National University of Ireland, Galway was established by the Colleges (Ireland) Act in 1845. The University was first known as Queens College Galway and along with it its sister colleges in Cork and Belfast, was established to provide non-denominational university education to Ireland’s emerging middle class.
The College opened its doors to its first intake of 68 students in October 1849. At the time, the College comprised three faculties, Arts (including Literary and Science divisions), Law and Medicine, as well as a School of Engineering & Agriculture.
In 1908, Queens College Galway was renamed University College Galway and was reconstituted as a constituent college of the newly established National University of Ireland, along with University College Cork and University College Dublin.
Under the Universities Act of 1997, the various colleges of the National University of Ireland were reconstituted as constituent universities. University College Galway was renamed National University of Ireland, Galway to mark the occasion.
Despite its modest beginnings, the University has always attracted leading scholars. Early luminaries included Sir Joseph Larmor (1857-1942), the notable physicist who went on the prestigious post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at University of Cambridge.
The noted astronomer and physicist Alexander Anderson (1858-1936) graduated from Galway with an MA in 1881 from where he went on to further studies at the University of Cambridge. Anderson returned to Galway in 1885 where he succeeded Sir Joseph Larmor. Alexander Anderson is widely credited as the first person to suggest the existence of black holes.
George Johnstone Stoney, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Galway from 1852-1857, coined the term ‘ electron’ to describe the fundamental unit of electrical charge, and his contributions to research in this area laid the foundations for the eventual discovery of the particle by J.J. Thomson in 1897
Other notable Galway scholars included the natural historian A.G. Melville (1819-1901) author of the celebrated work on the extinction of the Dodo work and the distinguished economist J.E. Cairnes (1823-1875), whose influential work The Slave Power shaped the thinking of notable intellectuals of the time including Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin & Karl Marx (* Foley, Tadhg (ed.) 2000).
The University’s graduates have also distinguished themselves in sport, the arts and politics. NUI Galway sent more athletes to the Beijing Olympics than any other Irish university. 200m sprinter Paul Hession, 20km walker Olive Loughnane, and heavyweight rowing stars Alan Martin and Cormac Folan are all NUI Galway students or graduates.
In 2006, acclaimed actor and political activist Martin Sheen attended NUI Galway as a Visiting Student while in June 2003, Nelson Mandela, Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws at the University.
Other notable recipients of this award include Hillary Rodham Clinton, then First Lady of the United States of America, who was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate in May 1999.
In November 2012, Michael D. Higgins, Adjunct Professor with the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway, was elected the ninth president of Ireland. Michael D. entered the University as a student in 1962; serving as President of the Student Council; and going on to become a highly regarded lecturer in Sociology & Politics for many years. Michael D. visited the staff and students of the University during his campaign trail.
The current Taoiseach (Prime Minister of Ireland) Enda Kenny; Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore; Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte; Attorney General, Máire Whelan; Minister for Research & Innovation, Seán Sherlock are all alumni of NUI Galway.
For more information on the history of NUI Galway, please refer to Foley, Tadhg (ed.) From Queen’s College to National University of Ireland: Essays Towards an Academic History of QUC, UCG and NUI Galway, Four Courts Press, Dublin 2000.