Historical Context

This digitisation project is part of an academic collaboration between NUI, Maynooth and the University of Alcalá

Royal Irish college of Saint George the Martyr (1649-1785)

El real colegio de San Jorge Mártir de los irlandeses

From the medieval period Irish students had felt the pull of the great continental universities like Paris, Leuven and Salamanca. The religious and political upheavals of the sixteenth century quickened this trickle into a flood. Thanks to the flair of remarkable Irish founders and the generosity of foreign patrons, small Irish student communities in various European cities developed into colleges. The first emerged in Paris in the late 1570s. Others followed in Lisbon, Salamanca, Douai, Leuven and in over thirty other locations as far afield as Poland and Prague. This network of colleges educated both clergy and laity. It also acted as a social focus for Irish mercantile and military populations on the European mainland.

The Royal Irish college of Saint George the Martyr (El real colegio de San Jorge Mártir de los irlandeses) in Alcalá was founded in 1649, with ten students and a small staff that included a rector, two non-resident professors and two or three servants. An earlier Irish college had been founded in the city in 1630 but did not survive. The new college’s first patron was the widow of Don Jorge de la Paz de Silveira, the Baroness doña Beatriz. They were a rich couple of Portuguese origin. Their college, housed in a building of granite and brick, was constructed around a huerta or kitchen garden that came to form an inner courtyard space with cloisters. It lay outside the city centre and the university quarter in the calle de Escritorios but its property ran up to the city’s splendid calle Mayor.

Its primary function was the education of Irish students for the priesthood. Alcalá was an eminently suitable location for such an institution, being the home of the internationally renowned Complutense University, founded by Cardinal Jiménez Cisneros in 1508. The Irish college, which was connected to the university as a colegio menor, or minor college, provided places for a seven-year course in arts, philosophy and theology. It was intended to house about thirty students but rarely reached its target intake. Nevertheless, it sent back to Ireland, on average, about two or three priests a year. Over its 136-year history perhaps between three and four hundred Alcalá-trained clergy returned to the Irish mission. The college was run by Irish clergy and, unlike similar institutions in Salamanca, Seville and Santiago de Compostela, it never fell under the control of the Jesuits. Its first rector was Godfredo Daniel, a native of Galway. Its last rector, Patrick Magennis, hailed from Arthurstown, County Louth. It was closed down by order of King Carlos III in 1785 as part of a rationalisation plan and as a result of the decline in both student numbers and discipline. It was amalgamated with the Irish college in Salamanca, which itself closed in the middle of the last century.

The buildings were subsequently bought by the Conde de Güemes who converted the complex into a private residence. It later fell into ruin but was renovated by the Smurfit Group and local business people in the 1980s. Under their aegis the college was run as a conference centre and overseen by the Fundación San Patricio. Since then the college has become the property of the University of Alcalá, which was itself reconstituted in 1977, following its suspension in the early nineteenth century. The university is currently home to 25,000 students and nearly 2,000 academic staff.

The digitised material presented here is taken for the college’s account books or Libros de gastos del colegio de Alcalá (Russell Library, Salamanca Archives, Legajo S30, nos 1-3). They were placed in the archives of the Irish college, Salamanca on the closure of the Alcalá college in 1785 and were brought back to Ireland in 1951. They are now housed in the Russell Library, Maynooth College where they form part of the Salamanca Archive, the most important Spanish-language archive on these islands. This digitised version of the account books for the years immediately prior to the college’s closure offer a unique insight into the day-to-day running of the college with valuable information on diet, discipline and domestic matters.