The Colleges were set up to educate Roman Catholics from Ireland in their own religion following the takeover of the country by the Protestant English state in the Tudor conquest of Ireland. Irish Catholics also left the country to pursue military careers in the Flight of the Wild Geese.
There were several early Irish Colleges in Southern Netherlands. St. Patrick Irish college of Douai was founded in 1603 by Christopher Cusack, with the support of Philip III of Spain. The Irish College at Douai was integrated to the Faculty of Theology of the University of Douai in 1610. St Anthony's College, the Irish Franciscan College in Leuven, was co-founded in May 1607 by Aodh Mac Cathmhaoil (also known as Aodh Mac Aingil) and Flaithri Ó Maolconaire, Irish Franciscan, theologian and aide to Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill. The College was founded under the patronage of Philip III of Spain. There was also an Irish Dominican College at Leuven from 1624 until 1797.
More Colleges were established in Rome (1625), Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille, Brussels, Antwerp and then Prague (1631). Some of the Colleges fell out of use in the late 18th century as the Penal Laws against Roman Catholics in Ireland were relaxed.
Irish colleges were important centres for the writing of Irish history and the preservation of Ireland’s rich cultural traditions. Mícheál Ó Cléirigh was sent from an Irish college to Ireland to compile the Annals of the Four Masters, an important chronicle of Irish history. Within the colleges, printing press in the Irish language were established and a collection of the lives of Irish saints was produced. Irish colleges were also helpful for the Irish resistance during the Nine Years' War in Ireland and later exile on the European continent.
On 16 October 1802, Irish colleges located in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Douai, Lille, Antwerp, Leuven and Paris were merged under a unique administration, alongside the Scottish College in Douai and Scots College in Paris.
In the last decade, the Irish Government has financed the renovation of the premises of the Irish College in Paris which now serves as an Irish Cultural Centre and a residence for Irish students, writers and artists. The Pontifical Irish College in Rome continues to be used for the education and training of Roman Catholic clergy. In 1983 the Irish College in Leuven was made available by the Irish Franciscans for development as a secular resource. The Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe is now located on the premises.
List of Irish Colleges
- Sant’Isidoro a Capo le Case - was established in 1624 as the training center for Franciscan friars from Ireland
- Pontifical Irish College, Rome (Italy) - trains priests from Ireland and other countries.
- Irish College, Douai (France)
- Irish College in Paris (France) - now the Irish Cultural Centre.
- St Anthony's College, Leuven (Franciscan) - now The Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe
- Dominican Irish College Leuven
- Irish College at Alcala, Spain - founded about A.D. 1590
- Irish College at Santiago de Compostela, Spain
- Colegio Mayor de Santiago el Zebedeo, Salamanca, Spain.
- Irish College Seville
- College of the Immaculate Conception, Prague (Franciscan) - opened 1629 suppressed in 1786, first Rector Patrick Fleming from Leuven.
- Irish Students Leuven www.irishineeurope.com
- Anderson, Christopher, Historical Sketches of the Ancient Native Irish and Their Descendants (1830) p.118
- New Catalogue of Salamanca Papers, Maynooth College Archivium Hibernicum
- Irish Colleges on the European Continent - Catholic Encyclopedia
- Irish College in Rome - Catholic Encyclopedia
-  - official site of the only remaining college on the continent, the Pontifical Irish College Rome
- The National Library of Ireland's current exhibition, Strangers to Citizens: the Irish in Europe, 1600-1800
- Irish College Leuven
- Pontifical Irish College Rome