Irish Colleges Abroad until the French Revolution

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Irish Colleges Abroad until the French Revolution

Between the 1570s and the French Revolution about thirty colleges were established in Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, France, central Europe, Portugal, and Italy to provide the Irish Catholic Church with priests, to educate the lay Catholic elite, and to maintain the influence of European Catholic powers in Ireland. Their primary function was to train Catholic clergy.

In the medieval period Irish clerical students were educated informally, usually by parish clergy. Because medieval attempts to establish universities in Ireland failed, a small number of talented or ambitious students traditionally traveled to English, Scottish, and continental European universities to pursue further studies. These practices changed dramatically in the sixteenth century. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) laid down strict rules regarding the education of priests, the most important of which was the duty imposed on bishops to establish diocesan seminaries. The primary object of seminaries was to encourage the moral and spiritual growth of obedient and disciplined clergy in order to reform the church and combat heresy. Due to the extension of Tudor and Stuart power in Ireland, the associated introduction of the Protestant Reformation, government prohibition of Catholic schools and sheer lack of resources and organization, Irish bishops were unable to comply with the new tridentine regulations. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Irish Catholics were gradually excluded from political and civil life. For Old English Catholics, concentrated especially in Munster and Leinster, uncertainty regarding land tenure grew. For Gaelic Irish Catholics, particularly in Ulster, confiscation and plantation were stark realities. For both Catholic communities in Ireland, religious persecution became a sporadic but constantly threatening reality. In these circumstances the possibility of establishing secondary schools, seminaries, and universities in Ireland was remote.

From the late 1540s Irish students began to turn up in continental Europe, where they were accommodated in already established seminaries or in the fledgling English and Scots recusant (Catholic) colleges. In about 1578 in Paris six clerics came together under the Water-ford-born priest John Lee and found lodgings in the Collège de Montaigu and later in the Collège de Navarre. As the numbers of Irish students abroad increased, the small, informal Irish communities developed into proper seminaries with church recognition and usually insecure financial patronage. About twelve colleges were set up by religious orders to train their own clerical students, and about seventeen were established for the training of secular or diocesan clergy and laymen. These secular colleges were often run by religious orders, usually Jesuits. Most of the earliest foundations were in Spain or the Spanish Netherlands because the Spanish Habsburgs had strategic interests in Ireland and were traditional champions of Catholicism, and because these territories had long-established commercial relations with Ireland and thriving universities. The Irish also established a number of colleges in France, where there was relative religious peace following the edict of Nantes (1598), in central Europe and in Rome.

The most important of the early colleges were in Spanish territories. The first successful attempt to found a college was in 1592, when the Jesuit Thomas White (1556–1622) of Clonmel secured the patronage of Philip II (1527–1598) for an institution in Salamanca. During its first fifty years it educated nearly four hundred Irish seminarians. In 1594, the Meath-born Christopher Cusack founded the Irish college of Saint Patrick at Douai in the Spanish Netherlands; from it a number of small colleges were launched in Antwerp (1600), Lille (1610), and Tournai (1616). The arrival of large numbers of Irish emigrants after the battle of Kinsale (1601–1602) led to another spate of foundations; in 1605, for instance, Eugene McCarthy established a private college at Santiago to provide for the education of the family and retinue of the Gaelic lord, Donal Cam O'Sullivan Beare. Its rather informal discipline aroused the concern of King Philip III (1578–1621), who placed the college under the care of the Jesuits in 1611.

Jesuit influence in the college network was strong but not overwhelming and was balanced by that of the Irish Franciscans, Dominicans, and others. From the late sixteenth century, pressure from the Dublin government forced the Irish Franciscans to set up a network of colleges, friaries, and student residences in continental Europe. The first Irish Franciscan college, Saint Anthony's, was founded by Florence Conry (1560–1629) in Louvain, Spanish Netherlands in 1607, with a faculty educated at the university of Salamanca. Saint Anthony's became a center for the formation of clergy for the Irish mission, especially in the Gaelic-speaking parts of both Ireland and Scotland, and consequently developed a speciality in Irish language and hagiography. Saint Isidore's in Rome, set up in 1625 by Luke Wadding (1588–1657), achieved recognition as a center for international Franciscan studies, especially in history, hagiography, and the theology of Duns Scotus (1266–1308). Pressure of numbers in Louvain and Rome obliged the Irish Franciscans to found a college at Prague in 1631. Members of its theological staff, at the invitation of the local archbishop, joined the theology faculty of the local seminary. A Franciscan friary was founded at Vielun in Poland in 1645, but owing to the opposition of local Franciscans, it closed in 1653. The friary set up in Capranica in Italy in 1656 became an important summer residence for the Irish Franciscans in Rome. The last Franciscan college was founded in 1700 at Boulay, near Metz, France under the patronage of Leopold, duke of Lorraine.

