Maynooth: a Catholic Seminary in a Protestant state

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Catholic Emancipation, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1995), Volume 3

From the title-page of the Commentaries of Menochrius,1814

From the title-page of the Commentaries of Menochrius,

The foundation of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in 1795 represented a revolution in the history of Irish Catholicism. The penal era was drawing to a close, but the French Revolution and the loss of the continental colleges threatened the supply of priests to Ireland; of 478 seminary places in Europe before the revolution, ninety per cent were in France and the Netherlands. By shrewdly exploiting this crisis, the Irish bishops secured the endowment of a Catholic seminary from the Protestant state.

‘For the peace and security of the kingdom’

As immediate hopes of a restoration in France faded, the need for an Irish-based seminary became increasingly obvious to the Irish hierarchy. The bishops feared the potential danger posed by the return to Ireland of young clerics imbued with democratic principles, a concern echoed by their ally Edmund Burke who argued that a solution to the education question was essential ‘for the peace and security of the kingdom’. On the other hand, anti-Catholic rhetoric during the passage through parliament of Hobart’s relief bill (1793) demonstrated the strength of opposition to any such moves. Apart from Hobart’s controversial oath, John Fitzgibbon tabled a successful amendment in the Lords opposing the establishment of an exclusively Catholic educational institution and subjecting any future colleges to supervision by Dublin University.

The radical Catholic Committee had also taken up the education question and this generated even thornier difficulties for the bishops. When the Committee dissolved in April 1793, one of its final acts was to establish a sub-committee to advance the cause of Catholic education. This sub-committee reflected the emerging radicalism of the Catholic body, with at least three its number—John Keogh, Richard McCormick and John Sweetman—later becoming influential United Irishmen. Whereas the bishops sought to establish seminaries for clerical formation, this lay committee sought something closer to a university: while Fitzgibbon’s amendments were clearly contrary to the objectives of the bishops, they were of less of a problem for the sub-committee.

Catholic sub-committee proposals

Concerned that episcopal contact with the sub-committee would be misunderstood in government circles and that the bishops might appear to have taken up the cause of parliamentary reform, Bishop Caulfield of Ferns agreed with Edmund Burke’s advice that the hierarchy should minimise such contacts. But the prelates could not be seen to have dismissed the approaches of the sub-committee out of hand, and both groups met in April 1793. The sub-committee outlined its proposals for an educational system which would accommodate both clerical and lay students, including non-Catholics. The proposed college would be under the joint management of clergy and laity and would be funded by subscriptions raised amongst the laity.
Thomas Addis Emmet’s subsequent account of this meeting contrasts starkly with the record of the proceedings given to Archbishop Thomas Bray of Cashel by the Archbishop of Dublin, John Troy. Emmet described how the sub-committee’s scheme received the ‘most decided approbation’ of the ‘majority’ of the prelates. In Troy’s account, he and Archbishop Richard O’Reilly of Armagh were the only bishops present and they both disapproved of the proposals. The archbishop’s version of the transactions seems to be borne out by Wolfe Tone who condemned the prelates as ‘ignorant bigots’ for their rejection of the plan.

‘For the support of His Majesty’s government’

