A day to remember Newman's contribution to Ireland

Rite and Reason: Wednesday is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Catholic University of Ireland, the precursor…

Rite and Reason: Wednesday is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Catholic University of Ireland, the precursor of UCD. It was the idea of John Cardinal Newman.

On Friday, November 3rd, 1854 the Catholic University of Ireland opened its doors at 86 St Stephen's Green. The Catholic University Gazette reported that: "There was no pomp and circumstance . . . quietly and peacefully . . . our institution commenced its career". About 20 students enrolled at the outset, including Daniel O'Connell, grandson of the Liberator.

On Sunday November 5th, 1854 John Cardinal Newman gave a reception at Number 86 for the new students. He told them, the Gazette reported: "they were to receive, no matter what their intended profession was, an education . . . to fit them for every place and situation they might meet with in life". Lectures began the following day.

Newman knew the university project was a difficult one. "Universities are not brought into existence everyday," he wrote. Critically, the new university received no support from the State, which refused to give it degree-granting authority.


It was also hampered by tensions among the Catholic bishops who, as Newman wrote, were "divided as to its expediency".

In spite of the difficulties,Newman achieved a great deal during his seven years as rector-designate and rector from 1851 to 1858. He successfully launched the university which was the antecedent of University College Dublin, some of whose faculties and societies go back to Newman's university.

The medical school which formally opened in Cecilia Street, Dublin on November 2nd, 1855 was the university's most successful faculty. In 1908 it was incorporated as the medical faculty into UCD.

Newman regarded the establishment of the medical school as "one of the earliest of our successes . . . Did our efforts towards the foundation of a Catholic University issue in nothing beyond the establishment of a first-rate Catholic School of Medicine in the metropolis, as it has already done, they would have met with a sufficient reward".

The UCD Literary and Historical Society started as the undergraduate Historical, Literary and Aesthetical Society founded by Newman.

Newman also left his imprint on Dublin city, architecturally and intellectually. Number 86 St Stephen's Green, now known as Newman House, was acquired on behalf of the university by Charles Bianconi in 1852.

As Louis McRedmond writes in his book about Newman in Ireland: "Number 86 St Stephen's Green was a magnificent Georgian mansion built in the previous century by Richard Chapell Whaley, popularly known as 'Burn-Chapel Whaley' because of his enforcement of anti-papist legislation as a minor legal functionary . . . It was a . . . cause celebre when the great house became Catholic property".

In June 1855 Newman bought ground beside University House (Newman House) and built a church. He chose as architect, John Hungerford Pollen, an Englishman who had converted to Catholicism.

Newman later wrote: "My idea was to build a large barn, and decorate it in the style of a basilica with Irish marbles."

Work was begun in May 1855 by the builder Beardwood of Westland Row. It was completed in less than a year and opened on Ascension Thursday, May 1st, 1856.

Newman was delighted with the result. "The more I looked at the apse the more beautiful it seemed to me - and, to my taste.

"The church is the most beautiful one in the three kingdoms."

Newman used money left over from a then famous trial to pay for the construction of the church. Giovanni Achilli, a defrocked Dominican priest, had been exposed by Newman in July 1851 for various scandals, including sex abuse of a minor. Proceedings for criminal libel were instituted against Newman by Achilli in October 1851. The trial lasted until January 1853.

Imprisonment was a real possibility for Newman and a subscription was raised for his defence. Newman was found guilty and fined £100, leaving a surplus in the defence fund which he used for the University Church.

He had left his home in Birmingham to come to Ireland for the first time on October 1st, 1851 to work on the constitution of the new university. In 1852 he returned to Dublin to give his famous lectures on university education at the Rotunda Assembly Rooms, underneath what is now the Gate Theatre.

In 1858 evening classes were begun for those who had to work during the day. The classes met with immediate success. During the first fortnight, 92 enrolled and the numbers soon doubled.

His work done in establishing the university, Newman resigned as rector in November 1858 and returned to his beloved home and the religious community he had founded in Birmingham.

There were those who regarded the Catholic University of Ireland as a failure. But it was a heroic attempt to ensure equality of educational opportunity, a struggle which continued until the establishment of the National University of Ireland in 1908.

It gave to the English language one of its classic pieces of prose,Newman's Idea of a University. To Dublin it gave the beautiful University Church.

And to Ireland it gave part ownership of a religious and literary genius, who devoted eight years of his life to this country and who said that in his heart, had he been Irish, he should have been a rebel.

This is an edited version of an article published in the Friends of Cardinal Newman Newsletter, Autumn 2004, by kind permission of its editor Father Gregory Winterton.