Towards the close of the sixteenth century, Pope Gregory XIII sanctions the foundation of an Irish college in Rome, and assigns a large sum of money as the nucleus of an endowment. However the pressing needs of the Irish chieftains make him think that, under the circumstances, the money might as well be used for religion by supplying the Irish Catholics with the sinews of war in Ireland as by founding a college for them at Rome.
The project is revived in 1625 by the Irish bishops, in an address to Pope Urban VIII. Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, who is Cardinal Protector of Ireland, resolves to realize at his own expense the desire expressed to the pope by the Irish bishops. A house is rented opposite Sant’Isodoro a Capo le Case and six students go into residence January 1, 1628. Eugene Callanan, Archdeacon of Cashel, is the first rector, Father Luke Wadding, OFM being a sort of supervisor. Cardinal Ludovisi dies in 1632 and as he is of a princely family with a large patrimony, he makes provision in his will for the college. It is to have an income of one thousand crowns a year, a house is to be purchased for it, and he leaves a vineyard as Castel Gandolfo where the students might pass their villeggiatura. The cardinal’s will directs that the college should be placed under the charge of the Jesuits. Both the heirs and Wadding suspect that provision and disputed it. A protracted lawsuit is finally decided in 1635 in favour of the Jesuits.
On February 8, 1635, the Jesuits take charge of the college and govern it until financial difficulties force them to give up control in September 1772. An Italian priest, Abbate Luigi Cuccagni, is made rector. The rectorate of Cuccagni comes to an end in 1798, when the college is closed by order of Napoleon.
Dr. Michael Blake, Bishop of Dromore, who is the last student to leave the college at its dissolution in 1798, returns a quarter of a century later to arrange for its revival, which is effected by a brief of Pope Leo XII, dated February 18, 1826. He becomes the first rector of the restored college, and among the first students who seek admission is Francis Mahoney of Cork, known to the literary world as Father Prout. Having set the college well to work, Blake returns to Ireland and is succeeded by Dr. Boylan, of Maynooth, who soon resigns and dies in 1830. He is succeeded by a young priest, later Cardinal Paul Cullen.
Dr. Cullen is succeeded by Dr. Tobias Kirby, known for his holiness of life. He governs the college for more than forty years. His successor is Michael Kelly, later coadjutor to the Archbishop of Sydney.
In 2011, under orders from Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, leads a root and branch review of all structures and processes at the college. He is assisted in the visitation report by then Archbishop of Baltimore and now Cardinal Edwin O’Brien and Msgr. Francis Kelly of the Northern American College in Rome. The report is highly critical of the college and, as a result of which, three Irish members of the staff are sent home and a fourth resigns.
In 2012, four Irish archbishops, Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Michael Neary, Archbishop of Tuam, and Dr. Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel, are sent a copy of the visitation report by the Vatican. A response prepared for them says “a deep prejudice appears to have coloured the visitation and from the outset and it led to the hostile tone and content of the report.”
Today the Pontifical Irish College serves as a residence for clerical students from all over the world. Every year over 250 Irish couples choose the college chapel as a means to marry in Rome. It organises events for the Irish and wider international community who are currently residing in Rome and has over the years become an unofficial centre for Irish visitors to Rome seeking advice and information.