Towards the close of the sixteenth century, Gregory XIII had sanctioned the foundation of an Irish college in Rome, and had assigned a large sum of money as the nucleus of an endowment. But the pressing needs of the Irish chieftains made him think that, under the circumstances, the money might as well be used for religion by supplying the Irish Catholics with the sinews of war in Ireland as by founding a college for them at Rome. The project was revived in 1625 by the Irish bishops, in an address to Urban VIII. Cardinal Ludovisi, who was Cardinal Protector of Ireland, resolved to realize at his own expense, as a useful and lasting memorial of his protectorate, the desire expressed to the pope by the Irish bishops. A house was rented opposite Sant' Isodoro and six students went into residence 1 January, 1628. Eugene Callanan, archdeacon of Cashel, was the first rector, Father Luke Wadding being a sort of supervisor. Cardinal Ludovisi died in 1632; he was of a princely family with a large patrimony, and he made provision in his will for the college; it was to have an income of one thousand crowns a year; a house was to be purchased for it; and he left a vineyard as Castel Gandolfo where the students might pass their villeggiatura. To the surprise of his heirs no less than of Father Wadding, the cardinal's will directed that the college should be placed under the charge of the Jesuits. Both the heirs and Wadding suspected that provision and disputed it; a protracted lawsuit was finally decided in 1635 in favour of the Jesuits.
On 8 Feb., 1635, they took charge of the college, and governed it until 1772. A permanent residence was secured, which became the home of the Irish students until 1798, and is still the property of the college; it has given its name to the street in which it stands. The Jesuits found eight students before them; one of these, Philip Cleary, after a brilliant academic course, left for the mission in Ireland in 1640, and suffered death for the Faith ten years later. The first Jesuit rector became general of the Society; he was succeeded by Father James Forde who was succeeded in 1637 by Father William Malone, a successful combatant in controversy with Archbishop Usher. In 1650 Monsignor Scarampo of the Oratory, on return from his embassy to the Kilkenny Confederation, brought with him two students to the Irish College; one was Peter Walsh, who became a distinguished Oratorian; the other was Oliver Plunkett, who was kept in Rome as professor at Propaganda until his appointment to the see of Armaugh in 1670, whence he was promoted to a martyr's crown at Tyburn. Philip Cleary's name is amongst those who cause is before the Congregation of Rites; and the cause of Oliver Plinkett is so far advanced that his Alma Mater hopes ere long to venerate him on the altar of its chapel. In the archives of the college is preserved an autograph of Oliver Plunkett, written by him when he was about to leave. John Brennan, one of his contemporaries, also became a professor at Propaganda; whence he was appointed Bishop of Waterford, and then Archbishop of Cashel. Soon after came several remarkable students — Ronin Maginn; James Kusack, Bishop of Meath; Peter Creagh, successively Bishop of Cork and Cloyne, and Archbishop of Dublin.
In the earliest part of the eighteenth century, one of the students, Roch MacMahon, made his name in Irish history as Bishop of Cloger; another, Hugh MacMahon, Archbishop of Armaugh, asserted the precedence of that see to Dublin in a work of great learning, "Jus Primatiale Armacanum". Richard Reynolds at the end of his course was kept in Rome at tutor to the children of the Pretender; James Gallagher became Bishop of Kildare. When we consider that the college had never more than eight students at a time, and had often so few as five, if it had produced no other distinguished alumni than those named, it would have well deserved these words written by the Irish primate, Hugh MacMahon, to the rector: "If the college on account of its slender resources cannot furnish many soldiers, it provides brave and skilled captains." It was then known as the "Seminarium Episcoporum" or nursery of bishops. In other ways, however, the college had its trials and changes. It came into financial difficulties. The villa at Castel Gandolfo was sold to the Jesuit novitiate in 1667, and yet the difficulties did not disappear. It was thought, moreover, that too large a proportion of the able students found a vocation in the Society of Jesus, in spite of the purpose of the college, which trained them for the mission in Ireland. Complaints as to administration were also made, and a Pontifical Commission was deputed to make an official inquiry. It report was not favourable to the Jesuits, and in September, 1772, the college was withdrawn from their control. The present writer thinks that the Jesuits were not without some plausible pleas to justify their management of the college; and it would be strange if a close inquiry into a rectorate of 137 years did not reveal some instances of mismanagement.
