A Night of Culture in Special Collections and Archives

by Audrey Kinch, Special Collections & Archives, Maynooth University Library

Ireland’s annual Culture Night / Oíche Chultúir takes place this year on Friday, 18th of September.  This hugely popular national public event has been running for 15 years and celebrates all things related to the arts, creativity and culture.  While in previous years most events took place physically in locations around the country, due to the pandemic this year more events will take place online and the programme is jam packed as always with lots of interesting and fun activities to check out.  The theme for Culture Night 2020 is ‘Connect Through Culture’ and with over 40 events taking place in Co. Kildare there is something for everyone including an audio-visual history of St. Mary’s Church in Maynooth, an online painting event at Castletown House and music online from Maynooth Gospel Choir to name but a few! 

Here in Special Collections and Archives at Maynooth University Library, on Culture Night beginning at 17:00 we will invite you to join us online for a number of talks entitled ‘Treasures of the Library – Manuscript, book and brick: the Library and its collections’.  This will be a unique opportunity to meet and hear from some of our expert team members as they talk about the beautiful Pugin-designed Russell Library building, the historic collections of early printed books, manuscripts, pamphlets and archives of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth and Maynooth University and to also hear about some of the work that is involved in the management, care and preservation of our magnificent collections. 

Maynooth University Library began our association with Culture Night in 2012 when we partnered with Kildare Co. Council to participate in this hugely popular annual initiative.  Each year on Culture Night, we open the doors to the Russell Library inviting visitors to partake in tours of the reading room accompanied by staff members from Special Collections and Archives and to view our unique exhibitions on display.  The library reading room was designed by renowned British architect A.W.N. Pugin and opened in 1861.  It is named after Charles Russell, past-president and professor at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. 

In 2016, Culture Night guests had the opportunity to view an exhibition related to Maynooth 1916 volunteer, Domhnall ua Buachalla who had an impact on local life and national politics.  The following year for Culture Night 2017, our team placed books and maps on display, related to Co. Kildare which included a 6-inch ordnance survey map of Kildare printed in the 1830s. 

In 2018 in the lead up to the 100th Anniversary of Armistice and as part of Maynooth University’s Commemoration 2018 Programme, on Culture Night visitors to the Russell Library had the opportunity to view ‘The Country House and the Great War exhibition’, which was a collaborative effort between the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE), the OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre (OMARC) and Maynooth University.  This exhibition offered a unique perspective of the Great War, focusing on the experience of Big House families and was based on material from more than ten country house archives.  On display was previously un-exhibited material from the archives of Ballindoolin House, Co. Kildare and Airfield Estate in Dundrum, Dublin.  You can read more about this and other associated exhibitions here: 


On Culture Night last year our guests viewed an exhibition which staff from Special Collections and Archives curated.  The exhibition was related to pastimes and how free time was spent by people who enjoyed a hobby or liked to tell a story, play an instrument or travel to another location.  The exhibition featured books, pamphlets, archives and maps related to pastime activities such as travel, art, craftmanship and pottery.  Our ‘18th to Early 20th Century Pastimes’ exhibition displayed these 18th and 19th century items from Special Collections and Archives from both the Russell Library and the John Paul II Library collections. 

Culture Night is a national annual event and an established part of our outreach activities each year which also include participation in National Heritage Week in August.  We endeavour to create a unique and enjoyable event experience for Culture Night and this year will be no different!   We look forward to opening the doors to the Russell Library again albeit online. Just click on the link below and register to join us on Friday 18th of September at 17:00 for another enjoyable Culture Night spent in with Special Collections and Archives at Maynooth University Library: https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/four-thousand-years-of-collections-a-virtual-tour-of-the-russell-library-tickets-118613765967


A snapshot of rebellion – published histories of 1798 in our collections

By Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections and Content, MU Library

One of the interesting aspects of our special collections is when there is a clear ‘trend’ in our holdings.  This can happen for several reasons, such as reflecting the scholarly interests of those who were responsible for the collection at a certain time in the library’s history.  The founding collections of the Russell Library are representative of this as they reflect a European ‘enlightenment library’ in subject and form.  Equally however, these trends can reflect the key events of the period which may stimulate contemporaneous collection in some key areas.  One of the obligations on the current curators of the collections is to consider how these historic aspects should be managed in the current era and this can include filling gaps to make these trends more complete.

One of the areas where the collection was historically strong but has been enhanced is in the historical record of significant events of the late 18th century and early 19th.  A good example of this can be seen when reviewing our collections for printed sources relating to the 1798 rebellion.  Special Collections has a wonderful trove of such items in both physical and electronic format and some examples are offered below.

Musgrave’s history of the 1798 rebellion

In terms of the general contemporary sources, the Russell Library holds one of the key works Musgrave’s History of the Rebellion in Ireland in the year 1798.  Although ostensibly a history, it was anything but impartial, with Musgrave having a track record of promoting the government side in his published output. In this specific case, he considered the rebellion to be exclusively the fault of ‘Papist aggression’ and his views clearly found favour as the publication was a great success, running to 3 editions in quick succession.  The stridency of his views would provoke replies however, including one from James Caulfield, Bishop of Ferns, also to be found in the Russell Library.

