St. Columba’s was initially planned by four men: Viscount Adare (son of the 2nd Earl of Dunraven) a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin and MP for Glamorganshire; his brother-in-law William Monsell, later Liberal MP for County Limerick; William Sewell; and Rev. James Henthorn Todd, a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. The Bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland was Lord John George Beresford, son of the First Marquis of Waterford. He supported the foundation of St Columba’s and gave an initial gift of £500 in 1841. Beresford agreed to the inclusion amongst the Founders of Augustus O’Brien, of Limerick and Northamptonshire, another MP, who was a friend of Adare and Monsell and had been described to Sewell by Gladstone as ‘the man most likely to be useful to us.’ In April 1841 a draft prospectus was presented to the Primate and to the Bishop of Down. At this meeting the Primate urged the inclusion of two older clergyman amongst the Founders. Consequently Dean Jackson of Armagh and Dean Henry Cotton of Lismore were included. The printed prospectus issued in April 1841 listed the ‘Founders and Governors’ as Dunraven, Adare, Monsell, O’Brien, Jackson, Cotton, Todd and Sewell. The Primate is named ex officio as Visitor. Dean Jackson died shortly thereafter, and was replaced in January 1842 by the Rev. Dr C R Elrington, Regius Professor of Divinity in Dublin University.
From the first, St Columba’s was to be run on collegiate lines by a body of resident and teaching Fellows, among whom the Headmaster was to be the first amongst equals rather than in total control of the school. The Fellows were to receive £80 pa with furnished rooms, to be unmarried, and to constitute ‘a body of men who in return for the privilege of a dignified, scholarly, communal life would be content with modest salaries.’ This caused immediate problems, chiefly created by Sewell, who declared that there must be enough Fellows to make a collegiate institution with an atmosphere of study, regardless of the financial constraints on the College or the number of men actually required to teach the boys. Further, he demanded a wide range of interests, including a Fellow for Medicine and one for Architecture. He approached at least one man in Oxford independently of the other Governors of St. Columba’s.
When the College opened in 1843, it had a body of six Fellows, four of whom were ordained. They included JT Coffey, still working for a degree at Trinity College, Dublin, as teacher of Irish; two clergymen from Oxford, MC Morton from Exeter College, and H Tripp, who remained at St Columba’s until 1851, outlasting all his contemporaries; R King from Trinity College, Dublin, who declared himself ready to undertake the duties of the ‘science fellowship’ although there were no plans to teach science; and Robert Singleton. These were joined during the next two or three years by Robert King and Edwin Monk.
In April 1844, Todd wrote that salaries must be raised in order to get good men: ‘even Morton is beginning to complain.’ Already there was a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the Statutes and conditions of service, exacerbated by Singleton’s handling of the men: in a single day he demoted Morton from the post of Sub-warden because he had not yet signed the new statutes, appointed Tripp as Sub-Warden in his place, Morton then signed, Tripp resigned, and Morton was re-instated. At the end of 1845 or the beginning of 1846 two of the Fellows were forced to resign because of their non-compliance with the statute on Fasting. When matters came to a head, four of the remaining six fellows resigned with Singleton, leaving only Morton and Tripp. Morton was appointed Warden of St Columba’s. Tripp became Sub-Warden.
Morton died in April 1850, aged 31, having served St Columba’s since its foundation when he was 24. At Morton’s death, some parents urged that Tripp be appointed Warden. But Todd, supported by Cotton, opposed this, describing Tripp as ‘very nice but lax in discipline and with poor judgement.’ Tripp resigned the following year.