Delany, William (1835–1924), Jesuit and president of UCD, was born 4 June 1835 at Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, second of ten children (of whom five survived) born to John Delany and Mary Delany (née Brennan). As with many Irish catholic families of farming stock, there was an eviction in the background: John Delany had been evicted from the family farm just ten years before William's birth. He moved to Leighlinbridge and set up a small bakery business, which, with the assistance of his strong-willed, resourceful wife, began to prosper. William attended school (1845–51) at Bagenalstown; at home, during the bleak famine years, he assisted in handing out bread and soup to a starving people. At the age of sixteen he requested that he be sent to Carlow College to study for the priesthood. After two years he moved to St Patrick's College, Maynooth. His parents were pleased to learn of his academic success and good general conduct, but considered him extravagant and over-particular in his requests for new clothes. God's ministers should dress carefully and well, he claimed. The lavish use of materials in pursuance of lofty ends was to prove a characteristic feature, which added both to his influence and his troubles.
In January 1856 he joined the Society of Jesus. His noviceship commenced at Saint-Acheul in France and concluded at Beaumont Lodge, near Windsor, in England. Two years followed at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, teaching junior classes, and then (August 1860) he was transferred to St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, near Tullamore, King's Co. (Offaly), where (apart from three years at Rome) he was to be stationed for the next twenty years. In this unlikely location he achieved the reputation as an educationist that paved the way to his appointment to the presidency of UCD. After his ordination at Rome (1866) he served for a while as a chaplain of the Irish brigade formed to defend the papal states against the forces of Garibaldi. Soon after his return home (1868) he was reappointed to Tullabeg, this time as prefect of studies and rector. He embarked on an elaborate programme of building, updating facilities, raising academic and cultural standards, tightening discipline, and expanding games activities. His criteria were the more celebrated English public schools, but he placed more emphasis on academic excellence. Some of his fellow Jesuits, highly critical of the expenditure, complained to the general of the order. For a while Delany's hopes and prospects were dimmed, but all was changed when he entered the senior class for the London University examinations and 100 per cent success was achieved. The results received wide acclaim. A feeling of inferiority about academic standards in catholic schools was widespread; Tullabeg's success was seen as justifying claims for equal educational opportunity with the endowed protestant schools. Delany became noted as an educationist, and he was closely consulted by Randolph Churchill, then secretary to the lord lieutenant, his father the duke of Marlborough (qv). Delany's influence was said to be considerable in shaping the two government bills that, as the intermediate act of 1878 and the Royal University act of 1879, changed the face of Irish education; and he was instrumental, together with William Walsh (qv) (1841–1921) of Maynooth, in establishing the Catholic Headmasters’ Association in October 1878.
The success of his college in the London University examinations (and subsequently in the intermediate and RUI examinations) made him an obvious person to be president of the catholic hierarchy's University College, St Stephen's Green, Dublin, the unsuccessful heir to John Henry Newman's (qv) Catholic University. The Jesuits took over the college as it stood in 1883, which meant that the fellows of the RUI were to be among its lecturers and also examiners of the university. This form of monopoly later led to hostility from some other competing colleges and from Walsh, subsequently archbishop of Dublin; but Delany and the senate of the Royal University of Ireland held to the original agreement, arguing that the only hope of obtaining a university for the majority population was by strengthening one college so that it might do outstandingly well and the catholic case for a university prove unanswerable. Delany, moreover, sought to have as many Jesuits as possible as fellows, provided they were fully qualified and the best suited for the advertised posts. By this means the fellows’ salaries would be ploughed back into the college, which was seriously under-funded. The college, under his presidency, proved so successful that it eventually achieved more honours in examinations than the three queen's colleges (Cork, Galway, Belfast) combined, although these were subsidised by the government. The talented staff of the college included Gerard Manley Hopkins (qv), Edmund Hogan (qv), Eoin MacNeill (qv), Tom Finlay (qv), and Thomas Arnold (qv); while among the brilliant student body were James Joyce (qv), Tom Kettle (qv), W. P. Coyne (qv), Arthur Clery (qv), Éamon de Valera (qv), Patrick McGilligan (qv), and John A. Costello (qv). Not surprisingly, Coyne was to remark in 1900: ‘The real work for Ireland is being done over there [University College]’ (Jesuit Fathers, A page of Irish history (1930), 244).
The achievements of UCD and Delany's close links with members of the Irish catholic hierarchy, with key politicians, and with successive chief secretaries and lord lieutenants, all played a part in the eventual solution to the Irish university question in the national university act of 1908. Delany's role was widely praised, yet within a short time he was to be lampooned as anti-Irish and his great services almost forgotten, because he let it be known that he did not approve of making the Irish language an obligatory subject for matriculation in the new university. He had done a great deal to promote Irish historical studies and Irish language and culture, but he did not wish to close off the university to many by having Irish as an entry requirement.
At the age of 74 Delany was appointed Jesuit provincial. He held the office for just three years, yet his was not a mere holding operation. He opened a new residence in Leeson St. for Jesuits lecturing in the university, and a hostel for students in nearby Hatch St.; and he served on the senate of the new university and on the governing body of UCD. Ahead of his time, he advocated the scientific study of agriculture at university level, pressed for education in the areas of industry and commerce, and proposed that UCD move from Earlsfort Terrace to more spacious grounds outside the city, a proposal publicly acknowledged by a later president, Michael Tierney (qv), on the occasion of the college eventually moving to an extensive campus at Belfield. Delany lived for another twelve years. In those years of dramatic change in Ireland, he became an almost forgotten figure: in the words of Cyril Power, SJ, who knew him, ‘a great man who had outlived his reputation’. He died 17 February 1924 at the age of 89.