University challenge

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Limerick Leader | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

It took many years of lobbying before Limerick got a third level institution. As UL celebrates 20 years of university status, key figures recall the joy and the struggle. Anne Sheridan reports.

28 May 2009

ON THURSDAY, June 1, 1989, the University of Limerick bill was brought through the Seanad – bringing to an end a campaign for a university in Limerick, which began in the 1840s.

As far back as February, the tension in UL was palpable when the Minister for Education Mary O’Rourke was about to introduce legislation granting university status.

In the days leading up to the news a major celebration was being planned days in advance but kept top secret until the official announcement was made.

No one was invited until that very day, but 5,000 people gathered at the campus to be part of a “momentous occasion” that evening.

Those in the higher echelons had known four days previously, and Minister O’Rourke, was present on campus to make the announcement.

Chuck Feeney, the billionaire American philanthropist, who donated millions to UL’s capital projects, had flown in crates of champagne from the United States that morning.

He was there too, as was Dr Tony Ryan, the founder of Ryanair, and deputies Michael Noonan and Willie O’Dea. Everyone had wanted to share in this moment.

“It was the most memorable and probably the most astonishing day of our lives, bar getting married and having children,” recalled Dr Edward Walsh, the university’s founding president, who remained in office for 28 years. “For most of us it was probably the most astonishing day in our careers.”

Noel Mulcahy, former vice-president of UL, sang ‘There is an Isle’, but 20 years on memories are hazy of those dizzyingly exciting moments.

It was, Dr Walsh said, “an emotion packed day” and not merely an academic event – even when the Taoiseach and Minister O’Rourke formally opened the university on September 14, 1989.

“It was the end of a long, long struggle. It was almost an emotional achievement knowing the many generations who were involved in attempting to achieve this.”

President Emeritus John O’Connor, who collected Minister O’Rourke from the airport that morning, added: “People didn’t need very much encouragement to enjoy themselves.

“I’d say everybody was singing that night. All the stops were pulled out.”

Mr O’Connor, who began work in the then National Institute of Higher Education in the early ’70s, remembered the fireworks display and the efforts it took to resolves security issues.

But the event was doubly significant. Not only was UL the first university created in the history of the State, but they also had the power to confer their own degrees – unlike other universities which preceded it.

The long and ardous fight for university status had seemingly afforded them more privileges than most.

“We decided who should receive a degree, whereas the others, like Cork and Galway, were dependent on the National University of Ireland office in Dublin,” said Dr Walsh.

Furthermore, it provided them with the go-ahead to push for funding internationally “without having any ambiguity” and Feeney’s role in UL gathered momentum, backing development projects such as the University Concert Hall and the Castletroy Park Hotel.

“I remember one of the first things I did when Chuck Feeney came to Limerick was walk around with him and show him a pile of briars across the road. We talked about how the university would really benefit from a world class hotel, but didn’t have the money to build one. A week later he brought me up to Ashford Castle and laid the plans out for the hotel,” said Dr Walsh.

The deal was done; another coup in a long line for UL.

Up until the granting of status, Walsh said they focused on “extracting as much as we could” though the State.

“But this permitted a new wave of great development. We were way ahead (of other colleges] in terms of our investment profile.”

Mr O’Connor said the fact that Limerick didn’t have a university didn’t deter Feeney, though in wider circles the concept of an NIHE “does take explanation to a third party”.

“The university charter set the base for a massive expansion; it was a fantastic boost. But we treated it as a university from the very beginning. We always operated at a university level, even when we didn’t have a charter. We didn’t want to have to wait a university to make things happen,” said Mr O’Connor, adding that statutes can take years to bring in, but UL achieved it in five months.

However, it was a long and sometimes frustrating wait for many behind the university campaign.

THE BEGINNING

“A ROSE by any other name,” commented James Tully, the Meath TD, in a Dail debate on April 17, 1969, following repeated queries if a new educational institution in Limerick would be established, and if indeed it would be called a university.

It may not have started out as a rose, but with careful, steady pruning, the campus that is the University of Limerick has blossomed, growing in size and stature over the past 39 years.

It began its life as the National Institute of Higher Education in 1970, taking in the first group of 113 students in September 1972, when it had just five degree programmes, five diploma programmes, and 12 faculty members.

Now, the university counts over 11,500 students and 1,500 faculty and staff.

Fast forward 37 years and Professor Don Barry, the university’s third president, said despite the challenges posed by a deficit in Government funding for third-level education they are still committed to “creating the most outstanding student experience in Ireland”, and the development of world-class research.

The granting of status in 1989 was, he said, a “momentous occasion…followed by 20 years of remarkable success,” attributable to “the collective vision, effort and commitment” of the campus community.

However, many of those who began their careers with the NIHE and led the campaign for a university in Limerick in the late 50s, will not be there this Thursday, May 28, to celebrate the occasion.

Yet, Ann Sadlier, Dr Edward Walsh’s secretary from the very beginning, who passed away a fortnight ago, and many others who played a largely unrecognised part in the university, can lay claim to that history.

Many of those present, particularly the university’s current students, may not be aware of the struggle it took for Limerick to be granted its status.

Dr Walsh has recalled the “sackcloth and ashes plight” of the institution back in the ’70s – as his successor Dr Roger Downer would later term it.

The founding president said when they commenced work on Monday, January 19, 1970 they had no office, no typewriter, not even note paper. This newspaper reported at that time that the new director of the Institute of Higher Education was seen working with his new staff member from a parked car in O’Connell Street.

“Our budget for 1970 was £5,000 so the prospects looked bleak indeed,” said Dr Walsh. “But the Limerick County Council made available the office they had abandoned at 71 O’Connell Street. Anne and I moved from the car and commenced a working partnership that was to last for a further 25 years and see the creation of the University of Limerick.”

Moves to establish the University of Limerick date back to 1845 when the mayor led a delegation to London to make the case for one of the proposed Queen’s colleges.

Cork, Galway and Belfast were chosen as the locations for the colleges, with Limerick narrowly missing out in favour of Galway.

After accepting its first cohort of students in 1972, the NIHE finally morphed into the University of Limerick in 1989, having passed through the hands offive education Ministers.

It then became the first ‘new’ university created in the Republic after the creation of the Free State.

As a consequence, sources point out that it was viewed as “the baby” by the Higher Education Authority, the Department, Dr Walsh and possibly Feeney also.

In the early years, Walsh said, “it was generally held that Limerick had been fobbed off and nothing of a consequence would result.”

Mr O’Connor agreed – somewhat. He said everyone at the opening of the NIHE by the Taoiseach Jack Lynch felt “a great sense of a mission” because there was always “a sense of the outsider”.

Yet, “the underdog” of Irish education would soon prove the naysayers wrong. 

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