Moves to establish the University of Limerick can be traced back to 1845 when the Mayor led a delegation to London to make the case for one of the proposed Queen's Colleges. This was not to be….. Cork and Galway were chosen instead. Local initiatives to remedy the slight were taken over the intervening years, but these came to nothing until a determined campaign was launched in the 1960s by the Limerick University Project Committee.
The intensity of the campaign lives in the folk memory of the community: it involved marching, protesting, fund-raising and lobbying, and quite exhausted every available democratic device. The sudden death of the charismatic local deputy and Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley TD, during an election campaign, stimulated the government to respond and announce a decision to establish an institute of higher education in Limerick. It was claimed that this would be 'better than a university'.
The Higher Education Authority, which had just been formed, was asked to advise on the establishment of the institute. The people of Limerick were not impressed: even when the project was described as 'Ireland's MIT' the demand for a traditional university persisted for a number of years. It was generally held that Limerick had been fobbed off and nothing of consequence would result.
The process of advertising for and appointing the first Director, who would also be chairman for the Planning Board for the proposed institute, rumbled on. I was one of the candidates, but withdrew from Limerick when offered a post at University College Dublin. Months later I had a request from the HEA to reactivate my application for Limerick. This I did, with UCD's permission, and was offered the post. On 1 January, 1970 I flew on to Dublin from the US, having abandoned my family in Shannon, and found myself, that same morning, in the bowels of the Department of Education with a cup of tea in hand in front of a turf fire with the Secretary of the Department, listening to his rather interesting views of Limerick and what was best for it.
His views did not fill me with great confidence, nor was there much correlation between his vision and mine of what 'Ireland's MIT' might be. As a result I did not close my US bank account for several years. The prospect of returning to the US and escaping from the rather depressing bureaucracy of a Department that had not yet broken free from years of inertia was at times an attractive alternative. But there were individuals in the Department determined to make a fresh start. Two of them, Sean O' Connor and Noel Lindsay made the difference. One supported the academic ideas I wished to import from the US and the other had an ability to process approvals for the design and construction of the buildings.
A key asset was a small and dedicated Planning Board of seven members. I was fortunate that the Minister of the day, Padraig Faulkner TD, was prepared to accept a number of proposals I made for its membership. This admirable group of people met for a full day each week during the early years and focused on developing the various policies and strategies that were to shape the new institution. Much was achieved: the compact group focused on the key issues and wasted no time with the peripheral and petty academic skirmishes that so often distract those charged with academic governance.
Shortly after our appointment, we caused a stir in the Department (for the first but not the last time) by a unilateral decision to travel abroad and meet with the movers and shakers shaping new European universities, such as Sussex in England and Eindhoven in Holland. Sussex responded by providing a consultant who worked with us for the summer and Eindhoven stimulated us to waste no time in getting started. As a result we decided to enrol a pilot group of some 100 students using the old manor house which existed on the campus site at Plassey.
The Plassey campus was selected from a group of some six possibilities. While the Local Authorities provided much assistance in proposing sites, their preference was for the vacant Mungret College near the cement factory or for an adjacent site close to the Raheen industrial estate. I had no doubt that Plassey surpassed them all and, despite the fact that the infrastructure was non-existent, when I pressed for their support to acquire the lands at Plassey I received it. Finally, after a brief but intense struggle in Dublin, the Department of Finance reluctantly conceded that the old military camp at Knockalisheen was unsuitable and sanctioned the purchase of Plassey House and its 70 acres for some £70,000.
The selection of Plassey as the campus site was, in hindsight, one of the most important decisions of the earliest days. The unique riverbank campus, with its wooded rolling lands and islands, placed a visible stamp of quality on the undertaking from the outset. After an international competition, BDP of London and Patrick Whelan of Cork were selected to prepare a 20-year plan for a university of 8,000 students. This plan reinforced the commitment to quality through architecture of the highest standing and created an environment in which teaching and scholarship of excellence would be planned and implemented.
The provocative nature of the outline academic plans, the quality of the physical environment and the prospect of being involved in a pioneering academic undertaking were the catalysts that attracted a remarkable and internationally diverse group of faculty and staff to found what is now the University of Limerick.
Many of the early years, since the enrolment of the first students in 1972, were peppered with controversy and difficulties, as alien academic concepts were introduced to Ireland and selective funding of the Limerick project by the World Bank and the European Investment Bank generated envy.
With legislation in 1989 the University of Limerick was established as the first new university in the history of the State and acquired the powers to focus unimpeded on the further development of its new academic concepts and on its commitment both to excellence and to relevance.
By the time it celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1997 the University of Limerick had achieved its early goals and made its mark nationally.
Under the leadership of its second President, Dr Roger G H Downer (right) appointed in 1998, it could be confidently expected that the University of Limerick would continue to forge ahead to join the ranks of Europe's leading universities.