Why Newman went to Dublin

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By Teresa Iglesias, Professor Emerita of Philosophy, University College Dublin

From the age of fifty to fifty-seven Newman tirelessly laboured for a ‘great undertaking’ in Dublin, the establishment of the Catholic University of Ireland. These were the years 1851 to 1858, which as regards personal powers and dedication he describes as ‘some of the most valuable years of my life’. But why did Newman decide to come to Dublin to work in such ‘great undertaking’ during those seven years? This is a question his contemporaries asked him too:

“But what on earth possessed you, my good friend, to have anything to do with the Irish University? What was it to you? How did it fall in your way… Yes, but seriously tell me, what had you to do with it? What was Ireland to you? You had your line and your work; was not that enough?”

These questions were put to him, as he tells us, as part of ‘a conversation which I have just had with an intimate English friend’.

My purpose in what follows is to give an answer to this ‘why’, so that we can enter into the saintly heart and mind of Newman. At a distance of about 160 years, since Newman left Dublin for good, we can acknowledge how this answer reveals the spiritual foundation of his marvellous achievements in Dublin and the legacy we have received from those seven years.

We can count in Ireland today three outstanding gifts Newman left us as permanent tokens of the undertaking that, in his own terms, he brought to completion. Two of these gifts are visible, material objects. One of them, of an intellectual nature, a book, a “classic”, ‘The Idea of a University’. As the scholar Jaroslav Pelikan puts it: ‘The most important treatise on the idea of a university ever written in any language’.

The second gift, of a spiritual and religious nature is the beautiful University Church he founded, financed and designed with his friend Professor John Hungerford Pollen as its architect and decorator, a pre-Raphaelite artist. The Church, in the form of an ancient Basilica, is under the patronage of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. Newman considered it ‘a beautiful imposing structure’, artistically displaying a catechesis on the visible and invisible reality of the Church, its Trinitarian God, its saints, confessors and martyrs, and its history as ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic’, yet pervaded by the presence of Irish Christian tradition and the rich marbles of Ireland. For the experience of seeing and praying within this little hidden marvel of a Christian church, one has to come to Dublin.

His third gift, somewhat invisible and on the side of the eternal, is truly perceptible to us in Ireland today; it is the trail of saintliness he left through his personal influence, which had touched the hearts and minds of those who were in contact with him during those seven years. A trail flowing uninterrupted –from person to person- in their recognition, admiration and devotion to Newman’s saintly presence and character until today, when we are rejoicing in his canonisation on 13th October 2019. He fulfilled his saying, ‘I am a bond of connection between persons’.

Let us return to the question ‘why’. As Newman’s friend told him, if he had already in the Birmingham Oratory ‘his line and his work’; ‘was not that enough?’ Why interrupt it with a new mission and course of action and in another country? Let us learn our first lesson of Newman’s trail of saintliness from the way he responded to that unexpected call. The project of founding a university in Ireland for the English-speaking Catholics of the world (i.e. English, Irish, and possibly Australian and American) was not Newman’s idea, nor was it his own initiative to deviate from the definitive mission he already had. At first, this call was only an invitation, made to him from Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh at the time, and then a firm request to become the Head of the proposed University.

Newman visited Ireland for the first time on 30th September 1851 responding to Cullen’s invitation. Two months later he records in his diary that he has been ‘Appointed Head of the new University’. The governing University Committee took the decision on 12th November, which Newman accepted. ‘Head’ came to mean ‘Rector’. Exactly seven years later, on 12th November 1858, Newman formally resigned his Rectorship of the Catholic University. Newman had accepted to participate in the University project - after thorough discernment and consultation with brother Oratorians and close friends - only when the task was manifested to him as ‘a duty’ of obedience to God’s will and design over his own life, because it was an act of obedience to his Vicar on earth. The appointment Newman accepted was confirmed to him in March 1852, when Pius IX, by his Pontifical authority, writes a letter, a ‘Brief’, establishing the Irish University as ‘The Catholic University of Ireland’. In one of his very early sermons Newman tells his Christian hearers, and us today too: ‘Let us do our duty as it presents itself, this is the secret of true faith and peace’; and later: ‘Fulfilling one’s own duty is the road to holiness’ for ‘…to seek perfection…You need not go out of the round of the day’.

By May of that same year, 1852, Newman has began his arduous task of establishing the University by delivering in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital, the first discourses of his own vision of a University. With five other undelivered discourses he published them, also in Dublin, as a ten-chapter book, on 21st November of that same year, with the title ‘Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education’. This eventually constituted the first part of his great single volume ‘The Idea of a University Defined and illustrated’, published in London in 1873.

The effort and strain Newman endured in the writing process of these lectures nearly broke him. Nevertheless he emerged happy from the first lecture, as he would do from the rest. He wrote to his close friend Father Ambrose St John in Birmingham: ‘thanks to our Lady, [the lecture] has been a hit….’. During that year and in 1853 he continues with the preparations required to get the university started. Having experienced that the work in the University demanded long periods of residence in Dublin, Newman, whose primary duty was ‘obedience to conscience’, was confronted with an inner personal predicament of conscience that he needed to resolve.

