Mattie Long: ‘We Remember Maynooth’ – The College that Never Knew my Name – A sort-of book review

We Remember Maynooth
The College that Never Knew my Name – A sort-of book review

Martin is the name that appears on my birth cert, and as a consequence now on all my official documents.

However, in one of those Irish oddities it is a name I have never been called by family or friends. Perhaps when young there was a need to distinguish from an uncle of the same name, but by whatever quirk of fate Martin was rendered to Mattie. It was by that name I was known to family, neighbours, friends and teachers right through my younger years.

In more recent times I have recourse to using my formal given name to avoid complications with bureaucrats who are as single minded as they are eagle eyed in uncovering disharmony in documentation, and to confound airline ground-staff who rigorously seek the slightest deviation between passport and ticket.

However, almost 50 years ago when I arrived at Maynooth such bureaucratic orthodoxy was largely unknown and within a day or so my classmates were accustomed to my familiar name, as was our Dean, Joe Delaney, who after one roll call could remember all names and identify each first-year student the following day and for years to come.

There the familiarity ceased. Most other staff, lecturers and professors, seemed to work from an official list and for the majority there was never the personal engagement that would have bridged the gulf between Martin and Mattie.

There were a couple of notable exceptions, the future Cardinal from Armagh, Tomás Ó Fiaich, who made it his business to get to know students and Pádraig Ó Fiannachta. On one occasion Pádraig had invited all of us who lived on the same corridor into his room for refreshments only to have the party interrupted by the dean who, if I remember correctly, lived on the floor underneath. It seems we were breaking the so called ‘solemn’ silence, a monastic concept more honoured in its breach than observance in my time in Maynooth.

These recollections have resurfaced, along with many more from wherever they were banished, on reading the recently published We Remember Maynooth.

On first view it is a substantial publication, well produced, illustrated, and presented, with the stated purpose of recording the reminiscences of a wide representation of past students and staff members of Maynooth.

It is a volume of short articles by almost ninety individual authors. As a result, there is a great variety of style, and due to the multiplicity of writers some overlapping and repetition. Perhaps, some of the repetition could have been subject to tighter editing.

It is likely, though, that the articles will not be read in sequence, but dipped and delved into at random over time. It is one of the strengths of this book that it can be picked up and left aside and revisited over and over in short or longer session.

Into the future this book will prove to be a very useful tool for researchers and historians who wish to explore the human and social context of an institution that looms large in the history of our country, a history spanning some four centuries.

I suspect that one of the chapters that may provide a rich seam of information is the interview with Michael O’Riordan, ‘College Butler and President’s Man’. Intentionally or not, it sheds light on a two tier ‘upstairs downstairs’ existence that pertained not just between academic staff and workers, but between those staff and students. Sadly, it was probably reflective of the church structure that was intended to be replicated by students after ordination; to be as removed from their parish communities as were the professors from the Maynooth students.

Equally, the memories of farm manager Aidan Ryan reveal attitudes that have too long prevailed in church circles. He recounts the sale of a portion of the farm without any consultation with the man who knew most about it and was managing it, resulting in the new owners having the added bonus of the crops that had been planted pre-sale. There was also the obligatory attendance at Good Friday ceremonies by all the farm workers, however they had to make up the time lost later in the day!

One of the great strengths of We Remember Maynooth is that it acknowledges the subjectivity of memory. Although each of us experienced Maynooth, we each have different memories and perspectives of the same place, event and individual. A character fondly remembered in one article is equally recalled as being ‘an elderly priest of some notoriety’ in another.

We hear of comparable experiences of the chasm between staff and students in other articles. Of one professor, it is stated by the author who came to know him in later life, “It turned out that the establishment man I knew in Maynooth as a student was a caricature of the real man”. What a pity!

Thomas J Norris of his time in teaching in Maynooth says the “encounter was at least as important as the information provided”. Unfortunately, it was an encounter too often missing in Maynooth of the past, and we can only wonder at the result for the Irish church.

As one who passed through Maynooth on the seminary side of life, just as the university was beginning to blossom, many of the articles by those who studied in the university side of Maynooth give a different insight of a college that played a huge role in very formative years of its students.

They too reflect the dichotomy of personalities that exist in all institutions as is evident from endearing stories of respect and personal friendships to the distressing tale of a pregnant woman being asked to withdraw from her course of studies for reason of her pregnancy. It is a commendable strength of this publication that it doesn’t shy away from a memory such as this, and even more so of the author, Evelyn Conlon, who writes that “I contemplated not referring to these personal circumstances, until I realised that they were such an overwhelming backdrop it would be flippantly dishonest of me not to do so.”

I suspect that in the next volume of memories from Maynooth the recollections from the seminary will be far outweighed by those from the new Maynooth University.

The role and importance of the Irish language and culture is recognised, to quote Pádraig Ó Fiannachta “faoi thábhacht na Gaelige mar eochair a thugann dúinn ‘tuiscint ar dhúchas, ar smaointe, ar ealaín, agus ar mheon ár muintire’.” As it is now over thirty years since this reviewer ministered in a Gaeltacht parish it is more a tribute to their authors than the reviewer that the Irish language articles could be easily read without too frequent recourse to Dinneen.

Many of the articles remind us of some well-known figures who passed through Maynooth and who, as Kevin Hegarty said of the late John O’Donohue, outgrew Maynooth. Kevin wonders and laments the fact John was not made bishop of Galway for the contribution he would surely have made to the church in Ireland. Imagine rather if he had been appointed to lecture in Maynooth, the lasting and wonderful influence he would have been and how he would have enhanced his old alma mater and encouraged its growth in tandem with its students, rather than one outgrowing the other.

