Carlow College was founded in 1782 and had its first admissions on 1 October 1793. From 1793 until 1892 Carlow College was both a lay college of the Humanities and a Seminary.
The 1840s proved to be a decade of particular growth for the College. In 1840 the second President of Carlow College, Fr Andrew Fitzgerald O.P. (1814–1843), successfully petitioned the University of London to accredit degrees at Carlow College in the Arts and Law. In 1844 the Foreign Missions Fund was established to provide bursaries to ecclesiastical students who were ordained for dioceses abroad; of the estimated 3,150 learners to be ordained at Carlow College, an estimated 2,050 were ordained for overseas dioceses. Another important development took place in 1847 when the third President of Carlow College, Dr James Taylor (1843–1850) purchased 127 acres in Knockbeg, Co. Carlow for the younger learners of the College.
With the University Education (Ireland) Act 1879, the Royal University of Ireland was established and the following year degrees offered at Carlow College were accredited by this educational body. In 1892 all lay learners of the College were transferred to St. Mary’s Knockbeg and Carlow College operated exclusively as a seminary for the education of priests until 1989. In 1990 Carlow College reclaimed its original remit by welcoming lay learners from all over Ireland to study third-level courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences. From 1990 the degrees at Carlow College were accredited by the National Council for Educational Awards (NCEA) (1990–2001), the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC) (2001–2012) and Qualities and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) (2012–Present).
Since 1997 Carlow College has embarked on a building and renovation campaign which has seen the development of new lecture halls and the completion of the Kathleen Brennan Students Centre, P.J. Brophy Library and the Delaney Archive (2006). As part of its on-going support for the arts the College donated land to the Carlow Local Authority for the development of the Centre for Contemporary Art and The George Bernard Shaw Theatre (VISUAL), an €18 million development project located in the heart of Carlow Town. In 2011 Carlow College refurbished Lennon House to provide on-campus accommodation. With future development in mind, in 2015 the College completed the purchase of a site adjoining its campus.
During its more than two-hundred-year history, Carlow College has educated generations of leaders, both lay and religious, in the public life of their day. Distinguished among its past learners were the Young Irelander, James Fintan Lalor, the Fenian, John O’Leary, pioneering churchman in Australia and the United States: John Therry and John England, the poet Richard D’Alton Williams, the impressionist artist, Frank O’Meara, and Paul Cullen, Ireland’s first Cardinal.