Discovering Maynooth

Discovering Maynooth The Choir Chapel.

Have you ever seen the largest choir-chapel in the world or the oldest native tree in Ireland? Are you interested in mysterious deaths and haunting ghosts? You can hear about all these and more on a tour through the Georgian, Victorian and Gothic Revival buildings of St Patrick’s College in the picturesque and bustling university town of Maynooth, Co. Kildare.

The tour begins at the south entrance with a look at Maynooth Castle and its vast history. This includes the ‘Silken Thomas yew,’ the oldest native tree in Ireland at 800 years old, named after Silken Thomas Fitzgerald. It is said that he sat in the tree’s shade before he renounced his loyalty to King Henry VIII. The Fitzgerald’s have a long history with Maynooth that sets the historic tone of the tour.

Beyond the tree is Stoyte House, where St Patrick’s College began in 1795. Although it has been remodelled to fit more accommodation, it still maintains the importance that it had at the start. Attached to Stoyte House is the Long Corridor and paired with New House, Dunboyne House, Humanity House and St Patrick’s House, they form the frame for St Joseph’s Square.


This picturesque square is featured in many photos of St Patrick’s during any time of the year. During the school year, students fill the walkways or stop to catch up and bask in the good weather.

However there is a superstition with the middle walkway and the clock residing on Stoyte House. If a student is walking down the path and looks up at the clock, they will fail their exams. Students will walk with their heads down to avoid this but might miss the boarded up window in the Rhetoric Building.

Room 2 in this building is currently an empty space among offices, but it had a resident in 1840. This young man threw himself out of the window for no apparent reason. The next resident in 1860 began to complain about unease a few weeks after moving in. One day he was shaving when he slit his throat and threw himself out of the window. Unlike the first resident, he survived, and Dr McCarthy, the former Vice-President of the college, visited him in the infirmary before he succumbed to his injuries.

Apparently while the man was shaving, he saw a horned figure with hooves standing behind him in the mirror. The figure seemed to control his wrist and urged the blade across his throat. To get away, the man threw himself out the window. After this, the president locked himself in Room 2 and made everyone promise not to unlock the door no matter what happened. Screaming and thuds were heard throughout the night but the president survived. He walked out with his black hair turned white and only spoke about it to say that nobody would ever stay in that room again.

Upon entering St Patrick’s House, there are large windows looking into the beautiful Bicentenary Garden. It’s a stark contrast to the Gothic Revival interior designed by Augustus Welby Pugin. In between the windows, lining the walls are a collection of pieces and portraits from the graduating classes. They date back throughout the 200 years that Maynooth has been Ireland’s National Seminary.

The last stop was the crowned jewel of the tour, the College Chapel. Built between 1875 and 1891, the design was created by JJ McCarthy, a professor of architecture at the Catholic university. The spire, designed by W. Hague, was added in 1895 to commemorate the first centenary of the college. This addition made the building the tallest in Leinster.

For the chapel’s construction, funds were received from the Irish people at home and abroad during the hard times of the Land Agitation. So many people donated that it’s a safe presumption that most of the Irish visitors of the chapel will have some connection to those who have contributed. The Stations of the Cross located above the oak carves, painted by Nathaniel H.J. Westlake, has names of the donors inscribed on them.

The theme of the chapel is Laus Deo (Praise God) which is supported by many of the details in the room. Walking down the mosaic floor, it’s was hard to ignore the 454 carved oak choir-stalls facing out towards the aisle. The chapel is 222 feet long, making it the largest choir chapel in the world. The finials are also carved in detail, each one to a different design, representing the wild plants of Ireland and pointing heavenward to praise God.

The string course and corbels, carved in French stone from Caen, are representations of the animal kingdom, stating that all creation sings the praise of God with depictions of birds and animals.

Above the carved stalls are windows depicting the story of Christ in chronological order in the main panels, while above them in the hexafoil panels are corresponding scenes from the Old Testament.

As eyes work up to the ceiling, there is a heavenly procession featuring the Madonna and Child, angels and numerous Irish saints. Around each of their medallions is a painted sentence or phrase from the scriptures Psalm 83/84, Psalm 127/128, the Te Deum and the Canticle of Zacharia. The paintings were designed by Westlake and executed by Mannix.

