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Bertram Windle, The Honan Bequest and the Modernisation of University College Cork, 1904 -1919 by Ann Keogh and Dermot Keogh, Cork: Cork University Press, 2010, pp.352, €39.00 hb, ISBN 978 185918 473 8

Reviewer: Martin Mansergh*

This biography of the first President of University College Cork, Bertram Windle, could not have been written 40 years ago. While it is a detailed account of the man who presided over the transformation of Queen’s College into University College Cork under the 1908 Act which established the National University of Ireland, it is also a frank account of his complete alienation from the national revolution which began in 1916, and indeed, though not connected with that, alienation from much of his family. For the period in focus, the authors have found ample source materials in official archives, personal diaries and correspondence. Many of us outside the University would have made our first acquaintance with Bertram Windle through his son-in-law, John J. Horgan, one of Cork’s leading figures before and after independence, whose book Parnell to Pearse was recently re-issued. Windle had been, for reasons that were far from adequate, bitterly opposed to the marriage, although some grudging reconciliation eventually took place.

Windle had a mixed religious and national background. His father was a Church of England clergyman, his mother a Coghill, closely related to the Somervilles, both Castle Townshend families. He was born in England in 1858; his father moved to the Mariners’ Church in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), subsequently the National Maritime Museum, the restoration of which is nearing completion under the supervision of the Office of Public Works. He was educated locally, then went to Repton, and came back to university in Trinity College Dublin to study medical science. After practising a short time in Dublin hospitals, he moved to Birmingham, where he became involved in medical education and, at the turn of the century, was involved in the establishment of the University of Birmingham as one of the first British ‘provincial’ universities at the initiative of Joseph Chamberlain. In the early 1880s, perhaps partly in reaction to his upbringing, he converted to Catholicism, influenced both by Newman and some individual priests. Though of no career advantage in Britain, it had its uses in an Irish context.

Temperamentally he was, as the authors remark, ‘English by birth and Irish by choice’, nevertheless remaining ‘a quintessential Edwardian English gentleman’. Though Windle was tepidly supportive of Home Rule, the patron who installed him as President of Queen’s College Cork was progressive unionist George Wyndham, Chief Secretary under Balfour, who was very strongly committed to getting rid of the disparity of opportunities with regard to third level education. The stand-off with the Catholic Bishops since their rejection of the ‘godless’ colleges in 1850 only ended with the establishment of the National University of Ireland (NUI) in 1908.

In the transition and early formative years, Windle developed good relations with most of the local bishops and clergy and the civic authorities. The highpoint was the Honan bequest, which allowed the chapel to be built with the splendid Harry Clarke windows. There were some growing tensions with currents of strong cultural nationalism, as highlighted by disputes over the removal of Ogham stones to the College and the application of Eamon de Valera for the chair of mathematical physics in 1913. Indeed, it comes as something of a jolt to find the future national leader, but significantly also Archbishop Walsh’s successor as Chancellor of the NUI in 1921, as a contender for the highest academic posts in 1912 -13. Surprisingly, Windle - like other arch-Redmondites Stephen Gwynn and Canon Arthur Ryan PP from Tipperary - was invited by Pádraig Pearse to be on the Council of St. Enda’s School, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin.

Much of the book is devoted to Windle’s progressive alienation from Irish politics during the revolutionary period. He detested Carson and Sinn Féin in almost equal measure. The highpoint for him, after which it was downhill all the way, was John Redmond’s committal of nationalist Ireland to the First World War effort in August-September 1914, when Windle thought that the miracle of South Africa (its reconciliation with Britain after the Boer War) would be repeated in Ireland. He supported the 1916 executions, but felt Carson should have been imprisoned as well. His diaries and correspondence became increasingly vituperative about people and events on all sides, even the Catholic clergy, and expressed a disgust with the country. He was invited to participate in the Irish Convention in 1917-18, which attempted to shore up the Home Rule solution, and he ended up closer to the southern unionists than remnants of the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Dillon.

His remaining effort was in 1919 to return to an older ambition, the independence of UCC from the NUI, in the shape of a University of Munster. The difficulty of regular travel to Dublin in those days was a factor. His efforts to persuade a British Government otherwise preoccupied were in vain. Sinn Féin was not prepared to support any initiative that lent credence to the British Government’s authority in Ireland. From an outsider’s point of view, it is not clear how the NUI structure has in fact inhibited the growth, development and success of UCC over more than a century since 1908. Some independent assessment of this from the authors would be valuable in putting Windle’s position in perspective. Windle leapt at the opportunity to take up an academic post in Ontario, where he ended his days in 1929.

Unlike the authors, this reviewer does not regret the absence of later diaries, as the ones quoted from up to 1919 give a full flavour of his reactions and attitudes. The constant negativity about everything to do with Ireland becomes tedious. His son-in-law, John J. Horgan, whom he never liked, was a later Irish correspondent to the Round Table into the 1940s, and remained a critic of the State from a fairly unreconstructed Redmondite position, leading my father to query whether somebody more representative of the new Ireland could be found to contribute.

The book, which is a fine study and a substantial addition to knowledge, both of UCC and of one of the seminal periods in Irish history, would have benefited from a little more material which would have put Windle in context, at both ends of the narrative. A few pages outlining the development of Queen’s College Cork from its mid-19th century foundation to Windle’s arrival, and why it was only a limited success, would have been helpful. Likewise, a few pages on how UCC developed after his departure and on the character of his successors would also have assisted in the assessment of his contribution and achievement. Dermot Keogh has deployed his great knowledge of 20th century Ireland and Irish ecclesiastical history in particular, and Ann Keogh her specialist knowledge of Windle and the Honan Chapel bequest, to make this jointly authored biography commissioned by former UCC President Professor Gerry Wrixon a notable success.