Maynooth College: 1795-1995 Patrick J. Corish (Gill and Macmillan, £40) ISBN: 0-7171-2241-7

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Reviews, Volume 5

For the two centuries of its existence Maynooth has been close to the centre of Irish life and controversy. There is not a corner of the island which has not felt the effects of its alumni, or of decisions taken within its walls. Loved or viewed with suspicion, there is no seminary anywhere which has had a comparable impact on its surrounding society. If it were not for this unique relationship between Maynooth College and Irish society, it is doubtful if this book, which in essence is an anniversary college history, would merit more than a notice, or be of interest to few apart from those intimately connected with that institution. But in this unique situation lies both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Its chief strength is that it provides a detailed, and long overdue, account of the fortunes of a key Irish institution, while its chief weakness is that it is the history of an institution en fête for it bi-centenary by one of its beloved sons.
Maynooth was the product of a strange alliance of forces: the bishops of a church combined with a government which had for generations persecuted it in order to provide that church with ministers who would ensure its survival and growth. The event only becomes explicable in the context of the times: the need felt mutually in the aftermath of the French Revolution by ‘throne and altar’ to support one another or face extinction. This conjunction of forces provides the book with some of its key themes: the relationship of the Irish bishops and the British government over control of the college, a recurring one throughout the book; the relationship of the Catholic Church in general, but especially Rome, to the college. Maynooth had to account for itself, its teaching, and its products to distant Rome, and present itself as a model outpost of Tridentine orthodoxy. It faced criticism for being backward and rigoristic from one quarter, while from another it was attacked for being Gallican (i.e. not sufficiently Roman) in attitude, lax in discipline, and a seed-bed for radicals. But there where other dramas in which Maynooth was involved apart from the courts of St Peter and St James. It was an institution of the Irish bishops and it had to answer to them at every turn: be it in its administration, its staff, its students, or its funds. First and last, it was their creature, and often came to grief through the jockeying of individual bishops—most famously between Cullen and MacHale—for power within the group. Lastly, it had its own life as an institution: the tensions of the staff, the concerns of the students, and the problems of trying to maintain a ‘third level’ college-cum-monastery on a shoe-string without an adequate academic staff, library or buildings. It is to the great credit of Corish that he can combine these various levels of involvement and present a continuous portrait of Maynooth’s evolution.
Corish has taken a blow-by-bow narrative approach, but reading between the lines one senses a fascination with certain topics chapter after chapter. One is the question of power and control. The early decades were dominated by the bishops’ desire to remove all power from the government (who, incidentally, paid the piper). Later we see the theme again in the fears expressed over creativity on the part of certain staff members. If any academic put his head over the parapet by writing anything other than standard text-books, it was seen as a challenge to control, and suppressed. Later again, we see the desire that Maynooth share in the benefits of being linked to a civil university, but always there was the episcopal obsession that any links with the Irish state must not result in the diminution of their control. Finally, we see that the changes that occurred in the 1960s—and which still continue—were not so much a far-sighted strategy (as these changes were presented at the time), as a desperate attempt to cope with falling numbers of clerical students; and that in all these changes the hierarchy dragged their feet out of fear for power to shape the institution and its priests.
While this is a book that has a place on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in modern Irish history because of the background it gives and the light it throws on many topics, it lacks critical distance, it is the work of ‘an insider’. Even an able historian—and Corish’s other works show him as such—must remember the dictum: nemo iudex in causa sua. A professor, nay a former president, cannot assess his own institution. Corish muses that he should have stopped fifty years before the present so as to ensure his objectivity, but then decided to press on. No doubt he was influenced in this decision by the fact that if the book was occasioned by a 200th birthday, an account of just 150 of those years might seem less than fulsome. He is obliged to write the history of many events in which he himself was a key actor. Instead of history, we have the ecclesiastical version of the retired general’s memoirs. Moreover, we see a man who does not like many of the developments that have taken place in his beloved alma mater since the 1960s. While he never condemns these outright, his own position is clear. In the last chapters we have Corish the philosopher reflecting on the Second Vatican Council, the changes that occurred after it (it will be matter for historians in a few decades to decide if such changes were ‘in its wake’), and the changes in the Roman Catholic priesthood. His mood is gloomy: there was no one ‘to damp down the changes’ (p.379) and the old spirit of the college was dying away. Corish presents a picture of a generation whom he believes has betrayed its inheritance.
