Culture & History

The History of the Irish College in Madrid

It took until 1629 for an Irish College to be founded in Madrid.

Essentially, the Spanish Court was wary of giving the Irish population a focal point in the Spanish capital. This suspicion was based on a fear of outsiders, even though the Irish had much in common with the Spanish.

Theobald Stapleton was the man who set it up. Prior to this, he was also responsible for founding the Irish College in Seville. He was a great lover of the Irish language and he published religious texts in Gaelic. He was keen to simplify Irish spelling and make the language more accessible. Unfortunately, he was later killed in a cathedral in Ireland by English soldiers. The original documents linked to the foundation of this College have been lost, but it was more than likely done with the help of Florence Conroy, an influential Irish priest in Madrid.

There were also Irish Dominicans establishing themselves in Atocha, so it is clear to see that the Irish clerical grip on Madrid was getting tighter.

The Early Years

The early years of this college were seemingly positive in some respects, with donations from the local people allowing the college to expand. The college also got its first organ. The clergy inside spoke Gaelic, and they used an interpreter to communicate with the outside world. If any one of them fell sick, they could go to the nearby La Latina hospital.

On the other hand, the rector running the College, Dr O’ Brien, wanted more money and protection from the King as he felt they were lacking on both counts when compared to other colleges in Spain, so he wrote a letter to the Court. They also needed these things because they were living in exile, escaping an oppressed nation. What is more, Irish emigrants had often served Spain with distinction.

Irish College in Madrid

Florence Conroy

To reinforce this last point, the rector cited how the Irish had helped assassinate the Duke of Friedland after he was accused of treason, the Irish soldiers who helped in the defence of Louvain and, subsequently, in the capture of an island in the West Indies. He went on to argue that the Irish College in Madrid could be a springboard for spreading the Catholic faith around Europe.

In response, the King sent officials to visit the College. On their recommendations, he would decide to give the money or not. No record remains of their conclusions, but it seems like the money never came. Instead, the College had to rely on donations from wealthy patrons, as mentioned previously.

An Ice Age

A map of the area

By 1641, an Irish rebellion started and it lasted for 7 months. This war was provoked by what happened after the Battle of Kinsale a few years prior. The English occupation saw their opportunity to take rights away from Catholics through the Plantations, which saw the native Gaelic people lose their lands. Some historians argue that the ‘Little Ice Age’ of the mid-17th Century was also a contributing factor because it caused a deep recession in Ireland. The aforementioned rector of the Irish college in Madrid was in contact with the leaders of the rebellion, and he tried to help as much as possible.

This shows that the Irish College, despite its religious denomination and lack of money, was a focal point for agitation back in Ireland.

Money problems

By the middle of the 1600s, the Irish College was in more financial difficulty because it lost its main patron, who died of natural causes. A positive note, however, is that they now owned the buildings they lived and prayed in. The Irish College in Madrid suffered from these money problems in marked contrast to the other Colleges, as mentioned above, and this inequality only got deeper as time went on. This has been blamed on its proximity to the Court because it has been documented that some of the students, who had applied themselves to their books in places like Salamanca, lost interest in Madrid and preferred to pursue a life of leisure and pleasure.

A document related to another Irish college in Europe, which shows how widespread they were

For this reason, with the Archbishop of Toledo ready to take over the running of the Church, they proposed keeping the name but stopping the educational aspect of the College. Instead, they wanted to have it as lodgings for priests who had completed their studies elsewhere and who were waiting to return to Ireland. These priests were expected to work as priests in return for being allowed to stay there. They were forced to leave after 10 months.

There were other rules, too. Eating – which involved mutton, salad, bread, and wine – and sleeping away from the house were not permitted and no women were allowed inside the Irish College. They had to be ready for mass at specific times, and in the summer the gates were closed at 8 pm. These rules were approved in April of 1652. Things would still be tight, however, as the only revenue generated was from mass offerings, and whatever donations could be scrounged from the government.

The End of the Irish College

By the middle of the next century, another grant was given so that a wall could be built to protect the College from Calle Puerta de Toledo. At this time, many bars and gambling dens were in this street, and the rough clientele often damaged the buildings. A notable rector of the college at this time was Arturo Magennis, who was kidnapped in Morocco and held for ransom for 5 years. After his release, he left the Spanish army, became a priest, and then started running this College. He was replaced by another Irishman, who was almost chased out of his job after being accused of living scandalously with a doctor’s wife. After a thorough investigation, it was decided that these accusations were borne out of jealousy.

Another dark rumour spread through the city – the street where this College stood was where foreigners lived and trafficked kidnapped people.

A College disappears

By the 19th century, some of the buildings were pulled down to build houses. By 1935, some buildings were still standing. When the Spanish Civil War started, the Irish College was sacked and destroyed.

Generally speaking, the Irish Colleges all over Spain were a sign that the Spanish had given up trying to defeat the English militarily. Now was the time for promoting Catholicism in Ireland as a way of keeping English Protestantism at bay, and it also allowed the Spanish to have a strategic interest in a British colony. Through the power of these institutions, Ireland was able to promote the Counter-Reformation despite being colonized by a Protestant empire.

Irish College in Madrid

Trinity College

And even though the British set up Trinity College in Dublin as a way to provide exclusively Protestant education, it was never successful in supplanting the Catholic faith, which was due to the education provided to Irish people in Colleges in Spain. Over time, Irish Colleges were founded all over Europe and the world, which helped extend Irish power and influence.

And remember…

You can discover more about the Battle of Kinsale and Irish refugees by reading this article. And you can learn more culture with our podcast. Why not try out our virtual walking tour of a historic neighbourhood in Madrid?

Thanks for reading!

Irish College in Madrid

The site of the College today

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