We Remember Maynooth: A College Across Four Centuries, Salvador Ryan and John-Paul Sheridan (eds), Messenger Publications, 512 pp, €50, ISBN: 978-1788122634
It is a quarter of a century since Patrick Corish’s monumental history of Maynooth was published. What is left to tell? As this book amply demonstrates: a lot.
The problems of any institutional history, nevertheless, are manifold. What to put in? What (and whom) to leave out? And those problems are compounded in the task of the reviewer: where are the critical faculties capable of coping with, let alone assessing, more than 500 pages of beautifully printed, copiously ‑ and fascinatingly ‑ illustrated memories?
The illustrations make up for their occasional technical inadequacy by their historical significance. I could refer to many, but I was particularly struck by an iconic one of the late Mgr PF Cremin, encumbered by books, striding alone across the quad. One wonders what thoughts were going through that capacious head. Will I ever become a bishop? Will the students remember to ask me, in the last class of the year, to reprise my habit of singing a few arias from Italian opera?
But what saves this impressive tome from any threat of irrelevance in an increasingly secular Ireland is, of course, that it is not really a history of Maynooth at all but of the vibrant, sometimes unruly, throng of students and teachers that left their mark on this large and complex institution, as it undeniably also left its mark on them. In that sense, it also has a much wider focus ‑ on the complexities of Irish society, and on the colourful palette of human experience reflected in any major Irish cultural institution. It is also great value, at around ten cent a page.
Sean O’Casey used to describe the spire of the Maynooth College chapel as “a dagger through the heart of Ireland” and to some of its critics this may have had, and may even still has, the ring of truth. But O’Casey was thinking of the college’s governors ‑ the bishops ‑ and they are strikingly, and mercifully, largely absent from this fascinating pot pourri of mostly brief reminiscences, apart from a few admirably modest contributions. Open any page. It will not detain you long but ‑ as the Michelin guide says about any good French restaurant ‑ Il vaut le voyage.
But how in hell do you review a book with an index that comprises eight pages of names, with about eighty to a page? One way is to look at the chunkier entries in that index: Some names occupy more lines than others: Tomás Ó Fiaich, Ronan Drury, The Furrow, Padraig Ó Fiannachta, Patrick Corish and many, many more. But even among the entries that reflect the experience of only one person, there are little gems, such as the description of Peter Sellers, then recently divorced from Britt Ekland and staying at the nearby Carton House, being given a guided tour … by Kevin McNamara!
One aspect of Maynooth is referred to almost subliminally: the experiences of the young men who went there as clerical students but never reached the finishing line of ordination. In the 1970s, “a vocation was a bit like COVID-19: I was never quite sure if I had it or not, and there was no clear test for it”, according to Peter O’Reilly’s thoughtful essay.
The late Bill Hyland ‑ who also features here as a leading light of the debating society ‑ was one such. He “lost” his vocation before taking his BA finals but, with that unique and blissfully irreligious ethical sense which continued to inform all his major decisions, decided that taking his BA under such circumstances would be morally doubtful. So he left before graduation, took a degree in UCC and became the statistical backbone of the Department of Education’s modernisation of the Irish educational system. Maynooth’s loss was Ireland’s gain ‑ and I suspect that this pattern was widely repeated.
The laity, as it happens, are well represented: and rightly so. The future of Irish Catholicism rests to a considerable extent on their shoulders, probably more so than on those of the office-holders. In that context, I was struck by a remark of Peter Connolly’s in an interview with Declan Kiberd, recorded here by Michael Conway.
The Irish people are not sentimental. See how quickly they abandoned the Gaelic language in the early 19th century when they saw it as no longer of practical use. Religion will go in the next generation: and when it goes, it will go so fast that nobody will ever know it is happening.
I hope and sense that this verdict, coloured perhaps by his own daunting experience of episcopal hostility and abuse of power, may well be overtaken, and in a good way, by the vibrancy of succeeding generations of staff and students in the institution so well memorialised here.
John Horgan is a former journalist, politician and professor of journalism at Dublin City University. He was a member of the Seanad, Dáil and European Parliament between 1969 and 1982, and served as Ireland’s first press ombudsman from 2007 to 2014.