The lives of UCD and the independent Ireland that was brought into being (at least partially) by the Treaty of 1921, have been coterminous to a remarkable degree.
Both the ideal of a great university, reflecting national aspirations and the political ideal of an independent Irish State sprang from the same roots, the same objectives and the same cultural resurgence of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When Professor Donal McCartney published the most recent history of UCD (in 1999) he called it UCD A National Idea. The title encapsulated well the sense in which the identities of the State and the university have always overlapped.
It is possible to chart a parallel development between State and university down the decades, as both have come of age, growing and adapting to changing needs, new opportunities and new challenges.
Political scientists and some historians will argue that many if not quite all of the essentials of a new Irish State, enjoying a considerable degree of autonomy from Britain, had actually come into being well before the extended period of violence that began in 1916 and that we now call the War of Independence.
The cultural phenomenon that was the Gaelic Revival had provided Ireland with an alternative iconography and political culture to those of the Empire. By 1898 a vibrant system of elected local government had been established. As Home Rule inched forward, so too did a process of Hibernicising public services and institutions. Even the police forces – long the instrument through which British control of Ireland had been effected - were designated to be placed under Irish control.
Trinity College’s monopoly on university learning had been challenged by the emergence in the late 19th century of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Newman’s Catholic University (later University College) in Dublin and the Queen’s Colleges at Belfast, Galway and Cork.
The first decade and a half of the 20th century saw a significant expansion in the numbers of young Irish men – and some women – of a nationalist and Catholic background who were able to avail of university education. Standards of living were rising. There was a growing cohort of Catholic doctors, lawyers, civil servants, teachers and business people with the means to give their own children a university education. And there were other young people from Catholic backgrounds who could juggle the demands of business, trade or profession to allow them to attend lectures and take degrees.
UCD as we know it today grew from Newman’s original Catholic University at 86 St Stephen’s Green, via the Irish Universities Act 1908 which brought the National University of Ireland into existence.
The college was initially scattered through a collection of buildings but the Stephen’s Green premises served on and even yet remains part of UCD. A significant factor in shaping the new college’s nationalist identity was the provision that representatives of the new county councils should sit on its governing body.
The two Dublin universities perfectly represented the polarisation that was emerging between Irish and British identities. Trinity College was unionist, Protestant and British. Its alumni served King and Empire. Its heroes were the British monarchs, statesmen and generals, adventurers and merchants who had coloured one third of the world map in imperial red. Its vision of history, art and culture almost wholly ignored the Ireland that pre-dated the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169.
By the outbreak of the first World War, in contrast, the heroes of UCD were the giants of the Fenian Cycle, the pre-Norman kings, the Brehon lawyers and the succession of patriots who had risen down the centuries to assert (as it was claimed) Ireland’s nationhood. Early professors and senior academic staff were, in many instances, household names as the authors of important texts of the Gaelic revival.
This worked its way into the volunteer mobilisation that began with the outbreak of the first World War. The Dublin officer-corps of the Irish Volunteers, raised to protect Ireland and then to ensure the delivery of Britain’s promise of Home Rule, was a roll call of UCD staff and graduates. When the Rising broke out on Easter Monday, 1916, UCD staff who took part included James Ryan (later a Dáil deputy and Minister), Michael Hayes, Liam O’Broin and others. One UCD woman staff member, Louise Gavan Duffy, was in the GPO. Many students and graduates were also involved, notably Eamon de Valera.
With the establishment of the State and the departure of the British administrative corps, hundreds of posts had to be filled in executive, administrative, technical and professional grades. Men – and again, a few women – with trained minds and perhaps with a flair for administration were needed.
Key jobs across every part of the public service, from the Diplomatic Corps to the senior ranks of the Garda Síochána, from the Department of Finance to the National Army, were filled by UCD graduates.
As the new State sought to establish the basis of its economy, it became clear that a number of key activities would have to be developed in order to maintain some degree of prosperity. Irish agriculture culture would have to be stimulated and put on a scientific basis if it was to provide for the country’s needs, much less build up its exports.
Thus under a Dáil Act of 1926, the Royal College of Science in Merrion Street and the Albert Agricultural College at Glasnevin were transferred to UCD. Dairy scientists, agricultural advisers other specialists came from UCD to staff the State’s fledgling industries. They managed the creameries and the co-operatives and what we would nowadays call agribusiness enterprises such as the sugar factories.
When the Vocational Education Act was passed in 1930, establishing a system of technical schools around the State, many of the executive officers and senior staff were drawn from UCD’s agricultural science classes.
The decision to harness the Shannon and develop the first great hydro-electricity plant at Ardnacrusha, saw scores of skilled engineers working alongside the German specialists from the Siemens firm which had secured the contract.
Later, the growth of the ESB and the establishment of Bord na Mona, added further requirements for engineers.
These developments were wholly consistent with the thinking among the Irish nationalists who had driven the objective of the university.
Padraig Pearse had written of the new university as an intellectual headquarters for the Gael. John Dillon said it should be a a genuine expression of national intellect and national ideals.
As Professor McCartney put it, those who developed the concept of the university wanted to establish in UCD, pragmatic departments such as commerce, education, agriculture, applied science, engineering, architecture and veterinary medicine.
A significant element in the development of the State was UCD’s role in providing second chance university education in the years when full-time attendance at third-level was a viable proposition for only a small minority of the population.
Evening degree courses in arts and commerce, in particular, gave university training to many who would not otherwise have been able to get it. A great many of Ireland’s leaders of industry, its directors of utilities and its heads of public services got their university education this way – among them T. K. Whitaker, Ireland’s most distinguished public servant and author of the early Programmes for Economic Expansion.
Down the decades, many of UCD’s leading academics have stepped out of their university roles into those of Ministers and leaders of important State bodies.
Most notably, Garret FitzGerald came from the Economics Department to be Taoiseach. Cabinets of every political persuasion have included UCD graduates, including two, Charles haughey and John Bruton, who served as Taoiseach.
With the move to Belfield in the 1960s and 1970s , the changing UCD reflected a changing Ireland. It was also responding to new priorities identified by the State. Ireland was going for sustainable economic growth, based on high skills and educational development. It was also clear that Ireland’s future would lie with the emerging European community.
UCD would be to the forefront in educating the scientists and the engineers that would be needed as the economy was built. It would also produce a large proportion of the economists, the accountants, the diplomats, the social scientists, the teachers and others who would provide the services required for the administration of a modern state.