Thursday, July 9, 2009

Jesuit Origins in Limerick

In September 2009 the pupils and past-pupils of the Crescent College Limerick celebrate the 150th anniversary of the foundation of their school. Although the year 1859 marks the beginning of the Crescent as we know it the first Jesuit educational presence in Limerick dates from 1565. The story of the Jesuits arrival in Limerick and their subsequent fortunes in the city are outlined below.

Jesuit Origins in Limerick
Tom Stack

Although we are this year celebrating the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Crescent as we have known it, nevertheless it is of historical importance to recall that a Jesuit college had also existed in our native city almost three hundred years previously; in 1565.
This was at the time when both Ireland and the local Catholic Church were under the rule of the British Monarchy. Henry V111 had declared himself Supreme Head of the Church here 29 years earlier (1536). Queen Elizabeth 1, who reigned from 1558 – 1603, was excommunicated in 1570 and her policy and determination was to install the established Anglican Church as the official religion of our country.
At this time the demography of Ireland was by no means uniform and our population consisted of three distinct cultural traditions. Irish towns were largely peopled by those who were called the ‘old English’. These were descended from the Norman invaders of earlier centuries, or more commonly the Anglo-Saxon retainers and tradesmen who had come here in their train. These townsfolk spoke English as their everyday language. While still retaining knowledge of the old ancestral tongue, they had adopted fewer Gaelic customs than their counterparts in the country districts. Moreover, they had developed an affinity with the English Crown, but had clung to their catholic heritage, despite the pressures brought to bear on them by the English Reformation.

As distinct from the town dwellers, there were also the exclusively Gaelic speaking ‘native Irish’ of the countryside who spoke only Irish. In many parts of the country, especially in the north and west, the population retained a fealty to the old local chieftains of the Gaelic order. Though of course Catholic, the texture and practise of their religion had degenerated to such an extent that a programme of renewal and re-organisation had become a pressing need throughout the land.
Thirdly, there were those known as the ‘new English’ who were the most recent settlers in Ireland. They had appeared as a result of the Tudor Plantations and they were to be found in both the towns and countryside. They were of course Protestant and spoke only English.

It is in this context that the then newly founded Jesuit Order (1540) first appeared on the Irish scene. Several of the Irish chieftains had petitioned the Pope at the time who was Paul 111 to send help to the Irish church, then labouring under both Tudor aggression and widespread lack of solid Christian education among its members. The fledgling Society of Jesus, although then still confined to its ten founding members, was soon to embrace the educational apostolate. St. Ignatius himself was asked to send a two-man reconnaissance party to access the needs and the prospects of a future Jesuit pastoral presence in Ireland. Ignatius willingly dispatched two of his first companions, Frs. Salmeron and Broet to the Gaelic territory of Donegal. This northern rural destination proved virtually impenetrable to the two Jesuit Papal envoys; one a Spaniard and the other a Frenchman. Obviously they could not speak the language of the people that they encountered in this, ‘wild region’ inhabited as they reported by ‘the most intractable of all peoples’! It would have been wiser had they been sent to a less remote region with its ‘old English residents'; some of whom might well have been able to converse with the two Jesuits perhaps in French. One assumes that their only communication was through Latin which would have limited their fact-finding activity to what they could glean from clergy here and there. Sadly it seems that this Jesuit expedition proved to be something of a non-event.

Limerick Foundation

It is against the background of this trying, futile, though curiously courageous Jesuit adventure that the first properly planned and fruitful Jesuit missionary project in Ireland came about. It fell to the task of a most competent priest, Fr. David Wolfe, himself a native son of Limerick, to realise the dream of founding a Jesuit community and school in his home city. Fr. Wolfe had entered the Jesuits in Italy and was already an experienced, ordained priest when Pope Paul 1V decided to send him to Ireland, appointing him as his apostolic nuncio “to the most illustrious princes and to the whole kingdom of Ireland”. His brief was to investigate the quality of the Irish clergy and to set up Grammar schools if possible and persuade parents to send their children to them. Moreover, he was to accept no reward for any such work undertaken; an interesting recognition of the case for free ‘secondary education’. The ambition to establish a school or schools obviously appealed to Fr. Wolfe, as such an educational project would have been particularly dear to his Jesuit heart. David Wolfe had grown up in Limerick. Oral tradition has it that his family lived in a house within the grounds of St. Mary’s Cathedral at Atklunkard St. He was well aquainted with the city of his birth and its people, which gave him a distinct advantage in setting about ways and means of bringing a Jesuit school into being.

Fr. David Wolfe arrived in Limerick in August 1560. He immediately set about his pioneering work with both savvy and enthusiasm. It took him five years for his plan to become a reality. A Jesuit Grammar School for boys was opened in 1565, situated intriguingly but a ‘stone’s throw’ away from where he himself had grown up. As result of the early foundation date of the first Jesuit school in our country, folklore has bestowed on Limerick the proud credit, ‘cradle of the company of Jesuits in Ireland’.

A member of Fr. Wolfe’s Jesuit community at the school was a young Limerick man named Edmund Daniel, (sometimes rendered ‘O’Donnell’) who later became the first Jesuit martyr in Europe. Captured and imprisoned in the city in 1572, he was later taken, handcuffed, to Cork where he was hanged, drawn and quartered for his fidelity to Catholic belief. At one time or another during these early years all of the Jesuits working in Limerick were imprisoned. Due to the sustained harassment and threats by the civic authorities, Fr. Wolfe’s school could only continue to function by periodic relocation, first to Killmallock, in Co. Limerick, then to Clonmel and finally to Youghal.


The defeat of the Catholic Desmond’s in the 1580’s made the continuation of the school impossible for a time. The turn of the century however saw the Jesuits back in Limerick again, living a low profile existence in lodgings here and there. By 1640 a residence had been established in Castle Lane and by 1672 the Society had reopened a school on a site near St. Mary’s Cathedral, adjacent to the site of their first venture back in 1565.
Then once again, with the Cromwellian invasion, the Jesuits’ Limerick activity as elsewhere in Ireland was savagely disrupted. Of the then forty five members of the Society throughout the country, only some eighteen managed to avoid capture.
With the restoration of the British monarchy on the accession of Charles 11, a school was re-established, again in Castle Lane and this remained opened until the defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1692.
With the intervention of the Penal laws a wholesale deportation of the Order was grimly executed. By 1724 however yet another ‘S.J.’ revival had taken place, with Jesuits once more openly teaching in Limerick.
Later again, there occurred the forty one year long Suppression of the Order, during which the Fathers worked on as diocesan priests across the land. Forty five years after the restoration of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits returned to Limerick in 1859 to resume their teaching ministry which henceforth was to remain a permanent presence in our midst. At first their college was under the aegis of the Limerick diocese and known as St. Munchin’s. Shortly afterwards they opened their own independent institution at The Crescent and later the Sacred Heart Church; both of which many of us have known so well.
The most recent development, the Crescent Comprehensive of the 1970’s is the latest successful chapter in the Limerick Jesuit story. Nowadays it is a co-educational institution (to which I dare say, no boy of my generation would have gravely objected!). An inscribed stone, remnant of the original 1565 school is to be found embedded in the fa├žade of the present day school.

It is no less than fascinating to recall that over almost five long centuries the sons of St. Ignatius Loyola have survived four major interruptions in their Limerick ministry. Their story is a saga of chequered history, marked throughout by its own special brand of indomitability; driven always by a faith that abides, a hope that shines and a love that abounds. We Crescent alumni of the twenty-first century will be forever glad that in 1859, the Jesuits came back to us, this time, to stay.