The college now passed from the care of the Jesuits, and an Italian priest, Abbate Luigi Cuccagni, was made rector. He was a man of acknowledged ability. Hurter says that he was the ablest of the controversialists who wrote against the form of Jansenism which was patronized by Joseph II, supported by the synod of Pistoia, and had its citadel in the University of Pavia. He is the author of several works which were in high repute in those days; and from the Irish College he edited the "Giornale Ecclesiastico di Roma", then the leading Catholic periodical in Rome. The first prefect of studies appointed under his rectorate was the famous Pietro Tamburini, who afterwards became the leader of Jansenism at Pavia. During his prefectship he delivered his lectures on the Fathers which were afterwards published at Pavia. He had to leave the college after four years; and although some very brilliant students were there in his time, it does not appear that he tried to leave, or if he tried, that he succeeded in leaving, any unorthodox influence on their minds. The rectorate of Cuccagni came to an end in 1798, when the college was closed by order of Napoleon; and thus we come to the close of another period in its history. During those twenty-six years it quite equalled its previous prestige. For, although its number of students was sometimes as low as three, it sent forth Dr. Lanigan the historian, who promoted directly from being a student of the Irish college to the chair of Scripture at Pavia; Dr. Charles O'Connor, author of "Scriptores Rerum Hibernicarum" and several others works; James R. Clerigh, who never became a priest, but was a well-known Catholic leader in Ireland a century ago; Dr. Ryan, Bishop of Ferns; Dr. McCarthy, Coadjutor Bishop of Cork; Dr. Blake, Bishop of Dromore.
Dr. Blake, who was the last student to leave the college at its dissolution in 1798, returned a quarter of a century later to arrange for its revival, which was effected by a brief of Leo XII, dated 18 Feb., 1826. He became the first rector of the restored college, and among the first students who sought admission was Francis Mahoney of Cork, known to the literary world as Father Prout. Having set the college well to work, Dr. Blake returned to Ireland, and was succeeded by Dr. Boylan, of Maynooth, who soon resigned and died in 1830. He was succeeded by a young priest who had just completed a singularly brilliant course at Propaganda, and who governed it with great success until 1849, when he became Archbishop of Armaugh, and then Archbishop of Dublin, and finally Cardinal Cullen. Within two years of his rectorate he had forty students in the college; and to provide proper accommodations for the increasing numbers who sought admission, the present building with the Church of St. Agatha was given to the college in 1835 by Gregory XVI. Two years later Dr. Cullen purchased a fine country villa as a summer home, amid the olive groves which cover the slopes of the Sabine hills near Trivolli. Amongst the distinguished students who passed through the college during Dr. Cullen's rectorate were: Rev. C. P. Meehan; Dr. Edmund O'Reilly, S. J.; Bishop Croke; Cardinal Moran; Archbishop Dunne of Brisbane.
Dr. Cullen was succeeded by Dr. Kirby, well known for his holiness of life. He governed the college for more than forty years. His successor was Michael Kelly, the present coadjutor to the Archbishop of Sydney. The college has received several privileges of various kinds from popes. Before 1870 the students had the privilege of carrying the baldacchino part of the way during the procession on the feast of Corpus Christi, on which occasion the pope carried the Blessed Sacrament. Gregory XVI paid a visit to the college in 1837; and on St. Patrick's Day, 1860, Pius IX assisted at Mass in the college church, after which he held a reception at the college. A similar gift was made to the college during this present year (1909) by Pius X, in memory of his jubilee. The heart of Daniel O'Connell is buried in the college church.