Early Phases of Irish University Education

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

Those who delight in expatiating on the irreconcileable race antipathies supposed to exist between the Anglo-Saxon and the Celt in these islands, appear incapable of imagining a time when such feelings were unknown. And yet it happens that when the people of England and Ireland were more purely composed of these races than they are at present, no such antipathy was exhibited. This fact is apparent on a first glance at the relations which existed between the two nations in the matter of education. Venerable Bede says that it was customary among the English from the highest to the lowest, to retire to Ireland for study and devotion, and further adds that there they were all hospitably received and supplied gratuitously with food, books, and instruction. Aldhelm, his contemporary, in a passage in which he shows his desire to exalt the credit of some of his own countrymen, corroborates this statement. "Why should Ireland," he asks, "whither troops of students are daily transported, boast of such unspeakable excellence, as if in the rich soil of England, Greek and Roman masters were not to be found to unlock the treasures of divine knowledge? Though Ireland, rich and blooming in scholars, is adorned like the poles of the world with innumerable bright stars, Britain has her radiant sun, her great pontiff, Theodore."

Yet Aldhelm admits that he himself received the chief part of his education at the hands of the Irish founder of that monastery of Malmesbury of which he was abbot. Camden likewise affirms that the migration of Anglo-Saxon students to Irish schools was the rule. Our Anglo-Saxons, he says, flocked in early times to Ireland as if to purchase goods. Hence it is frequently read in our historians on holy men, "he has been sent to Ireland to school." It cannot be doubted that the prosperity of the Irish schools of learning was great, and that it was chiefly due to the high value set upon knowledge by the Irish people generally—an idea they have cherished under the most adverse circumstances of later times. In the Senchus Mor it is recorded that until St. Patrick arrived only three classes of persons were allowed to speak in public in Erinn: a chronicler, to relate events and tell historic tales ; a poet, to eulogise and satirize; a brehon (or judge), to pass sentence from the precedents and commentaries. After the Saint's arrival, however, their utterances were made subject to the ministers of the Gospel. Their dignity remained to them, and their privileges were preserved. A doctor in philosophy or learning ranked next to the monarch at table ; and whilst a king, by his mere word, could decide against every class of persons, an exception was made with regard to those of the two orders of religion and learning, who were of equal rank with himself, namely a doctor and a bishop.

The persons of men eminent in learning and the liberal arts were declared inviolable, and the doctor in philosophy had the privilege of conferring temporary inviolability on a person or place in his territory by having his wand borne round either. This gave sanctuary, and the person was free from arrest, and the place from injury, for a certain time afterwards. He was, indeed, a man of great importance in his territory, where he was allowed a permanent establishment of "twenty-one cows and their grass," and was entitled to keep two hounds and six horses. Whenever he went forth he was accorded, as of right, ample provision for himself and his retinue, to the number of twenty-four, under which head were included, sub-tutors, advanced pupils, and servants. But in order that he should be duly entertained and yet not exhaust his entertainer, he was forbidden to lodge or accept refection at the house of any person beneath the rank of a landlord-chief. They were legal referees upon questions of title, and the supreme chronicler of Erinn was always chosen from their ranks. But, as shown by O'Curry, to attain to such a rank as theirs, a long and severe course of study, strictly regulated by law, was required as a preliminary.

The student had to devote himself for twelve years to learning his profession before he could receive this degree, but there were inferior degrees for him to obtain in succession before that of doctor. To each of these were attached, by law, certain emoluments and privileges. In his course of study was comprised, first a knowledge of genealogies, synchronisms, and the recital of historic tales ; second, a knowledge of the seven kinds of verse, and how to measure them by letters and syllables; third, judgment of the seven kinds of poetry; and fourth, the acquiring of a facility for improvisation. On obtaining the lowest degree, he was bound to know twenty historic narratives for recital at public assemblies or feasts, when ordered by the doctor of philosophy in whose train he was studying ; on receiving the highest degree, he needed to be conversant with seven fifties of these narratives.

Each degree was confirmed by the petty king on receiving his doctor's report on the candidate's fitness; to be admitted a graduate it was necessary that the latter should be certified to be pure of learning, of language, and of deed, and pure of union if married. Impurity caused him to "die in dignity;" and for a fraudulent judgment the graduate was degraded and deprived of his office and all its emoluments and privileges. In one mountainous principality, which is now a county, the endowments assigned for the promotion of learning have been computed as being about equal to £2,000 a-year of our present currency. Thus it will be seen that in ancient Ireland there was a career open to the student besides the sacerdotal, and prizes to tempt him to acquire knowledge other than those which might be found in the Church.

The system of education which preceded the more modern University system in Ireland, took in the study of law, history, philosophy in a restricted sense, poetry, music, and languages. Its professors were highly honoured, and by the exercise of some talent and close application, the student saw that it was possible for him to attain a social position so high, that he would rank next his king. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that learning was highly regarded; it would have been surprising if it had not been so. A book would thus occasionally be thought sufficient for the ransom of a noble. A sanguinary war has arisen upon what was simply a question of copyright. This happened when St. Columba, having made a transcript of a book, its owner claimed the copy, and the king to whom the dispute was referred, decided in his favour, saying, "Let the calf follow the cow." Indeed, the chief peril that learning ran arose, not from neglect upon the part of chiefs or people, but from the arrogance and too great number of its professors, more especially of the bardic order, which was threatened with extinction once or twice, and only saved (as in 580) by a sweeping reform and reduction of its numbers.

