The Pontifical Irish College in Via dei SS. Quattro Coronati, or Colaiste na nGaedeal, as its green gates proclaim, is celebrating its 375th anniversary on 6 November. As with many birthdays for those of advanced years, this one is not without a tinge of melancholy. The college is one of a handful of survivors of what was once a thriving network of Irish seminaries across Europe. From Lisbon to Prague, in the 16th and 17th centuries there were over 30 of them; now there are only a few.

At the helm of the college is Liam Bergin, rector since 2001. His history with the college goes back to his time there as a seminarian and as a postgraduate at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He went on to become the colleges director of formation in 1993 and then vice-rector in 1997. Originally from County Laois, he has been in Rome for 17 years, and has a busy schedule as the new term begins. In mid-October, he had just seen off students to the pontifical universities: For some of them it will be the first day of lectures in Italian, and it will be quite a shock, he predicted.

The colleges home across the road from S. Giovanni hospital is its fifth since it was founded. In 1625, in the light of increasing English persecution of Catholics in Ireland, Irish bishops petitioned for a college for the education of Irish clergy in Rome. Ludovico Ludovisi, cardinal protector of Ireland, took up their cause and provided a rented house on his familys land, now the Via Veneto area of Rome. On 1 January 1628, six seminarians went into residence opposite the church of S. Isodoro, under the supervision of an Irish Franciscan priest, Luke Wadding.

When Ludovisi died in 1632 he remembered the college in his will with an annual income and a house in Via degli Ibernesi, Street of the Irish, which still exists in the Monti area of Rome. However, he left the college in the care of the Jesuits rather than the Franciscans, and it remained in their control until 1772. By that time public opinion had turned against the Society of Jesus and, after an inquiry to find evidence of mismanagement at the college, it was withdrawn from Jesuit control. The college has rich archives from this period, including documents about the oaths taken by young seminarians and drawings of their typical dress. Also in this period the college earned the label Seminarium Episcoporum, because it formed so many illustrious bishops. The most famous was St Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, primate of Ireland, who was martyred by the English in 1681 and canonised in 1975.

After the Jesuits lost control of the college, an Italian rector governed it until 1798, when Napoleon declared Rome a republic and closed many religious institutions, including the Irish College. It was reopened in 1826 when papal rule had been restored, under the care of the Irish bishops, and after two more moves finally settled at its current location a hundred years later. This new venue was purpose-built on a wedge-shaped piece of parkland next to the Aqueduct Claudius, under which the colleges students now park their mopeds.

One of Bergins duties is receiving the couples getting married at the college every Monday. The reasons they get married here are as diverse as the couples themselves, but many just want to get away from a big Irish wedding, he comments. About 300 weddings are held at the college every year, a large number by any standards, but Bergin is keen to emphasise that it is first and foremost a seminary, training priests for parishes in Ireland and missions abroad. Seminarians have a busy schedule of prayer, studies and college meetings, and usually take four to five years to complete their undergraduate studies. There are also priests who are pursuing further studies; these usually remain about two years.

In recent decades, the number of priestly vocations in Ireland has been on the decline. Thirty years ago there were 750 seminarians in Ireland, and 259 ordinations. In 2000 these figures were down to 91 studying for the priesthood in Ireland and 43 taking the vows.

At the Irish College, this decrease in vocations has not meant empty beds, but rather has led to a change in balance between seminarians and postgraduates. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s at least two-thirds of the colleges residents would have been training for the priestood, this year only 18 of the 64 are seminarians. Of these, three are Italian, two Romanians, one Burundian, and the rest Irish. Last year there were 16 nationalities at the college, and Bergin is proud of this cultural integration. Three of the colleges students are Orthodox Christians, on scholarships from the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

Bergin thinks that stubbornness and doggedness are the secret to the colleges long survival, as well as the disobedience of certain rectors, a reference to Denis McDaid, who at the outset of the second world war refused to send seminarians home. But its ability to evolve and adapt has also contributed to its survival. Aside from taking on students of different nationalities and denominations, the college also hosts groups of pilgrims in the summer months when seminarians are away. During the millennium holy year it was a focal point for pilgrims to the city and since 2001 it has accommodated in an independent annex the Lay Centre and the Vincent Pallotti Institute, which holds religious courses for lay people. The Irish College also has a place in Romes Irish community, which Bergin estimates at about 1,000. In addition to regular Sunday services, the college hosts functions of the Irish Club. As part of their pastoral programme, seminarians give catechism classes, preparing youngsters

for first communion and confirmation.

The anniversary celebrations on 6 November include the presentation of a translation of a Latin manuscript. The original document was compiled in 1678 on the 50th anniversary of the college, and describes the early years of the institution and provides an insight into the Irish Catholic community during this period. Bergin hopes that this, along with the schools extensive archives, will be developed into a complete history of the Pontifical Irish College in time for its 400th anniversary.

The anniversary programme on 6 November:

- the unveiling by Irelands president Mary McAleese of a plaque by the sculptor Ken Thomson.

- a lecture entitled The Irish College, Rome, in the age of religious renewal, 1625-1690 by Rev Dr Thomas OConnor from the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, 15.30.

- a lecture entitled Connections: Irish links with continental European education in the early Irish colleges era and today by Professor John Coolhan from the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, 16.50.

- the presentation of The Irish College, Rome 1628-1678. An early manuscript account of the foundation and development of the Ludovican College of the Irish in Rome.

All are welcome, but booking is necessary by Friday 31 October. Pontifical Irish College, Via dei SS. Quattro Coronati 1, tel. 06772631, e-mail: reception@irishcollege.org.