Magee College

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The main building of Magee College, Derry, opened in 1865.

The main building of Magee College, Derry, opened in 1865.

Magee Presbyterian College opened in Derry in 1865 for theology studies, later providing ‘literary and scientific instruction’. It could not award general degrees, though from 1909 students could transfer to Trinity College, Dublin. Renamed Magee University College, it struggled financially—‘a small college that was nearly down and out when we took it over in 1953’, the chairman of trustees, Col. T.F. Glass, later commented. There were 72 students. The trustees were appointed under Stormont bail-out legislation recommended by the Acheson committee (including new MP Terence O’Neill). The Presbyterian Church retained theology, with the academic departments detached, making them eligible for state funding. Magee became ‘associated’ with Queen’s, though Trinity-style transfers were rare. More students enrolled, including some Catholics, but with Presbyterian ministers still on the board Magee’s identity was decidedly Protestant.

In June 1961, two years before Sir John Lockwood’s appointment, the Londonderry Sentinel heard that Stormont was considering a second university. The newspaper zealously enlisted unionist and Protestant support for developing Magee, estimating that this could generate £250,000 a year for Derry. Former Unionist mayor Sir Basil McFarland told the Sentinel: ‘To the ordinary man in the street it must be quite obvious that Derry is the place for Ulster’s second university’.

Some Catholic clergy were uneasy about Magee’s Presbyterian associations; the Derry Journal at this time rarely mentioned the college. But Nationalist MP Eddie McAteer was enthusiastic, as later were Catholic school and university teachers. Col. Glass asked Stormont to refer Magee to the UGC for funding. When, in January 1962, Stormont officials suggested developing Magee, the UGC rebuffed them, ruling out visiting Derry during a scheduled review of Queen’s. The UGC chairman, after visiting Trinity, ‘noted how poorly the majority of Magee students fared’, usually being ‘put back’. Stormont concluded that the UGC ‘was very reluctant to be mixed up with Magee or to give advice on it’. This was not made public.

Worse followed. In 1963 Trinity put a quota on students from Magee. A closed PRONI file recently opened on application by this writer reveals the background. Trinity believed that Magee’s low admission requirements were creating an ‘easy back door’ into Trinity—‘we feel strongly on this point’, wrote senior tutor F.S.L. Lyons. When Trinity demanded higher entry requirements in Derry, Magee said that this ‘would result in the loss of many students to the Queen’s University’. The ‘severe limitations’ on student transfers put Magee in ‘an acutely embarrassing position’. Other improvements that Trinity proposed would have been financially crippling. The Trinity link—a source of pride in Derry—was exposing Magee’s weaknesses just as the Lockwood inquiry began.

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