Seat of Learning

2002 marked the bicentenary of the founding of St. Finianšs College. It is the beginning of a new era that starts the process of phasing out boarders and next September will see the first female pupils admitted to the diocesan seminary.

The times are indeed a changin’ at St. Finian’s College. The rising cost of maintaining boarders has lead to a decision to phase out a feature that was synonymous with the diocesan seminary over two centuries.

In September 2002 the last group of first year boarders were admitted to the school located on the Longford road on the edge of Mullingar. When the last of those complete their secondary education in just over five years time the dormitories and bedrooms will be put to another use.

St. Finian’s has been located in the central Westmeath town for just under a century it was initially based in the town of Navan overlooking the River Boyne close to where St. Finian’s Terrace now stands. The college was founded by the then Bishop of Meath Patrick Plunkett and opened on May 2 1802 with Fr. Eugene O’Reilly as its first President.

Though Catholic Emancipation was still nearly three decades away, the oppressed majority were beginning to emerge from the constraints of the Penal Laws. Robert Hobart’s Catholic Relief bill of 1793 had opened up increased opportunities for Irish Catholics and Bishop Plunkett, keenly aware of the benefits of good schooling in promoting the ideals of the church was anxious to establish a seminary in his diocese.

Within two decades the number of boarders at the school had risen to 60 ranging in age from five to 22 while the Catholic directory of 1821 reported; “the classical course is generally completed within the space of five years and sometimes a shorter period, according to the age an ability of the learner.
Those who go through a course of English only, generally finish in three years. The time for admission is from the age of seven to fourteen. Young gentlemen not having entered their twelfth year, pay forty pounds per annum. From the commencement of their twelfth year, the annual pension is increased to forty guineas. For these respective pensions they are boarded, educated and supplied with clothes, books, stationary and every other article necessary for students. There is no vacation at any seasons of the year and the strictest attention is paid to the health, morals and general advantages of the pupils.

Subjects on the curriculum included Logic, Metaphysics and Ethics, Latin, Greek, French, Oratory and Declamation and the use of globes. As the only seminary in the northern half of the country, St. Finian’s attracted pupils from as far away as Donegal, Thurles and Dungarvan.

Fr. O’Reilly was appointed Parish Priest of Navan in 1827 and was succeeded as President of the College by Fr. Patrick O’Connor, whose successor Fr. Nicholas Power built the oval study hall which still stands and was known as ‘Power’s Duck Egg’. Power was not an advocate of corporal punishment, preferring to exert a moral influence over his pupils.

In 1867 Power was relieved of his duties and Bishop Nulty assumed his role until Rev. Joseph Higgins, already on the staff of St. Finian’s, was appointed as President. With the setting up of a state exam system the college earned a reputation for its great results.

As the 20th century beckoned it became obvious that a more spacious facility was required. Bishop Nulty acquired a site outside the town on the banks of the Boyne and set a fund raising drive in motion that secured nearly £20,000 at the time of his death in 1898.

His successor Dr. Gaffney consulted with his parish priests who opted to erect the new college in Mullingar. Given that the diocese extends from the sea to the Shannon and takes in nearly all of County Meath and large parts of Westmeath and Offaly there was sound logic behind this decision.
However, there is a story which the suggest that the decision to opt for Mullingar over Navan was influenced by huge support in the latter town for Charles Stewart Parnell following his fall from grace. But the former MP for Meath died nearly seven years before Bishop Gaffney was appointed.

The site for the new college was bought in 1901 for £1,127 and the contract for the construction of the new premises was signed two years later and was valued at £36,000. It was completed later than scheduled in 1908. Students from Navan transferred to Mullingar in February of that year and the new school was formally opened and blessed by Bishop Gaughran on March 2. Fr. Denis Flynn continued as President of the college.

The curriculum continued to be classically based. Irish had been added in 1906 but received little emphasis. Music was taught on a part-time basis. St. Finian’s maintained it excellent academic record but this suffered during the political upheavals from 1916 to 1922 when a strong sense of nationalism pervaded the college.

Soon the old order was restored and two new traditions were established around this time. In 1919 St. Finian’s participated in the first Leinster Colleges football championship, winning the first of ten titles in 1925. They reached the All-Ireland finals in 1960 and 1966, losing narrowly to St. Jarlath’s of Tuam on both occasions.

The college has not won the Leinster crown since 1966 and is no longer a force in Colleges football. However, St. Patrick’s Classical School Navan which was originally based in the old St. Finian’s premises has come to the fore in the last decade winning five provincial titles and two All-Irelands.

The tradition of producing a Gilbert and Sullivan opera began in 1922. This musical tradition was one the reasons the college was chosen by the Irish Episcopal Liturgical Commission to host the Schola Cantorum, which offered four places annually to Irish secondary school pupils interested in studying music at an advanced level. Its aim was to enhance the standard of liturgical music in Ireland.

Fr. Frank McNamara was appointed as first director of the Schola Cantorum and the first four students arrived in September 1970. In addition to achieving a high standard in academic subjects in order to qualify for university, members of the Schola Cantorum were expected to study piano, organ and woodwind instrument.

It was hoped that on graduation, many of them would become church organists and choirmasters and teach music full-time in schools. The current director of the project, Shane Brennan, was one of the initial quartet of scholarship students. Over thirty years on the school continues to flourish and many of its past pupils teach church music all over Ireland. Some have pursued their careers overseas and competed at the highest levels.

Some structural additions have been made to the college over the years. The handball courts were added in 1910. Initially the present study hall was used as a chapel, but by 1912 the current chapel was completed. A new electric plant was constructed in 1922 and later the multi-purpose gymnasium was constructed.

A new complex boasting dressing rooms and showers was completed in the mid-1960s and became known colloquially as “the temple. An 18-hole pitch and putt course was added by the end of the decade.

During his term as President (1970-80) the late Fr. Jim Deignan expended a lot of effort in improving living conditions for pupils and staff. In the early nineties a new classroom block was added as the curriculum broadened.

Pupils of the college have won the overall Prize in the Aer Lingus Young Scientist of the Year on two occasions, with Noel Boyle from Collinstown claiming the title in 1975 and in January 2003 Adann Osmani became the latest to win the accolade.

St. Finian’s College has undergone many changes in two centuries and no doubt will continue to evolve to meet the challenges of its third century.

Taken from Maroon & White 2003