Troy met the Chief Secretary in November 1793 and in a memorandum outlined for him the crucial nature of the education question. The archbishop stressed the social responsibility of the clergy, particularly since Catholics had been restored to the franchise by the 1793 relief act. In this novel situation, he argued the advantages which could be wrought by a well-educated and disciplined clergy, pointing to clerical exertions against disaffection and sedition during the previous summer. Troy argued that an educated clergy was essential ‘for the support of His Majesty’s government and the maintenance of good order, both of which…would be endangered if the Roman Catholic people were deprived of their religious instructors’. The archbishop’s memorandum reflects careful and shrewd preparation and a determination to avoid ambiguity. It was essential, he argued, that any such colleges should be ‘exclusively clerical…subject only to their ecclesiastical superiors’. Troy was aware that this would require alteration of Fitzgibbon’s amendment to the 1793 relief act and the removal of the prohibition on the endowment of Catholic schools contained in the relief act of 1782. With this in mind, the archbishop informed Hobart that no scheme could be realised without ‘some annual pecuniary aid from government’.
Encouraged by government, Troy met his fellow archbishops as well as Bishops Moylan, Caulfield, Plunket, Teahan and Bellew. Together, they drew up ambitious plans for the establishment of diocesan and provincial seminaries and decided to pursue the issue of clerical education with greater vigour. They addressed the first of a series of queries to the Attorney General, Arthur Wolfe, concerning the exact position of Catholics under the 1793 relief act. In particular, the episcopacy sought clarification on the question of endowment. The Attorney General replied that the laws precluded the endowment of schools and seminaries but suggested that such endowments could be permitted by means of a special royal licence. Sackville Hamilton, under-secretary at the Castle, advised Troy that such a licence could be obtained by a memorial to the crown.

Edmund Burke approached

The bishops approached Edmund Burke in the hope of enlisting his support for their project. Convinced of the value of their scheme, Burke suggested that the success of the venture depended on ‘management and co-operation upon both sides of the water’, recommending his son Richard and Thomas Hussey, ‘the ablest man of business and the best clergyman he knew’, for this purpose. Richard Burke was as ineffectual in the Maynooth business as he had earlier been as agent of the Catholic Committee, but Edmund Burke himself devoted great energy to the seminary question.
Accompanied by several other members of the hierarchy, Troy met Westmorland in December 1793 and presented an address of loyalty to the king. Despite the Lord Lieutenant’s known antipathy to the Catholic cause, Troy was pleased with the tenor of the meeting and emerged confident that the government would soon meet all the bishops’ educational needs, except the provision of funds. The Westmorland meeting marked a new departure in relations between the Irish Church and the Castle administration: it was the first time in over a century that a conference had taken place between a viceroy and the Catholic hierarchy. Anxious to build upon this relationship, Troy met Edward Cooke in late December, inviting the Castle secretary to report to him ‘the names of such clergymen as he might have reason to complain of in future’.

‘Castlelick clergy’

Communication with the Castle served only to deepen suspicions of the hierarchy harboured by the Catholic sub-committee, particularly as the bishops kept their planned meeting with Westmorland secret. All of this contributed to the ‘Castlelick clergy’ jibes predicted by Burke, which gave an impression of constant meddling by the administration and the hierarchy in each others affairs. Unmoved by such accusations, Troy was equally unconcerned about the possible wrath of the lay committee. The bishops were not to be deterred from their chosen course: pleased to learn that their address of loyalty presented to the Lord Lieutenant had been ‘received in a most gracious manner’ by King George, they proceeded with their planned memorial requesting a royal licence for the endowment of Catholic colleges and stressed the role an educated clergy would play in opposing French atheism and its associated Irish radicalism.
Despite the memorial’s urgent tone and Troy’s warnings that the ‘Protestant establishment would not long survive’ the destruction of the Catholic religion, Westmorland moved slowly: nine months elapsed before he passed on the memorial to the sergeant and solicitors general for their opinion. The situation had been dramatically transformed by then, as William Pitt formed a coalition with the Portland Whigs on assuming power in summer 1794. One of the last acts of Westmorland’s viceroyalty was a reply delivered to the bishops by Sackville Hamilton in which he curtly declared the seminary proposals impossible, owing to the terms of the 1793 relief act.

