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The Fethard Story


By Doirin Mhic Mhurchu

There is one city in Europe which since the 1400s has known and accepted the Irish; a city where little bits of Ireland remain unforgotten; where, when you speak English, they do not ask the inevitable question: “Are you English” but rather the more gratifying “You must be Irish.” It is the old, beautiful university city of Louvain, now officially known by its Flemish name-Leuven.

Since 1425 when the university was founded, the Irish have gone in their thousands there. For over five and a half centuries they went, and are still going, to this beautiful city on the River Dyle in Flemish Belgium. The Irish influx began practically with the founding of the university. Denied education at home, hunted and persecuted, young Irishmen who wanted to further their education (most of them with a view to entering the priesthood) made their painful and perilous way here to get their degrees.
Later, with the founding of the three Irish colleges in the city, the most famous of which is the Franciscan College of St. Anthony of Padua, the influx of Irish increased so that Louvain became a centre of piety, learning and scholarship.
The university had many illustrious Irish students, several of whom later became professors there. one of them was the martyred Archbishop of Cashel, Dermot O’ Hurley. Unfortunately, due to air raids in the two world wars, the records which would have given us a comprehensive vision of the Irish student enrolment over the centuries, were destroyed. But some names we know, and one of the most illustrious ever was a Tipperary man, Thomas Stapleton of Fethard.
The Fethard Stapletons were a noted family. In 1619 after the first Irish Students in Seville had all died of the Plague, Theobald Stapleton walked from Lisbon, where he was a student, to Seville, and re-established the Irish College there. he was aided in his venture by two other young Tipperary men, Charles Ryan and James Kearney who became the first superior of the Seville College, and was possibly one of the well-known Cashel family of that name.
Our Thomas was a 17th century student of the Pastoral College, Louvain, established in 1624 to cater for those Irish students who wished to be secular priests. The Franciscan College was already well-established, the Dominican yet to come 35 years later. Thomas would appear to have studied in the Pastoral College during its early years. Today no trace at all of this college remains. Vital Decosterstraat where it stood is now a street of banks, building societies and expensive apartments.

The Greatest Honour
A brilliant young man, he took doctor’s degrees in the university in both civil and canon law and presumably it was at the Pastoral College he was ordained during this time. He was appointed firstly as ordinary Professor of Canon Law, and later as President of the Mylian College at the university, where he must have lectured to many young Irishmen. The greatest honour was still to come. He was made Rector Magnificus, or head of the university, and was re-appointed a further nine times. This was a record- the only time that anyone was ten times in this position. Other Irishmen who held this position over the years were Aodh Mac Bradaigh from the North and Peter Wadding SJ from Waterford.
So much for Thomas Stapleton the academician. But what about Thomas, the man from Fethard? The plain truth is that we know next to nothing about him. He died on August 14th 1694 in his alma mater, the Pastoral College, and was buried in Sint Pieter Kirk (St. Peter’s Church) in the Groote Market, or main market place. His tomb is there, not far from that of another Munsterman, a fellow student with him as the Pastoral College, and a contemporary professor, Matthew Tighe of Co. Limerick.
I spent a week in Leuven last August, staying at the Irish Institute for European Affairs (formerly St. Anthony’s Franciscan College) and one of my first objectives was to visit the tomb of Thomas Stapleton, which I knew, from Cardinal O Fiach’s book, “Gael-Scrinte I gCein,” had a very elaborate monument.

Where was it?
The day after I arrived I headed for St. Peter’s. The outside was festooned with scaffolding, only a side door was open. The Cardinal had mentioned that Stapleton’s tomb was just to the right when you came in the main door. But where was the main door? It and a large section of the church was partitioned off while bangs, clangs and hammerings came from behind the partition. Thomas Stapleton and Matthew Tighe, whose monument was left of the door, had both disappeared as builders worked on renovation to the 12th century church.
The beautiful Sedes Sapientiae statue, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, which had been there at the time of the Flight of the Earls, was still there. The Historian, Tadhg O Cianain, who accompanied O’ Neill and O’ Donnell in 1607, described this statue and the church “with its half a hundred of honouring altars and painted pictures, the service of God perpetually on each altar of them.” A picture of the statue is today used as a symbol of the university.
After a prayer for all the Gaels past and present who ever came here, I went exploring. The main part of St. Peters is open as a Catholic Church. Behind the high altar there is a glassed-off section which is a museum. Surely someone there would know where the tomb of Thomas Stapleton was!
I had been warned not to speak French except as an absolute last resort. The citizens of Leuven are Flemish, and intensely so. However, as nearly everyone learns English at school, I was advised to try that first. The girl selling tickets called over an elderly man who seemed to be the curator- “he speaks English

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