History of Maynooth University
Maynooth University is a very distinctive university, a collegial institution strongly focused on the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, and equally committed to research, teaching and engagement.
Its distinctive features and character owe much to its unique history and heritage. Maynooth University was formally established as an autonomous university as recently as 1997, yet traces its origins to the foundation of the Royal College of St. Patrick in 1795, making it, simultaneously, Ireland’s youngest university and one of its oldest educational institutions.
St. Patrick’s College Maynooth was founded in 1795 as a seminary for the education of priests, and by 1850 had become the largest seminary in the world. For 200 years before that, Irish Catholic priests had been educated in the Irish colleges in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands as, under the Penal Laws, it would have been illegal to educate them at home.
A number of factors paved the way for the establishment of Maynooth College. The French Revolution had confiscated the Irish Colleges in France. Enlightenment thinking, and the fact that Britain was at war with France led the government seeking to appease Irish Catholics by relaxing the Penal Laws. At the same time, both the Irish bishops and the English government feared that Irish priests might be influenced by the ‘contagion of sedition and infidelity’ of the French revolution. The bishops asked permission to endow ‘academies or seminaries’ for the education of candidates for the priesthood. Their political advisers persuaded them to extend the project to include laymen, and so the Irish parliament passed an ‘Act for the Better Education of Persons professing the Popish or Roman Catholic Religion’ which lead to the foundation of Maynooth College in 1795. Among the first staff at the College were a number of French scholars who were refugees from the Revolution. Lay students were admitted in 1800, but the lay college survived only until 1817.
Once established, the college authorities had to step carefully with an eye on the government grant. There were some expulsions of students in 1798 and again at the time of Robert Emmett’s rising in 1803. For their part, Irish Catholics were at first naturally suspicious of a government-subsidized institution but by the 1820s, when Maynooth priests were beginning to predominate numerically among the Irish clergy, they were the backbone of Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic Emancipation.
On the other hand a large body of Protestant opinion, in England and Ireland, started to question the legitimacy of paying for the education of Catholic priests.
In 1871, after the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the state subsidy was withdrawn and Maynooth College became completely independent. In 1896 it became a Pontifical University and in 1910 a Recognised College of the National University of Ireland (NUI) so that clerical students gained a BA of the National University of Ireland in the course of their seminary studies. The student body of the College remained exclusively clerical until 1966, when the hierarchy decided to develop Maynooth ‘as an open centre of university education’ and lay students were admitted to NUI degree courses at the College. With the increasing number of students, the teaching staff of the NUI became more numerous and varied in background.
The Universities Act, 1997, restructured the National University of Ireland and the college at Maynooth became the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (Maynooth University), a university in its own right, independent of St Patrick’s College Maynooth.
The early phase of the development of Maynooth University saw its formal establishment and maturation as an independent institution, very rapid growth in student and staff numbers, the further development of a strong research base, the consolidation of its national position, reputation and unique identity, and an increasingly international profile and connectedness.
The history of the institution confers a unique identity. Maynooth University has the features of a new university: it is dynamic, rapidly-growing, research-led and engaged. Yet the ethos and disciplinary mix are characteristic of an older institution: there is great strength in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, teaching and research are equally valued and wholly interdependent, there is a strong commitment to liberal education and to fundamental research and scholarship, and a deeply collegial institutional ethos.
Today, Maynooth University is a university of international standing, a community of over 9,000 students and 800 staff, renowned for research and scholarship of global repute, excellent teaching, and has an outstanding environment to learn and work.