The Irish Dominicans suffered from the same pressures in Ireland as their Franciscan confreres and were obliged to establish colleges abroad, at Louvain, Lisbon, and Rome. Their Louvain college was founded in 1626, and in 1767 it boasted a community of about fifty. The remarkable Dominican Daniel O'Daly (1595–1662), who served as an outstanding diplomat for the house of Braganza, the royal house of Portugal, founded the Lisbon college in 1629. It suffered badly in the earthquake of 1755, when it had a community of more than twenty-five, all of them Irish. Associated with it was an Irish Dominican convent for female religious, also founded by O'Daly. The Dominican priory of San Clemente in Rome was established in 1677. The Augustinians set up a college in Rome in 1656, and the Capuchins had an institution in Charleville (1620). The Irish Carmelites were established in La Rochelle in 1665 and in Aix-la-Chapelle in 1677. In French territory diocesan colleges were founded in Bordeaux (1603), Rouen (1612), Toulouse (1645?), and Nantes (1689?). The college in Nantes quickly grew in importance and by 1765 housed over sixty students.

The colleges were small in the early days, rarely housing more than a dozen students at a time. They encountered great difficulty in supporting themselves financially, and many had to be closed, usually temporarily, when patronage dried up. The Irish College in Paris had a sporadic existence until the 1610s when it secured the patronage of Jean L'Escalopier, the president of the parlement of Paris (died 1619), and was awarded letters patent from Louis XIII (1601–1643) in 1623. The Irish pastoral college in Louvain enjoyed a relatively large number of scholarships, many of which were established between 1692 and 1783. However, these scholarships had various conditions attached to their allocation, and it was frequently difficult to find suitably qualified candidates. In other colleges priests supported themselves through Mass stipends or chaplaincies. They helped in neighboring parishes, acted as chaplains in hospitals, and gave religious instruction to the children of the local Irish community.

The places available in the colleges were not always filled, and many students split their time betwen two or more colleges. Students came from a great variety of backgrounds, but most had already received some informal secondary tuition in Ireland, mostly in the classics, and generally had access to at least some limited resources; for instance, Nicolas Marob, a native of Kilkenny, possessed an extensive wardrobe and a copy of Suárez's Rhetoric when he arrived in Salamanca in 1595. Because of the difficulties in securing education in Ireland, many of the students who traveled to Spain were already mature men in their twenties or thirties, and some were ordained priests. All students were required to take oaths of obedience, promising to observe college rules and to return to the Irish mission on completion of their studies. The students were subjected to a strict discipline, the Paris seminarians in the 1620s rising at 4:30 A.M. and following an exhausting schedule until they retired at 9:00 P.M. Students in the Irish foundations pursued their studies in the college itself or attended lectures at a neighboring university or at a local Jesuit house of studies. Those who were not already ordained priests entered the colleges at about sixteen or seventeen years old and spent about nine years in study before returning to Ireland. Those already ordained usually spent about five or six years abroad. In the eighteenth century there was a tendency to prolong the period of study. In 1742, for instance, the course of studies in the Franciscan and Dominican colleges was extended by two years.

The philosophical and theological education of the students reflected the preferences of the local universities and the college authorities. The Irish Franciscans favored the philosophy and theology of Duns Scotus, so their houses in Louvain, Rome and Prague became important centers of Scotist scholarship. Between 1630 and 1769 about 257 theological theses were defended at Saint Anthony's, and of these, the overwhelming majority (231) dealt with Scotist theology. The Franciscan colleges provided teaching staff for seminaries all over Europe, notably in central Europe, and were instrumental in propagating renewed Scotist theology in the Habsburg sphere. Some of the Irish Franciscans in the low countries and Rome, such as Florence Conry, Hugh de Burgo, and Luke Wadding, contributed to the theological and moral tendencies that later became associated with Jansenism, but in general, the Irish of the colleges, both staff and students, were careful to observe the theological disciplines favored by the local ordinaries. The Irish Franciscans in particular fostered the study of Irish history, language, and hagiography. Hugh Ward (d. 1635), Patrick Fleming (1599–1631), John Colgan (1592–1658), and Thomas O'Sheerin (d. 1673) were pioneers in these fields. The extraordinary, if wayward, Peter Walsh (1614–1688) was also educated in Louvain, and his literary output made him one of the most widely read Irish Catholic writers in England and Ireland in the 1660s and 1670s. The Irish college in Paris also produced scholars of repute, including the Meath-born third rector and hagiographer Thomas Messingham (about 1580–1638?), and David Rothe (1568?–1651), who became bishop of Ossory. In the eighteenth century the Paris college produced a number of theologians, catechists, and Gaelic scholars including the Dubliner Cornelius Nary (1660–1730), and from Roscommon, Anthony Dunlevy (1694–1746), the author of the Irish-language catechism An Teagasc Críosduidhe (1742). Another student was Michael Moore (about 1639–1726), who left his library to the Irish college in Paris and was a distinguished, much-published late Aristotelian and critic of Descartes. Among the products of the Irish colleges in Rome Luke Wadding was a giant, but there were many others, including the theologian Francis Molloy (d. 1660).

