An overview of Irish universities


Ireland’s universities range from the ultra-traditional Trinity College Dublin, founded in 1592 and modelled on Oxford and Cambridge, to the ultra-modern, go-ahead Limerick University, founded in 1972 and based on the American model.

Apart from Limerick and Dublin City, Ireland’s newest university, Irish universities are very like those in Britain, with a strong emphasis on extra-curricular activities.


For more than 200 years there was only one university in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, which is still widely regarded as the country’s ‘top’ university. TCD, as it’s known, was for a long time a peculiarly British establishment: a ban on Catholic attendance imposed in 1875 wasn’t lifted until 1970 and as late as the ’60s more than 40 per cent of its students were British. Now 90 per cent of students are Catholic and less than 5 per cent British (although one or two British traditions survive, such as the playing of cricket!). Unusually, only 650 of TCD’s 10,000 students live in, the remainder having to find their own accommodation in and around Dublin.


1795 saw the founding of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, by Act of Parliament, as a seminary for the Catholic priesthood. In 1899 Maynooth obtained approval to award degrees of the Pontifical University in Rome in philosophy, theology and canon law. Although primarily dedicated to the preparation of students for the priesthood, Maynooth now also admits lay students.

UCD, Galway & Cork

In 1845 two more universities were founded, University College Dublin and University College Galway. UCD, originally in the city centre but now in Dublin 4, is a rather traditional establishment, Catholic and middle-class. Galway, not very attractive architecturally but lively and close to the town centre, is more liberal and favours the Arts. In particular, it has become a centre for Gaelic studies.

Cork University, which was established nine years later, is comparatively small and especially popular with European students.


The Irish Universities Act of 1908 established a new National University of Ireland (NUI), originally comprising UCD, Cork and Galway. Two years later these were joined by Maynooth.

The NUI is organised on a federal basis but the constituent universities enjoy a large measure of autonomy.

The Royal College of Surgeons and the National College of Art and Design are also recognised colleges of the NUI.

Limerick & Dublin City

Although founded in 1972 and 1980 respectively, Limerick and Dublin City weren’t established as independent universities until 1989. Reputed to be the country’s most ‘go-ahead’ university, Limerick specialises in technology and hi-tech research and is situated in the suburbs of Limerick city. Dublin City University concentrates largely on business as well as technology.

Although all universities are theoretically non-denominational, the four colleges that make up the National University of Ireland have a Catholic ‘ethos’. Irish universities also have an increasingly international outlook. Some of them include a foreign language in their entrance exams and in 1987 the EU introduced the Erasmus exchange scheme, whereby selected students spend between 3 and 12 months in a foreign university. Some 10,000 Irish students have already benefited from the scheme, although more foreign students go to Ireland to study than the reverse.

The Irish university system offers programmes leading to a bachelor’s degree, usually after four years, but sometimes after three or five depending on the course followed (courses in veterinary medicine and architecture, for example, last five years). In certain cases this may constitute a professional qualification. In recent years, some universities have introduced semesterisation and modularisation of courses, which allow students greater flexibility and mean that they don’t have to repeat a whole year if they fail one part of the course. A bachelor’s degree may be awarded as a general degree, an honours degree or a special degree.

Masters degrees are usually taken by course work, research work or a combination of both and require at least a further year’s study. Doctoral degrees (or doctorates) are awarded on the basis of research after two more years of study.

Further reading

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