Wednesday, November 03, 2004

A university is not founded every day

As I mentioned previously today marks the 150th Anniversary of Newman’s opening the Catholic University of Ireland at what is now known as Newman House in the centre of Dublin. This enterprise proved to be a painful and difficult one for Newman. It ‘interrupted’ his primary vocation as Father of the Birmingham Oratory for several years (he had to regularly make the difficult commute between Dublin and Birmingham) – indeed, Louis McRedmond calls his account of Newman’s Irish adventure ‘Thrown Among Strangers’ from a passage in Newman’s own correspondence dated 25/02/1854:
No one knows but myself the desolateness in leaving Birmingham, and being thrown among strangers – I trust it will be taken as penance and be of eternal good to me.
Despite being invited to head the project by Archbishop Paul Cullen and the Irish hierarchy he was hindered by their lack of support of the project. He also had the misfortune of being caught in the crossfire between Cullen (who was engaging in a campaign of ‘Romanizing’ the Irish church) and his doughty adversary the nationalist Archbishop John McHale, the so-called ‘Lion of the West’. (Newman refers to being ‘pawed by the Lion’) He did, however, win the support of some of the more ‘progressive’ bishops like the learned David Moriarty of Kerry (who would remain a life-long friend of Newman) who was the last Irish bishop to be persuaded to vote in favour of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I.
It is not surprising that the bishops of Ireland found it difficult to be enthusiastic about Newman’s project. The idea of building what amounted to a Catholic Oxford in a country ravaged by famine less than a decade previously was optimistic to say the least. While Newman was trying to drum up support for the university, the allocutions of Bishop Moriarty show that the clergy of his diocese were struggling to find money for such basic needs as vestments and church maintenance. The Catholic middle classes and many of the bishops would have preferred Newman to focus on professional schools of medicine, engineering and the like, rather than the genuine University of Newman’s vision. Newman, however, saw the Catholic university as not being just an Irish project. He had the vision of this institution being the primary Catholic University for the English-speaking world and therefore hoped for support and students from North America and Britain. Alas, this support never really materialised. What is less excusable than the pragmatic reluctance of the Irish hierarchy is the cruel way in which Newman was treated on so many occasions, particularly by Cullen. Through Cullen’s carelessness (or malice?) Newman was kept poorly informed of affairs regarding the university. Cruellest of all was the fact that at one stage Newman was assured of a Titular Bishopric to enhance his standing as Rector, only to have it snatched away at the last moment. To Newman’s great embarrassment, friends had already started to purchase episcopal regalia on his behalf!
Newman’s spell in Dublin was also somewhat of a personal mortification. As a refined Englishman, he found the Irish manner somewhat rough and the diet did not agree with his digestion. It was also a matter of some pain to Newman that he would often see his former Oxford colleague Richard Whately Anglican Archbishop of Dublin strolling near the university on St. Stephen’s Green but refusing to talk to Newman.
However, Newman’s time in Dublin was not a waste – he served as Rector of the University until 1858, and despite being small and ‘not Oxford’ he managed to attract some distinguished professors. He also established Ireland’s first Catholic Medical School and his fledgling university would form part of what was to become Ireland’s largest secular university. Within modern-day University College Dublin the Literary and Historical Society (a very influential student debating society, not unlike the Oxford Union) survives as a relic of Newman’s time. Still standing too, is Newman’s University Church. Dedicated to Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, Newman himself called it ‘the most beautiful one in the three kingdoms’.
Despite his difficulties as a quintessential Englishman, Newman developed an affection for the Irish. In a letter to the tragic Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (a professor at the Catholic University) he made the extraordinary comment
If I were an Irishman, I should be (in heart) a rebel.
The Irish too ‘took to’ Newman. In the positio put forward for Newman’s canonization, it is noted that whilst generally Newman tends to attract devotion amongst the clergy and intellectia, Dublin is notable for Newman’s cause having a following amongst the poor.
Perhaps, however, the greatest fruit of Newman’s difficult spell at the helm of the Catholic University of Ireland is his writing on university education. If he had not been given the task of founding a university, Newman would never have composed his Idea of a University or his Rise and Progress of Universities. He also preached several of his Sermons on Various Occasions for the Catholic University.
A University is not founded every day; and seldom indeed has it been founded under the peculiar circumstances which will now attend its establishment in Catholic Ireland. Generally speaking, it has grown up out of schools, or colleges, or seminaries, or monastic bodies, which had already lasted for centuries; and, different as it is from them all, has been little else than their natural result and completion. While then it has been expanding into its peculiar and perfect form, it has at the same time been by anticipation educating subjects for its service, and has been creating and carrying along with it the national sympathy. Here, however, as the world is not slow to object, this great institution is to take its place among us without antecedent or precedent, whether to recommend or explain it. It receives, we are told, neither illustration nor augury from the history of the past, and requires to be brought into existence as well as into shape. It has to force its way abruptly into an existing state of society which has never duly felt its absence; and it finds its most formidable obstacles, not in anything inherent in the undertaking itself, but in the circumambient atmosphere of misapprehension and prejudice into which it is received. Necessary as it really is, it has to be carried into effect in the presence of a reluctant or perplexed public opinion, and that, without any counterbalancing assistance whatever, as has commonly been the case with Universities, from royal favour or civil sanction.
From Rise and Progress of the Universities

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