A University for Protestants

Denis Donoghue

  • Trinity College Dublin 1592-1952: An Academic History by R.B. McDowell and D.A. Webb
    Cambridge, 580 pp, £35.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 521 23931 1

In 1591 the Corporation of Dublin set aside as the site for a college the lands and dilapidated buildings of the Augustinian priory of All Hallows, which had been given to the city at the dissolution of the monasteries. A year later, on 3 March 1592, Queen Elizabeth issued a charter incorporating ‘the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity near Dublin’ as ‘the mother of a university’ with the aim of providing ‘education, training and instruction of youths and students in the arts and faculties ... that they may be the better assisted in the study of the liberal arts and the cultivation of virtue and religion’. R.B. McDowell and D.A. Webb have written the history of that bizarre institution, Trinity College, from 1592 to 1952, the year in which Provost McConnell took up office and directed the College toward its present form. McDowell is a Senior Fellow of Trinity and a well-known historian. David Webb is a Fellow Emeritus of the College and Honorary Professor of Systematic Botany.

‘Virtue and religion’ meant, of course, Anglicanism. The Fellows of Trinity were required to take an oath and, in most cases, to take Anglican orders. Undergraduates were obliged to attend Chapel regularly; candidates for foundation Scholarships had to be willing to receive the sacrament. At the end of the 17th century Parliament required candidates for degrees to take not only an oath of allegiance but an oath repudiating the doctrine of transubstantiation. Practising Catholics were excluded from Trinity, therefore, till 1794, when the oath against transubstantiation was removed. The rules about Chapel were maintained, but quietly allowed to lapse in practice. Religious tests weren’t formally abolished till Fawcett’s Act of 1873, when a Catholic was elected for the first time to a foundation Scholarship. The first Catholic to reach the Board of Trinity as a Senior Fellow achieved that distinction in 1958.

Trinity College and the University of Dublin are for all practical purposes one and the same institution. In theory, other colleges could be added to the University. In 1907, when provision had to be made for the higher education of Irish Catholics, there was talk of simply adding a Catholic College, but the Trinity people wouldn’t have it. They set up a Trinity College Defence Committee, collected money for the cause, issued pamphlets, and eventually put a stop to the idea. The Irish Universities Act of 1908 set up the National University of Ireland with three constituent colleges, in Dublin, Cork and Galway. They are not Catholic colleges. For fifty years the Catholic bishops complained that the new colleges were barely acceptable and fell short of the ideal of Catholic education, but the complaints have long since been dropped. For the past several years there have been plans and counterplans for a merger of Trinity College and University College, but the notion has apparently died – ousted, in any case, by more urgent political and social problems.

Trinity is an odd institution. There it is, smack in the middle of Dublin, its surly front turned upon the Bank of Ireland and the traffic dividing for Dawson Street and Dame Street. Tourists turn up in bus-loads to see Trinity’s great treasure, the Book of Kells. But for most of its history it has been the symbol of Protestant domination and the English presence in Ireland. McDowell and Webb say that Trinity people voted and campaigned against Home Rule because they saw in it ‘the frustration of their reforms and their hopes’. Perhaps: but for an aboriginal reason, too-that they feared for their own privilege. At High Table they sang ‘God Save the King’, and drank the King’s health: the first of these gestures was called off in 1939, the second in 1945.

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