Monday, 4th March 2024

Review – Seanchas Ard Mhacha

This handsome volume was launched in 2003 at a history conference in the Pontifical Irish College, Rome, in the presence of Her Excellency, Mrs Mary McAleese, President of Ireland.  It is a worthy memorial of the 375th anniversary of the College.  Here we have a valuable account of the first fifty years of the Irish College in Rome written in Latin, and described as ‘The 1678 Manuscript History of the Ludovisian Irish College, Rome’.  It is practically certain that it was written by Fr James Reilly, S.J., nephew of Archbishop Edmund O’Reilly, and a student of the College from 1662 to 1667. The Latin text has been edited by Mgr John J. Hanly and the translation was provided by Declan Lawell.  It tells the story of a great effort under difficult circumstances to provide priests for the Irish mission, which in the seventeenth century ministered to a people who suffered war, plantation and persecution.

It is an enthralling account precisely because it is contemporary and the author while making a great effort to provide the facts does not hesitate to lend his own emotion and judgement.  It covers the early foundation due to the zeal of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi with the advice of Fr Luke Wadding, O.F.M., and in that period it was continually under the watchful eye of the great Franciscan rectors.  It was entrusted to the Society of Jesus in 1635 and from 1635 to 1678, in the ‘manuscript history’ was under the rectorship of succeeding Italian and Irish Jesuits.  It is a wonderful insight into the aspirations of these rectors and their hard task to administer and maintain property, pay debts and care for the students.  Of great interest are the conditions of student life and the character sketches James Reilly gives of the students who were mainly from Munster and Leinster but there were a few from Connacht and from Ulster including well-known figures such as Terence Kelly of Derry, Ronan Maginn of Down & Connor and Henry Hughes of Armagh.  Here is his portrait of Henry Hughes.

Henry Louis Hughes, from Ulster, studied humanities in Brussels, Belgium.  He came to Rome by invitation in 1668, presented the viaticum oath on 24 October and took the college oath on 11 August 1669.  He strenuously devoted himself to philosophy and theology for seven years and defended theses in each with distinction for his ability and learning on completion of the respective courses and as a result was awarded the doctorate in theology at the Roman College with universal acclaim.  He left the college as a priest in 1675 and travelled to Ireland where he now lectures in moral theology to younger priests.  During his earlier years in the college he was inclined to be somewhat restless, but after his ordination to the priesthood, two years that is before his departure, he so turned over a new leaf in terms of prudence, self-restraint and exceptional saintliness, that he turned out to be a new man altogether and an example to the others of a priest aspiring to perfection.

Students took an oath to return to Ireland and they were provided with some help for their journey on leaving the college.  Not all of them returned.  Some joined the Jesuits, a few other religious orders and some pursued pastoral or educational work on the European mainland.

In 1639 the students moved to a new abode for their college, now the Convitto di S. Tommaso, a Dominican-run hostel for student priests attending the Dominican University, the ‘Angelicum’.  I had the privilege of staying four months there due to the great hospitality of Fr Luke Dempsey O.P. during my sabbatical year 1994.  There in that college in the Via degl’Ibernesi I could sense the atmosphere of the days of the great alumni James Cusack, Oliver Plunkett and John Brenan, and reading this book now I feel I myself was an echo of the past, the college having for a period kept some lodgers to augment their income.

This souvenir book splendidly printed in marble-like paper and gold embossed red cover is greatly enhanced by a fine essay from Fr Thomas O’ Connor entitled ‘The Irish College, Rome in the Age of Religious Renewal.  And that that is twinned with another fine essay by Mgr John J. Hanly on people and places mentioned in the text.  There are pieces in the ‘history’ on the chapel, library and the college building, besides an appendix of ‘formulae of oaths as normally taken by students’.  This book in another wonderful addition to the present blossoming of studies of the Irish colleges in mainland Europe.

Molaim go mòr an lèann nua

Réamonn Ò Muirì, Editor, Seanchas Ard Mhacha, Vol. 20 No 1