Newman’s short-lived Catholic University was set up in Dublin 170 years ago this weekend

Rite & Reason: Newman wrote, “if I were an Irishman, I should be (in heart) a rebel”

On May 18th, 1854, the Irish Catholic bishops met to approve the statutes of a Catholic University and to confirm John Henry Newman as Rector. On November 3rd, 1854 the university on St Stephen’s Green received its first students; among them Daniel O’Connell, grandson of the Liberator.

The enrolment of O’Connell was poignant, because in his earlier Anglican years, Newman was unsympathetic to the grandfather and Catholic Emancipation. But as Newman himself said “to live is to change”. His understanding of Ireland would grow with experience.

In 1886 he wrote to Gerard Manly Hopkins, then a professor in the Catholic University and destined to die in a small upstairs room at 86 St Stephen’s Green, now known as Newman House, urging him to moderate his hostile feelings towards Irish nationalism. Newman wrote, “if I were an Irishman, I should be (in heart) a rebel.”

Newman was rector of the Catholic University from 1854 to 1858. Sometime after his return to England the university was placed under the care of the Jesuits. The best-known graduate of the university from the Jesuit era is James Joyce who suggested, through the lips of Stephen Dedalus, that Newman was the greatest of prose writers.


Part of the Catholic University, notably the Medical School in Cecilia Street, was subsequently absorbed into UCD. But overall the link was broken and UCD began life as a constituent college of the National University of Ireland following the Universities Act, 1908.

Newman House was earlier called St Patrick’s or University House. In an appreciation of Michael Tierney written in 1976 by Jeremiah Hogan, Tierney’s successor as president of UCD, Hogan said that Tierney “gave the permanent name of Newman House” to the place in which he had been a student. Tierney became President of UCD in October 1947. The first reference to Newman House in The Irish Times is in April 1949, so it appears that Newman House was named between late 1947 and early 1949.

Today a good part of Newman House is occupied by Moli – the Museum of Literature of Ireland - and by the UCD Naughton Joyce Centre. There is limited evidence of Newman or of Gerard Manley Hopkins being in the house.

Following lobbying by a number of former staff including a former president of UCD, two representatives of UCD travelled to Rome for the canonisation of Newman in 2019. England was represented by the Prince of Wales, now King Charles. A delegation of 13 MPs and peers also travelled to Rome. The monarchy did not hesitate to remember and respect the convert cardinal. Some years later, the rector of Sandringham Canon Paul Williams, would read Newman’s night prayer at the committal of Queen Elizabeth II.

While Newman’s Catholic University is no more, his legacy is represented by University Church which he described as “the most beautiful in the three kingdoms.” Closely linked to the Catholic University, it opened in 1856. Designed by John Hungerford Pollen, it followed a simple Byzantine style.

During Newman’s tenure as rector, the church was used for religious purposes and ceremonial events. When UCD was located at Earlsfort Terrace this remained the case. For many years the church came within the parish of St Kevin’s in Harrington Street. Exactly 50 years ago in 1974, under the regime of Dermot Ryan, former professor of semitic languages in UCD and then Archbishop of Dublin, University Church became a parish church. In 2017 the then Archbishop of Dublin, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, invited the University of Notre Dame to establish a Centre for Faith and Reason at University Church and they have done a considerable amount of work to bring life to the Church community.

A step was taken towards remembering Newman with the establishment in 2018 of the Newman Centre for the Study of Religions including Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism within the Department of Philosophy in UCD. The director is Daniel Esmonde Deasy, an Associate Professor in Philosophy. In autumn 2022, the Centre organised a Conference on “Newman’s University”. Newman spent four of his 89 years in Ireland. He devoted a large part of his life to the question of “how to reconcile the abuses of the external forms to the inward principles of the Church”. He believed that the principle symptom of this state of dissociation was the cleavage between clergy and laity.

Dr Finola Kennedy, the first woman to receive a PhD in Economics at UCD, is author of `Cottage to Creche: Family Change in Ireland’ (2001), `Frank Duff: A Life Story’ (2011) and `Local Matters: Parish, Local Government and Community in Ireland’(2022).