security, neither Downing Street, the Irish College nor the British embassy in Rome were willing or able to provide answers.

Little birdies in the Rome air, however, have told your correspondent that the visit was not unrelated to two considerations. Firstly, the Blairs have had occasion to meet the current rector of the Irish College, Monsignor Liam Bergin, most recently when he preached at Westminster Abbey not long ago.


Secondly, the Blair's eldest boy, 19-year-old Ewan, had already experienced Irish College hospitality, staying there last summer while on an Inter Rail holiday across Europe. The point about the Irish College, of course, is that while its primary function remains that of a seminary preparing young men for the priesthood, it has also established an excellent reputation as a summer pensione for pilgrims.

In other words, when the student numbers are down during the summer holidays, the college also functions as a hotel, known for its good value, not to mention its attractive city-centre location, handsome grounds and swimming pool. By the way, these days the students at the Irish College are by no means exclusively Irish, since this year's intake includes seminarians from Australia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Hungary, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, Malta, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Uganda and the Ukraine, as well as from Ireland.

In days of ever-increasing costs, it obviously makes sense to make the most of your location (in its own grounds close to the Basilica of San Giovanni), both through paying summer guests and also through the long-established practise of Irish College weddings, aimed at those who, for various reasons, want to get married in Rome. (All of this, by the way, can be checked out on the college's site, The Blair visit does prompt some intriguing thoughts, especially given the role the college has played since its foundation in 1628. For much of the last 500 years, Rome has been not only a home to Irish clerics but also a place of refuge for Irish leaders in exile and on the run from the injustice of British rule (Remember the Flight of the Earls, Tyrone and Tyrconnell, who arrived in Rome in 1608).

For much of that time, the Irish College has been the centre of the Irish ecclesiastical community in Rome, with its rector in a semi-ambassadorial role, maintaining contact with other Irish houses in the city and giving hospitality to Irish politicians, leaders and public figures who might happen to visit Rome. In that context, it is not irrelevant that the current Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Dr Sean Brady, is a past rector of the college.

Not for nothing does the Irish College house the heart of the Liberator himself, Daniel O'Connell, whose Genoa death-bed wish had been that his body be sent back to Ireland and his heart to Rome. Not for nothing, either, did the Irish College provide some of the stage settings for the drama that was the drafting of the Irish Constitution in Rome in the springtime of 1937.

One can but wonder if the ghosts of great Irish patriots past were churning uneasily at the presence of a British prime minister sleeping under their hallowed Hibernian roof last weekend.

Let us hope not.