Irish Colleges on the Continent

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On the eve of the Reformation the clergy of Ireland were ill-equipped to meet the coming onslaught on the traditional faith. Two centuries earlier the University of St. Patrick's, Dublin, authorized by Clement V, proved to be stillborn. There was thus no studium generale in the country to maintain a good academic standard in the education of ecclesiastics whose training, acquired in the monasteries of the older religious orders or in a few cathedral schools, was adapted solely to the pastoral ministry among a people whose beliefs had hitherto been unchallenged. The authorization, accorded in 1564 by the Holy See to Archbishop Creagh of Armagh and David Woulfe, the papal commissary, to found a studium generale arrived too late. The Act of Supremacy and Uniformity was already in force in Ireland, and the Catholic faith was already in jeopardy.

Contemporary sources for the history of the period portray an Ireland that was likely to be susceptible to Protestantism. The Irish hierarchy had shown itself, with very few exceptions, weak and temporizing. Indeed the first ray of hope that worthy men would be appointed to rule the dioceses of the country appeared only after 1564 when the Holy See began to act on the recommendations furnished by the papal commissary. And though the problem of manning Irish parishes with worthy clergy was pressing, there was to be no solution of this problem for another generation. It was the good fortune of the Catholic Church in Ireland to have enjoyed borrowed years until the first priests from the seminaries abroad returned to fortify their people against error. The early Elizabethan Protestant clergy in Ireland were themselves badly instructed and more anxious to possess parish revenues than to spread their doctrines, while their hierarchy steered an uncertain course between Anglicanism and Calvinism. Also Trinity College, Dublin, which was intended to be an intellectual center for the education of Irish Protestant clergy, was not established until the year before the opening of the Irish College, Salamanca. It was fortunate for the Church that the older religious orders, especially the Franciscans, were at home to man vacant parishes until the return of the first priests who had attended the Irish Colleges.

For more than 40 years before the establishment of the first Irish College abroad, Irish students for the priesthood were already an accepted phenomenon in the university centers of Flanders, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France. There is no way of knowing, however, how many of these students returned as missionary priests to Ireland. There was, as yet, no organization to canalize for the spiritual benefit of Ireland what was evidently a fair potential source of priestly vocations.

To a few secular priests and Jesuits is due the credit for acting solely on their own individual initiative in bringing into being the Irish Colleges whose raison d'être was to educate Irishmen in the spirit of the Tridentine decrees for missionary service throughout Ireland.


Salamanca College opened its doors in 1592 because of the efforts of a secular priest, Thomas white, who for some years had been supporting a few poor Irish students out of his own means. He was eventually able to gain the approval and financial support of Philip II for the continuance of his work. Shortly after he became rector, White became a Jesuit. He devoted the rest of his life to the education of Irish clerical students. His collaborator at Salamanca and elsewhere was Richard Conway, a Jesuit. In 1593 another Irish Jesuit, John Howling, opened the Irish College of Lisbon.

The number of students rarely exceeded ten in each of these colleges; yet within 25 years Lisbon alone had sent forth 124 priests. Later establishments were the Irish Colleges of Compostella and Seville, founded by secular priests but subsequently entrusted to the Jesuits. The college at Compostella was ancillary to that of Salamanca, the former providing courses in arts and philosophy, the latter in theology. These peninsular foundations passed under the government of the secular clergy after the banishment of the Jesuits from Spain and Portugal. The Irish College of Salamanca continued to function until it was closed in 1955 by the Irish hierarchy.


Christopher Cusack, another zealous and resourceful secular priest, long at work among Irish students, was enabled, by help from the Spanish Crown, to establish four centers for the education of Irish missionary priests. These were the Pastoral College (1594) of douai with, later, the ancillary colleges of Antwerp, Tournai, and Lille. The last, due to the help of the Capuchin, Francis Nugent, became virtually a juvenate for the Capuchin order. The Pastoral College of Douai admitted lay as well as clerical students in its earlier years. By 1613, 148 Irish priests had been ordained from Douai.

Apparently, the only college founded through the initiative of a member of the Irish hierarchy was the Pastoral College of louvain established in 1623 by Urban VIII at the instance of Eugene MacMahon, Archbishop of Dublin. The College was affiliated with the University, which, since 1548, had witnessed the enrollment of Irish students in ever increasing numbers. The most notable of Irish alumni of the University was Dermot o'hurley, the martyred Archbishop of Cashel. All these Irish Colleges in the Low Countries disappeared in the troubled years of the French Revolution.


The Irish College in Paris does not seem to have been formally established until 1605, but its first rector, John Lee, a secular priest long settled in Paris, had already been engaged in seeking alms for the support of Irish students of the university. This college became numerically the largest of all the Irish seminaries and, when the National Seminary of Maynooth was founded, was training 180 students. It is still an Irish seminary, entrusted by the Irish hierarchy since 1858 to the supervision of the Irish Vincentians, but in recent years it has been on loan for the education of refugee clerical students from Poland.