Irish saints

Following the procession down the chapel, the focus lands on a wooden altar that almost seemed out of place. This is the original altar, which was replaced by the High Altar in 1911. The High Altar was a gift from Monsignor Gerald Molloy, Rector of the Catholic University in Dublin. Even if one took away the religious importance of this glorious work, it is still an incredible testament to the craftsmanship of the Irish. The centre of it features a relief of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Behind the High Altar are five side chapels, depicting St Brigid, The flight into Egypt, The Presentation of Mary in the Temple, The Sacred Heart, Saints Flannan & Molua of Killaloe diocese. A common favourite is the Lady Chapel with its dominating blue tones mixed with Venetian glass mosaics depicting the four principal mysteries of the Rosary. Many important guests have held their Masses here; Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco heard their Sunday Mass there during their stay in 1963.

Heading back to the entrance, there is the Rose Window beaming from behind the recently restored 3,106-pipe Ruffatti organ. The pipes are laid horizontally as to not obstruct the view of the window, although the organ is a sight in itself.  The design was based on a window in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Reims, it features Christ the King in glory at its centre. Surrounding him is a ring consisting of St Michael the Archangel with other archangels, the Blessed Virgin, St Joseph, St John the Baptist and the Four Evangelists. The outer ring consists of the Apostles and Prophets.

Before exiting, take a moment to read the saying across the doors windows, Domus Dei  Porta Coelimean (House of God Gateway to Heaven). While still fitting to the chapel and its theme, it is actually a mistake. The quote was to go on the front of the door to welcome in visitors. However it is a graceful last remark from the chapel that the greatest designer in life is God.

Visit Maynooth offers six daily guided tours of the South campus Monday through Sunday. Tours begin at 11am, 12pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4:30pm and 5:30pm and take an hour to complete including a private viewing of the chapel. Rates are Adults are €8.00, Students/Seniors are €6.00 and Under-18 are €4.00. Special group and family rates are available. For more information visit:


St Patrick’s College, Maynooth – a brief history
Colm Fitzpatrick

St Patrick’s College, Maynooth was founded in 1795 as the national seminary for the education of priests, and by 1850 had become the largest seminary in the world, having ordained more than 11,000 priests throughout its history.

The establishment of the college finds its roots in a complex social and political epoch. In the 17th and 18th Centuries the majority of Catholic priests were trained in the European continent, particularly in France.

However, during the French Revolution, which saw Britain at war with France, the British government decided to restore Catholic education in Ireland in order to reduce the number of ‘revolutionary’ priests returning from the continent.

As a result, a petition to Parliament by the Irish bishops was successful and an act “for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion” was passed in June 1795. The act provided a grant to establish a college, and the bishops eventually decided that it should be near Dublin, settling on Maynooth because of the benevolence of Duke of Leinster and his Duchess. The college was established in the autumn of 1795, in a house that had been recently built by John Stoyte, steward of the Duke.


The college was initially founded to provide a university education for Catholic and ecclesiastical students, but the lay college only survived until 1817. It was, however inundated with seminarians, and so a long wing was built out from Stoyte House, called Long Corridor.

In 1809, the north side was completed and designated the name New House.

This construction lead to serious financial problems, but in 1800, John Butler, 12th Baron Dunboyne died and left his fortune to the college, leading to the establishment of Dunboyne House in 1815, which still exists today. The South side, now called St Joseph’s Square was completed between 1822 and 1824, and south of this lies a collection of buildings which housed the lay college.

Two large functional buildings, Rhetoric and Logic Houses, were later built in the early 1830s and became the Junior House.

A majority of the first teaching staff of the college were French scholars who were refugees from the Revolution. Yet, the most famous of the earliest pedagogues, Nicholas Callen, was neither French nor a lecturer in theology, but a Professor of Natural Philosophy from 1826 to 1864. Callan, who had studied in Maynooth, returned to the college in order to teach mathematics and physics, and also began working with electricity in the basement of the university.

In 1836, he created the first induction coil, and in his lifetime also invented an early form of galvanisation and the world’s biggest battery at that period. Both the Callan Building and Callan Hall can be found in the campus, in commemoration of his work.

Centenary year

Following its centenary year in 1896, a petition was sent to Rome for authority to grant degrees in theology, philosophy and canon law. Eventually, in 1910, Maynooth became a Recognised College of the National University of Ireland (NUI), so that clerical students could gain BA degrees during the course of their studies. This new-found status, combined with the decision to open the college courses to seminarians and the laity in 1966 led to an increase in student numbers. Indeed, by 1977, lay students outnumbered religious students.

Following the passing of the Universities Act, 1997, the Pontifical University of Maynooth, became a separate legal entity, training in canon law, philosophy and theology, but still continues to share its campus with National University Ireland.