Castleknock College Union

Donal F Cregan, CM, class '30, his life and work

Historian, Educator and Priest

Mar 26, 1999
Donal F Cregan, CM, class '30, his life and work -

Delivered as a Round Table presentation at the Conference ‘Catholics and Confederates’: A Conference Celebrating the Life and Work of Donal F Cregan March 26-27, 1999

I have some difficulty in addressing one of Donal Cregan’s personae, whether it be that of historian, priest, or the one on which I have been asked to speak, educator. I can see the logic of the categorisation, but it seems a bit atomistic. I knew Donal Cregan as a colleague and friend, one in whom the various roles he played were not clearly distinguished, where the Gestalt was much, much, more than the sum of its parts. If you lose sight of this, you lose sight of the man – how he functioned, how his experience as a historian affected his views of education, how his experience as an educator coloured his interests and approaches to history. Thus, his interest in the educational background of his historical characters is probably more than coincidence. On the other hand, his historical interest found expression in education in the centrality he accorded the arts, exemplified by the introduction of symphony concerts to the college and his display of Irish art on the walls students passed every day. His commitment to priesthood underlay everything he did. He was not a typical priest of mid- to late-20th century Ireland: how could he be, and fill the many roles that fell to his lot in life? But he had a clear vision of the implications of his priesthood for every aspect of his life, much of which was spent in the secular city, something he did with great ease. But that did not compromise in any way his values or vision of life.

In considering his contributions during his life, and his legacy to future generations, it is possible to distinguish between his involvements in history and in education. History was clearly his first love and, probably, if he had been free to choose, he would have devoted his life to it. His commitment to education was less an individual choice, though it was probably implied in his decision early in life to join the Congregation of the Mission, which had a considerable involvement in second- and third-level education in this country. As things turned out, administrative duties in education dominated his life: as president of his old school Castleknock College from 1950 to 1957, and then as president of St Patrick’s College from 1957 to 1976, a period that also included two years (1973-75) as professor of education at University College Dublin. Except for a number of years spent teaching history in Castleknock early in his career and a period (1969-71) as president of the Irish Historical Society, he held no position as a historian until, after his retirement from St Patrick’s College, he was appointed in 1977 to chair the Irish Historical Manuscripts Commission. However, despite his administrative duties, which many people might have regarded an adequate burden for any one man, he maintained his interest in history throughout his life, continued his reading, research, and writing, and providing guidance for young students who showed an interest in the 17th century. I don’t think he ever considered himself an educationist in the academic sense. While the positions he occupied and the decisions he had to make, particularly ones relating to provision for the education of teachers, inevitably meant that educational matters occupied much of his thinking, he wrote little on the topic. His testament for the most part has to be inferred from his actions, though his limited writings and interviews do provide insights into his values and aspirations for education.

Father Cregan’s most obvious contribution to education was in the sphere of building. When he took office as president of St Patrick’s College, the buildings consisted of the beautiful 18th century Belvedere House and several buildings to the north which had been added at the end of the last century, following movement of the college to its present site in 1883.(1) The buildings, which comprised lecture halls, dormitories, and a chapel, did not meet the standards one would expect in a third-level educational institution in the middle of the twentieth century. Soon after Father Cregan’s arrival, planning commenced for the renovation of existing buildings and the construction of new ones. In commenting on the transformed buildings, which had taken shape by 1966, and which included residences, a chapel, auditorium, gymnasium, administration block, and dining hall, the Incorporated Association of Architects and Surveyors noted that ‘the dominating factor in the minds of both client and the architect has been the real needs of the students and staff’ and concluded that the end result ‘must help appreciably in developing the education and cultural standards of future teachers’ (2)

The physical renovation of the college was not, as the citation of the Incorporated Association indicates, an end in itself. On coming to the college, Donal Cregan, as T. J. McElligott has pointed out, faced a situation in which students’ preparation for teaching was ‘in an atmosphere little different from that of a boarding school and subject to the same irksome restrictions. It was monastic in its insistence on the observance of times for rising and sleeping, for meals and leisure. The curriculum was limited and the arts largely ignored’.(3) Donal Cregan’s objective in the reconstruction of the college, physically and culturally, was to change all that.

