Carlow College adapts to changing times


One of our oldest third-level colleges is helping to rework the Catholic heritage for a new pluralist Ireland, writes Bishop Jim Moriarty

One of the more unexpected responsibilities which I inherited on appointment as Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin was that as chair of the trustees of Ireland's oldest third-level Catholic educational institution, Carlow College, known locally as St Patrick's.

Walking through its corridors is a lesson in Irish history. Memories of 1798 are evoked. The early student lists are a Who's Who of 19th-century Irish Catholic families. There is a strong European dimension, since most of the early staff were educated on the Continent, at Paris, Louvain, Lisbon or, as in the case of the famous JKL [Bishop James Doyle], at Coimbra. Illustrious alumni are recalled in the names on lecture halls: James Fintan Lalor, John England, John Therry, the poet Dalton Williams, the painter Frank O'Meara, and the founder of Villanova University - a namesake - Patrick Moriarty.

Founded before the French Revolution, Carlow College is second in seniority only to Trinity College among third-level institutions in Ireland. For its first 100 years its students were young men studying for the professions and candidates for the priesthood.

For its second 100 years it was exclusively a seminary. Since it became affiliated to the NCEA (now HETAC) in 1989, it has re-emerged as a provider of third-level courses in the humanities and social care, while still serving its church constituency.

That is how I find myself as overseer of one of Ireland's oldest educational establishments and at the same time one of the newest, in terms of its vision of serving the needs of the 21st century.

The past decade was a difficult time for seminaries and many yielded to market forces, and closed.

Carlow, however, has been proactive in responding to change. In 1992 the college pioneered an in-service training course for priests enabling over 120 of them to upgrade their qualifications.

Then there was the initiative of a pre-seminary course for likely candidates to the priesthood, introducing them to theology and exploring the viability of their aspirations, by placing them in parish communities, rather than rushing them into the rigours of seminary training.

Most enterprising was the development of a postgraduate diploma in parish planning and administration to qualify lay people for paid ministry in the church. This course was ecumenical in nature and involved clergy and lay folk from the various churches. The first cohort graduated last October.

However, church-related businesses alone could not justify the expense and staffing required to keep the institution viable. In the late 1980s the college administration made a strategic decision to revert to the original charter of its founder, Bishop James Keefe, and set out its shop in the area of the humanities, seeing itself as the obvious complement to Carlow Institute of Technology. The decision has proved wise.

In the past academic year there were 500 students in the college, 400 full-time and 100 part-time, more than ever in its long history. Students were divided pretty evenly between humanities - broadly understood as liberal arts and social care. Over 200 took theology as an integral part of their studies on national diploma and degree courses.

The interdisciplinary approach to humanities at Carlow opens up new possibilities for theology. No longer limited by the constraints of the professional training requirements of a seminary course, theology is freer to interact with other disciplines, to dream with poetry, to agonise with philosophy, to harass historians about their hermeneutical presuppositions, and to explore the twilight area of mystery and ultimate meaning where even great scientists take off their shoes.

The study of theology sits easily at the heart of a humanities course. How could one properly appreciate Kavanagh, Heaney or Friel, or indeed any of our major writers, without an understanding of Christian theology?

As the late Daniel Murphy points out in his fine work Christianity & Modern European Literature, many of our major 20th-century writers drew their inspiration from Christian sources.

They were inspired, not so much by the musty theology of the schools, as by the heroic theology of those who survived the gulag and those who braved the barbarism of a most turbulent century.

In the 21st century the way is open again for a new exploration of God questions and of how the light of Gospel truth can brighten up our areas of unease and encourage us to confront the quiet mystery Levertov talks about, when the throng's clamour recedes.

Great credit is due to the NCEA (HETAC) for making it possible to do theology in this new way. The name of Pádraig Mac Diarmada is often mentioned in Carlow in this connection. His inclusion of the church-run theological colleges in the NCEA system was courageous and far-sighted.

For our changing society the interdisciplinary approach to study not only enhances the learning process, but also performs an important social function. It anticipates and models the openness to difference students will need to relate effectively to a more complex and diverse social order.

This applies equally to the study of liberal arts and of social care. In Carlow the social care courses integrate theory, practice and reflection, so as to develop the students as individuals and not merely as efficient functionaries.

The social care department networks well with the care agencies which it serves. This provides an effective feedback mechanism and ensures quality control.

I was very impressed by the quality of students offering themselves for social care and by the rigour of their training.

New developments, such as the National Visual Arts Centre to be built on the college campus and the P.J. Brophy Memorial Library and Resource Centre, will greatly enhance the contribution Carlow College will make to the educational and cultural life of the wider community and confirm its role as a vibrant hub of the humanities in the south-east.

The motto of Carlow College is Rescissa Vegetior Assurgit - meaning "pruned back it burgeons more strongly".

It was an obvious reference to the church emerging from the cultural, educational, and religious devastation of penal times. When Carlow College was founded its task was clear.

Reworking the Catholic heritage for a new pluralist Ireland where the church is no longer coterminous with society, but accepted as a significant element in the new civil order, is also an exciting educational challenge. The last decade of the 20th century was a time for pruning.

I am confident that there are in Carlow at the beginning of a new century significant signs of encouraging growth.

  • Dr Jim Moriarty was installed as Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin a year ago this month