James Caulfield’s reply to Musgrave’s history of the 1798 rebellion

The lack of objectivity in such works was a consistent theme and can be seen in other titles too, including items which are found in the library’s electronic collections.  Some examples include the wonderfully descriptive A narrative of the sufferings and escape of Charles Jackson, late resident at Wexford in Ireland which despite sounding like a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson is, according to its author fully authentic. In this case, the author might be forgiven his lack of objectivity, as he notes that the rebellion had “lost at Wexford all the property I possessed”.  Wexford, having been such a locus for rebellious activity in 1798 it was perhaps natural that much of the public output would reflect this and our collections have multiple examples of accounts and histories relating specifically to the south east.  A notable example is that of Edward Hay who was involved on the side of the rebels (although it is not clear to what capacity) and who was moved, like Caulfield to refute the accusations of Musgrave.  His work, History of the Insurrection of the County of Wexford, A. D. 1798, while sympathetic to the rebels’ side, was more nuanced than many of its peers and found a strong market, with healthy sales.

Edward Hay, with inscription by the author to the Earl of Moira

Needless to say, while Wexford features prominently in the published record, it is not alone and works such as those of James Alexander focus on Kildare, which can be found in our eighteenth century collections online database, as well as works on the events that transpired in Mayo, as noted by Joseph Stock and others.

The above titles can typically be found both in physical and electronic form in our holdings. They represent handful of similar items in our collection on this topic – there are more histories as well as archival material, newspaper accounts and maps.  However, the published record of such an event is always interesting as it often tells us as much about what people were interested in reading, as about the events themselves.  A significant and contentious event such as the 1798 rebellion was always going to stimulate published views and as long as the reader approaches them with an eye for jaundiced viewpoints, they will deliver a wealth of information about the event, but as importantly about the society of the time and its preconceptions and partialities.

Photographs by David Rinehart, Special Collections & Archives, MU Library

Forgotten Fires at Maynooth

by Sarah Larkin, Archivist, St Patrick’s College Maynooth

Dublin fire brigade attending the fire at New House, 29 March 1940.

This year St Patrick’s College, Maynooth celebrates 225 years since its foundation in 1795. This blog post is the second in a series highlighting some of the interesting and lesser known events and facts of the College’s history. This post looks at two occasions when fire broke out in the College, and how tragedy was avoided. 

On 1 November 1878, at 8am in the morning, fire broke out in St Mary’s in Maynooth College. The College fire engine proved to be inadequate. An attempt to summon help from the Dublin fire brigade failed, as the local telegraph failed to work and a message had to be sent from Celbridge. A special train was immediately laid on in Dublin to bring the fire engine to Maynooth. It was then drawn to the College, and by 11am, had got up steam and was put in action. Even after such a long delay, the fire was contained, with no loss of life. 

Illustration from ‘The Graphic’ 16 November 1878. ‘The recent fire at Maynooth College – view of the building on the day after the catastrophe.’

One week later, Dr Patrick Murray recorded the event in his diary: 

I saw the tongues of flame playing on the roof of St Mary’s in the southern corner near to the tall chimney. 

I then ran to my room, opened my press, took out the money lying there (under £20), put on my great coat over my soutane, took my breviary under my arm – the Raccolta I had already had in my hand coming from the chapel – glanced over my bookshelves. So stunned and paralysed was I that all around seemed like so much dust and ashes. I had not the slightest wish or impulse to take anything with me but the three above named articles. I thus left under the conviction that within a couple of hours everything in my rooms, books, manuscripts etc, would be consumed. 

Meantime, a number of students, all seniors, I believe had been most zealously engaged in removing the books from the great library. One of them came to me and asked me to let my books also be removed. ‘No’ said I, ‘let them burn, I care for nothing now in this world.’ In this state of mind I wandered about from group to group of students and externs watching the exertions of the fire brigade and others engaged in stemming the progress of the fire 

Four or five students narrowly, and as if miraculously, escaped with their lives. Nearly forty lost all their property, books, furniture etc. 

Fire in New House, 29 March 1940.

Fire broke out again on 29 March 1940, this time in New House. From about 4pm, fire began to spread the whole length of the 130 year old timber roof of New House, and spread down the wooden staircase. The cause is thought to be defective wiring. The Dublin fire brigade was summoned, and they arrived at about 5pm. They brought the fire under control. However, the interior of New House had been destroyed and student records going back to 1795 were lost. 

Dublin fire brigade putting out the fire in New House, 29 March 1940. 
Dublin fire brigade putting out the fire in New House, 29 March 1940. 
The aftermath of the fire in New House, 1940.

