The view from Ed Walsh

The President of the University of Limerick, Dr Edward Walsh, who retires in 1998, is one of the most visionary figures in Irish…

The President of the University of Limerick, Dr Edward Walsh, who retires in 1998, is one of the most visionary figures in Irish education, and one of the most controversial. His views on arts education led one UCC academic to describe him as "a man of a few compelling ideas." Dr Jeremiah Newman, the Bishop of Limerick, in a back-handed compliment, described him as "an eminent local intellectual."

Born in 1939, the son of a Cork butcher and cattle-dealer, he was educated at Christian Brothers College, Cork, and studied electrical engineering at UCC before going to the University of Iowa in 1961 to gain master's and doctoral qualifications in nuclear and electrical engineering.

He describes Iowa State as "one of the most liberating experiences of my life . . . I felt for the first time that one could create a future for oneself, that one had real options." He roomed with a retired professor of agronomy, a Protestant named Hughes and a man "of great generosity of spirit." Combined with his wider experiences in the US, it led to an abiding hatred of sectarianism.

"In 10 years in the United States, I found myself first surprised and then ashamed that I should have held such bigoted views," he says. "When the opportunity arose to become involved in establishing the college in Limerick, I was determined that, from the outset, we would internationalise what we were doing and we would bring in faculty members from a wide variety of sources. We would imbue this new institution with a much broader approach and a much more tolerant approach to social issues."


In 1969, at the tender age of 29 and with no formal management training, he arrived in Limerick to become the director of the as yet unnamed institute of higher education. Influenced also by the American business approach, he favoured independence, entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency and cultivated these qualities in the work of the college and its students.

He emphasised the importance of applied knowledge and work experience as well as academic study, and forged a strong European orientation. He also introduced US-style concepts such as modular degrees, transferable credits and the placement of students in industry.

He was one of the most vocal supporters of the Universities Act, believing, among other things, that it would level the playing field for both UL and DCU. He blames the 1995 collapse of the Plassey Management and Technology Centre, in which the university was a major partner, in part on the shortcomings of the legislation governing the university at that time.

His views on arts education have been the source of acrimony, to say the least, but he stands by his stated opinion that a narrow educational base, whether in the arts or the sciences, is not sufficient to create a truly educated person.

HIS opinions are open to criticism, but those critics who perceive him as a kind of new Philistine because of them sometimes fail to see the complexity of his views or his own commitment to the arts. UL has the largest university art collection outside TCD, with responsibility for the Hunt Collection, and the university concert hall and the Foundation Building housing it have become focal points for Limerick's cultural activities. The college's links with Mary Immaculate College have also added a greater range to its own arts education.

Walsh himself, meanwhile, plays the violin and piano and is a registered silversmith of the Company of Goldsmiths of Dublin Painting. He once admitted, though, that his conversational French was not as good as it might be. Nobody's perfect.