As his obedience to God was through his obedience to the Pope, he had recourse to him. In November 1854, near the time the University was opened, he addressed the Pope by letter:

‘Father John Henry Newman… As it is well known to your Holiness, he sustains a double charge, that of Superior of the Oratory of the Phillipine Fathers at Birmingham in England and that of Rector of the University of Dublin. As this second duty requires his services in person, and this is incompatible with his residing continuously in his house in Birmingham, therefore, to quieten his conscience, he begs Your Holiness to dispense him from the duty of such residence for some months of the year, for a period of three years.’

The Pope replied to him:

‘Roma, 20 December 1854. We concede to the Applicant that he may in all tranquility of conscience reside in Ireland for the time required by the needs of the University. Pius P.P. IX’ (See Letters and Diaries, XXXII, 2008, pp. 104-5).

It was a characteristic of Newman’s personal way of living saintliness to discern, to act -and also to recommend - that when faced with an unclear course of action, it is appropriate to fixing a time for that decision to be taken in principle independently of the circumstances. Here is an illustration: In a letter kept in Dublin’s National Library (MS 7911) the author of the letter reports an encounter she had with Newman about her own predicament in becoming a Catholic. She writes:

‘Mr. Newman immediately points out that as the right course, to fix some time, beyond which, reluctance and hesitation should not be permitted to prevail. I asked him if it would be wrong to make the choice of the appointed time depend upon the probable actions of others in that respect, he said he thought it would not if the action itself was not made to depend upon the actions of others.’

In the same letter the writer notes:

‘Let me tell you the impression that Mr. Newman made upon me. He is so entirely different from anybody I have ever seen; there is something […] in the sense of his gentleness and humility; it is unlike what those qualities are in others: I felt the presence of sanctity and understood its power.’

The request Newman made in his letter to the Pope in 1854 ‘for some months of the year, for a period of three years’ which was granted, is a request consistent with Newman’s intention and original decision to give his services to the University for a limited time. He had noted that: ‘I ever limited my Dublin career, in my thoughts and in my conversation, to seven years…’. For his task, as he saw it, was to initiate such a great institution as founding Rector and set it in motion. In this light we can see why he announced his intention of resigning the Rectorship of the University in 1857 and formally resigned on 12th November 1858, exactly seven years after accepting his appointment on 12th November 1851. He had committed himself to the project of the University with all his powers for those seven years, and in obedience to his conscience and to the Pope, he had faithfully fulfilled his duty.

The chain of major events of academic activity began for Newman when he officially opened the University on 3rd November 1854, at 86 St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, welcoming his 20 registered students. Then, on 9th November the Rector gave his inaugural address on ‘Christianity and Letters’ in the newly established School of Philosophy and Letters. The following year the Medical School was opened on 10 October of 1855 having acquired a handsome building at Cecilia Street, and having equipped its library with over 5,000 volumes. The University Church, built within a year of its commencement, was opened in 1856 on Ascension Sunday, 1st of May. During that same year Newman drew up the Rules and Regulations of the University; from May to December, Newman preached five sermons in University Church, and 1857 from January to June preached three more sermons, which were published in London the following July. Newman reckons that from September 1851 until he definitively left Ireland on 4 November 1858, he crossed the Irish Sea about 56 times.

He lived in Dublin with a number of students, who lodged with him in 6 Harcourt Street and made provisions for other four Halls of Residence; The University Newman governed and left behind was constituted by two major university houses, three faculties, Letters, Science and Medicine, a professorial body of twenty three members with their assisting lectures and tutors, over a hundred students, and a University Church, claiming that ‘Such an institution will give unity to the various academic functions… it will maintain and symbolise the great principle in which we glory as our characteristic, the union of Science with Religion’. Time has vindicated the appreciation made in 1969 by the Irish Newman scholar, Fergal McGrath:

‘Few will deny that the seven years devoted by Newman to the Catholic University of Ireland would not have been wasted if their sole result had been to give to the English language one of its acknowledged classics, the Discourses now known as ‘The Idea of a University’. But Newman accomplished much more besides.'

The day Newman left Dublin for good, 4th November 1858, before starting on his final journey to Birmingham he delivered his farewell lecture, ‘Christianity and Medical Science,’ to a packed audience in University Church. It is a summing up of Newman’s mission in Dublin. The last words of this historical farewell witness to his greatness and generosity:

‘… though this University, and Faculty of Medicine which belongs to it, are as yet only in the commencement of their long career of usefulness, yet while I live, and (I trust) after life, it will be ever a theme of thankfulness for my heart and my lips, that I have been allowed to do even a little, and to witness so much, of the arduous, pleasant, and hopeful toil which has attended on their establishment.’

There is beautiful Irish document, written on vellum in the Newman Archives in Birmingham, sent to Newman in May of 1879, twenty years after his departure from Ireland. Its purpose is to congratulate Newman on becoming a Cardinal. It is a letter addressed to him from the ‘Catholic University of Ireland. Bono Club’, and signed by its well-known Hon. Secs. William Dillon and H.J. Gill. It states:

‘… We have found in your writings a never failing counsel and guidance… we can never forget that the ‘Lectures on the Scope and Nature of University Education’ were delivered in our halls and by our Rector… the Catholics of this country having been for three centuries excluded from all share in the advantages of higher education, had no traditions to guide them in forming a correct estimate of what a University ought to be. Your great work, which, we may just call it Our Charter, have supplied the place of those traditions, and thanks to it, the Irish people have now realized what a true University should be… and what inestimable benefit could confer upon Ireland.’

Isaac Withers