Absence and Artistry: revisiting the Desmond Forristal Archive in the Age of Covid-19

by Róisín Berry, Archivist, Maynooth University Library

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Image of Covid-19 Virus

These last few months have been marked by many absences. The absence of early morning traffic jams as rushed breakfasts are digested. The absence of shrieks of laughter from beyond the school gates. The absence of huddles of friends sharing love and laughter over steaming cups of coffee. With each day blending into the next, we have worked hard at staying apart. We have learned to accept the daily numbers, the roadmaps, the social distancing, the ‘new normal’.

The battle against Covid-19 has affected every aspect of our daily lives, including the way we work, educate our children, socialise, and even how we grieve. One of the most challenging aspects of the Pandemic has been its impact on how we honour and celebrate our dead. Strict social distancing rules have seen families deprived of a proper way to mourn the deceased, to celebrate their life or to offer support to the bereaved. The importance of our funerary customs and traditions have never been more apparent, at this difficult point in our history as a nation.

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Portrait of Rev. Desmond Forristal, c. 1980s

On 25 September, we will mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of scholar, author, playwright, and TV producer, Rev. Desmond Forristal (1930-2012). Forristal’s Archive was donated to Maynooth University Library in 2001. This fascinating collection contains a variety of material, including letters, essays, scripts, photographs and press cuttings. Forristal’s close links with the Dublin theatre scene, and particularly, the Gate Theatre, are captured in many of the letters and photographs contained in the archive.

As a cleric, Forristal would have fully appreciated the role of the funeral service in honouring the life of a departed loved one and providing a chance to say a final goodbye. At times Forristal’s work as a priest merged with his great love of theatre. One document that reflects this is a letter that he received on 15 March 1978 from actor, writer and director, Hilton Edwards (1903-1982). They had worked on many productions together in the Gate Theatre over the years, Forristal as playwright, Edwards as director. This moving letter was written on the death of Edwards’ partner and co-founder of the Gate, Micheál Mac Liammóir (1899-1978). It expresses the great comfort that Edwards had found in the funeral after so great a loss:

Photograph of Forristal, Edwards, Mac Liammóir and some of the cast from The True Story of the Horrid Popish Plot, 1972

‘You and I worked together – and I hope we will again – but nothing we can do can reach the artistry, if I may use that word in this sense, of the work you have just done. The rightness of the services, both unsurpassable in their simplicity and beauty gave me much comfort, and I know, has given Micheál peace. Thank you again for administering the last rites to him in hospital. Please convey to the Fathers who celebrated with you, not forgetting the young gentleman who served you at the altar, and those who sang so movingly. The services conveyed a truer beauty than is possible in the world of make-believe – in which Micheál & I have lived’ (15 March 1978).

Letter from Edwards to Forristal on the funeral of Mac Liammóir, March 1978

When Edwards himself died four years later, Forristal received another letter, this time from Patrick Bedford (1932-1999). Bedford was an actor, who performed in numerous productions in the Gate Theatre during the 1950s and 60s before moving to the United States. He was involved in two of Forristal’s plays, Black Man’s Country (1974) and The Seventh Sin (1976). In his letter, he highlights the great reassurance provided by Forristal’s funeral service, to Edwards’ family and friends:

‘Belatedly, let me thank you for the grace and charm and, most importantly, which I think Hilton would have enjoyed, simplicity, in your conduction of his mass’ [1982]. 

If anything, these beautiful words written several decades ago remind us of the things that truly matter, even in our darkest times: comfort, peace, simplicity, and how, as a nation, we will find them again.

For further information please contact library.specialcollections@mu.ie

Percy Bysshe Shelley: A life in brief

By Darren Sturdy, Special Collections and Archives

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Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelly by Amelia Curran, 1819. (Held in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

July 8, 1822 was the fateful day that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) drowned in the Bay of Spezia in Italy whilst sailing from Livorno to his home Casa Magni in Lerici on his boat The Don Juan during a violent summer storm. Maynooth University Library holds several books by or about Shelley as well as a wealth of electronic resources about the poet. One publication written by a former Maynooth student, poet, translator and Young Irelander, Denis Florence MacCarthy (1817-82) titled Shelley’s Early Life from Original Sources was published in London in 1872. MacCarthy was an enthusiastic collector of books particularly on Spanish Literature, Ireland and Shelley. The publication was an attempt to redress hostile accounts of Shelley’s visit to Ireland in 1812.

In the historic pre-1850 collections of the Russell Library we find the earliest publication in the collection The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. This book was published in London in 1847 by Edward Moxon and was edited by his wife Mary Shelley (1797-1851) or Mrs Shelley as noted on the title page. Described as a new edition, the Russell Library copy has an additional engraved title-page. The book comprising 164 pages is beautifully produced. Bound in purple leather, stamped in gold with cream coated endpapers and finished off with gilt edges. There are subsequent publications in the Maynooth catalogue by Mary Shelley dealing with her husband’s poetry collections which shows her determination to bring Shelley’s work to public attention and to extol his creative gift.

