Irish Colleges on the Continent: Salamanca, Madrid and Alcalá de Henares

Irish College, Salamanca

From the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, December, 1872:


Before we begin our brief outline of this famous College, we feel bound to acknowledge our obligations to the writer of the able and original article in our July Number on the College of Lisbon. He has many sources of information not open to us, and we trust that he will kindly assist us in our present inquiry; also, as it is a subject with which he must be, from his position, perfectly familiar.

The College of Salamanca, in the Kingdom of Leon, in Spain, was founded in 1582 by the Rev. Thomas White, and endowed by the States of Castille and Leon for the education of Irish secular priests, and was one (1) of the first establishments the Irish Catholics obtained on the Continent after the Reformation. From the earliest times Ireland was, perhaps, more closely connected with Spain than with any other foreign country. The traditional belief of our people was that their ancestors had come immediately from Spain. Identity of national usages favoured this belief, which was further strengthened by frequent commercial intercourse. During the latter part of the sixteenth century a new motive of friendship was found in the unity of religious interests. Queen Elizabeth provoked a war with Spain by openly supporting the Dutch Protestants, who, from fanatical zeal, had risen against Philip; at the very same time she was persecuting her Catholic subjects in Ireland, and using every means to root out the ancient faith. The Irish chieftains fled to Spain for protection, and sought that religious freedom there which they could not enjoy at home. Thus were the Irish Catholics bound more closely than ever to their Spanish brethren, who, on the other hand, never failed to protect and support them in their distress. The first and most urgent want of Ireland was to provide for the education of her priesthood, and Spain was the first nation in Europe that founded Colleges for this purpose.

The College of Salamanca, called Collegia de Irlandeses, was not opened until 1592, though the building was commenced ten years before. Its founder was the Rev. Thomas White, SJ., (2) a native of Clonmel, in the county Tipperary, but it was endowed and much enlarged by King Philip III, who took a special interest in its welfare. The revenues of the College were derived from the provinces of Castille and Leon, as appears from an inscription on a marble slab, placed in the year 1610 over the door-way at the chief entrance to the College. From another inscription over the chapel-door we learn that the College was dedicated to the Apostle and Patron Saint of Ireland, who is also revered as the patron of one of the chief provinces of Spain. It further states that Pope Paul V gave to the high altar, in the College chapel, special privileges, and to St. Patrick’s image “many graces and indulgences.” Soon after its foundation, Salamanca was placed under the Jesuits, who continued to govern it until the expulsion of the Society from Spain in 1762, and afterwards it was under the administration of two Vice-Rectors successively, Fathers O’Brien and Blake, down to 1778, when Dr. Birmingham was appointed Rector and Visitor by King Charles III. He was succeeded by Dr. Curtis, afterwards Primate of Ireland, whose name shall be ever associated with the history of Salamanca, and of whose services, for the thirty-six years that he was rector, we shall give a further account presently. Dr. Mangan was Rector from 1817 to 1830, and succeeded by Dr. James Francis Gartlan, who died in 1868. For three years after his demise, the Archbishops and Bishops of Ireland — who are the patrons of the College, and as such have the right of electing the superior — made no provision for its government.

Last year, however, they appointed the Very Rev. William Mc Donald, of the diocese of Armagh, once himself a student of Salamanca, rector and visitor; and under his wise rule the College is likely to become, in a short time, the first Irish educational establishment on the Continent.

Even after the incorporation of Santiago, Seville, and Alcala with Salamanca, all the affiliated students on the College register did not exceed thirty, and the number was still less, reduced perhaps to ten, after the War of Independence. Now there are about thirty students, who pay only a nominal pension. Next year there will be probably as many more, owing to the zealous and persevering efforts of the Very Rev. Rector, Dr. McDonald. Such is a brief outline of this once famous College, which will, we trust, ere long, regain its former splendour. At no period did Salamanca send forth more distinguished men than while it was under the charge of Dr. Curtis. Within less than five years after his appointment, there were on the roll three names that would shed a lustre on any College — Dr. Murray, of Dublin; Dr. Laffan, of  Cashel; and Dr. Kelly, of Tuam. Thus, our four Archbishops were at the same time preparing for the Irish mission in the same College.

Among the other distinguished students then within the walls of Salamanca, may be mentioned Dr. Everard, subsequently President of Maynooth College, and Archbishop of Cashel; and Dr. Kyran Marum, Bishop of Ossory. What other College could boast of so many honored names on its roll at any one time?

