Thursday, September 24, 2009

Me and The Priests

In 1795 the British government decided to build a beautiful Catholic seminary in Ireland to train priests. If you know much about Irish history, you will realize how strange this sounds: the Brits hated the Catholics, and oppressed them for hundreds of years. Why on earth would they go out of the way to build a nice seminary for them?

Well, this is a classic (and rather brilliant) case of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. Since there were no seminaries in Ireland, the Irish typically went to France for their religious education. Long about that time, the French were having this thing called a revolution where they were cutting off people’s heads – particularly those in the ruling class. The Brits were justifiably afraid of having folks come back to Ireland with ideas of revolution, so they decided to keep their enemies closer by building a nice seminary in Ireland to keep them at home. In this way St. Patrick’s College was established in Maynooth Ireland, just outside of Dublin, and it has been operating as a seminary, training priests, ever since.

After a few years they decided to expand the seminary to become a broader university and the location eventually became what is now the National University of Ireland at Maynooth. By the auspices of Science Foundation of Ireland, I am officially a visiting professor at NUIMaynooth for some number of weeks per years in 2009 and 2010 (This is a complex arrangement that we started negotiating back when I was still at Bell, and it is officially so confusing that I have no idea of any of the details by this time).

At any rate, for this particular visit to Maynooth, all of the low budget “regular” rooms have been booked, so I’ve been staying in the guest rooms of the seminary. I was told that there would be a conference of Bishops during my stay, and that I would have to be extra quiet so as not to disturb them. So every morning at 7 am, I make sure to crank the Led Zepplin at 9 on my stereo instead of 10.

Here is a good picture of the building where I’m staying. It has 20 foot high ceilings everywhere (that is close to 7 meters, for the international audience) and the hallways are close to the same width as height. You could march a team of clydesdales down the hall in parallel without them feeling at all cramped. I’m not sure why the monks in 1795 decided they needed to march horses down the hallway in parallel, but apparently they did. You might even be able to march an elephant down the hall if you tried.

As you can see in the photo, the windows are extremely tall – probably 15 feet high. The room I’m staying in is sparsely decorated. Just a large bed and a tiny table, and lots of extra (wooden) floor space – which I could use to play soccer, I suppose.

Standing at the position where the above photo was taken, if you turn around 180 degrees, you see the main building of the seminary in this picture --- which also houses such crucial things as the student cafeteria in the great Hall (which I would have once called Harry-potter-esque, although now I probably would just call it Oxford-esque).

I’m still entertained that there is a strict division in the cafeteria –-- one section is roped off and labeled “reserved for seminarians.” Perhaps they are afraid of the corrupting influence of evil people like me (I do have horns, you know).

Anyway, returning to the photos above, there is a legend that it is bad luck for undergraduates to walk down the path in the center of these pictures. The source of this legend is thought to be that faculty members would sit at the sides of this path and think deep thoughts when the weather was nice, and whenever undergraduates bothered them by walking down the path, the faculty got upset and made the exams just a bit more difficult.

Although the area around the university is pretty, most of it is not ancient like these two pictures. The campus is split into a north and south half divided by busy Kilcock road. There is a walking bridge over this road, with signs indicating that one should not cycle over the bridge. Every one of these signs has succumbed to graffiti by this time. My favorite one now says "No Cycling, Sasquatch". Must be the seminarians with the sense of humor.

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