Shelley was born on 4 August in 1792. The name Bysshe came from his grandfather Sir Bysshe Shelley, 1st Baronet of Castle Goring, Sussex. Shelley schooled at Eton and Oxford but was expelled from the latter for the publication of a short essay called The Necessity of Atheism with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1822). In the universities of Cambridge and Oxford students had to adhere to the 39 Articles of Faith of the Church of England. Shelley was married twice, first to Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816) and then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797-1851).

Shelley visited Ireland in 1812 from February to April, where he met leading nationalist activists of the day. His interest is outlined in his authorship of two pamphlets published in 1812, An Address to the Irish People and Proposals for an Association of Philanthropists. See: Shelley’s adventure in Irish Politics https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/shelley-s-adventure-in-irish-politics-1.484454

Amelia Curran (1775-1847) and her father John Philpot Curran (1750-1817) were familiar with Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin and her father, and had visited them in London. Amelia spent most of her life in Italy especially after her father’s death and became reacquainted with the Shelleys in 1819 where she painted Shelley’s portrait.

Shelley would sign hotel registers as occupation being “atheist, democrat and philanthropist”. It was a famous summer at Lake Geneva in Switzerland in 1816 when due to bad weather the Shelleys along with their friend Lord Byron (1788-1824) invented ghost stories and where Mary Shelley conceived of the idea for the novel Frankenstein.

On that day in July, Percy Bysshe Shelley was returning from visiting a friend of his, Leigh Hunt (1810-1873), in Livorno with the idea of publishing a new journal The Liberal: Verse and Prose from the South. Four issues were published between October 1822 and July 1823. When he was found, he was cremated and buried in The Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s grave memorial

Shelley believed in the value of experience. In Pisa before his death Shelley told Marianne Hunt, ‘If I die tomorrow, I have lived to be older than my father, I am ninety years of age’.

A film released in 1986 by English film director Ken Russell called Gothic featured Julian Sands as Shelley, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as Byron and in her film debut Natasha Richardson as Mary.


Oxford Dictionary of Biography

Irish Dictionary of Biography

Irish Times 9 Jan 2020: Shelley’s adventure in Irish Politics by Paul O’Brien

Wikimedia – Creative Commons

‘Irish Ecclesiastical Colleges since the Reformation’ by William McDonald

Paul Carroll, Student in MA / H. Dip. in Historical Archives

This blog post is about the book Irish Ecclesiastical Colleges since the Reformation by William McDonald. The book dates from the 19th century and documents the history of the continental college movement with a particular focus on the college at Salamanca. It comes from the Salamanca Irish College collection in the Russell Library.

Background to the continental college movement and the Irish college in Salamanca

Salamanca was home to a college devoted to educating exiled Irish Catholics because of the penal laws. The penal laws suppressed the education of Catholics across Great Britain and Ireland which lead to Catholics migrating to places like Salamanca for education. Over time the penal laws were relaxed which led to the opening of St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth.  This posed a challenge to the continental college movement which, combined with the French Revolution, saw the closure of many colleges never to open again. Only a handful of colleges, including Salamanca, would reopen after the revolutionary period. After the turbulence of the late 18th and early 19th century, the rest of the 19th century would pass for the most part peacefully for the Salamanca college. Going into the 20th century the college at Salamanca had survived multiple occupations, war, revolution and even infighting, but the Spanish Civil War would do lasting damage. During the civil war the college was closed, and it would not re-open. During negotiations between the Irish and Spanish states, and the Irish and Spanish church hierarchies, it was agreed that the archives of the college would be sent to Maynooth after the college’s closure, and this is where they remain today. The collection has the honour of being the first collection from the Russell Library to have a completely online catalogue, which can be accessed here.

The book

The book is a handwritten manuscript. It was not published as a printed book. It was written by William McDonald who was the then rector of the college. Many subsequent rectors would also try writing histories of the college, such as D.J. O’Doherty who would publish excerpts from the college archives  in Archivium Hibernicum. McDonald was the first person to systematically archive the college’s records. His system of arrangement still largely remains in place today.

The history is typical of the era, being steeped in Irish Catholic nationalism. It evokes the tropes of forced exile that were common across all types of media from that period. However, that is not to say the book is without value. McDonald’s bias flows freely and provides an insight into his mentality. It is a source worthy of being interrogated by historians. I myself will be using it for my thesis. I am an archives MA student and as part of that thesis is studying how the archives of the Salamanca college evolved. McDonald is a seminal figure in the history of the archive and this book represents in many ways the outcome of his work.

This book (indeed the entirety of the Salamanca collection) represents an engaging and important piece of Irish history that would merit further study. Maynooth is lucky to have such an important collection as the Salamanca college archives with items such as this.


Henchy, Monica: ‘The Irish College at Salamanca’, Studies, lxx (1981), pp. 220-7.

Leyden, Susan: Arrangement of Salamanca Collection (Maynooth 2014) http://www.calmview.eu/StPatricksCollege/CalmView/Arrangement-%20Irish%20College,%20Salamanca.pdf.

