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Seminary life in January… memoirs of a Maynooth student

Student life in Maynooth College has been recalled in copious memoirs written mainly by clergy who studied there as seminarians when the College’s role was exclusively that of training priests for the Irish Catholic Church. One such seminary graduate was Fr.Richard O’Kennedy who writing in the Irish Monthly magazine in 1891 left an account of the forbidding initial impressions that the austere College held for him as a young student.  He begins by recounting the tribulations of the journey from his family home in the country to Maynooth: “ It was a very dark night in the January time of the year.  I had been travelling all day by train from my distant home in the country …I heard Maynooth called out. It was well: I was beginning to get sleepy from sheer weariness.”
Fr. O’Kennedy gives an atmospheric account of arriving at the College: ‘The night was pitch-dark, and the gas lamps that flanked the avenue seemed by their light to make the darkness doubly dense. I was escorted by a liveried servant from the gate into the precincts of the College.’ 
Even in the bleakness of a January night the imposing College architecture made an impression. He wrote that ‘coming from the country I was quite unprepared to find what the magnificent cluster of College buildings was like.’  He took in with some awe the uninterrupted lines of masonry, the gothic doors and windows and arches and the long corridors swept to a polish by the soutanes of generations of seminarians. However his silent wonder at the imposing architecture was interrupted by a burst of activity: ‘A huge door opened and out rolled a torrent of student figures.’ He had arrived just as the students were finishing their supper in the College refectory. He felt a stranger among the hundreds of seminarians as he was a new student and for a while was confused and  home-sick. However his ‘Purgatory’ did not last too long as some students from his parent diocese took him under their wing and found a room and a bed for him in the great seminary building designed by Pugin, the celebrated architect of the Gothic revival style.
His introduction to the lack of creature comforts in the seminary was to continue in the morning where he returned to the refectory from which he had sent the students pouring out the night before. The agony of that morning, gripped by the penetrating north Kildare cold, was etched painfully in his memory: ‘I do not think I shall ever forget my first breakfast in Maynooth. It was a fearfully cold morning … there was no fire in the immense refectory.’ His fingers were so numbed that attempting to hold his table knife was akin to how ‘a Tipperary man holds his blackthorn’! The arrival of the tea service also held a surprise: ‘ I found to my astonishment that the tea-service consisted of huge bowls, with St. Patrick and the serpents in lively blue at the bottom.’ And he did not even have the luxury of complaining with his fellow students about the discomforts because another discipline enforced in Maynooth was that of silence and -- except for short periods of recreation -- silence was the rule of the college day.
However seminaries were never meant to be comfortable or convivial places, rather it was the things of the intellect rather than of the body which were the priorities of seminary training.  And in this pursuit he was impressed from the start with his first contact with the highest officer of the College, the President. In that era seminary Presidents were to be feared rather than admired as far as the collegiate body was concerned.  But in Dr. Russell, the President of Maynooth from 1857 to 1880, was a man who in manner was mild and inoffensive, in culture and learning a scholar, in demeanour a gentleman, in thought and purpose dignified, and above all, a cleric’s cleric. From the moment Richard O' Kennedy was ushered into his presence with other freshmen seminarians he took an instant liking to Dr. Russell: ‘But the one thing that struck the beholder immediately … was his grace of manner.’  Popular with the students, and regarded by Catholics and non-Catholics alike as one of the greatest church historians of his age, Dr. Russell was described as ‘an ornament to the Irish church’. However his brilliant Presidency at the College was cut short by a tragic accident when in May, 1877, he was thrown from his horse in the street of Maynooth. Although he survived the fall, the effects of concussion were slow but pernicious and he died in February, 1880, never having quite recovered from the accident. His memory is perpetuated in Maynooth College today in the naming of the Russell library and fittingly, as a memory to a historian, the home of the College’s rarest old books and archives.
New Year wishes:  a few lines from the great Co. Kildare poet, Teresa Brayton (1868-1943) of Kilcock, to greet 2012:
‘ The new year has come – ‘tis time for beginning,
A time for new efforts, new victories winning,
The old page is finished, the new page is clear,
Let’s make a good record, this happy new year!’

Liam Kenny recalls Maynooth seminary life in his Looking Back series from the Leinster Leader of 3 January 2012. Our thanks to Liam

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