John was a gifted student of his generation who, like the gifted students of other generations who passed through Maynooth, most of us could not aspire to emulate. But We Remember Maynooth is not just about the gifted or famous or historic. It succeeds in giving a holistic flavour of memories and opinions of Maynooth:

of those for whom the college was their place of work, on land, kitchen, lab, office or dining room,
those who held professorships and those who lectured and taught;
and then the vast majority, the students who passed through,
those who achieved their degrees and diplomas and went their way to chosen career,
and those who spent anything from one year to seven in discerning their future,
those who, academically, neither excelled nor failed,
who neither starred nor floundered on the field of sports but hit a reasonable thump on ball and foe,
the ones who drew the curtains, focussed the lights, and hefted the props rather than starred on stage,
the ones who wrote the minutes, lined the pitches, reffed the matches, projected the films, hit the odd wrong note in choir, but who lived and prayed, celebrated and mourned, ate and drank together for six or seven years, and eventually tried out their homilies on the patient people of surrounding parishes before going home to family for first Mass and first blessing, to a family that would have welcomed them home, even without the blessing or Mass.

We Remember Maynooth is a book that will be opened frequently in years to come and will probably inspire the reader to stir up and bring forth their own memories and stories of incidents, characters and places long forgotten.

It might also get us to question some of our well-rehearsed memories, if they didn’t know my name, did I only know them in caricature? We Remember Maynooth can fill some of the gaps, humanise the caricature, and have us recall the person and the name.

That perhaps is its greatest value.


We Remember Maynooth

Edited by Salvador Ryan and John-Paul Sheridan

Messenger Publications 2020

ISBN 9781788122634

Price €50.00

We Remember Maynooth: A College Across Four Centuries

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  1. Joe+O'Leary says:

    This is surely very valuable documentation. I stumbled on a review of Msgr Corish’s History of Maynooth (1995) by Tom O’Loughlin which is very perceptive. He had forgotten the book and the review and was surprised at his own prescience!
    Tom also contributed to this year’s commemoration of Walter McDonald’s death on 2 May 1920 (“In festo Sancti Athanasii” ) My own infancy bishop Daniel O’Cohalan took the lead in persecuting McD over the publication of “Motion” in 1898. Tom O’L. misleadingly suggests that the last surviving copy was discovered in Milltown Park in the early 1990s. In fact I saw a copy in Maynooth back in the 1970s. I don’t think all copies, of which there cannot have been many in any case, were ordered to be destroyed. (“Motion” is in the John Paul Library in Maynooth.) Tom recounts: “When McDonald died in 1920 he knew that this book – his magnum opus – had been condemned by an unpublished decree of the Holy See as dangerous heresy and was convinced that every copy had been consigned to the flames. After a judicial process it was decreed that not only was it to disappear completely, but even the memory of the fact that a Maynooth professor had strayed into heresy was to be obliterated.”
    After “Motion” was put on the Index, five more books of his were refused the Imprimatur. Are the manuscripts of these works extant?
    The only thing I read by McDonald was his very moving memoir, perhaps best known from Sean O’Casey’s sizzling chapter “Silence” in his Autobiographies. Corish says that McD was “the only original theologian Maynooth produced in its first century” who had to “resort to extraordinary means so that his criticisms of seminary education could be published posthumously.”
    (But what about the very prolific Patrick Murray, 1811-1882, who wrote among much else a three-volume work on the Mystery of the Church and a one-volume summary, where he complains that the Anglican theologians he skewered with syllogisms never replied. Perhaps they did not read Latin… at least not a 1,000 pages of it. See Jstor can be accessed free of charge just now.)
    Recently thanks to Dermot Keogh I read the last chapter of McD’s “Some Ethical Questions of War and Peace” (1919), which chapter is a critique of the Irish for not making the best of their resources and blaming Britain for everything in a futile way. It is powerfully argued, and brilliantly, concisely written, though it runs right up against Mr de Valera’s orthodoxy that held sway over us from 1917 to 1973.
    One of the most striking things McD says is that the huge loss of population of Ireland after the Famine was due to burgeoning employment opportunities in the USA and not to hunger. (Does this help make more sense of Queen Victoria’s rapturous reception on an Irish visit at the end of the Famine?)
    McDonald is now a glorious name in the theme park of Maynooth’s memory. But as has so often been said in Ireland: “‘Tis a pity you didn’t say it while he was alive!”

  2. Years ago, I wrote a long piece (that I labelled an Appendix) on the conflict between Daniel Cohalan and Walter McDonald as part of my unfinished book on Allegations of Child Abuse against the Catholic Church. Typically I got distracted on what was definitely a side issue to my main topic. I must publish it on my Blog even though it will be of interest to few – especially in view of the NEXT bout of media hysteria that will follow the publication of the Mother and Baby Homes Report on 11 January.

    Bishop Cohalan was no pacifist BUT a strong opponent of guerrilla warfare. He excommunicated the IRA during the War of Independence and during the Civil War, refused to allow the body of an Irregular who died on hunger strike to rest in a Church. He thought his superior and former Maynooth colleague, the then Archbishop of Cashel, was not strong enough in denouncing violence. Like his successor in more peaceful times Cornelius Lucey, he never made Archbishop himself, both being regarded as Thorns in the Flesh by more moderate colleagues!

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