Richardson, Regina Whelan (1995) The Salamanca Archives. In: Maynooth Library Treasures : from the Collections of St. Patrick’s College. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, pp. 112-147.

What a corker!-y: the collection of the Rev. Seán Corkery of Maynooth

by Yvette Campbell, Assistant Librarian, Russell Library Cataloguing Project

Fr John Corkery
Fr. Seán Ó Corcora

Father Seán [John] Corkery was a graduate of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth and held a BSc and an MA. His appointment to the post of Librarian to St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth from 1951-1973 afforded him the opportunity of bringing a professional approach to the organisation and development of the library and its collections. In developing these collections in line with the challenges posed by the introduction of lay students in 1966, he worked long hours and sought the collegial support of professional librarians in Ireland.

On a personal level, Corkery was a bibliophile at heart, a collector of books and pictures. In a professional context, he was an authority on the rare items within the Maynooth College collections. His passion for this is evidenced in his many publications.

Corkery was a priest of the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise and was Parish Priest of Aughnacliffe in Co. Longford. The collection was purchased from Father Corkery’s friend Fonsie Mealy in 1994 and features a variety of pamphlets and rare titles in history and literature as well as a collection of items relating to book history, libraries, printers and travel magazines. His small collection, which was the last collection to be fully catalogued in the Russell Library before the closure due to Covid-19, consists of 585 items from his personal collection.

Corkery Bookplate
Bookplate of Seán Corkery

It is clear from documenting his material that Father Corkery had an immense interest in libraries, travel, art, literature, architecture and the environment. Both well-read and well-travelled, he was undoubtedly held in high esteem among authors and publishers alike both in Ireland and overseas. Many of his books were received as gifts with compliments as demonstrated through the letters and personal messages in the books from his collection. While not all of his collection feature early printed books, his eye for detail on rare duodecimo [a size of book in which each leaf is one twelfth of the size of the printing sheet] and elegant books dating from the early 1900s-1970s is noted.

Below is a beautiful selection of imagery from this collection for you to enjoy:

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The cataloguing of this small collection will enable all to glimpse the diversity of Father Corkery’s interests and the breadth of his expertise in Irish bibliography, of early printed books and their history, and of his particular interest in books as an art form. It adds significant value to the history of St. Patrick’s College Maynooth and to the Russell Library. It will also be of great interest for library professionals as it paints a profile of a librarian whose scholarly contribution to the field was held in high regard as he was elected to the highest office of the Library Association of Ireland, that of President and one of the first recipients of the Fellowship of the Library Association of Ireland.


Ellis-King, Deirdre E. (2015). The Presidents of the Library Association of Ireland 1929-2014. Dublin. Library Association of Ireland.

Neligan, A. (Ed). (1995). Maynooth Library Treasures: from the Collections of Saint Patrick’s College. Dublin. Royal Irish Academy

Famous Visitors to Maynooth College

by Sarah Larkin, Archivist, St Patrick’s College Maynooth

St Joseph’s Square in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth

This year St Patrick’s College, Maynooth celebrates 225 years since its foundation in 1795. A series of blog posts over the coming months will highlight some of the interesting and lesser known events and facts of the College’s history. This post focuses on some of the famous people who have visited the College over the years.



1796   Lord Lieutenant Camden lays the foundation stone of the new building on 20 April (Foundation Day). The trustees of the College, along with the Lord Lieutenant, dined in Dublin Castle that evening.

1842   Visit of English author William Thackeray. He recorded his visit to Maynooth in his Irish Sketch Book.

1847   Visit of Daniel O’Connell to the College on 12 January 1847. O’Connell’s health was already failing; he would make his last speech to the House of Commons on 8 February, and would die in Genoa on his way to Rome on 15 May.

1858   Visit of Cardinal Wiseman on 8 September during his tour of Ireland. He arrived in Maynooth by special train, where he was met by a large group of people from the town and College. He presided at pontifical High Mass for the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, and in the afternoon met with the students and staff.

Visit of Kind Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at Maynooth College, 24 July 1903.

1868   The Prince of Wales, Edward VII, becomes the first royal visitor to the College.

1877   William Gladstone visits the College.

1879 & 1880   Visits of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria. She rode into the College grounds while hunting, and became a friend of the then Vice-President, Dr William Walsh (later to be Archbishop of Dublin).

(Left to right) Msgr Daniel Mannix, Queen Mary, Archbishop William Walsh on the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, 8 July 1911

1903   Visit of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra on 24 July. They arrived in Maynooth by train and drove by carriage through the town, which had been decorated for their visit. About a hundred guests gathered at the College to receive them.

1911   Visit of King George V and Queen Mary on 9 July. They drove from Dublin Castle, and a ‘vast gathering’ of people greeted them in the College grounds.

1961   Visit of Cardinal Montini of Milan, later to become Pope Paul VI.

Pope John Paul II addressing seminarians in the College Chapel, 1 October 1979

1963   Visit of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco.

1979   Visit of Pope John Paul II as part of his Irish visit. He blessed the foundation stone for the Pope John Paul II Library, which opened on 7 October 1984 and memorialises this visit.