Donal Cregan placed a major emphasis on personal development as the goal of education. Not for him the Instrumentalist or Napoleonic view that the purpose of education is to control the masses, or the current popular objective of meeting manpower requirements in the economy. For him education should free, not enslave, and while he recognised that it should also contribute to the preparation of students to fill their varying roles in society, this he believed should be done by developing potential, not by social engineering. His belief in the importance of personal development received concrete expression in his arguments for a university degree for student teachers, which had a successful outcome in 1974, and in the structure of that degree which involved studying to full degree level a humanities discipline, together with education (4).

In addition to his contributions to mainstream teacher education, Donal Cregan established in 1961 a course for teachers of children with learning difficulties to provide graduates for the growing number of special schools and special classes in primary schools throughout the country. In the 1960s also, he realised that institutional arrangements for research in education needed to be substantially improved. Though great changes were occurring in education at the time, and were set to continue, Irish-based research was not available that might provide information on educational needs, how those might be met, or how approaches to meeting needs impacted on the educational, economic, and social systems of the country. The establishment of the Educational Research Centre in 1966 was intended to address these issues.

Father Cregan also saw a need for disseminating the findings of research and for bringing to the notice of the public, and particularly of teachers, information on educational developments in other countries. To meet this need, he founded The Irish Journal of Education, which when it published its first issue in 1967, joined Studia Hibernica, first published in 1961, as the second journal he had started. His commitment to fostering open and critical discussion of education was also exemplified in the series of public lectures he organised in the 1960s, with speakers from Britain, the United States, and Germany attracting large attendances.

Through all these activities, Donal Cregan’s extraordinary immersion in history continued. He considered Europe his home and heritage, long before free movement between the countries of the Union became a reality. And his vision of Europe was not confined to the countries of to-day’s Union. Prague was a favourite city and, on one of his visits there, he spoke about John Amos Comenius, one of the few educators he wrote about. One of the things that attracted him to Comenius was that he saw in his theory and practice an anticipation of the interests and concerns of the modern world. He also empathised with Comenius’ vision of teaching ‘all things to all men.’ Education for Donal Cregan, as for Comenius, was not to be the prerogative of one class, but should be available to the poor, no less than to the rich; to girls, no less than to boys; to children in remote rural areas, no less than to those in cities and towns; and to the handicapped and slow learner, no less than to the academically gifted (5).

Donal loved central Europe, especially Vienna, the home of the Hapsburgs (whom he admired), with its orgy of Baroque buildings and its associations with Mozart and Beethoven. Among his favourite novels were Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, reflecting his empathy with Latin Europe and Latin America. One of his favourite paintings was also Latin-Velazquez’s portrait of Innocent X, with its brilliant crimson, powerful head, and imperceptible brush marks that signalled the end of Tiziano’s influence and the beginning of a  move that would eventually culminate in nineteenth century impressionism.

Donal’s familiarity with European traditions of music, art, literature, and architecture was astonishing. In his observations and conversations, past and present merged. I remember his joy in observing Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s figures in the spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, shielding their eyes so that they would not have to look at the church of S Agnese in Agone, the troubled creation of Bernini’s melancholic and irascible rival, Francesco Borromini. And how, on admiring the Obelisk in St Peter’s Square, he recalled the story of ropes beginning to sever as it was being erected, and someone shouting just in time ‘Throw water on the ropes’, to ensure not only the erection of the monument, but also to change the course of his own life as he savoured a reward for his intervention, being turned overnight from a workman into a nobleman, proving that the ideas of meritocracy and social mobility were not the invention of 20th century sociologists.

On another occasion I walked with him through the burial vault of the Hapsburgs in the Capuchin Church in Vienna where he behaved as if he were visiting friends, telling me that the tomb we were now looking at contained the niece, or grandmother, or mistress of the person we had ‘visited’ a few minutes earlier. In a similar somewhat surrealist situation, I remember one evening in St Patrick’s College, Donal in conversation with fellow historians and friends, which included Dudley Edwards and Desmond Williams, discussing the bishops of 17th century Ireland, their origins, education, and relatives, and the influences they had used to secure their preferment, with an immediacy and intimacy that one might have associated only with talking about one’s contemporaries.