John Thomas Troy, Archbishop of Dublin, by Thomas Clement Thompson.(Courtesy of The National Gallery of Ireland)

John Thomas Troy, Archbishop of Dublin, by Thomas Clement Thompson.
(Courtesy of The National Gallery of Ireland)

The arrival of Fitzwilliam

The imminent arrival of Earl Fitzwilliam as Viceroy generated widespread euphoria in Ireland. The hierarchy generally shared the hopes of the people, but there was a degree of uncertainty as to the most appropriate means of expressing their sentiments. Within days of his arrival, the Lord Lieutenant initiated a series of sweeping changes, dismissing John Beresford as chief revenue commissioner and Arthur Wolfe as Attorney General. The radical press celebrated these assaults on the junto, praising Fitzwilliam for dislodging the ‘hydra of persecution from its den, the Castle’.
The bishops shared the popular perception of the earl holding out the olive branch and lost no time in gathering in Dublin to prepare a new submission on the seminary question. The first of these meetings took place in January at the Augustinian Priory in John’s Lane. The changing atmosphere is reflected by the fact that no fewer than eighteen bishops were present, making this by far the largest meeting of the hierarchy for over a hundred years. These meetings continued over five weeks and the newspapers followed them with great interest. The bishops were confident that their plan would be approved. Fitzwilliam was, after all, a disciple of Edmund Burke, who had spent the preceding months preparing the ground on both sides of the Irish sea. Fitzwilliam, however, did not confine himself to the issue of Catholic education, and the bishops were confronted by the prospect of a royal veto on episcopal nominations and state pensioning of their clergy.
In December 1794, Thomas Hussey warned of the imminent introduction into the Irish House of Commons of a bill to establish a provision for Catholic clergy. Confident that the move would be resisted, as it had been in 1792, he reiterated Catholic objections to the any state interference in the internal affairs of the Church. Despite this, the prelates believed little could be gained from opposing the government’s plan and accepted that some form of veto appeared inevitable. This certainly represented a weakening of the bishops’ total opposition to the proposals and reflects a sense amongst the hierarchy in early 1795 that their unrestricted independence would have to be sacrificed as part of the price to be paid for total emancipation. In the field of clerical education, however, the bishops were adamant that no concessions would be made. They wrote to Grattan on 2 February seeking his support for their scheme. This letter contained no reference to the Catholic sub-committee, but mentioned their discussions with ‘our principal laity’, most probably the conservative faction led by Lord Kenmare, with whom they had always concurred. In reply, Grattan referred to differences between the bishops and the sub-committee and the latter’s objections to the prelates’ plans for a college but hoped that this disagreement would be ‘settled to all your satisfaction’.
The bishops decided to proceed with caution, on the understanding that the planned college depended upon the success of Grattan’s emancipation bill. As events unfolded, however, this was not to be the case and the failure of the emancipation bill actually facilitated the prompt establishment of the Royal College at Maynooth. Fitzwilliam’s great plan for Ireland, particularly his proposed yeomanry, depended upon Catholic emancipation. Although his speech from the throne made no reference to his plans to remove remaining Catholic disabilities, he was convinced that the cabinet in London approved of his proposals and appeared unaware of the opposition to emancipation in Whitehall and the pressure being applied by Pitt to halt the proposed repeal.

‘On the brink of civil war’

