A commemoration can enable a society, a country, or a school  to reaffirm its separate identity. That can be good, but it can also be bad, if it makes others feel excluded or undervalued. 

The best commemorations are the ones which help us to learn what the past was really like, not just for our own ancestors, but for others, who may have had a different life experience from them, or may even have been their enemies or opponents.

Learning about others, and their life experiences, over the distance of time and geography, is a fundamental part of commemoration, and of education.

All commemoration, like all historical study, should be revisionist…even revising the revisionists themselves!

This year, 2014, is a particularly important year for commemorations…..  1914 saw the start of the Great War at the beginning of August, and the first ever passage in to law, a month later, of an Irish Home Rule Bill.

1814 was also a notable year. France was defeated by the Allies, and Napoleon had to abdicate. The Apprentice Boys were founded in Derry, there was a major fraud in the London Stock Exchange, and the Great Beer flood took place in London, when hundreds of thousands of gallons of beer escaped from a vat and drowned two people….and this old school ,Clongowes, was founded.

In some respects, 1814 and 1914 each initiated a new European order.
The Allied victory in 1814, confirmed a year later at Waterloo, brought into being, at the Congress of Vienna, a conservative inter state system, based on consultations and maintenance of a balance of power. The Revolutionary era, in which France sought to remake Europe by force, was thus ended.   Europe settled into a period of relative peace, and of small,  fairly contained, wars……and era that lasted exactly 100 years, until 1914.
The new European order initiated in July/August 1914 was very different.
A complex set of two rival alliances, designed in the early twentieth century to give participant nations security, became instead a source of massive insecurity.

The rival alliance systems of the summer of 1914 eventually drew all the major nations of Europe (except Spain) into war against one another, all over a quarrel between Austro Hungary and Serbia, in which the rest of Europe had virtually no interest. 

It was a bit like the financial crash of 2008, when complex financial instruments, designed to increase security by spreading risk, actually dragged everybody down. The risk was spread too widely, as were the alliances, and the fragility of the whole inter dependent system was exposed.

The 1914 era lasted 76 years. The Great War that started in 1914 was the source of two other wars, the Second World War, and the Cold War, wars which only unwound finally in 1990.

1814 in Ireland was  the last year of a long war, dating from 1790, in which this country had been intimately involved. A rebellion in 1798, the Act of Union, an undelivered promise of Catholic Emancipation were all outgrowths of that conflict, as was the participation of Irish soldiers in Wellingtons victory at Waterloo the following year. 40% of his “British” army were Irish.

Ireland’s economy had boomed during the war, as it did during the First World War. 

But , once the war ended, the demand for Irish exports of  woollen and cotton goods  fell, as new competitors were able to enter its markets. Bank failures were endemic in those years. Agricultural prices collapsed, and evictions were made easier by a law passed in 1816. The average rent  was £4 per acre, so the annual rent of 15 acres of land would cover the 50 guinea fee to send a boy to Clongowes for a year.  Tithes to the Established church, and other property taxes on tenant farmers, were a heavy burden.

Two years after the first boy entered Clongowes, in  1816-17, there was famine across Europe – a year without a summer- because of the environmental consequences of a major volcanic eruption in Indonesia, which caused an ash cloud across the northern hemisphere. 

Clongowes students, entering the school in 1814, would have aspired to careers in the professions – especially law, which was now open to Catholics. At this time, however, all the senior judicial posts and senior posts in the public service were filled on the basis of political preferment. Catholics could not become a Senior Counsel, or an MP, until 1829. To found the school, the Jesuits were supposed to get a licence from the Protestant Bishop.  They did not apply, but went ahead any way…natural risk takers.

Illiteracy was still very high in Ireland then, though many poor people paid small sums for their children to learn to read and write in “pay” schools – otherwise known as hedge schools.

Education was a denominational battleground, with bible societies opening free schools for the poor in the hopes of conversion; the Kildare Place Society was committed, at least in principle, to non-denominational schooling but this was breaking down, and Daniel O’Connell resigned from their boards, some years later.

