Wednesday 25 April 2018

Faith of our fathers: my fight to study at Trinity

It's hard to credit now, but in the late '60s it was a mortal sin for a Catholic to attend Trinity College and the only way for applicants to save their souls was by way of a special dispensation from Archbishop McQuaid. Martina Devlin reports

Sins of our past: James Wyse standing on the steps of the exam hall in Trinity College, which was, in 1971, the site of the first Catholic mass in the college since its inception in 1592
Sins of our past: James Wyse standing on the steps of the exam hall in Trinity College, which was, in 1971, the site of the first Catholic mass in the college since its inception in 1592
Howard Shaw, Howard’s then girlfriend and now wife Anne Moloney, both from Midleton, Co Cork; Katie O’Sullivan (now Judd) and godmother to James’s son Ross, and James himself
James Wyse's old student card
The letter “tolerating” James Wyse’s admission to Trinity
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

A time-honoured Limerick expresses a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude to the Catholic Church's ban on attendance at Trinity College.

"Said Archbishop McQuaid in a Lenten tirade: You may plunder and loot, you may murder and shoot, You may even have carnal knowledge; But if you want to be saved, and not be depraved, You must stay out of Trinity College."

But for all the rebelliousness expressed by the verse, the reality was that most Catholics abided by the diktat. In 1967, Trinity had 3,000 students of whom only 800 were Catholics, according to the 'Catholic Herald' of the time. A sizeable proportion were English Catholics, meaning hardly any Irish Catholics enrolled as undergraduates at the Dublin university.

A Catholic who enrolled without the permission of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was committing a mortal sin. A case had to be made directly to him to obtain the necessary dispensation.

Dublin-based businessman James Wyse (63) was among the small number of Catholics who enrolled in 1968. At the time, he had just turned 18, and his father applied on his behalf for the archbishop's 'letter of toleration'.

In his application, James's father said the degree course his son would study in Trinity was unavailable at University College Dublin. In accordance with procedure, he made the request to the local parish priest, who forwarded it to the bishop, who sent it on to the Archbishop of Dublin.

James, a father of three children including Sky Sports presenter Rachel Wyse, kept the collection of letters between his father and the Catholic authorities, and recently donated them to the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library at Trinity College.

They have now been archived and are available to researchers online.

James was one of only four pupils from St Augustine's College in Dungarvan who applied to Trinity that year. One by one, the boys were called in to see the abbot in charge, who quizzed them about their decision. "He said we were the first from the school to go there," recalled James.

He chose Trinity's Bachelor of Business Studies degree, rather than UCD's Bachelor of Commerce, because he wanted a career in marketing and believed it would be more useful.

His father, a bank manager in Gorey, Co Wexford, urged him to apply for a dispensation, as did St Augustine's abbot. He refused.

Unknown to James, however, his father made the application on his behalf to the canon in his local parish in Gorey. Between September 20 and October 22, 1968, a series of letters ricocheted back and forth.

The canon contacted the Bishop of Ferns, who wrote back with a number of questions, and the canon confirmed that James came from a good Catholic family and he saw no reason to "fear grave danger to the Catholic faith and morals" if he enrolled. The bishop's office also wrote to the abbot at St Augustine's College for his opinion.

The relevant permission was not immediately forthcoming from Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid, the ultimate arbiter.

His secretary wrote to the bishop noting that the UCD course matched Trinity's subject for subject and had the same professional standing. He asked how exactly the applicant found the Trinity degree to be superior, and whether any other circumstances existed which should be taken into consideration.

James's father responded that he had already paid Trinity's fees of £119, a considerable sum. This was persuasive, and the archbishop's secretary wrote that he was "prepared to tolerate" the enrolment. However, the canon involved in the case was required to insist on the observance of an enclosed list of safeguards.

"The safeguards should be read and explained to the applicant without giving him the document to retain," said the archbishop's letter. James was also directed to call on the chaplain at Westland Row who had responsibility for Trinity students.

The four safeguards were as follows:

* "Regular and frequent attendance to religious duties."

* "Avoidances of all societies that may propagate ideas contrary to Catholic faith or morals."

* "The study of the Catholic teaching on those subjects on the course that have philosophical or theological implications. In this connection the priest in charge of the case is asked to identify those subjects for the applicant and to assist him/her substantially in the selection and use of the proper means to acquire that knowledge of Catholic teaching on those subjects that is adequate to his/her professional training."

* "Habitually to consort with Catholic companions."

It was after three years as a student that James realised his father had applied for permission. "Every year, he asked me to apply, and every year I said no," he said. "Finally, I agreed out of respect for my father – and the next thing I knew the letter of toleration arrived. He had kept it for me. When I received it, I burned it to roars of approval from the other people in my rooms."

The following year the ban was lifted. Later, he regretted his impetuosity, and recently managed to source a copy from the Archbishop of Dublin's files, including the safeguards. "I was amazed to see how much correspondence had gone on between my father, the canon, the bishop and the archbishop's office," he said.

He had known nothing about the safeguards as a student: the canon in Gorey did not pass them on, and nobody checked up.

By this stage, the Catholic Church must have realised it could not impose its regulations – it could only hope the faithful would abide by them voluntarily. Where Catholics chose not to do so, there was no recourse – other than excommunication, presumably.

'These letters show there have been fantastic changes in Irish society," said James, who went on to work in marketing, as he hoped, and to become a chartered accountant. Today, he is MD of equity release company Sixty Plus Finance which also has a retail credit finance lending license.

By sharing his papers, he shines a light on the level of Catholic Church control in Irish life in living memory. But he says he has a second motive: "I'm doing this because I want my three children, who are in London, to know that Ireland is a country worth coming back to live in. It has changed beyond recognition."



A dangerous place. That was the Catholic hierarchy's official position on Trinity College, regarded as an unsafe environment for "the faithful".

Indeed, in the Maynooth Statutes of 1956, when the Irish bishops and heads of religious orders convened for a synod to update church law, it was declared a mortal sin to attend the Dublin university.

Their position was endorsed by the Vatican, and the embargo against Trinity was not lifted until 1971.

Now, we look back on such authoritarianism with incredulity – but the majority of Irish Catholics accepted a level of interference in their lives that seems intrusive today.

Contraception was out of bounds, so was divorce, while pre-marital sex was denounced from the pulpit. The power of the crosier meant the Swinging Sixties never managed to take root in Ireland.

The prohibition against Trinity is most closely associated with the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid (pictured) – a cleric determined to hold the line – although it had the support of the Catholic hierarchy's upper echelons.

Initially, Trinity was responsible for banning Catholics, as a university set up in 1592 to strengthen the Protestant Reformation. It was 1873 before Catholics were fully accepted as students, after which the Catholic Church adopted the role of putting the university out of bounds.

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