Magee College came to Derry 150 years ago

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Magee opened its doors 150 years ago. Lectures began on Tuesday 24th October 1865. I’m told the anniversary is to be marked at the campus.

The college, “came into existence primarily to provide a literary and theological education for men preparing for the Presbyterian ministry, but it was also intended to serve the wider public. Students of any and of no creed were welcome within its walls,” recorded centenary historian, Professor Finlay Holmes.

Magee took its name from Dublin woman, Martha Magee who left a bequest of £20,000 to establish a college.

It came to Derry for two reasons. Firstly, a number of citizens had long been lobbying for third level education. Back in 1845 the Mayor had led a deputation to Sir Robert Peel to have the city considered for a proposed Queen’s College. Those citizens were the forerunners of today’s U4D group. Secondly, Derry was, in those days, the centre of a strong Presbyterian population. (Ironically a 100 years later a small group of local unionists secretly campaigned against the university.)

Magee didn’t go to Belfast as, by that time, it had the Queen’s College. Dublin was considered too remote for Presbyterians. Armagh was seen as too Anglican and too Catholic. So, just as it happened a century later, it came to a choice between Derry and Coleraine. In the 19th century Derry won because a local committee managed to raise £10,000 in support of the college with a promise of a further £6,000.

Courses began with eight professors and 26 students, 16 of whom became Presbyterian ministers. At first it was hoped that Magee students would be allowed to compete for Queen’s degrees. It came as a bitter disappointment that, that didn’t happen and for its first 15 years, Derry’s college struggled to attract sufficient students.

The college offered six-year long courses leading to a certificate but not to a degree. Despite that, with such a high ratio of staff to students, Magee quickly established a good reputation. Divinity students seldom made up more than half the total number of students and the Presbyterian link didn’t inhibit its growth so much as a desperate shortage of money.

Magee’s fortunes turned around for the better in 1880 when it became a recognised college of the Royal University of Ireland. “It might not be going too far to describe this period as the ‘golden phase’ of the ‘old’ Magee, for it was the only period in which students could take their full degree courses, pass and honours, within her walls,” records Professor Holmes. For the last ten years of the century, Derry had more arts students than Galway or Cork.

Despite that ‘golden phase,’ things were soon to take yet another turn for the worse. When the Royal University was wound up in 1908 Magee was mysteriously left out of the settlement which created a new Queen’s University in Belfast and the National University of Ireland with its colleges in Dublin, Cork and Galway. Magee then established a link with Trinity and in more recent history it became a campus of Ulster University.

If the original lobby group were here today they’d probably be disappointed by the stop/start development of Magee over the last 150 years.

The college, “came into existence primarily to provide a literary and theological education for men preparing for the Presbyterian ministry, but it was also intended to serve the wider public. Students of any and of no creed were welcome within its walls,” recorded centenary historian, Professor Finlay Holmes.

Magee took its name from Dublin woman, Martha Magee who left a bequest of £20,000 to establish a college.

It came to Derry for two reasons. Firstly, a number of citizens had long been lobbying for third level education. Back in 1845 the Mayor had led a deputation to Sir Robert Peel to have the city considered for a proposed Queen’s College. Those citizens were the forerunners of today’s U4D group. Secondly, Derry was, in those days, the centre of a strong Presbyterian population. (Ironically one hundred years later a small group of local unionists secretly campaigned against the university.)

Magee didn’t go to Belfast as, by that time, it had the Queen’s College. Dublin was considered too remote for Presbyterians. Armagh was seen as too Anglican and too Catholic. So, just as it happened a century later, it came to a choice between Derry and Coleraine. In the 19th century Derry won because a local committee managed to raise £10,000 in support of the college with a promise of a further £6,000.

Courses began with eight professors and 26 students, 16 of whom became Presbyterian ministers. At first it was hoped that Magee students would be allowed to compete for Queen’s degrees. It came as a bitter disappointment that, that didn’t happen and for its first 15 years, Derry’s college struggled to attract sufficient students.

The college offered six-year long courses leading to a certificate but not to a degree. Despite that, with such a high ratio of staff to students, Magee quickly established a good reputation. Divinity students seldom made up more than half the total number of students and the Presbyterian link didn’t inhibit its growth so much as a desperate shortage of money. Magee’s fortunes turned around for the better in 1880 when it became a recognised college of the Royal University of Ireland. “It might not be going too far to describe this period as the ‘golden phase’ of the ‘old’ Magee, for it was the only period in which students could take their full degree courses, pass and honours, within her walls,” records Professor Holmes. For the last 10 years of the century, Derry had more arts students than Galway or Cork. Despite that ‘golden phase,’ things were soon to take yet another turn for the worse. When the Royal University was wound up in 1908 Magee was mysteriously left out of the settlement which created a new Queen’s University in Belfast and the National University of Ireland with its colleges in Dublin, Cork and Galway. Magee then established a link with Trinity and in more recent history it became a campus of Ulster University.

If the original lobby group were here today they’d probably be disappointed by the stop/start development of Magee over the last 150 years.