The Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin is opened and lectures commence on November 3, 1854, with the registration of seventeen students, the first being Daniel O’Connell, grandson of the notable Catholic politician Daniel O’Connell.
The university is founded in 1851 following the Synod of Thurles in 1850, and in response to the Queen’s University of Ireland and its associated colleges which are non-denominational. Cardinal Paul Cullen has previously forbidden Catholics from attending these “godless colleges.” On May 18, 1854 the university is formally established with five faculties of law, letters, medicine, philosophy, and theology with John Henry Newman as the Rector.
In 1861, Dr. Bartholomew Woodlock, the rector from 1860–1879, tries to secure land for a building near Holy Cross College Clonliffe, the establishment to be known as St. Patrick’s University. Plans are drawn up by architect J.J. McCarthy and a foundation stone laid. Cardinal Cullen is against the idea of educating lay and clerical students on the same premises. However, this plan is shelved because of the expansion of the railway line. A church and monastery are eventually built on the site. Under the name St. Patrick’s University night classes are advertised by the University under Dr. Woodlock’s name.
Some feeder secondary schools are established for the Catholic University of Ireland. The nearby Catholic University School is joined by St. Flannan’s College in County Clare and Catholic University High School in Waterford.
The Catholic University is neither a recognised university so far as the civil authorities are concerned, nor an institution offering recognised degrees. Newman has little success in establishing the new university, though over £250,000 has been raised from the laity to fund it. Though they hold the foundation money as trustees, the hierarchy in 1859 sends most of it to support an Irish Brigade led by Myles O’Reilly to help defend Rome in the Second Italian War of Independence. Newman leaves the university in 1857.
Subsequently the school goes into a serious decline, with only three students registered in 1879. The situation changes in 1880 when the recognised Royal University of Ireland comes into being and students of the Catholic University are entitled to sit the Royal University examinations and receive its degrees.
In 1909 the Catholic University essentially comes to an end with the creation of the National University of Ireland, with University College Dublin as a constituent, however the Catholic University of Ireland remains a legal entity until 1911.
(Pictured: J. J. McCarthy’s design for the Catholic University of Ireland)