The author concentrates on factual narration of institutional details without a similar treatment of the seminary’s academic and theological life. We know the price of every brick that was laid in Maynooth, but we have to try to piece together for ourselves what were the textbooks in use during the nineteenth century. Yet, such information—along with an analysis of these works—would throw light not only on an aspect of the Irish psyche, but on that of many English-speaking Catholics world-wide as well. When he does mention academic materials—such as syllabi—he does not draw attention to their theological vision of the world, nor the consequences of such a style of education on the students’ attitudes. Similarly, while he is pensively introspective on recent developments in the seminary, he does not reflect critically on the life that was lived in Maynooth by students and staff for most of its history. There is no analysis of how the seminary system affected the lives of those who passed through it, of the sort of priests it produced, or the hidden values it set a premium on, or of the way that it shaped the life and thought of the church it existed to serve. Such an oversight seems incredible given the nature of the institution concerned, but it is all the more incomprehensible in a book written today when the problems of priests trained in such institutions are in the headlines, and many within the Catholic Church are questioning the intellectual foundations of such places as Maynooth. A critical appraisal from someone with Corish’s intimate knowledge of such a seminary as Maynooth would have been of great interest and value.
Instead we are given a set-piece display of a favourite seminary sermon theme in the aftermath of the Enlightenment: the contrast of oratory and classroom. The set-piece works like this: one must not abandon the classroom for piety or one would be a fool, but one must keep the classroom in a subservient position or one will be lead astray with dire consequences. It is a two-tier universe where reason surrenders to passive acceptance, critical judgement to authority, the ordinary Catholic to the hierarch, and ‘nature’ to ‘grace’. In reality it is the obscurantism of intellectual fear where control and authority are used as more effective means to ensure correct-thinking than reason, and it is recognised as such by historians of religion in umpteen situations. In this book it is found time after time: they may not have been the brightest, but they were holy men; they may not have had much training or academic discipline, but their hearts were in the right place. And, while to his credit Corish uses Walter McDonald and Gerald O’Donovan as sources—p.227, which quotes both of them, alongside Canon Sheehan, is his most severe reprimand of the system—he leaves the reader in no doubt that these critics would have achieved much more if they were less concerned with the classroom and more with the oratory. Thus the book presents us with a trained historian who recognises McDonald as a man of brilliance and integrity whose criticisms were just, but who cannot abide the fact that he broke ranks with the traditions of the institution that that historian loves. The fact that a brilliant theologian—indeed probably the only original theologian Maynooth produced in its first century—could not get his books through the censors in his lifetime does not bother Corish: he accepts it as only par for the course if one wants to dabble in theology. Likewise the fact that McDonald had to resort to extraordinary means so that his criticisms of seminary education could be published posthumously does not strike Corish as an indictment of the whole system.
So what have we got? A most useful institutional history which puts well-researched details at the disposal of anyone interested in an important institution in modern Ireland. Moreover, it is a repository of many details about people who indirectly shaped the intellectual and social development of Ireland (the ‘Brief Lives’ of Maynooth professors should help many historians in years to come). And, as we have come to expect from Corish, it is well-written in lucid prose. However, it is only half the story of its subject: we need a better analysis of the social background of its students, a fuller investigation of what was taught to them, and a critical evaluation of how it formed, reformed, or deformed them. Perhaps, the greatest contribution of this book will be to permit these questions to come to the fore.

Thomas O’Loughlin


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