1986   Visit of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain.

(Left to right) President Patrick Hillery, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Queen Sofia, Maeve Hillery, 2 July 1986









1990   Mother Teresa gives the annual Trócaire lecture. She held a prayer service in the College chapel and met with staff and seminarians.



Plainchant – With or Without Organ Accompaniment

MA Student writes about Plainchant Accompaniment on Organ

by Fintan Farrelly

Image 1

In partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Research Methods and Digital Skills module in Maynooth University, I undertook work placement in the Russell Library.  In mid-February I began working on a digitisation project that ended prematurely due to the Covid-19 governmental restrictions.

As organist in St. Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, I am interested in the use of the organ for plainchant accompaniment. Three books, in the Special Collections and Archives section of the library, of plainchant with organ accompaniment grabbed my interest. These manuscripts are meticulously transcribed by hand and bear the signature of Heinrich Bewerunge, the founding father of music at Maynooth. These editions would have been sent to Bewerunge in his capacity as editor of ‘Lyra Ecclesiastica’ by the editor/publisher of these chant accompaniments, probably in the hope he might endorse it and help sales!

Heinrich Bewerunge (1862-1923)   

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In this blog I will endeavour to remain neutral and not make judgments on the many theories that abound about whether or not you should accompany Gregorian chant in the liturgy.  The debate has raged for centuries among composers, musicologists and audiences and is still relevant today.

Gregorian Chant
Gregorian chant or plainchant is a single line of unaccompanied melody with a flexible rhythm sung in Latin by male voices. It is of the Roman Catholic Church going back to the 9th and 10th centuries.  Named after Pope Gregory 1 (590-604), legend credits him with its invention. Plainchant had its own special notation.

A 13th Century Cistercian gradual from the Abbey of San Stephano at Corno, Lodi, Italy

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In the sixteenth century the system of major and minor keys or ‘tonality’ came in vogue.  This new innovation adversely affected chant tradition, leading to editions by editors who enforced tonality on the melody and on the rhythm of the chant. Many composers and teachers have written treatises on methods of Gregorian chant accompaniment.

Louis Niedermeyer – founder of the École Niedermeyer  (1835)

Image 4




“For plainchant, we say: Saint Gregory, for sacred music: Palestrina; for the organ: J.S. Bach.”
Louis Niedermeyer.




Nineteenth Century
The French Revolution saw the demolishing of churches throughout France.  Despite the re-establishment of Roman Catholicism in 1801, the early decades of the nineteenth century saw many churches and organs in disrepair.  Church music was slow to recover, and the standard was poor.  The Benedictine order began to work on plainchant reformation at the Solesmes monastery in France in the 1830s.  During the second half of the nineteenth century the standard of playing improved and new ideas on plainchant manifested themselves in liturgical composition.  The rest of the century was a period of great accomplishment with regard to church music.

Motu Proprio 1903                              Motu Proprio Pope Pius X
In 1903, Pope Pius X issued an edict detailing regulation for the performance of music in the Roman Catholic Church.  The pontiff criticised ‘the theatrical style that was so much in vogue during the last century’ as not being suitable for liturgical worship.  Sacred music must be holy, true art, and universal, qualities best found in Gregorian chant.

The editions published during his reign were more firmly rooted in the ancient modal system than the tonal relations that reigned for three centuries.  Modern music was also admitted but there was to be a clear distinction between the sacred and the secular.  He entrusted the preparation of the Vatican editions of chant to the monks of Solemnes in France, the ‘mecca’ of chant.  These are still the official editions of the Roman Catholic Church, unchanged since their publication.  Although the church doesn’t prescribe the singing of Gregorian chant, the Second Vatican Council (1967) restated motu proprio’s earlier assertion that chant is the best music for prayer in its Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Plainchant Accompaniment

  1. Laetare puerpera

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Charles-Marie Widor (1844 – 1937)

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Laetare Puerpura is a Christmas sequence, the first accompaniment in book 2 harmonised by Charles-Marie Widor. Widor brought the Lemmens methods of teaching and technique into the organ class at the Paris Conservatoire where he was Professor of Organ, 1890-1896.  He was critical of motu proprio because he believed that modern music had as much place in the liturgy as chant.

Considered forward looking in his approach, in the above example we see a note-for-note harmonisation with the chant on top, and a change of chord on every single note.  The chord changes are abrupt instead of fluid, with too few common tones and little sense of progression.  It sounds laboured and repetitious. This example of a pre-Solemnes chant accompaniment contributed to a dislike of chant and would be unthinkable nowadays!  It’s certainly a far cry from his most famous Toccata from his organ symphony No. 5, a ‘showstopper’ often played at wedding ceremonies.