On the completion of their training the young priests were supposed to return to Ireland, but getting trained clergy back to Ireland was not easy. In Spain, on the completion of their courses, Irish priests could apply to the Spanish king for the royal contribution, or viaticum, granted under certain conditions to help pay for the journey back to Ireland. Between 1619 and 1659 at least 280 Irish priests, mostly Dominicans and Franciscans, applied for the viaticum, but from the frequent references to Irish clergy active in Spanish and French dioceses, it appears that a substantial number never returned to Ireland. Some served as chaplains in the Irish regiments, others remained to staff the colleges, and a number entered pastoral ministry in their host countries.

The fledgling institutions suffered from internal divisions, often caused by disputes concerning the selection of superiors. In the diocesan colleges they were sometimes appointed by the local bishops, but in many cases they were elected by the students, usually according to a provincial quota system that was supposed to ensure representation of all parts of Ireland. Failures of the system were a constant cause of disharmony. Provincial differences ran deep, chiefly because the Irish migrants brought to the continent the traditional provincial rivalries that divided them at home. The main disagreement was between students from Munster and Leinster, which were largely Old English, and Ulster and Connacht, where the Gaelic Irish predominated. Because the Irish Jesuits recruited chiefly in Munster and Leinster and were also anxious to gain control of the colleges, there were frequent clashes between them and representatives of the Gaelic Irish. In 1602, for example, the Connacht-born Franciscan Florence Conry, with the support of the Ulster nobleman Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill (1572–1602), petitioned Philip III to remove the Jesuits from the Salamanca college, accusing them of mismanaging funds, favoring Old English seminarians, and encouraging loyalty to Elizabeth I (1533–1603). Such disagreements were all too common. In Iberia, the Jesuits tended to prevail and eventually won control of all the Irish colleges there, with the exception of Alcalá. Thus the Society of Jesus exercised a decisive influence on the training of the Irish Counter-Reformation clergy, especially in Spain.

The fate of many Irish colleges was linked with the fate of the Jesuits in Europe: Suppression of the Jesuits in Portugal in 1759 and in Spain in 1767 led to the closures of the Irish colleges they ran. Salamanca was the only Spanish college re-established after the French revolutionary wars, and while the diocesan college in Lisbon remained open throughout the wars, it closed definitively in 1834. In Prague the Franciscan college, beset by internal feuding, was dissolved by Emperor Joseph II (1741–1790) in 1786 as part of his sweeping ecclesiastical reforms. The colleges in France fared better, and in the eighteenth century, the college in Paris was the largest, with a total of 200 student places, about a third of the total number of seminary places available on the continent of Europe for Irish clerical students. Before the French Revolution, fifteen Irish bishops were Paris-trained, and Paris-educated clergy were exposed to the latest trends in theology thanks to the lectures of Dublin-born Luke Joseph Hooke (1714–1796) and others. In addition, the Irish college in Paris was an important center for the wider Irish migrant community, providing financial and legal aid as well as spiritual services to the Irish soldiers, students, and merchants resident in or passing through Paris.

The French Revolution sealed the fate of the French colleges. The passing of the Civil Consitution of the Clergy in 1791 disrupted church life and led to the seizure of the Irish college in Paris in 1793. The French invasion of the Austrian Netherlands in 1793 spelled the end of Saint Anthony's and the other colleges in the low countries. In the end it was the combined effect of the suppression of the Jesuits, the amalgamation of the smaller Spanish colleges with Salamanca, the reforms of Emperor Joseph II, the French invasion of Rome in 1798, and the confiscation of church property all over French-occupied Europe that dealt the fatal blow to most of the Irish colleges. By 1799 only three were functioning effectively. In 1795 an act of the Irish parliament (passed with a lot of arm-twisting by William Pitt [1759–1806]) effected the foundation of the Royal Catholic College of Maynooth. Henceforth the Irish church could produce its clergy at home, and consequently, the importance of the continental colleges diminished.

During their two centuries of activity, however, the Irish continental colleges were vital to the maintenance of Catholicism in Ireland, and practically every Irish ecclesiastic in the period was associated with them. The colleges provided an educated clergy; they helped to maintain the network of contacts that held together the Irish migrant communities in western Europe; they sustained the political influence of the Catholic powers in Ireland; and they were powerfully active intellectual centers, playing a pivotal role in the modernization of Irish Catholic culture in the early modern period. Their disappearance deprived the nineteenth-century Irish church of an enriching continental influence.

SEE ALSO Annals of the Four Masters; Council of Trent and the Catholic Mission; Education: 1500 to 1690; Wild Geese—The Irish Abroad from 1600 to the French Revolution


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Thomas O'Connor