Fr. Edward Coyne, S.J., Principal Founder of the College, was heir to a well-established Jesuit tradition of social concern in Ireland, which included Tom Finlay, professor of economics at UCD and co-founder of the Irish Co-operative Movement, and Edmund Cahill, author and founder of An Rioghacht. Fr. Coyne continued this tradition of concern by his writings, and by his informal contact with trade unionists and businessmen, which he combined with his roles as Professor of Theology at Milltown Park and president of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society.
At the close of the Second World War, there was a widespread desire to improve social conditions, which was joined, in Ireland, to a renewed sense of nationality and an awareness of the threat posed by the Soviet Union.
In the Irish Jesuit Province, a committee was appointed to consider who to apply to Ireland the principles enunciated in the papal social encyclicals. The committee was composed of Fr Coyne, Joseph Canavan, and Tom Counihan, who suggested the establishment of a social research centre, rather than a college. In 1948, Dr. Tierney, President of UCD, approached Fr. Coyne with a view to organising extra courses in Social and Economic Studies at UCD, working closely with trade union officials. This course proved so successful that at the end of the year a number of the trade union members approached Fr. Kent for further education. The result was the Catholic Workers College.
The college held its first course for trade union members at the recently acquired Sandford Lodge in Sandford Road, Ranelagh in February 1951.
When the college opened, lectures were held two nights a week, and subjects included “economic problems, trade union problems, argumentation; public speaking; catholic social principles; the Christian state; the Christian family; and history from the Christian point of view.”
The teaching staff in the 1950s included: Fr. Coyne Director, Rev Edmund Kent (his assistant who, in practice, ran the college), Revs Michael Moloney, Kevin Quinn, Laurence Kearns, Des Reid, Liam McKenna, and Michael Connolly. Also on the teaching staff in those years, and on so till the 1990s, was Mr. Andrew Ryan, who played a significant role in the college’s history.
In September 1951, a course for employers/management was commenced at the request of a number of employers. The college’s modest beginnings soon expanded. Phase 1 of a building programme was completed in 1956, and phase 2 in 1962.
Boards of sponsors from trade unions and employer/ management were set up to provide links with the world of industry, to provide assistance to the director, and to approve the awards of college diplomas and certificates to individual students.
In 1951, there were 103 registered students. By 1964, the number had risen to 1,296 attending trade union and management courses.
Significantly, when the new Liberty Hall was formally opened in 1965, with President de Valera, and the Taoiseach, Sean Lemass in attendance, the keynote address was delivered by Fr. Kent.
In 1966, the next stage of major development took place. The educational needs across the country were changing with the introduction of free education, and a spirit of reconciliation had been emphasised by the Second Vatican Council. Responding to change, the name of the college was changed to the College of Industrial Relations. The college now focused its attention on the development of industrial relations through the continuing education and formation of those involved in that area.
In 1969, Fr Quinn succeeded Fr. Kent as director.
The following year it was decided to offer an academic Diploma Course in Industrial Relations. This ultimately came to be recognised by the National Council of Educational Awards (NCEA). The college continued to pursue its successful Irish Personnel Management Programme, which it had started in 1968.
In 1972 Fr. John Brady succeeded Fr. Quinn as director of the college. He was to remain in that position until 1981.
During those nine years, there were many significant developments. The Irish Personnel Management course evolved to join the national Diploma in Industrial Relations as a NCEA-recognised programme; a Chartered Accountancy course for graduates was introduced; day-time and day-release courses were developed; and there was an increase in the core lecturing staff, comprising full-time lay lecturers as well as Jesuits.
The college continued to benefit, moreover, from the generous assistance of voluntary helpers, often past students who looked after evening enrolment, teas etc. The years 1972-1981 witnessed an increased emphasis on academic standards, and a growth in income from fees to meet increased expenditure. On the plant side, the main capital expenditure was in the extension of the car park.
In 1981, Fr. Bill Toner succeeded John Brady on an interim basis to prepare for the college's next major change. He served on a special working party set up by the Jesuit Provincial, Fr. Joseph Dargan, and composed of members drawn from unions and management under the chairmanship of Fr. Michael McGreil, to advise on how the college might best meet current and future needs and challenges. In his short but effective term, Fr. Toner consolidated internal staff relations, appointed a full-time librarian and assistant, improved office and staff facilities, acquired audio-visual hardware for the purpose of preparing students for the effective use of television and camera skills, and commenced the process of applying for degree status in Industrial relations studies.
In 1983 the working party report was issued, and the director designate, Fr. Thomas J. Morrissey, former headmaster of Crescent College Comprehensive, Limerick, returned from Preparatory programmes in the United States to take up to the position of director.
The working party’s report recommended the establishment of a board of management, and that the college pursue degree programmes and generally aim to raise its image and profile. As the only educational establishment offering a degree in industrial relations, and also with a view to expansion outside Dublin, it was decided to change the name of the college to National College of Industrial Relations.
A new crest was devised - showing the strong hands of the worker and manager clasped – and a new motto conveyed the colleges key commitment, namely, to work and justice, with the words “Per Laborem ad Justitiam”.
Further impetus to the college’s rising profile was provided by the inauguration of Honorary Fellowships in recognition of contributions to industrial relations from the sides of the trade unions and management. Other important events included being named in an Oireachtas Bill as an institution to which contributions could be made with tax benefits to the contributors; its choice as the location for key discussions between ESB management and union representatives when the country was on the verge of being plunged into darkness; and its director being asked by the Minister of Labour to chair a Ministerial Committee on worker participation.
To meet demand, a second storey was built onto the 1962 wing, in order to provide extra lecture halls, expand the library, increase office space, and provide a computer training centre.
In 1990 the director, Fr. Tom Morrissey, resigned for health reasons. The board of management advertised for a new director. Professor Joyce O’Connor, of Limerick University was chosen. Under her dynamic and concentrated leadership the college entered on its fourth period of expansion and adaptation, and its first such period under a lay director or president.
The first years of the new administration witnessed a number of significant developments. A Policy Research Centre was established in 1990. The following year, 1991-92, students became eligible for grants under the higher education grants scheme; and in 1993 the Board of Management of the college expanded to embrace a three-way partnership with trade unions, employers and the Jesuit Order.
Other developments between 1990 and 1998 included:
- The generous transfer by the Jesuits in 1995 of the land and buildings at Sandford Road to the Board of Management of the college
- A significant increase in student and staff numbers
- The securing of government funding, and of private funding for pioneering new courses
- The establishment of a Centre of Educational Opportunity
- The expansion of Library services
- The opening of many off-campus programmes in different parts of the country
The college was very fortunate in having had as chairman during this period of extensive development, the late Mr. Paddy Moriarty, who worked tirelessly to bring the college to its fifth period of expansion and adaptation as National College of Ireland. To facilitate this development, the Jesuit community at Sandford Lodge fittingly agreed to make available to the college the building and grounds where, 47 years previously, the historic venture first commenced.