It would be difficult to understate Michael Tierney’s contributions to Irish higher education, and to UCD in particular. Born and raised in rural Galway, Tierney understood how critical affordable and accessible higher education would be to the health of an independent Irish state. Towards this end, his presidency saw the UCD student body approximately double in size. Before retiring, he executed our move from the city centre to Belfield, thereby leaving the most significant impact on the university of any president since Newman. For these efforts, Tierney has been hailed as the “second founder” of this University and has been so honoured as the namesake of our administration building.
Often left out of this history is the fact that Tierney’s political work was foundational to the ideology of the Blueshirts, a far-right 1930s political organisation that many historians describe as, at the very least, “para-fascist”.
The root of both Tierney’s political and educational philosophies was Catholic-Gaelic nationalism. Both during and after his political career, Tierney expressed an overwhelming suspicion of parliamentary democracy, which he saw as a corruptive extension of British influence in Ireland. The revolutionary reforms he sought for Irish higher education were intended to rid colleges and universities of this influence, as well as to reform an electorate in which he personally held little faith.
As observed by historian Seán Donnelly, Tierney believed that “it was only by returning to ‘Christendom’…that European civilisation could exert ‘disciplinary force’ over the destabilising influences of industrialisation and democracy”. He admired far-right governments which prioritised a Catholic ethos, holding a particular interest in Austria and Spain. Tierney outwardly praised Mussolini for weaving the interests of the Church into fascist Italy’s state practice.
It is important to note that Tierney’s politics, while radical, were somewhat less extreme than those traditionally associated with European fascism. Most historians agree that Tierney was suspicious of overwhelming state power, and did not explicitly advocate for militant authoritarian regimes. As a consequence of this, after 1934, Tierney distanced himself from Ireland’s far-right. Initially, a supporter of Eoin O’Duffy, the militant direction in which he took the party pushed Tierney to resign. After formally leaving Fine Gael, the party which he named, Tierney began his academic and administrative career at UCD.
Tierney’s politics are forgotten in most histories, with far more focus placed on his aggressive reforms and the consequentially volatile relationship he had with students, staff, and the greater community. For their part, the President’s Office website leaves any discussion of Tierney’s political beliefs out of his biography but does mention the, in their words, “lively debate” his leadership approach sparked between himself and the student body.
As universities around the world grapple with the complicated legacies of their “great men”, it is worth considering whether the time has come for UCD to have a similar conversation. Ultimately, Tierney’s full story should at the very least serve as a reminder that UCD’s history, overwhelmingly forgotten by the student body, is not reread without some discomfort.
Jack McGee – Head of Investigations