Yet again, musing on the fog and humidity in Lima de Peru, I remember him speculating, that if there had been adequate consumer protection in 16th century Latin America, would the Quechua Indians have got away with pawning off such an unhealthy place, surrounded by coastal desert and overshadowed by the Andes, on the hapless Francisco Pizarro and friends.

While obviously steeped in history in his thoughts and interests, Donal Cregan was also remarkably modern and foreward looking, a futurist anticipating needs and developments. He rejected the view of some traditional exponents of a liberal education that the classics and history belong to ‘culture’, and that science does not. He also had great respect for contemporary behavioural and social sciences, and what they could contribute to education – more perhaps than some social scientists have. I was surprised that he liked North America, though not admittedly as much as Latin America, probably because Latin America retains much more of its European heritage than its northern neighbours.

He would certainly have rejected labels, but it is possible to think of him as an early feminist when he welcomed young women into the college for the first time in 1972 and, when the desirability of prescribing a dress code was being discussed, quickly concluded the discussion by saying he had every confidence in the judgments the young women would make themselves about how they dressed. He also, on more than one occasion, expressed surprise that male religious thought that they were competent to regulate the lives of female religious.

His observations on, and prescriptions for, what goes on in schools also anticipated future developments. In an expression of dissatisfaction with the situation in Irish schools, a situation incidentally endorsed in the 1954 Report of the Council of Education (on the function and curriculum of the primary school) (6) Donal, in an interview published in the Institute of Public Administration periodical Léargas in 1967, voiced the view that pupils were being educated in an environment in which they were rarely asked to think for themselves, to judge for themselves, or to make decisions for themselves (7). Elsewhere, he remarked on the irony that the word ‘school’ was derived from a Greek word meaning leisure (8). He saw a need for radical reform of the curriculum, to bring about a situation in which teachers and students would be treated as responsible individuals, and in which students would be actively involved in the education process. Can we see here a foreshadowing of the current preoccupation of education reform movements to improve students’ higher-order thinking skills and problem-solving abilities, or even of constructivist views of learning?

I started with the idea of Donal Cregan as a person, but I doubt if I have conveyed to those of you who did not know him, what he really was like. The picture I have tried to paint suggests an intellectual, which he was, a historian, which he was, an educator, which he was, an innovator, which he was, a man steeped in his cultural heritage but one very much in tune with the times he lived in. But he was more than all these things. Those of you who did know him could add much about his simplicity, his humanity, his tolerance, his compassion. They will know that he was equally at home in west Limerick talking to ‘strong’ farmers as at high table in an Oxford college, not only because he could identify with the interests of people he met in any situation, but because he respected everyone, and people intuitively recognised that. Not only those who were privileged to know him, but all involved in Irish education, now and for many years to come, can be grateful that his answer to the call to serve resulted in such a long and fruitful career.

Thomas Kellaghan
Educational Research Centre
St Patrick’s College, Dublin

1. T Ó Ceallaigh, Coláiste Phadraig, St Patrick’s College. Centenary Booklet 1875-1975. Dublin: St Patrick’s College.
2. Cited in T Ó Ceallaigh.
3. T J McElligott, This Teaching Life. A Memoir of Schooldays in Ireland. Mullingar: Lilliput Press, 1986. P.134.
4. See D F Cregan, Education and the University. In Contemporary Developments in University Education VI. Dublin: Academic Staff Association, University College Dublin, 1971.
5. D F Cregan, “The Relevance of Comenius for Our Age”. Revue Internationale des Etudes Comeniologiques, 1972, 3, 47-49.
6. Report of the Council of Education as Presented to the Minister for Education. (1) The Function of the Primary School. (2) The Curriculum to be Pursued in the Primary School from the Infant Age up to 12 Years of Age. Dublin: Stationery Office, 1954.
7. The Teacher’s Teacher. Interview with Father Donal Cregan. Léargas (Public Affairs Review), November 1967, No 11, 2-3.
8. D F Cregan, The Irish System of Education. (Paper Read at University College Cork, 28th February 1965). Castleknock College Annual, 1965,1-12.