Of all these illustrious prelates, the greatest benefactor of Salamanca was decidedly the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, Dr. Curtis; and of his signal services we must, therefore, add some further details, beginning with a brief notice of his early life. Dr. Patrick Curtis was born in the year 1748, in the diocese of Dublin, (3) where he was also educated up to his sixteenth year. At that early age he resolved to enter the ecclesiastical state, and proceeded to Salamanca to complete his studies. After a most successful course, he received the holy order of priesthood in 1772, having at a preparatory examination taken out, nemine discrepante, all the usual degrees in philosophy and theology. In the next year, in reward of his zeal and varied acquirements, more especially his intimate acquaintance with modern languages, he was appointed by His Eminence Cardinal de la Cerda, chaplain, to the regiment of foreign volunteers in the service of Spain, commanded by Col. Count de Campo de Alange, afterwards Secretary of State. Not long after the foreign regiment was broken up, or rather incorporated with the Royal Marines — and Dr. Curtis zealously served for more than a year at the Royal Hospital of Marines, at Cadiz — he was then named first chaplain on board the “St. Ines,” which was soon ordered to sail from Manilla, in the Philippine Islands. On her voyage homewards, the “St. Ines” fell in with two English ships on the 24th of August, 1779. Her captain was called upon to surrender. Up to this he had not heard that war had been proclaimed between Spain and England. He asked for a few minutes to consult with his officers. Their ship was badly provided after a long voyage, and yet every man on board resolved to die rather than lower the national flag. The Spaniards fought with their wonted courage for three hours, and only yielded when resistance became hopeless, and after a heavy loss in slain and wounded. The “St.Ines” was disabled and brought in as a prize into the Cove of Cork.

Dr. Curtis found himself thus in the strange position of prisoner of war in his native land. Of course no one could reproach him with disloyalty, having entered the service of Spain while at peace with his own country. With the justice of the war or its immediate cause, he had clearly nothing to do. He was bound to administer the rites of religion to the dying soldiers, and to instruct and comfort them in their last struggle. And this, his only duty, hitherto he discharged nobly and zealously even during the action, exposing his own life in order that he might prepare others for a happy death. He had now, from his position, to provide for the temporal wants of those who were thus unexpectedly held as prisoners on a foreign shore. He became their interpreter, their agent, their willing servant in all their needs. He treated with the utmost tenderness the wounded, and devoted most of his time to their care. He was thus employed for more than a year, when he received a most pressing invitation from the Spanish agent in London, requesting him, by order of the Ambassador in Paris, the Count de Aranda, to visit at once some of the prisoners in England, where a fearful epidemic had broken out among the Spanish soldiers, who were dying in vast numbers without the last rites of the Church. Dr. Curtis complied instantly with this request. Wherever a poor sufferer was to be found in prison or hospital, this zealous priest sought him out, ministered to all his wants, temporal and spiritual, and saved the lives of many by his timely zeal and charity. His services were gratefully recognised by the Spanish agent, who brought them under the notice of the ambassador, whilst he in turn forwarded to the king a formal certificate, attesting Dr. Curtis’s success in his holy mission, and his claim to the lasting gratitude of Spain. A royal decree was issued, December 28, 1780, authorizing the Prime Minister to bestow some special mark of the king’s favour on Dr. Curtis, in proof of his devotion to duty in the midst of war and pestilence. New honours were awaiting him in the mean time from the Irish prelates. The four Archbishops of Ireland presented a petition to the Spanish monarch, praying his Majesty to sanction the appointment of Dr. Curtis to the rectorship of Salamanca. The king not only granted the prayer, but expressly ordered that Dr. Curtis should enjoy two-thirds of his salary as chaplain until provided with a prebend, or other suitable ecclesiastical benefice, which would bring him an income equal to his salary. The royal writ was issued March 29, 1781, appointing Dr. Patrick Curtis “Rector and Visitor of the Royal College of the Irish nobles.” By virtue of the same writ he was named Visitor of the Irish College of Alcala, which was soon after (4) united, through his exertions with Salamanca.

His first business as Rector was to draw up a new code of discipline, and thus to reform some of the abuses which had crept in during some of the violent political changes that began then to convulse the whole Continent. These rules were submitted to the Irish bishops, and approved in an official document, signed by the four Archbishops, and dated April 30, 1792. In it the zeal of the new Rector is highly commended, and his claim to the lasting gratitude of his country gracefully recognised.