So education, at the time of the founding of Clongowes, would have been a priority for the Catholic Church – and especially the creation of an educational infrastructure for those Catholics, who might previously have attended Irish colleges on the continent, as Daniel O Connell himself did. O Connell was able to send his five sons to Clongowes (despite his enormous and chronic debts!) 

Religious practice was high in Dublin and Leinster, with high mass attendance, had a reasonable infrastructure of churches and clergy, although the churches were probably too small to accommodate everybody on Sunday.

In contrast, in the west of Ireland, where the population density was higher, the church infrastructure, and educational provision, was much less. Illiteracy was still over 80% in Mayo in 1841, whereas it was under 40% in Kildare, which was better than the European average.

But it is important to stress that the motive of the Jesuit Fathers coming here 200 years ago was not primarily educational, political or economic.
 Educational, political and economic uplift for Catholics in Ireland may have been secondary goals, goals to which this school contributed enormously, but the primary goal was religious…eternal not temporal….Aeterna non caduca….to bring the faith to a young generation of people who, through their example, would bring it to others.

The goals of Jesuit education were clear then, as they are now…to assure each person that he or she is known and loved by God, ought to respond to that,  ought to come to know and understand himself or herself, and  ought to make life’s decisions from the perspective of others, particularly of the poor. 

Jesuit education was, and is, about passing on a faith that does justice in the concrete circumstances of each generation, a faith that helps young people to become men and women for others.

That was true in 1814, was true in 1914, and is true, and even more relevant, today.

The Jesuits who came here had been educated in Sicily and other European countries, and brought a continental, even  a global, perspective the education of Irish Catholics. That was true of schools, founded later by other orders, like Castleknock and Blackrock.

The wider global perspective of Jesuit education remains true today, and explains why so many Irish graduates of this, and other Jesuit schools, have contributed so much to global affairs. Freddie Boland, Paddy McGilligan, Garret FitzGerald and Peter Sutherland spring to mind.

Of course, it was not all plain sailing for Clongowes. 

When the Intermediate Certificate was introduced in 1878, it was to be the basis for state payments to schools on the strength of results in the exam. 
When the first results were published in 1879, the upstart Blackrock College got the best results in the country, followed by Tullabeg (subsequently amalgamated with Clongowes), Castleknock, the Royal College in Belfast, and Foyle College in Derry. Clongowes got an unwelcome wake up cal!

Moving forward from 1814 to 1914, we find a very different Ireland, in a very different world. Europe in 1914 was a vastly richer place. 
In the previous forty years, thanks to dramatic improvements in transport and communications, globalisation, as we would now describe it, had taken place. 

People’s fate in 1914 was dependent on decisions of people thousands of miles away, in ways that could not even have been imagined 100 years previously.
Ireland was the venue of two armed camps, the Irish Volunteers determined to achieve Home Rule, and the Ulster Volunteers determined to defy their own elected Imperial Parliament to prevent it, at least as far as the six north eastern counties were concerned.

John Redmond, who spoke here so eloquently on Union Day on the first of June 1914, was, at the time he was here, engaged in tense and very difficult negotiations to bring the Irish Volunteers under the democratic control of the elected representatives of the Irish people, and avoid an accidental sectarian civil war. He proposed to do so by nominating William Redmond MP(O.C 1873-1876), Joe Devlin MP, and Dr Michael Davitt to a new governing board of the Irish Volunteers. He succeeded in this goal two weeks later.

He was simultaneously negotiating on how Home Rule might be modified to accommodate northern Unionists. 
He succeeded, three and a half months after he spoke here, in having Home Rule passed into law, the only Irish leader to achieve that…..and without a shot having been fired.

He did not achieve a United Ireland, and he was unwilling to use coercion to that end, but those who came after him, using more destructive and coercive methods, have not achieved that goal either. But that is an argument for another time and place.