Plainchant Accompaniment

  1. Media Vita

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Alexandre Guilmant (1837 – 1911)

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Guilmant was an influential figure in the development of the French organ school in the second half of the nineteenth century.  He was the best- known organist in the world at that time, setting up his own organ school in New York.  His teaching, like Widor, was grounded in the Lemmens method and he succeeded him at the Paris Conservatoire as Professor of Organ, 1896-1911.  The chant, Media Vita, was often sung during Lent as a hymn asking God for support in times of need and sometimes even as a curse!  Guilmant’s offering still shows for the most part an outdated note-for-note harmonisation with the melody on top.  There are some small improvements.  Chords on the main notes are held for longer note values, pointing to a slight shift from Widor’s accompaniment.

Plainchant Accompaniment

  1. homo quidamImage 9

Eugène Gigout (1837 – 1911)

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Gigout was a teacher of chant before becoming Professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire from 1911-1925.  He was organist at La Trinité in Paris for thirty years.  Louis Niedermeyer’s method of organ playing had a strong impact on him.  He opened his own organ school with emphasis on improvisation and chant accompaniment.  An expert in the new method of chant accompaniment, you can see its emergence in homo quidam for the feast of Corpus Christi.  It doesn’t contain the outdated note-for-note harmonisation.  It is modal and in a broader style.  The plainchant melody is not played on top (or at all), and chords are reserved only for the main notes.  This type of accompaniment serves as the basis for chant accompaniment today, allowing the plainsong the freedom it needs.

Should plainchant be accompanied on the organ?
It all depends on what side of the chant versus tonality debate you come down on.  Some say it shouldn’t because it wasn’t accompanied originally.  The act of accompanying means imposing harmony on the melody, two distinct elements destroying one by the other.  Most churches have an organ installed, often on a gallery, and it has become accepted practice to have harmonised accompanied plainchant. It supports the singer and, if played well, the organ accompaniment can provide a solid foundation that encourages singing and keeps the congregation in tune and in time.  Even the monks at Solesmes sing to organ accompaniment but their recordings are unaccompanied, no doubt to satisfy the critics!  Many organists are skillful improvisers, making up their own accompaniment on the spot which is not written down.  The three composers I have discussed whose harmonisations are found in the manuscripts were renowned for their improvisations, conjuring up musical magic on themes presented to them and drawing large crowds to hear them.  Unaccompanied chant or chant accompanied on organ? Both are beautiful.  Listen to these two short samples and you can decide for yourself.

Example 1 unaccompanied plainchant:

Example 2 unaccompanied plainchant:

Plainchant Today
For centuries church musicians have grappled with the issue of defining appropriate church music and it continues today.  In nineteenth-century France the criticism revolved around the overlapping of sacred and secular allusions with jigs and excerpts from operas often included in the liturgy.  There is no doubting the allure plainchant, composed by anonymous monks long before chords and harmonies were known, has today.  Why else have composers for at least 500 years felt the need to incorporate these ancient melodies into their organ compositions and other media?

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Towards the end of the twentieth century, plainchant came back into vogue as music for meditation.  Reluctant monks in secluded monasteries singing chant as part of daily worship ignited a chant ‘mania’ which catapulted them to international recording stardom featuring on Billboard charts, nestled among the likes of Sinéad O’Connor and Aerosmith.  As the French composer and organist, Saint Saëns, famously once said:

‘There is good music and there is bad music; for the rest, it is a matter of fashion, of convention, and nothing else.’

I wish to thank the staff of the Russell Library’s Special Collections and Archives: Barbara McCormack, Librarian, Susan Durack, Senior Library Assistant and Audrey Kinch, Library Assistant, for their courtesy and help in allowing me to access these rare manuscripts.  I would also like to extend my gratitude to Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections & Content, for uploading this blog on the library’s website, to Professor Lorraine Byrne Bodley and to Stephanie Ford from Maynooth University who facilitated and organised the work placement.


Links to the digitised Gregorian Chant Accompaniments

1. Melodies de Chant Gregorien 1eme Livraison

2. Melodies de Chant Gregorien 2eme Livraison

3. Melodies de Chant Gregorien 3eme Livraison

Master’s Degree in Musicology module: Work place experience in the Russell Library, Maynooth University

by Frank Charles O’Donnell B.Mus. (Hons.)(NUI) – Musicologist, Organist, Conductor

This article is in part-fulfilment of a module that I undertook as part of my Master’s Degree in Musicology at the Department of Music, Maynooth University. This was a new module at the music department in order to give master’s students an opportunity to work with an organisation and gain experience in the world of music outside of a strict academic setting. I chose the Russell Library for my work placement as it compliments my own research interests and professional activities as an organist and performer of sacred music, particularly the music of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Russell Library boasts an extensive collection of manuscripts of sacred music, particularly organ scores and plainchant manuscripts. Owing to the rich heritage of St Patrick’s College, where the Russell Library is based, it is no wonder that the National Seminary for Ireland rightly preserves its musical legacy. My attraction to the collections at the Russell Library was inspired by an interest in the work of Professor Heinrich Bewerunge (1862-1923), who was Professor of Church Chant and Organ at Maynooth College. During his time at Maynooth, he worked tirelessly in promoting plainchant. Plainchant or Plainsong is commonly associated with monks and singing the daily office of the church. The daily office (morning and evening prayer etc.) is an integral part of seminary formation and was thus, very important. There is a rich tradition of plainchant performance to this day at Maynooth College owing to Drs John O’Keeffe and Darina McCarthy, who are both authorities on the music of Bewerunge and plainchant performance.

