An education in itself: UCD celebrates its 150th birthday

Tomorrow, University College Dublin celebrates its 150th anniversary

Tomorrow, University College Dublin celebrates its 150th anniversary. The former taoiseach, current Chancellor of the National University of Ireland and former UCD staff member and student, Dr Garret FitzGerald, examines the formative role the university has played in Irish life.

University College Dublin is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the foundation of its progenitor: Newman's Catholic University of Dublin. The historical link between these two institutions is complex. By 1879, a quarter of a century after its foundation, Newman's Catholic University - the degrees of which had never received state recognition - was all but defunct, with only three new students registering in that year. In 1880 a Royal University was established as an examining body, awarding degrees to students of the Queen's Colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway, as well as to students of a number of seminaries and boys' Catholic secondary schools which offered third-level courses. To these were later added two girls' schools - Loreto St Stephen's Green and Eccles Street.

By 1882, Newman's Catholic University had been re-constituted as University College Dublin, under the auspices of the Jesuit Order. The new UCD proved highly successful: by the 1890s its students were gaining more distinctions in the Royal University examinations than all three of the Queen's Colleges, in Belfast, Galway and Cork, which had been founded in the 1840s as non-sectarian institutions.

In 1909, Irish university education was transformed, with the replacement of the examining Royal University and the establishment of two new teaching and examining universities by the British government, following negotiations with interests that included the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Irish Parliamentary Party. These were Queen's University, Belfast, and the National University of Ireland.


This latter was to be a federal body comprising University College Dublin (including the Cecilia Street Catholic Medical School), the Queen's Colleges of Galway and Cork, and (as a "recognised" but not "constituent" College) St Patrick's College Maynooth. In retrospect, we can see that in the establishment of these two universities the political partition of the country 11 years later was foreshadowed.

Despite Catholic church concerns, all of these colleges were to be open to women as well as men - and were to be legally non-denominational. The latter was a requirement of the British Liberal government, which, however, informally recognised that the predominating element in Queen's Belfast would be Protestant, and that the ethos of the National University colleges would be largely Catholic. The first Chancellor of the NUI (of whom I am the third successor, after Eamon de Valera and T.K. Whitaker), was Catholic Archbishop Walsh of Dublin.

0f the 36 professors initially appointed to UCD, 26 were carried over from the Jesuit College. The initial staff of the college included many well-known scholars, such as R.A.S. Macalister, Eoin MacNeill, Douglas Hyde, Osborn Bergin, Mary Hayden, Agnes O'Farrelly, Arthur Clery, Mary Macken and John Marcus O'Sullivan - and the lecturers included some who in 1916 and thereafter were prominent in Irish politics, for example Thomas MacDonagh, Michael Hayes, Liam O'Briain and Louise Gavan Duffy.

From the outset, UCD was regarded as a national institution, political representation on its governing body - necessarily by local representatives in the absence of an Irish parliament or government - being provided by the General Council of County Councils rather than through nominations by local councils in neighbouring counties, as was the case in Cork and Galway. UCD also very soon emerged as a focus of nationalism, its staff and students providing many leading participants in the National Movement, including many members of our first two governments.

Later, in the 1930s, it was in the lively intellectual atmosphere of the UCD of that period that many children of the Free State leadership, including my three brothers, met and became friends with the children of Fianna Fáil leaders. Many from both traditions went on to join the Irish Army together in June 1940, when the fall of France to the Nazis created what seemed to be a real threat of a German invasion of our island.

I can testify personally to the fact that while during the years of the second World War most students coming to the college were supportive of neutrality, they were deeply divided in their sympathies between the combatants. At that time Ireland was still in the shadow of the War of Independence, which had left in its wake a fairly widespread mood of Anglophobia. And in the case of what I recall as having been a majority, this was transmuted into support for Germany, which most survivors of that period would now prefer to forget. The L&H was then quite a tough place for those of us opposed to nazism and fascism.

At the end of the second World War in 1945 (which in Ireland was celebrated on May 7th), there was a riot in College Green, started by some pro-German UCD students who tore down Allied flags flown over Trinity College Dublin. I recall the subsequent baton charge by the Garda, who did not distinguish between the initiators of the trouble and those of us from UCD who were celebrating the Allied victory!

The college's first president, Denis Coffey, who served in that capacity for over 30 years, claimed to, and perhaps did know all the students, of whom there were 2,400 by the end of his term in 1940. His successor, Arthur Conway, a distinguished scientist, served during the war years and on retirement in 1947 was replaced by Michael Tierney, professor of Greek and former active politician, who had an especial antipathy to Trinity College (and to The Irish Times!).

It was in Tierney's term of office that steps were first taken to acquire property on the Stillorgan Road in anticipation of an eventual move from Earlsfort Terrace, because of what was seen as inadequate space for future expansion. The first stage of this move, involving the transfer of the science faculty to Belfield, coincided with the end of Tierney's presidency in 1964.

Meanwhile the appointment by the government of a Universities Commission in 1960 had prompted the UCD staff to establish an Academic Staff Association (ASA) to represent their views - a move that was undertaken with some trepidation, because of fear of Dr Tierney's reaction. And in 1966, the UCD ASA joined with similar bodies in other universities to found the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), which subsequently evolved into a trade union affiliated to Congress. (It is because of my involvement in IFUT from its foundation that I am the only Taoiseach to have been a member of a trade union when in office.)

In 1964 half-a-dozen academics, of which I was one, successfully contested the Governing Body election with a view to ensuring a voice for the academic staff at that level - a move that was clearly deeply resented by what was known to us as "The Establishment". A couple of years later, a merger of UCD and TCD was proposed by the Government, and UCD president Dr J. J. Hogan promptly proposed that such a move should involve the merging of every individual department and faculty in the two universities. Because UCD was so much larger than Trinity, this would have submerged the latter's identity totally within that of UCD. This move was challenged publicly - eventually with success - by our ginger group on the Governing Body, to the evident fury of the college's establishment.

In 1969, there occurred in UCD the Gentle Revolution, when a group of socialist students organised mass meetings of 3,000 to 4,000 students and occupied the college's administrative offices. Some of us diverted this revolt into three days of seminars on the subject of the university and society. This initiative infuriated equally the foiled socialists and the discomfited college authorities - but happily the affair ended without any serious sanctions being taken against the revolting students.

Shortly afterwards, when the time came for the arts faculty to join Science on the new campus, the failure of the authorities to move the library to Belfield simultaneously caused deep dissatisfaction among the arts students, who quite reasonably pointed out that it would not be practical for them to travel two miles into town whenever they needed to consult a book. Once again, staff intervention resolved this problem by securing the over-ruling of the librarian's objections to accommodating relevant library material temporarily in the basement of the new building.

With the succession of Dr Tom Murphy, an emollient figure, to the presidency several years later, that period of student - and staff - unrest ended, and under subsequent presidents, Paddy Masterson and Art Cosgrove, UCD remained peaceful during what became a period of very rapid growth involving a more than doubling of student numbers.

In 1997, a Universities Act constituted UCD and the other constituent colleges of the NUI as full universities. But they chose to remain within the federal National University of Ireland, which has retained responsibility for entrance to its constituent universities and for degree standards. In respect of all other matters, UCD now has full control of its own affairs, including the appointment of its staff - a function that until seven years ago had remained reserved to the NUI.

As the largest of our universities, UCD has always played a major role, not just in Ireland's academic life but also in the broader life of our State and our society. Currently under its new president, Dr Hugh Brady, UCD, like other universities, is engaged in a radical review of its structures with a view to gearing itself to a challenging future.