The Catholic Church and Opus Dei – the reason why NUI Galway came to have so few women in senior posts?


Since we started this campaign we’ve often pondered how NUI Galway became so exceptionally bad for the representation of women in higher posts. They are so bad it was possible to show, using the previous SHE figures, that only the University of Malta could have a worse Glass Ceiling Index in all of Europe! In the last set of data issued by the Higher Education Authority all Irish universities had poor levels of female representation in higher posts, but there was, once again, clear blue water between NUI Galway at the bottom and the rest:

Gender Equality Rankings for Irish Universities 2016 (derived from HEA data published in 2016 for 2015).


This can’t just be the fault of the present Management Team led by University President Jim Browne as NUI Galway were already the worst when Jim came to power nine years ago. They certainly didn’t do anything to improve it, until forced to by all the recent fuss, but the present management team were not the original cause. So what could be that cause?

We’ve asked several retired members of staff and some of the answers we received have been very interesting. Several said it was down in some way to the exceptional influence the Roman Catholic Church had on NUI Galway. Faith in the Church was particular strong in the mostly rural west of Ireland so that the Roman Catholic Church had more influence with appointments, and the Church favoured men. One of the retired academics recommended we take a look at the university boardroom. It’s at the back of the university quad, and is where the Academic Council and other important university bodies meet. The walls are lined with portraits of eminent past academics, all of them men. At least two of them are prelates, including the large central portrait which dominates them all.



But surely if NUI Galway’s poor representation of women is simply because it was away from more cosmopolitan Dublin, what about Cork, also an old university institution with a mostly rural catchment. Surely Cork too would have had the same effect? But although Cork is next to bottom it is little worse than the rest and nothing like as bad as Galway. Look at the table.

Now, here we enter the realms of the difficult to believe: we’ve also been told that the real cause for the exceptional misogyny is the hold Opus Dei once had on NUI Galway. Opus Dei is the mysterious Catholic order which features in the novel and film The Da Vinci Code. When the first retired member told us this we didn’t believe him, but then another did. The first told us that a previous University President and the Academic Secretary then were both order members, while the other said that in the past many of the senior posts in the old University College Galway were held either by order members or supporters who attended Opus Dei meetings. It was the secret Opus Dei influence that resulted in Galway being so anti women.

We tried to check this out on the internet. Firstly, Opus Dei really does exist and it really is a secret Roman Catholic organisation, the members and supporters of which do not admit their involvement. But being secretive it is difficult to find out if there’s any truth in the accusations about NUI Galway. However, there is one very interesting piece of journalism that corroborates the two retired staff members. This is a long and well-researched article written by Maurice Roche in 1983 for the Magill Magazine. He died soon afterwards in a car accident (presumably just a coincidence!) so he never published anything further on Opus Dei. But that original article is now available on the Politico web site and gives a fascinating insight into what might have been happening at NUI Galway in the 1980’s.

Roche refers to published material, both Opus Dei documents and articles about them, and he also names the directors of Irish companies set up by Opus Dei, reckoning these people were likely to be members or supporters of the secret organisation. He found that Opus Dei had two foci in Ireland: University College Dublin and NUI Galway, or as it was then, University College Galway. He shows how Opus Dei always tries to work through universities as a way of recruiting members. When it came to Ireland from Spain in the 1950’s it established initially in Dublin at the Catholic UCD and was then invited to Galway by Bishop Micheal Browne, who built Galway Cathedral. Significantly the Bishop of Cork in the 1950’s actively excluded Opus Dei from his diocese. Thus, nearly all the company directors and others Roche identified as associated with the organisation were either Dublin or Galway based. For some reason most of them were either engineers or working in law.

Most of the hostels owned by Opus Die were also either in Dublin or Galway. These provided cheap or free accommodation for university students and were recruiting grounds for the order. Roche gives several examples of young people, some of them from Galway, being separated from contact with their families as they were drawn into the organisation, to eventually become order members. Opus Dei was effectively a cult within the Roman Catholic Church, with the kind of brainwashing and culture of ‘them and us’ that all cults have. It was also extremely right wing and saw women’s role as purely servile. Young men were trained for positions of power and the women for domestic service. That this recruiting happened in Galway has been confirmed by a staff member who told us how, when he was a young in the early 1980’s, the order tried to recruit him. He was a committed Catholic and conscientious student who must have been identified as likely material as he was made a fuss of and wined and dined until he realised what was happening.

There is far more to Roche’s long article. We recommend reading it in full to see how the organisation works and the total obedience expected of order members, who lead strict religious lives. The full members (numeraries) also take vows of chastity and poverty, and follow a prescribed programme of self-mortification. This involves self-flagellation on the buttocks with a whip once a week. Also, a spiked chain is worn on the upper thigh for two hours each day – except Sundays and Holy days. He also tells how the organisation was favoured by Pope John Paul in the 1980’s, who had been associated with it previously in Poland.

In Galway Opus Dei runs two student hostels to this day plus other houses rented to students. Amazingly, one of the hostels, Ros Geal, is on University Road immediately opposite the University President’s office! There is also Ballyglunin Park Conference Centre and associated Ballabert training college, near Tuam, whose director is, or at least was, a NUI Galway lecturer. The order is now slightly less secretive, having a web page and naming several of its members, mainly some of the few who are priests.  But it still seems to be very conservative: everyone who is named is male and the role outlined for women is unpaid domestic service.

From all we have read it seems Opus Dei may have been a major factor in how NUI Galway became so much worse at promoting women than other Irish universities. It could well be the reason why NUI Galway developed an ethos that did not notice, or care: that so few women became professors; and that the Academic Council, which sits in that boardroom with walls lined with portraits of men, is more than 80% male, while the junior lecturers and contract staff are predominantly female. We can’t know if Opus Die still has influence today because it is so secretive, but we do know that that ethos continues despite management’s claims of having addressed gender inequality. That is why all of their much trumpeted actions have turned out to be about optics rather than real change, and why NUI Galway’s management continue to refuse to do anything about the injustice of the five female lecturers who should have been promoted in 2009.

If anyone can give us more information they can send it to  Our sources will never be revealed.


2 thoughts on “The Catholic Church and Opus Dei – the reason why NUI Galway came to have so few women in senior posts?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Catholic Church and Opus Dei – the reason why NUI Galway came to have so few women in senior posts?

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