My Education Week at Limerick, January 1970

Since 1845, when Limerick failed to get one of the Queen’s Colleges that went to Cork and Galway, a campaign for a university in Limerick simmered. Eventually in the 1960s it flared into a boisterous national campaign organised by the Limerick University Project Committee (LUPC). After the tragic death of Limerick’s flamboyant Minister for Education, Donogh O’Malley in 1968 the government yielded, but refused to establish a constituent college of the NUI in the image of Cork or Galway; instead an institute of higher education was announced. While mention was made of ‘Ireland’s MIT’ and parallels were drawn with the new Technological University in Eindhoven Limerick was not impressed.

After most of the 1960s in the US, where at age 24 I became the youngest Assistant Professor in Iowa State University, an associate of the US Atomic Energy Laboratory in Ames and then director of the energy research laboratory at Virginia Tech, my wife and I decided to come back to Ireland to rear our family. I applied for the few jobs that were on offer and was appointed as chairman of the Planning Board and director of the proposed Institute for Higher Education in Limerick.

I arrived in Ireland on 1 January 1970 and met Minister for Education, Pádraig Faulkner that morning. He disclosed that the 1970 budget for the Limerick institute was only £5,000 (my salary was £4000), and there was no provision for staff, office or even telephone. Taking this job seemed like a serious misjudgement. The Department of Education was reluctant to see me to go to Limerick until I had been suitably conditioned. After spending my first week in its clutches I decided to escape, get to Limerick and check things out.

I pay a courtesy call on the president of University College Cork, Dr Donal McCarthy before going to Limerick. His body language, and what he says, leaves me in no doubt that the fledgling project in Limerick should not expect much support, encouragement or even goodwill from him. Indeed since he perceives that Limerick is not going to have a university-level institution he seems intent on immediately establishing a UCC presence there at Mary Immaculate; the primary teacher training college. Clearly McCarthy sees the Limerick project as a territorial threat and had opted to be confrontational rather than helpful. I leave his office knowing that I must be wary of UCC’s plans for Limerick.

Attempting to help settle Stephanie and the two children into a small apartment in Cork; offered by my parents until we find a house in Limerick.

A decrepit train rattles to a halt in the grim Limerick railway station. Padraig Ó Cuilleanáin of the Department of Education is on the platform to greet me; muffled up in his overcoat. He briefs me on the pitfalls that lie ahead. The Limerick University Project Committee has been effective at regional and national level, organising mass demonstrations, raising funds, pursuing ministers, bringing pressure to bear on local TDs and generally getting national headlines. Many feel that Limerick has been fobbed off, and their hopes for a university have been dashed. The fact that an unknown lad of 29 has been appointed to run the proposed institute hardly inspires confidence.

It is mid-winter and it appears many of those I wish to meet are sick…or just do not wish to see me. The mayor Stephen Coughlan TD, however, does. He is said to be “recuperating” in St John’s Hospital. The Mayor is propped up in bed when we arrive. He looks full of life, a warm roly-poly character with a florid complexion, bushy eyebrows and his remaining hair plastered down with Brylcreem. He gives me a great welcome and assures me of his commitment and support.

“Shut the door, come on over here, sit on the bed and we’ll celebrate”, he directs. He gropes around behind the pot in his bedside locker and produced a brown paper bag from which he extracts a bottle half -filled with a suspicious looking liquid. “There are two more glasses over there at the sink, get them and we’ll drink to your success”, he orders.

Next we walk up Henry Street for a meeting with Sister Loreto, the principal of Mary Immaculate Training College. She wishes me well, but without enthusiasm. Seems she knows which side her bread will be buttered on. The UCC side …

A beaming Tom McDermott, Limerick City Manager, who looks like a freshly-risen moon, greets me. He speaks of his plans for the derelict city and of the good work being done by Joe McHugh the director of the Regional Development Organisation and agrees to make introductions.
Then to Shannon to meet Paul Quigley and his dynamic team at Shannon Development. Here is a reservoir of talent and fresh thinking that I can depend on. Back to Limerick to give a press conference to a curious and large group of national and regional reporters. Afterwards I meet with Margaret Lyddy and Jim Lyons of the Limerick University Project Committee. They give me a civil but reserved reception. After bacon, egg and sausages in Hanratty’s I go through the cold dark streets to meet Mr. Finnan, President of the Trades Union Council at the Mechanics’ Institute. I spend the rest of the evening with him and his colleagues discussing my mission, sitting before a roaring coke fire that provide the room with both intense heat and its main source of light. When at length I stand to leave I am told, to my great satisfaction, that I have the full backing of the Council.

I begin my round of meeting with religious leaders. I am unable to meet the Church of Ireland Bishop, Wyse Jackson; he is ill. Rev William Mills leads the Presbyterian community in Limerick. He is affable and somewhat surprised, I suspect, that not only have I sought to meet him but am doing so before meeting either of the bishops. Then I go to meet Dr Henry Murphy, the Catholic bishop. Murphy appears kind and gentle, but studiously avoids expressing a view as to whether the proposed institute is likely to come to very much. As chairman of Mary Immaculate it appears he needs to keep UCC on side.

I meet the acting manager of Limerick County Council, Mr D. Q. Dudley. He thinks that the Council would consider making its abandoned 71 O’Connell Street available as a temporary office. We cross the road and take a look. It is in a bad way, housing old filing cabinets, broken desks and chairs, mouldy papers and telephones litter the floor. Paint peels from the damp unheated walls and plaster from the ceilings lies about.

Then Joe McHugh and I borrow Wellington boots from the County Council Depot and set off to visit some of the potential campus sites. Joe outlines the options as we go. There appears to be a strong case for locating the campus somewhere north of the city between Shannon and Limerick. Mungret College, which has just been closed by the Jesuits, is also a contender. We discuss King’s Island: the site of the ancient walled city and then look at a large site close to the Raheen industrial estate and also a riverside site at Shannon Banks.

Then not long after the search began, it is over as far as I am concerned. We visit Plassey on the banks of the Shannon a couple of miles upstream of the city. We walk down the gently sloping fields between mounds of briars towards the great river and its islands, through the remains of gracious parkland, past the stumps of recently-cut trees, and along an overgrown canal bank to the remains of a great water mill.

We walk up again to Plassey House on its gentle mound above the river and enjoy magnificent views of the city westward, the Clare hills to the north and distant Keeper Hill to the east. The crumbling old house is used by the National Rehabilitation Institute to care for young people. When we walk through the open hall door they scurry away and peep curiously from rooms along the corridor and from the upstairs landing. It is mid winter and a chill wind blows through the broken windows. Buckets collect rainwater dripping through the ceilings. Electric wiring, apparently ripped from the walls, hangs across some rooms, suspending a damp array of children’s clothes. Despite the miserable dilapidation the potential is obvious and I decided that this has to be the site. We could make an early start in a renovated Plassey House and plan a magnificent campus there.

In Cork reunited with families and friends trying to explain what an institute for higher education is anyway, and why I had done nothing about finding a house in Limerick


• The Two Cultures by C.P. Snow
• Mounds of official reports and two papers that influence me:
o The Engineer and Ireland’s Industrial Growth by Armin C. Frank, Jr
o Scientific Creativity by Calvin W. Taylor
• Not much more than the radio news headlines
• Only my pen in frustration

Based on extracts from Ed Walsh’s memoir ‘UPSTART: Friends, Foes and Founding a University’ published  by The Collins Press, Cork, Ireland
October 2011.

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