Trinity’s censoring of prayer is not good for the image of a progressive and modern university

Trinity’s censoring of prayer is not good for the image of a progressive and modern university Trinity College Dublin Parliament Square. Photo: Patrick Theiner
The View

Year’s end is a time, when newspapers publish archival documents that may reveal discreetly hidden or long forgotten aspects of governance.

Representatives of public institutions, even students, should have some minimal knowledge of their history, to avoid unnecessarily raising ghosts of the past. The report in The Irish Catholic (November 26) that the Trinity College Central Societies Committee is trying to censor Catholic prayer activities of the Laurentian Society is not good for the image of a progressive, modern and liberal university.

In sorting through papers of my father, Nicholas Mansergh, Irish and Commonwealth historian, as well as British wartime civil servant, I came across about a year ago a document entitled ‘Memorandum on the Faith and Morals of Catholics in Trinity College’, probably dating from 1944. There is an end-note, which states: “This memorandum was drafted by some of the Catholics in Trinity College for the information of their friends”. My belief is that the copy was passed to my father by his friend and contemporary the Regius Professor of Greek and future Senator W.B. Stanford, son of the Rector of Dundrum, Co. Tipperary, whom he had known since the early 1920s.


The memorandum begins with a brief history of Trinity, how originally it was exclusively Protestant by law established, i.e. Church of Ireland, but that after the Catholic Relief Act in 1793 all courses and degrees were opened up to Catholics. While not eligible for scholarships or fellowships, “very distinguished Catholics took their degrees in TCD, e.g. Michael Slattery, Catholic Archbishop of Cashel, Denis Caulfield Heron, Sergeant at Law, Judge O’Hagan, Judge of the High Court, Synan, an MP, Cogan, a Privy Councillor, Michael Morris, Lord Chief Justice, James Charles Mathew, Lord Justice in England, Christopher Palles, Lord Chief Baron, and numerous others”.

The paper went on to relate that during the 19th century restrictions on Catholics and Presbyterians were gradually removed, so that they could gain access to (non-foundation) scholarships from 1854 and the parliamentary vote (Dublin University being a constituency that returned two MPs). In 1873, all denominational bars were removed, and shortly afterwards Presbyterian instruction was provided. Offers to provide Catholic instruction and to build a Catholic chapel, which still stood in the 1940s, had not been taken up.


The kernel of the Memorandum followed: “For about 20 years the following rules to promote proper observance by Catholics of the duties required by their religion have been in force:

  • No Catholic can be given rooms in college until he has appeared personally before the provost and promised to hear Mass on Sundays and named the church he will attend.
  • At the beginning of each term the provost sends to the vice-chancellor, who is a Catholic, a list of all the Catholic students in residence, the numbers of their rooms and the names of their tutors.
  • The vice-chancellor sends the list to the church which the students promise to attend.
  • In the case of serious illness of a Catholic student the Head Porter’s Lodge has a standing order from the provost to telephone at once to the clergy of the Catholic parish church of the college in Westland Row.

“It is a statute of the College that the provost has the power to deprive students of rooms for not attending on Sundays the services of the church to which they belong. Trinity College is thus, probably the only University in the British Isles in which a Catholic can, by statute, be deprived of his rooms for not hearing Mass on Sundays.

“Enquiries are made at intervals concerning the Catholics living in registered houses of residence to ensure that they attend Mass on Sundays.”

The memorandum addressed the charge sometimes made that methods contrary to Catholic practice were advocated in the Medical School in TCD. This was false, and teaching was exactly the same as in every other medical school in Ireland.

On safeguards for morals, “intimately bound up with the disciplinary rules of the college as a whole”, every student had tutors to supervise their studies and discipline of which the Junior Dean had overall charge. This system safeguarded against “the two principal evils of Irish students’ life, drunkenness and gambling. These two vices inevitably lead to cheating of parents”. There was evening roll-call, and no women were allowed in college after 6pm, unless to attend societies “properly chaperoned”.

“Women are forbidden to visit college rooms at any time unless accompanied by their parents or guardians”. In the light of all this, parents for generations had felt it safe to send their children to Trinity College.


The memorandum concluded: “The attitude of the Catholics of Trinity College to their recent condemnation by His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin is one of unhesitating submission as required by their religion. While they may consider their condemnation is harsh by reason of the fact that they and their parents have chosen the best course available to them to obtain a university education and at the same time to retain their Catholic Faith and morals, they continue to accept the teaching of the Catholic Church. They are praying that the additional safeguards His Grace the Archbishop mentioned in his regulations will be provided and are having the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered in the intention that the ban on Trinity may be removed”.

The hierarchy’s ban, now almost exclusively associated with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, was intended to boost the National University of Ireland, which, in a post-colonial independent Ireland, still had to contend with the historic prestige of Trinity, a Protestant and largely unionist institution, where teaching and intellectual influence was outside Catholic control. The ban was lifted in 1970, when ironically the pressure of the Laurentian Society eventually bore fruit. The memorandum throws light on the extraordinary lengths the college then in a vulnerable position was prepared to go to counter longstanding Catholic suspicions, but also on the awkward conflict of loyalties of Catholic students attending TCD.