Just two years before, in April, 1790, Dr. Curtis obtained by public concursus, or, to use the term then in use, by opposition, the chair of Regius Professor of Philosophy in the University of Salamanca; but the king’s order in council, sanctioning the appointment, was not issued, or at least published, until March, 1791. It is not likely, therefore, that the Irish prelates knew anything of the change in Dr. Curtis’s position, as they did not allude to it in their letter approving the statutes. And it may even seem strange that he accepted or proposed for a Professor’s chair while he had so many other heavy duties to discharge. But so perfectly had he restored the discipline of the Irish College by this time, that it required very little exertion to keep the system in good working order. Dr. Curtis was, therefore, free at times not only to preside at the public exercises for degrees, but also to act as Synodal Examiner for the good Bishop of Salamanca, Dom. Andrew Joseph del Barca, and for other Spanish prelates, who had entire faith in his zeal and prudence. That these varied employments did not, on the other hand, interfere with his success in teaching, is clear from the fact that, before 1805, he was appointed first or primary Professor of Astronomy.

In an official document, now before us, dated May 4, 1805, he signs himself “Institutionum Philosophicarum olim, nunc vero Primarius Astronomiae prof. pub. in hac alma universitate.”

Indeed, there was hardly an office of distinction in the University that he did not fill with ability and marked success. And yet his administration of his own College was watchful and disinterested. He sought no other reward than the glory of God, and the affections of the pious youths of whom he had received the charge. For the long period of 36 years, from 1781 to 1817, when he was promoted to the highest dignity in the Irish Church, Dr. Curtis laboured zealously to promote the interests of the Irish College of Salamanca. That he succeeded in his pious efforts may be inferred from the position of trust to which he was raised in his old age at the unanimous request of the Bishops of Ireland, and from the official documents, published by authority of the Spanish government, from which we have taken nearly all the facts stated in this brief notice. (5) For the later history of Salamanca, we are indebted to a Rev. Friend, who completed his theological course in that College.

(1) The very first of all, according to Primate Lombard, p. 315.

(2) Juvencius, Histor. Soc. Jesu, xiii., p. 215, says that White was an elderly secular priest when he founded Salamanca : and that in his old age he joined the Jesuits, after putting the College under their care.

(3) Stamullen, in county Meath, is put down as his birth-place in the Catholic Magazine for 1834, but our authority seems to be decisive.

(4) In 1785 Alcala was conducted chiefly by secular clergy. The last Rector was F. Patrick Magennis.

(5) This State paper is entitled: — “Relacion de los titulos, meritos, servicios, grades, y exercicios literarios de Don Patricio Cortes, Presbytero. . . . rector y visitator por. S. M. Del real Collegio de Nobles Irlandeses,” &c. There is probably not a second copy of this interesting document in Ireland.


 We know very little of this house. As it never was incorporated with Salamanca like the other Spanish Colleges, the documents referring to it are not within our reach, but we will try to give to the readers of the Irish Ecclesiastical Record the little we have been able to glean about it.

It was founded in the year 1629, some say by the venerable Thobada Copleton, restorer of the College in Seville; but I conceive there must be some mistake in this, as I am convinced from what was said of the latter College, that Copleton went to Ireland long before this date. Don Dermisio O’Brien, chaplain to Philip IV., was its second rector, and he gave to the young establishment his own house in the Calle del Humilladero, where this pious foundation still exists. For the space of twenty years after its foundation it supported from ten to twenty students with the revenues allotted it by the corporation of the city and others. These resources failing, the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo, Don Baltasar Moscoso Sandoval, turned it, in 1692, into a house of refuge for the Irish students coming to Madrid to seek the customary viaticum which the king of Spain was accustomed to give them on their return to Ireland : this viaticum amounted to £10. The patronage was vested in the Committee of Beneficed Priests till about 1759, when it passed to the Archbishop.

Some houses were purchased in 1669, and in 1690 a church and sacristy were made of them. This work was accomplished by means of alms, and the gratuitous labour of various persons in the neighbourhood on Sundays and festival days. By royal order of 5th June, 1768, Charles III took this establishment under his royal patronage, and appointed Don Andres Gonzalez de Barcia, Mayor of Madrid, its Judge Protector. On his death Don Gaspar Melchor succeeded him; and in 1792 all the affairs of this patronage was handed over to the Count de Isla.

On the 7th November, 1792, the Count appointed Don Pedro Perlines interim administrator, with a salary of £35 per annum; and on the death of the rector, Don Guillermo Navin, this office was also conferred on him.

It is known also that the Count framed new constitutions, which, however, it appears were never confirmed.

The Count of Isla died in 1807, and it is not known whether a new Judge Protector was appointed.

