Not a mixed blessing

September 23, 2010

You confidently assert that the Catholic University of Ireland - which only later became University College Dublin - of which Cardinal Newman was appointed first rector by Pope Pius IX and Archbishop Paul Cullen of Dublin, provided Irish Catholics with their first taste of higher education ("Saintly champion of liberal values out of step with business zeitgeist", 16 September). Alas, this is true only with the qualification "segregated".

After awarding significant sums to the politically troublesome Maynooth seminary in 1845, Robert Peel established three new colleges for lay education, two Catholic and one Presbyterian (becoming Queen's College Belfast). To avoid competition with Trinity College Dublin - to which Catholics had been admitted since the 1780s, albeit as second-class students - the other two colleges were in Cork and Galway. While aimed at Catholics, the intake was intended to be religiously "mixed", and the education secular in structure.

The Catholic hierarchy would have nothing to do with it. Newman was dispatched in 1851, apparently unclear about these objectives, to deliver certain specific outcomes in Dublin. Hence his peculiar emphasis on the centrality of theology for lay undergraduates, and his repudiation of both research and professional learning. What was required was indoctrination. The private, sectarian university was a failure, and he left in 1857. But how different the course of Irish politics might have been had the mixed colleges been allowed to flourish instead.

Mark H. Robson, Honorary research Fellow, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford; Vice-chairman, London Metropolitan University.

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