My work placement at the Russell Library focused on manuscripts that contained plainchant melodies and organ accompaniment, belonging to Bewerunge himself. I was interested in digitising these precious documents in order to preserve them and indeed, make them more accessible to a wider audience via the library’s online database of manuscripts and collections. Having completed a precursory digitisation course through the Department of Computer Science at Maynooth University, I felt equipped to undertake this task. I must admit that this was completely new territory for me, and it gave me great insight into archival work and preserving precious manuscripts. There were challenges involved in this process. One must handle these old documents, most of which were at least 100 years old, with great care. The process of digitisation was relatively straightforward. In collaborating with the staff of the Russell Library, who were most accommodating in the process, I used an on-site camera to digitise the material. The apparatus; camera, stand and scale were all generously supplied by the Russell Library, and I extend my thanks to them in this regard.

Having studied plainchant performance under Dr John O’Keeffe at Maynooth University, my interest in one of the church’s richest traditions – plainchant – was undoubtedly evoked. During this time, the primary texts of reference were the Graduale Triplex containing plainchant notation and Gregorian Semiology by Dom Eugene Cardine as an interpretive aid. This anthology of chant, presents chant in a very different way to that of the manuscripts I digitised. As can be seen below, the first document presented is a page from a manuscript digitised from the Russell Library archive, the other is a score from the Graduale Triplex, an anthology of plainchant.

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Even though the manuscripts are not presenting the same chant setting, it is interesting to note the similarities and differences in plainchant representation and scoring. The score from the Graduale Triplex has no organ accompaniment and contains much more detail in relation to how the piece should be performed by the singer. In stark contrast, the digitised manuscript represents plainchant simply with standardised neume notation, like that of the Graduale Triplex, but it does not contain performance instructions and/or an organ accompaniment as seen above. Simply, neume notation refers to the lines and squares/dotes on the plainchant stave. Please find below a clear example of neume notation represented in modern day standardised notation.

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(See Sister Mary Demetria, B.V.M., Basic Gregorian Chant an Sight Reading, 1960)

As can be seen from the above example, the neume notation can be represented in a more modern day G Clef or Treble Clef notation. Neume notion is used in both examples above, with the added standardised notation for the organist’s accompaniment from the Russell Library’s manuscript,  Melodies de Chant Gregorien. Similarly, one notices an absence of the red lines found below the neume notation in the Graduale Triplex. These red lines are known as semiology, and they act as performance aids. They each represent different things such as; phrasing – fast or slow, emphatic or gentle, urgent or calm etc. Cardine points out that, ‘Something was lost in the Vatican notation which is only capable of expressing the most material element of the music – the melodic relation of the notes between themselves.’ He goes on to talk about representing and conveying the proper emphases and stresses in the melody which is not represented by neumes alone, like in Melodies de Chant Gregorien and Vatican notation as a whole. Cardine asserts that, ‘the term plainchant which so often designates Gregorian chant today, should be discarded because it is based on a false premise’. Cardine clearly believes that chant should be sung with fervour and expression; semiology helps the performer add expression to the neumes on the stave. Cardine argues, therefore, that plainchant should be presented with both forms of notation to give a convincing, and in his opinion, more accurate performance.

There seems to be some disagreement in relation to performing and interpreting plainchant. The contrast between how plainchant is notated in the three books I digitised; Melodies de Chant Gregorien I, II, III, and the Graduale Triplex is palpable. From a practical point of view, it could be asserted that the notation found in the Russell Library is much more accessible to those who may have a very limited or indeed, a working knowledge of plainchant. Heinrich Bewerunge may have chosen these plainchant scores for their accessibility and simplicity in an attempt to instil a love of plainchant into his clerical students.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), promulgated by St Pope John XXIII, spoke candidly about reform in every aspect of the Catholic Liturgy, of which sacred music is an integral part. In Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), a document released by the Second Vatican Council, ‘The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place (principem locum obtineat) in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action…”.[1] This affirms that, even in the midst of major ecclesiastical reform, plainchant and the liturgies and offices of the Roman Catholic Church are intimately intertwined. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the work of Heinrich Bewerunge and his love for plainchant was not in vain. I hope to continue to digitise important manuscripts such as these, in an effort to disseminate Gregorian Chant. In my professional capacity as an organist and choir master, I hope to give chant principem locum obtineat in liturgical services. My expressed thanks to all the staff of the Russell Library and Department of Music at Maynooth University, for facilitating my research.

Frank Charles O’Donnell B.Mus.(Hons.)(NUI) May, 2020