Maynooth goes to war … exhibition highlights a college in conflict
“Thou shalt not kill” is one of the starkest of the ten commandments – it leaves little room for doubt that killing flies in the face of Christian behaviour. It would seem incongruous then that ministers of God are to be found in the ranks of armies whose main purpose is to train in the ways of killing. Yet the role of chaplain is a long-established position in military organisations. Leaving aside the higher ethical questions of when is a war a just war, soldiers are as entitled as any human being to pastoral support in their daily lives – the sort of support that chaplains with their insight into combining the spiritual life with the reality of life are well place to supply.
Perhaps the answer to the apparent contradiction was best summed up in a statement issued by the Irish Bishops after a meeting in Maynooth in October 1914 when the true devastation of the “Great War” was beginning to materialise. They said: “The dying Catholic is entitled to the last Sacraments, and he needs them. Neither his right nor his need is the less because he dies at war.”
This quote forms an introduction in a guide to an evocative and impressive exhibition mounted by the Russell Library located deep in the cloisters of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. The exhibition features documents and memorabilia which illustrate the impact of the “Great War” on the life of the College, its staff and its hundreds of seminarians in the period from 1914-18. Among the themes featured in the wonderfully atmospheric library – where books in old bindings fill shelves soaring into the arched roof – are the demand to meet the need for ever more chaplains at the front and, on the other side of the debate, the protests by staff at the College against the threat of conscription in 1918 which ironically was the only issue that Protestants and Catholics agreed on at a time of otherwise fraught church relations on the island of Ireland.
The position of the national seminary at the outbreak of the war in the autumn of 1914 was an extremely healthy one. The exhibition features an annual report by the President, Rt. Rev. John F. Hogan who recorded that there were 581 seminarians enrolled in the college. By contrast in 2014 there are 70 seminarians in residence. However the college’s brimming enrolment was soon to feel the privations brought on by war. Immediately on the declaration of war there was a spike in food and fuel costs, both required in large quantities for the seminary. A source of income from the continent known as the “Belgian Burses” also dried up and the College’s Finance Committee had to increase student fees by five pounds to alleviate the financial pressures.
Apart from financial issues there were questions of a political nature which permeated the College community. The College President made a statement in October 1914 which lamented the German invasion of Catholic Belgium stating: “we deplore the terrible calamities of which they (the Belgian people) are the victims …”
There was concern too for Polish Catholics whose country had also succumbed to German might. The exhibition displays a letter from Dr. Fogarty, the Bishop of Killaloe to the College President in which he wrote: “Our collections for the Poles … will be bigger than I expected about £600. The people have an old sympathy with that unhappy nation.”
The College President backed the British war effort to stop the German onslaught on the Continent by urging priests to volunteer as chaplains in the armed forces. He was quoted as supporting a recruiting meeting in the College when he wrote to the organisers: “The more men (priests) you get, and the more effectively they do their work, the better I shall be pleased.” The pressure too feed more priests in to the war machine came from many quarters. It must have stung when the leading Catholic prelate in Britain, Cardinal Bourne of Westminister, wrote to the President of Maynooth to complain about the lack of take-up by Irish priests in joining the forces. He wrote: “The response from Ireland is still disappointing. In confidence I may say that the diocese of Westminster has given more secular priests than the whole of Ireland.”
It was estimated that by November 1917 there were between 80 and 100 Maynooth trained priests in the military. The college exhibition focuses briefly on some who gave their lives as they provided spiritual support in the hellish conditions of the front lines. Reverend Stephen Clarke had been ordained in Maynooth College in 1914. He was chaplain with the Lancashire Fusiliers when he was killed on 4th October 1917 aged 29. He was killed, it was reported, while giving the last rites to dying troops on the battlefield.
Such are the poignant personal stories brought forward in the exhibition which based on original documents shows how the war impacted on St Patrick’s College, it’s staff and five hundred strong student body. The exhibition will reward a visit not least because the Russell Library in which it is housed is the most atmospheric library to found anywhere. It is strange to reflect how its tranquil and studious aura was overshadowed by the reality of war on the continent of Europe. The exhibition will continue until October – precise details of opening times can be had by ringing the library on 01-7083890. The work of librarians Barbara McCormack and Susan Leyden of Maynooth in mounting the exhibition and collating the accompanying guide is well worth seeking out. Leinster Leader 2 September 2014, Looking Back, Series no: 397.