Henry Grattan introduced a relief bill in the House of Commons on 12 February. The immediate adverse reaction signalled doom for the Fitzwilliam administration. Believing that the Viceroy was moving too fast, Portland instructed Fitzwilliam to abandon the emancipation bill and to proceed instead with the planned seminaries and provision for the clergy. The duke was convinced that these measures would provide assurances of the ‘good intentions of government’, so that ‘all ideas of further concessions might…be laid aside’. A week later an angry Fitzwilliam was recalled from Dublin, plunging the country into crisis. Writing to Burke, Thomas Hussey described Ireland as being ‘on the brink of civil war’ following Fitzwilliam’s recall. He could not understand how ‘the spirit of this nation [could] bear that the most popular and virtuous viceroy that ever came to this country should be removed’. The feeling amongst the Catholic body was one of insult and disgust.
Little had come of the hierarchy/ administration discussions prior to Fitzwilliam’s recall and Hussey feared that the planned college would suffer the same fate as the relief bill. He was greatly relieved, therefore, when the duke requested him to stay on in Dublin until his plans were concluded. Furthermore, Portland requested Earl Camden, the new viceroy, to proceed with his earlier instructions to Fitzwilliam; completion of the educational proposals and establishment of a provision for the clergy.
Anxious to remove the anti-Catholic tag from the administration, both London and Dublin regarded the proposed seminary as a final concession and an adequate substitute for emancipation. Within three weeks of his arrival in Dublin, Camden’s Chief Secretary, Thomas Pelham, introduced a bill to the Commons on 24 April 1795 establishing the Royal College. The Catholic bishops had reservations about the scheme, particularly its admission of outside interference in the proposed college. Edmund Burke too, dreaded any role for the junto in the college’s affairs. Hussey proposed to Camden that the college be established by charter from the king and that the power of superintendence and visitation would rest not with the local Protestant bishop, but rather with ‘persons amongst the highest orders of the clergy of the RC persuasion’. The viceroy rejected this suggestion, believing it gave too much credence to the notion of an establishment for the Catholic clergy and proceeded with his own plans for the college. Under this scheme, it was to be governed by a board of twenty-one trustees, including the Chancellor (John ‘Black Jack’ Fitzgibbon), three chief justices and six Catholic lay men. The trustees would be responsible for drawing up the statutes of the college and internal discipline, with the Chancellor and chief justices as ex-officio members of the board acting as visitors. The inclusion of Fitzgibbon and the chief justices as trustees created a sense of alarm in Catholic circles: many shared Burke’s view that not alone were all benefits of the college lost, but that ‘a more mischievous project never was set on foot’ in Ireland.
Troy would certainly have preferred if the judges had not been included as trustees, but regarded their presence as a necessary evil. He was satisfied that the internal regulation of the college would be left to the bishops. With diplomatic skill, he had successfully brought the new administration, particularly Pelham, around to virtually accepting his model for the Royal College. Subjection to Trinity College had been resisted, as had outside involvement in the appointment of its president and professors. He compromised by accepting four Protestant and six lay Catholics trustees, but the presence of ten bishops and the president on the board assured effective clerical control.

Swift passage through parliament

The seminary bill had a swift passage through parliament and debate was unusually muted. Undoubtedly the ‘conciliatory mood’ of the new regime assisted the bill’s passage: the rabidly anti-Catholic Patrick Duigenan later commented that the measure had been carried ‘with little notice or discussion’ and the debate was not even recorded in the Parliamentary Register. There was minor unease in the Lords but most opposition came from outside of parliament.
Fitzwilliam’s recall polarised political opinion and Camden’s arrival led to riots on Dublin’s streets. In time, these protests gave way to more sophisticated opposition. Edward Tighe MP dismissed the college bill as ‘a sop to the Roman Catholic clergy by way of compensation’ for the doomed emancipation bill. Tempers ran high and Edmund Burke complained that the proceedings at a Catholic Committee protest meeting on 9 April had been ‘wholly Jacobinical’ in tone and that talk of separation reflected ‘foolish language, adopted from the United Irishmen’. Resenting the fact that their education plans had been usurped by the bishops, the sub-committee presented a petition to parliament in opposition to the education bill. The petition, brought before the house by Henry Grattan on the bill’s second reading, objected to the proposed college on two grounds: the total power given the trustees to make all college appointments and, more fundamentally, the college’s exclusively Catholic character.
Referring to this episode, Lecky declared that there was ‘hardly a more striking proof of the change that [had] passed over the spirit of Irish Catholicism than is furnished by the petition’. Yet, while the petition reflected both the liberal principles of the Committee and the great divide between their priorities and those of the hierarchy, it was also a strategic political move, described by Maurice O’Connell as ‘more an expression of anger than a serious attempt to have the bill altered’. The Grattanite party in parliament shared the Committee’s frustration. They opposed the bill in the belief that its passing might smother the general sense of disappointment in the country on which they hoped to capitalise, and would tend to divide Catholic and Protestant reformers whom they hoped to combine in the common cause. Despite these objections, the bill was carried without any difficulty.