The successive waves of invasion which burst upon the Irish shore laid waste all the land they touched. Men could not be expected to devote themselves to questions of abstract importance when they were annually called upon to defend their lives or protect their property from fierce irruptions. The Danish marauders, as they plundered and burned church, monastery, and the habitations of chief and noble, appear to have taken a perverse pleasure in destroying every manuscript on which they could lay hands. And when the Danes had been conquered, the Anglo-Norman invasion came to engage the inhabitants once more in a protracted struggle for life, land, and native institutions. Thus Ireland lost her prominent position in the ranks of learning at a time when it was most important for her future fame to retain and develop it.

And henceforth there were two cultures in the island, the colonial and the native. The former was confined first to the English Pale, and after the Reformation to the Protestants. The latter was driven back with independence from the eastern shore, and, after the Reformation, became confounded with Catholicism in a common persecution. It lingered long. Beyond the Plantation of James and the Settlement of Cromwell it survived to pass into banishment with the exiles, after the last siege of Limerick, from the Penal Laws of William.

The Anglo-Norman nobles, in spite of all enactments to the contrary, did become in many instances "more Irish than the Irish themselves," and amongst the customs of the country which they cherished was that of assigning due maintenance to men of learning. When John visited Ireland his carping Welsh chaplain, Giraldus Cambrensis, declared that the skill of the Irish in music was "incomparably superior to that of any other nation." This was in the twelfth century. In the fourteenth century the bards are brought under our notice by the Statute of Kilkenny forbidding anyone to entertain them, and in the sixteenth century by Spenser, who urged the annihilation of their entire order. He thought the literary merit of their productions was considerable. "I have caused divers of these poems" he says, " to be translated unto me . . . and surely they savoured of sweet wit and good invention . . . sprinkled with some pretty flowers of their natural device which gave good grace and comeliness unto them." It was apparently beyond the power of English statesmen to carry into effect the poet's wish for the destruction of the bards ; for in 1600 we find them mustering strong and holding a great Bardic Contention, in which the claims to precedence of Northern and Southern chieftains were pleaded in verse. But thirty-two years later there was a greater sign of vitality in the assembling of historians, antiquaries, and monks, under the patronage of a northern chief, to gather and collate materials for the compilation of the Annals of the Four Masters, a work which occupied them for four years. Addressing the chieftain under whose auspices it was begun, one of the chief compilers wrote that they had been impelled to undertake it because they were concerned for the cloud which shadowed the learning of Ireland, and judged "that, should such a compilation be neglected at present, or consigned to a future time, a risk might be run that the materials for it should never again be brought together." This foreboding was justified by the event. The wars and confiscations of Cromwell and William followed, more sweeping than any which had preceded them, and the framework of society being utterly rent asunder, learning fell amongst the waters.

Some wandering minstrels, outlawed men, sang the cause of the Stuart and their country in Jacobite lays which yet survive; but over the heads of the bard, the schoolmaster, and the priest hung the sharp sword of the Penal Laws. Religion forbade its ministers to abandon the land to its fate, and the old desire for learning produced schoolmasters who might impart, against the law, some classical knowledge to those who desired to fill up the broken ranks of the ministry. Thus there were schools held in caves, in mountain glens, behind hedges (whence the name "hedge-school"), where forbidden knowledge was imparted by an outlawed man to illegal pupils, with a youthful sentry posted on some neighbouring eminence to give warning of the approach of the officers of the law. They did not always escape. But if it was penal to look for education at home, it was doubly penal to seek for it abroad, even in those colleges which Irish officers serving in France and Spain had built out of their pay, and which they endowed with certain burses that might be obtained and held by any of their kinsfolk, or of their name or native country.

But how was it in the English colony? At first the colonial monks were not too well disposed towards those whom they had displaced, and are even found occasionally refusing to admit them into the monasteries which had been built by them. But this hostility was overcome, and the English and Irish blended in a common mass of Catholics, when the political effects of the Reformation fell upon the Pale, and afterwards on the whole country. The monastery of All Hallows was dissolved, and its confiscated grounds given, in 1591, to be the site of a Protestant educational institute, known as Trinity College. At the accession of King James I., the Irish believed that he, being of the same race, and related to them in blood, would act justly by them, and they ventured to repair their abbeys and schools, and even to project new Universities. In the Roman Chapter of the Dominicans this desire for learning was met by directions being given to found five Universities—at Dublin, Cashel, Limerick, Athenry, and Coleraine. They even "had the confidence," wrote Cox, "to erect a University in Dublin in the face of the Government, which, it seems, thought itself limited in this matter by instructions from England."

They dreamed perhaps of renewing the fame of Cashel, where, in 901, under Cormac, King and Archbishop, there are said to have been five thousand students and six hundred conventual monks ; and of rivalling Lismore, which was reported to have had a like tale to tell. Perhaps they even hoped to compare favourably with Armagh, the greatest of the four ancient universities, which, in 513, is recorded to have had seven thousand pupils.

But their dreams were rudely dissipated. In 1633 the youthful Catholic University of Back Lane, in Dublin, was seized and handed over to Trinity College, which established a weekly lectureship there as a sort of standing protest against competition. From that time until quite recently, Trinity College has had no rival; and even yet, if it cannot destroy and absorb, it has been powerful enough to keep the Queen's University from establishing a college in Dublin, and to maim the Catholic University by preventing it from obtaining a charter.