The international perspective his education here had given him may explain how Redmond saw the issues that were at stake in the First World War. He rejected the notion that the Irish people remain neutral, or try to exploit the position in which the War placed Britain, and its Allies, France and Belgium, which had been invaded. The invasion was accompanied by well documented atrocities. Redmond’s call for Irish people to volunteer in the Allied side was answered by 604 men who had attended this school, 94 of whom were killed.

As we gather here in 2014, we face a world very different to that of 1914. 
This part of Ireland is an independent sovereign nation, with an historically high standard of living. I was surprised to read recently that, despite austerity and high personal and Government debt, and despite the fact that we may not feel better off, consumer spending per head in this state was 40% higher last year than it was in 1997.
But we face a troubled world.

At a conference a week ago, I heard a former Czech Foreign Minister say that, following the forceful annexation of Crimea by Russia, Europe’s long era of peace was over. A European order based on the rule of international law was, he felt, in the process of being replaced by one dominated by spheres of influence by stronger over weaker states, not unlike the world before 1914.  But, if that is the way things go, we all will learn that power politics will be a wasteful, unreliable and dangerous way to organise a world, that is now far more interdependent than in any other historic era.

It was a pure accident, a volcano on the other side of the globe, that created the climatic conditions that caused the famine conditions in Europe two years after Clongowes was founded, in 1816/17. There was no warning, and no human action could have prevented it. 
But if Carbon emissions lead to a dramatic rise in sea levels, and in global temperatures, there will have been a warning, and it will not be will not be an unavoidable accident.

And those who will suffer most will not be those who caused the problem, but the poorest people in the world, scraping out a living in the drought prone areas of the world. That is an issue of global justice.

A distorted version of religion, a lack of a better goal in life, and a sense that religious expression is disrespected in some western countries, is leading some young European Muslims to involve themselves in sectarian civil wars in the Middle East. That also presents a different, but real threat to the trusting constitutional order we have become used to in most western countries. And the response to the threat could be as dangerous as the threat itself. 

So, rather than simply retreating into a private world of getting and spending,  I hope that it is to issues like these that today’s and tomorrow’s privileged beneficiaries of a Jesuit inspired education will turn their minds.

  • Constructing and defending a structure of peace in Europe,
  • passing on an undamaged physical environment to the next generation, 
  • reconciling faith and reason, and
  • reconciling a good preparation for the next life with tolerance  compassion and justice for others in this one, these are the challenges I see for the generation of 2014.

They are challenges that are every bit as difficult as those that faced the boys that came here in 1814, and in all the subsequent 200 years of the school.
Will Clongowes, as a Jesuit inspired Catholic school, be here in 2114? 

The buildings will, some of them, still be here for sure, but what else will still be here, of the things we value and celebrate today?
Of course that depends on economic conditions, government rules and so on. Parents will always be willing to pay for the best education they can afford for their children. That’s human nature.  Even Communism in China has not eradicated that! Nor did the secular French Revolution. But that’s not really the point.

The existence of this school, as a Catholic school, inspired by Jesuit values, will depend very much on two things

One,on vocations to the Jesuit order, and/or on the willing commitment of lay people of their lives to the values and beliefs that inspire the Order and

Two, on whether the school can  visibly and effectively contribute to  creating and maintaining in Ireland an atmosphere that reconciles faith and reason, that does not assume them to be in antipathy to one another,  and  an atmosphere that reconciles preparation for the next life, with tolerance, generosity towards, and respect for  others in this life.

Before concluding this address, I would like to acknowledge the value to me, in preparing this speech this morning, of discussions I had earlier in the week, with Professor Mary Daly of UCD, Professor Terry Dooley of NUI Maynooth, and Dr Ciaran O Neill of Trinity College, whose excellent book “Catholics of Consequence” was published by Oxford University Press last week.

I would also like to acknowledge the person who inspired my interest in history , the late Fr Woods SJ. I would also like to remember my Third Line Prefect, Fr Joe Dargan SJ, who sadly died in the last week or so.


An address delivered by John Bruton, former Taoiseach and current President of the Clongowes Union, at the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the opening of Clongowes Wood College, the longest surviving Catholic School in Ireland, by the Jesuit Fathers on 18 May 1814

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