The College was founded because it was urgently needed. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had not been possible to educate Catholic priests in Ireland. Institutions had been established in Catholic Europe, where they had become concentrated in France. The French Revolution confiscated all of these in 1792 and 1793. In Ireland the Penal Code was being dismantled, and the British Government, at war with revolutionary France, was anxious to placate Irish Catholic dissatisfactions, and certainly did not wish to see 'revolutionary' priests returning from the continent. In consequence, a petition to Parliament by the Irish Catholic Bishops was successful, and 'An Act for the better education of persons professing the Popish or Roman Catholic religion' was passed in June 1795. It provided a modest grant to establish a college.
The Bishops began to look for a site. It was desirable that the College be near Dublin, but they found themselves not exactly welcome in several desirable locations. They settled on Maynooth because the local magnate, the Duke of Leinster, was benevolent, and his Duchess even more so. This more than compensated for the fact that Maynooth was a little more distant from the city than they would have wished. The College opened in the autumn of 1795 in a house recently built by John Stoyte, steward of the Duke. Though heavily remodelled in the 1950s, it is still distinguishable as the projection on the row of buildings facing the front gate, and it is still called Stoyte House.
Maynooth and the Fitzgeralds
Maynooth is a historic spot. It is Má Nuad, the plain of Nuada, a name that bulks large in early Leinster legend. But above all it is associated with the Fitzgeralds. This association began in 1176, when Maurice Fitzgerald was granted a manor there by Strongbow as King of Leinster. He began to fortify the spot where a small tributary joins the Lyreen river. The great keep had risen before 1200, and in 1248 a chapel is mentioned in the complex of buildings. In all probability it was on the site of the present Church of Ireland.
Created Earls of Kildare in 1316, the power of the Fitzgeralds peaked with Garrett Mór (1478-1513) and Garrett Óg (1513-34). When a complaint was made to the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, that 'all Ireland cannot rule this man' he is reputed to have replied 'then this man shall rule all Ireland'. It was a situation the King had to tolerate. Ireland was indeed 'ruled from Maynooth'. The Great Earl - and perhaps even more so his son Garrett Óg - seemed able to combine control of Irish tribal policies with a wider European vision, instanced by such things as the library they assembled at Maynooth and the claim to fraternal kinship with patricians such as the Gherardini of Florence. So, when Garrett Óg decided to set up a church where priests would pray for his father's soul, it should be no cause of surprise that there were hints of hopes it might develop into that centre of higher education Ireland had always lacked. When the College of St. Mary was established in 1518 the Fitzgeralds were on the crest of a wave. It would seem certain that it occupied the site of the Church of Ireland and the adjacent tower beside the front gate.
It all went badly wrong. The second Tudor King, Henry VIII, was not prepared to let the Fitzgeralds 'rule all Ireland'. Garrett Óg was summoned to London. He left his son Thomas in charge. The epithet 'Silken Thomas' is a piece of bardic whimsy that does not do him justice. Neither does the legendary image of his playing his lute under the great yew tree still known as 'Silken Thomas's tree'. (It stands on the left of the path leading up from the College gate.) Tree experts are agreed that it was there in his time and indeed well before him, but historians, while not necessarily denying the image of the lute-player, have to insist that Fitzgerald heirs had more serious preoccupations, especially in dangerous times. The revolt he led was a deliberate attempt to assert Fitzgerald indispensability. But the great castle was battered into submission and the garrison massacred. Already Garrett Óg had died in the Tower of London 'of thought and pain'. Thomas surrendered and was executed at Tyburn with his five uncles. The sole survivor, a child half-brother, was spirited abroad into Italy. But his restoration began in 1552 and he was the founder of a line that was content with the new pattern of court nobility. In the mid-eighteen century Carton and Leinster House (now the seat of the Oireachtas) showed off their glory. James the twentieth earl was created Duke of Leinster in 1766. His son William Robert, the second Duke, was the protector of the fledgling 'Catholic College' in 1795.
St. Joseph's Square
Students flocked in. The problem was to find staff and to put roofs over heads. A long wing was run out from Stoyte House, called, not very imaginatively, Long Corridor. It was begun in 1798, and it might be said that each room was occupied as soon as it became ready. Today it looks very new, because it was heavily remodelled in the 1950s. The authorities had in mind to build a square, and the north side was completed in 1809, not without serious financial anxiety. Again, not very imaginatively, it was called New House. The first part of the south side to be built was a detached building at the western end, to be called Dunboyne House. At the back of this is a curious tale.
John Butler became Catholic Bishop of Cork in 1763. He was of an aristocratic family, and in 1785 succeeded to the title of Lord Dunboyne and to extensive estates. He became obsessed with the thought that he was obliged to produce an heir, and when Rome refused him permission to marry he joined the Established Church in 1787. He died childless on 7 May 1800, reconciled to the Catholic Church. He left all his property to Maynooth College. Inevitably, the will was contested by the family. At this stage the penal laws against Catholics owning property had been repealed, with one exception, still there, everyone agreed, simply because it had been overlooked. If a Catholic converted to Protestantism and reconverted to Catholicism he could not bequeath landed property. But could the religion in which Lord Dunboyne died be established to the satisfaction of a civil court? Faced with the prospect of endless litigation, the parties agreed to a division of the property. For Maynooth, this was wealth indeed, and it is genuinely hard to understand why it was decided to devote it all to postgraduate studies - there were two professors of theology and an urgent need for buildings for undergraduate seminarians. But that was the decision, and the building, Dunboyne House, opened for postgraduate students of the Dunboyne Establishment in 1815. It still keeps the same name and function.
The south side of what was now beginning to look like a square was completed between 1822 and 1824. St. Joseph's Square has character, despite the ravages of time and sometimes questionable refurbishment. It may be that it is hard to go seriously wrong when building within a tradition (in this case the Georgian) and perhaps particularly difficult if there is not much money to spend.
South of the square is an untidy cluster of buildings which housed the lay college. At its heart is the finest heritage building in the College, the eighteenth-century Riverstown Lodge, which still survives the less worthy later additions that surround it. The buildings were incorporated into the seminary when the lay college closed in 1817, clearly made redundant by the opening of Clongowes Wood in 1814. Two large functional buildings, Rhetoric and Logic Houses, were built in the early 1830s and became the Junior House. In this area some relief is provided by the 'Junior Garden'. It is outlined as the garden of Riverstown Lodge on a map dated 1809. It was rejuvenated by the late Cardinal D'Alton when he was President in the 1930s. He initiated what is its most notable feature, the rock garden.
Finding a Staff
In the 1790s it was clearly a problem to find teaching and administrative staff in a country when there had never been a seminary. Fortunately there was a solution in the many émigré priests who had fled the French Revolution. Some were French, some Irish, the latter being strongly French in culture. In consequence, the College had a strong 'French' flavour at the beginning. The passage of time brought its inevitable 'greening'. A good place to get a sense of this is the cemetery, just beyond the Junior Garden, where the first burial took place in 1817. One might also reflect that the most famous of the earlier staff was neither French nor a theologian, Nicholas Callen, Professor of Natural Philosophy (or, as we would say, Mathematics and Physics) from 1826 to 1864. He was a pioneer of applied electricity, patenting an improved battery and a process for galvanising iron, and, it seems certain, making the first working induction coil, which, curiously, he did not patent. The apparatus he built for himself is in the College Museum, near the Junior Garden, and opened by request. The Museum also contains a collection of Irish-made scientific instruments and of ecclesiastical items.