Dr Denis J. Coffey
Dr Denis J. Coffey
First President, UCD: 1908 – 1940
Denis J. Coffey was born in 1865 and graduated from the Royal University before studying under leading physiologists in various European cities. Appointed as a lecturer in UCD’s premises on Cecilia Street in 1893, he became Professor of Physiology four years later. His final position before the presidency was as Dean of the Catholic University Medical School in 1905. Following the signing of the University Act in 1908, which saw the demise of the Royal University as well as the Jesuits’ involvement with it, and the birth of University College Dublin, it was decided that the first head of UCD should be a layman. Dr Coffey’s appointment as President in 1908 was widely believed to be the result of strong canvassing on his behalf by John Dillon of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
Dr Coffey was often referred to as “the students’ professor”. As President he maintained a keen interest in students and their welfare, often lecturing two or three times a day and continuing to carry out his laboratory work. He also found time to attend or chair committee meetings concerning the welfare of students.
Delegating work to others was not one of Dr Coffey’s strong points. Despite certain organisational difficulties that ensued, UCD’s first President was held in high esteem by virtue of the calibre of students and staff he attracted to the university.
Dr Coffey led UCD through some of the most challenging times in Irish history – the First World War, the Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-1921, the Civil War, the growing pains of the Irish Free State, the economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s, and the outbreak of the Second World War.
By the end of his tenure Dr Coffey had overseen some significant changes in the College. These included a massive increase in student numbers, an increase in teaching staff, the addition of the College of Science and Albert Agricultural College in 1926, and the transfer of the Medical School in 1931 to an additional new building in Earlsfort Terrace. In 1933, the Grounds Committee proposed a 44 acre-site on the Stillorgan Road as a suitable location to build and develop sports facilities, including playing fields. An agreement for the purchase of Belfield was signed on 21 December 1933.