In 1603 another Irish secular priest Dermot MacCarthy, founded the Irish College of Bordeaux for the education of priests for the south of Ireland. This seminary was later named the Collège de Ste. Anne la Royale to commemorate its chief benefactress Anne of Austria. In its early years it housed only about a dozen students, but at the time of the French Revolution it counted 40. The Irish College of Toulouse, also later named Collège de Ste. Anne la Royale, was established by MacCarthy in 1611 to meet the demands for admission at Bordeaux. Ancillary centers to Bordeaux and Toulouse were also set up by MacCarthy. After 1654 the Irish students at Bordeaux and Toulouse were automatically granted French citizenship, and after ordination many settled permanently in France.

The Irish College of Nantes was founded during the Titus Oates Plot, and eventually became the second largest of all the Irish Colleges, with its enrollment of 80. It had its own professorial staff unlike the other Irish seminaries whose students attended lectures either in the universities or at Jesuit establishments. The Irish Colleges of Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Nantes lasted until the French Revolution.

The Irish College of Poitiers was never a seminary but rather a Jesuit boarding school for Irish boys, founded in 1674 through the munificence of Catherine, wife of Charles II. The College maintained its lay character to the end, although five burses for the education of students for the priesthood were available in the College in the 1730s. On the suppression of the Society of Jesus in France in 1762 these burses were acquired by the Irish College in Paris. What was saved from the royal foundation by the Jesuits helped later to purchase Clongowes Wood when the Society was restored.


Although one of the smallest of the Irish seminaries in exile, the Irish College in Rome, the Collegium Episcoporum, became one of the most celebrated. It owed its existence to the munificence of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (15951632), Protector of Ireland. By 1625 a small group of Irish students was being supported by the Cardinal at the English College, which was under Jesuit management. However, disputes between the Irish and English students necessitated the withdrawal of the former for whom Luke Wadding, the celebrated Franciscan, found a home near St. Isidore's. Thus the Irish College came into being on Jan. 1, 1628. Its first rector was a secular priest, and the students attended lectures in St. Isidore's with the young Franciscan scholastics. The government of the College was under the supervision of the Franciscan Order. Cardinal Ludovisi continued to support the students, but in his will, drawn up 16 months later, he entrusted the College to the Jesuits. This was disputed after his death, but a decree of the Rota in 1635 upheld the Cardinal's will.

The Irish College remained under the supervision of the Jesuits until 1772 when it was transferred to the management of the secular clergy. Suppressed by Napoleon in 1798, the College was restored in 1826. St. Oliver plunket was an alumnus of this college.


The most notable Irish houses of the religious orders abroad were those of the Franciscans at Louvain (1606), Prague (1629), and St. Isidore's, Rome (1625); of the Dominicans at Lisbon (1615), Louvain (1624), and San Clemente, Rome (1677); and of the Capuchins at Charleville (1615). The Franciscan College of St. Anthony and the Dominican College of Holy Cross were both affiliated to the University of Louvain. Both were closed and their property sequestrated in 1796. St. Anthony's was celebrated as the home of John Colgan, the hagiographer, and the collaborators of Michael O'Clery, compiler of the Annals of the Four Masters. The buildings of St. Anthony's were recovered by the Irish Franciscans in 1925, and serve once again as an Irish Franciscan house of studies. St. Isidore's and San Clemente in Rome are still held by the Franciscans and Dominicans respectively. The Irish Dominicans still serve the Church of Corpo Santo, Lisbon, on the site of the College, which was closed early in the 19th century.

It is universally admitted that the Irish Colleges in Europe were eminently successful in arresting the onrush of the Protestant Reformation in Ireland and in maintaining the Irish people in their allegiance to Rome. But the success of these colleges was conceived, born, and nurtured in trials and difficulties. There was the ever-present problem of finance. The income from foundations decreased alarmingly with the passing years and the declining value of money. The fact that many students after ordination chose to remain in Europe throws into greater relief the heroism of the majority who preferred to return and labor among their oppressed countrymen. The charge that too many students joined religious orders need not give rise to complaint. The religious orders were not permitted to maintain novitiates in Ireland, and it was inevitable that some students should choose the religious life abroad. In any event these Irishmen returned in due course to work in the Irish mission. The authorities in the Colleges had the ever-present problem of guarding their students against the pervasive doctrines of Jansenism and Gallicanism and, later, the arid philosophy of the 18th century. But it was Ireland's fortune that her priests brought back from the Irish Colleges what was best and most ennobling of European thought. Through these colleges Ireland maintained her place in the living stream of Catholic culture.

Bibliography: Archivum Hibernicum, Toulouse, 1 (1912) 122147; Salamanca, 2 (1913) 136; 3 (1914) 87112; 4 (1915) 158; 6 (1917) 126. Prague, 9 (1942) 173294. Douai, 10 (1943) 163210. Boulay, 11 (1944) 118153. Douai and Antwerp, 13 (1947) 4566. Low Countries, 14 (1949) 6691. Bordeaux, 15 (1950) 92141, Low Countries, 16 (1951) 139. Louvain, ibid. 4061. San Clemente, Rome, 18 (1955) 145149. Seville, 24 (1961) 103147. j. macerlean, "Richard Conway, S.J., 15731626," serialized in Irish Monthly 5152 (192324). j. o'heyn, The Irish Dominicans of the Seventeenth Century, tr. and ed. a. coleman (Dundalk, Ire. 1902). p. boyle, The Irish College in Paris from 1578 to 190l (New York 1901).

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