The Rector-Administrator, Perlines, left Madrid in 1819, to recruit his health, and authorized Don Simon Martinez Rubio to receive the rents and discharge the debts of the house. The net value of these rents has not been accurately ascertained, and they apparently consist of the rents of houses burthened with various charges, and of the interest accruing from the capital accumulated from property sold.

The result of these different changes within the last century has been to gradually obscure the primitive intention of this establishment, and turn its rents into channels never contemplated by its pious founders. At present, and for many years past, the Irish nation, for whose benefit it was intended, derives no advantage whatever from it. The Corporation of Madrid has pulled down two of the houses and erected new ones in their place, which renders any attempt to recover the property very difficult. Doctor Garltan laboured for years in the hope of succeeding, and employed all the influential interest he had in Madrid, but to no purpose. The present rector of Salamanca is again engaged in the same attempt, and has hopes of finally succeeding if the unfortunate times through which we are now passing, and which paralyze all action, would pass and open up an era of a more peaceful and propitious character.


This College was founded in 1657 by Baron George de Paz y Silveira, who gave it the interest of £5768, sunk in juros as rent. Juros are perpetual annuities imposed on lands or houses and paid in kind. It was incorporated with the famous University founded by the great Cardinal Ziminez, in which his grand Complutensian Polyglot was compiled and printed. This Irish College was never of any great importance. It was founded specially and exclusively for students from the north of Ireland. It was the constant scene of disorders from the beginning, and this could not well be otherwise, as the founder ordained that the students should elect their own rector every four years, the outgoing one to be ineligible : the rector should necessarily be one of the present students. Sometimes this rule was not strictly observed by the outgoing rector, and there is one instance on record where he contrived to have himself reelected to the great indignation of some of his companions, who protested against the illegality of the election, but in vain. They wrote to Madrid complaining of this serious breach of their democratic constitution, but obtained no redress. They then determined on going in person to complain to the Camara; but the rector, foreseeing their determination, sent a message round to all the coach owners, and the hirers out of horses and asses, that he would not be responsible if they entrusted their property to any student, and they should do so at their risk; he also refused travelling charges to the students. When they tried to get a horse or a vehicle they were met with an unqualified refusal; but so determined were they on asserting their rights that they went on foot. They got very little satisfaction in Madrid, and had to return and bear their grievances as best they could.

Even so early as 1729 the bishops of Ireland were anxious to cut at the root of these disorders by having the College incorporated with the Jesuit establishment, and a Jesuit rector at its head; but they were met with a thousand objections to the system of the Society, which it was said would not suit the Alcala house at all. The fact is, that it continued to the end as it was. Charles III, in his letter confirming the appointment of Dr. Birmingham as visitor in 1778, commanded that no more students should be received in it, and that it should be incorporated with Salamanca when cleared of its existing inmates. This incorporation was finally effected in 1785, when its last rector was Rev. Patrick Magennis. Father Magennis appears to have been of a different stamp from his predecessors, for he held office for several years, and was a zealous president and a good administrator; but the rebellious training he had received showed itself in his opposition to Dr. Curtis, the then rector of Salamanca, when he went, in 1785, to take possession. Father Magennis, and a student named McMahon, who had been received in spite of the order of Charles III to the contrary, some year or two before barricaded the door, and refused to pay any attention to the bell when Dr. Curtis rang. The mayor of the town had to come with a posse of police and a notary to witness the proceedings, and after formally demanding unconditional surrender from the two valiant defenders of the fortress against all the power of the great king of all the Spains, had to break open the door and take the College by storm. This was the last of the restless and disturbed Irish house in Alcala de Henares. It was called the College of St. George.

The juros of the founder were extinguished by Ferdinand VI, and a pension of £284 per annum substituted. This pension has been paid to the College of Salamanca since the incorporation, except during the years of the War of Independence, up to 1st July, 1871, when it was eliminated from the Budget without examination or reason assigned, and although it had been declared by a Committee of the Cortes, which examined it thoroughly in 1822, to be a claim of rigorous justice! Every effort has been made to have it restored to its former place on the Budget, but without success. The present rector petitioned the Chancellor of the Exchequer through Mr. Layard, the English Ambassador in Madrid, and afterwards both Houses of Parliament, setting forth the just claim of the Irish College, but all to no purpose. From Mr. Layard he received all the assistance he could possibly expect, not only when looking after this claim, but on several other occasions he had to trouble him.


(to be continued)

Posted on May 25, 2011, in Catholic Education, Irish Colleges on the Continent, Irish History, Persecution, Reformation, Spain. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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