On the feast of SS Peter and Paul, 29 June 1795, Troy and seventeen bishops celebrated a solemn High Mass in Francis Street, Dublin, ‘by way of thanksgiving of the legislature for the late act which endowed a Roman Catholic college, and to implore the divine blessing upon his Majesty’s person and government’. Troy had indeed much for which to be grateful. He had, after all, achieved what would have been considered impossible a year earlier—the establishment of an autonomous college under exclusive episcopal superintendence. The absence of any members of the old sub-committee amongst the lay trustees reflects the rupture which had occurred in the Catholic body. In many respects, the hierarchy had been less than honest in their relations with lay Catholics. Throughout 1793-4, they kept the sub-committee in the dark about their ongoing discussions with Major Hobart and the Castle. The sub-committee had been led to believe that the bishops supported their plan for one thriving national college, only to discover otherwise.
In the recriminations which followed the establishment of the Royal College, it was suggested that the hierarchy had exploited the prospect of a college under the control of radical Catholics as a bargaining tool to frighten government into assenting to their own scheme. Thomas Addis Emmet, reflecting much later on the events, believed that such a plan was infinitely more attractive to the Castle authorities who could make it ‘subservient to every purpose which the government wish’. Troy was conscious of the anger amongst the sub-committee at how events had unfolded; at one stage he contemplated including Edward Byrne amongst the trustees ‘for peace sake’, but the fact that Byrne signed the petition against the college bill ruled out this possibility.
The Fitzwilliam episode wrought an enormous change in the standing of the Catholic hierarchy. The bishops undoubtedly shared the general despondency at the viceroy’s recall and the fate of his relief bill but, had it passed, they would certainly have had to suffer the imposition of a veto and provision for the clergy which the viceroy had proposed. The arrival of Camden spared the hierarchy this crisis, and the eagerness of the new Lord Lieutenant to conciliate leading Catholics greatly aided the realisation of their educational plans, without any of the compromises which they had feared necessary only a few months earlier.

Episcopal conferences

The education crisis contributed to the formation of a national episcopal conference in Ireland and the emergence of a greater sense of unity amongst the bishops. The sheer scale of the meetings at John’s Lane, in preparation for the bishop’s education submission in January 1795, represented a significant development in the process. The quarterly Maynooth trustees meetings would in future serve as episcopal conferences, and the experience gained in the negotiations prior to the foundation of the college proved invaluable, especially in the negotiations on the Act of Union. A renewed sense of identity and newly established relations with the Castle buoyed up spirits amongst the hierarchy, and this confidence was reflected in the growing tendency of bishops to use episcopal titles.
More than anyone, Archbishop Troy was responsible for this effective marshalling of the Irish hierarchy. He had succeeded in bringing his confréres together to face the crisis in clerical education and, in so doing, confirmed his position at the head of the Irish Catholic Church. Maynooth remains in many respects a monument to Troy’s perseverance, and its foundation greatly enhanced his standing and reputation in the eyes of both the Irish Church and the Holy See. With the Catholic Committee becoming more and more submerged within the United Irishmen, the Archbishop became to all intents and purposes the public leader and acknowledged voice of Irish Catholics. Maynooth College, however, had not been established without cost to the hierarchy; above all, the bishops’ reputations had been sullied by their Castle courtship. The popular perception of the college as a sop in place of general emancipation survived and, as Edmund Burke predicted, constant meddling with the Castle set the bishops and clergy at variance with their own body. Grattan’s view that government had managed to ‘pervert religion into an instrument against liberty’ was exacerbated by the recognition that the hierarchy had played a willing and enthusiastic part in that process.

Dáire Keogh lectures in history at Trinity College, Dublin.

Further reading:

P. Corish, Maynooth College, 1795-1995. (Dublin 1995).

D. Keogh, The French Disease: The Catholic Church and Radicalism in Ireland, 1790-1800 (Dublin 1993).

M.R. O’Connell, ‘The political background to the establishment of Maynooth College’ in Irish Ecclesiastical Record (1956).


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