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.

I sometimes wonder: what would have happened in Easter Week 1916, if the rebels had seized not the General Post Office but Trinity College? Militarily, it might have been difficult. Trinity had a direct line to the centre of British authority, Dublin Castle: it had an Army School and an Officers Training Corps, who would have defended the College. But the capture of Trinity College would have been a far grander symbolic act than taking the GPO. McDowell and Webb refer to Easter Week, by the way, as ‘a short-lived and localised but alarming civil war’– which is one version of the event, but not mine. The Rising was not a civil war: it was the revolt of a tiny group of insurgents against the English presence. Our civil war came later, when Irishmen fought against Irishmen. As for Easter Week, McDowell and Webb say that the general feeling among Trinity students at the time was accurately represented by T.C. Kingsmill Moore’s editorial in the magazine TCD: ‘Trinity College, true to her traditions, has played a worthy, if an unacceptable part. To be called upon to defend our University against the attack of Irishmen, to be forced in self-defence to shoot down our countrymen – these are things which even the knowledge of duty well fulfilled cannot render anything but sad and distasteful.’ They remark, too, that while the attitude of many elders in the College may have been sterner, it was from Archbishop Bernard’s Palace and not from the Provost’s House that there went out ‘the call for swift retributive justice untempered by mercy’.

It is hardly surprising that, after the civil war, when the Free State Government settled down to govern a distressful country, the ministers were in no mood to gratify Trinity College. A request for money got a grudging answer until Trinity threatened to make the correspondence public. The Government gave the money and improved their temper. But the Trinity Board knew that it behoved them to keep their collegiate head well down. Trinity was widely disliked: many people coming into their own in the new state saw the College as an alien institution, making much of its Elizabethan charter, its plate, and its Protestant tradition. Trinity was then, as it still is in many respects, a remarkably defensive and inward-looking college. Since 1692, every Provost has been a Trinity man: the College has never gone outside to look for a Provost. Indeed, it is well known that, even yet, anyone who has the ambition of becoming Provost of Trinity must take the triple precaution of being born in Ireland, being educated at Trinity and being a Protestant. No Papist need apply.

From 1922 to 1946, Trinity spoke in a quiet voice, if at all. Aging Unionists knew that their heyday was over, but that they could still get a fair supply of wine and roses if they ordered them quietly. They had a few anxious months in 1932 when De Valera came to power, but it turned out that Dev was far more cordial to Trinity than his Free State rivals had been. The Free Staters wanted to let Trinity fend for itself, sell its plate if necessary, rather than reduce by a penny the money to be given to the colleges of the National University. But Dev was well-disposed to Trinity, for reasons not yet clear. True, he knew McConnell well and liked him, but there must have been other reasons. Trinity responded by minding its own business. When De Valera declared Irish neutrality in September 1939, there were some people in Trinity who regretted that Ireland was not joining the Allies in the struggle for freedom, but they kept their sentiments to themselves. There was an incident after the War, when the news of the German surrender reached Dublin on 7 May 1945. A few Trinity students hoisted flags, including the Union Jack, on the West Front. There was a scuffle when a number of republican youths came on the scene, members of Ailtiri na hAiseirghe – according to McDowell and Webb, ‘one of the nastier of the minute extremist splinter groups which regularly appear on the Irish political scene and equally regularly die after a few years’. I don’t think the Blimp tone of this description is apt. Ailtiri weren’t, in my recollection, any nastier than other people; more naive, perhaps. It hardly matters, except as a minor indication of the tone of voice audible throughout this history. McDowell and Webb are nice people, eminently humane and agreeable, but they write on the assumption that Irishmen are mostly daft and that it calls for particular comment if some few of them are nasty. They refer to ‘the small place that reason tends to play in determining the attitude of Irishmen’: a mixed metaphor but an unmixed attitude maintained from start to finish.

Anyway, the flag-burning was ignored or forgotten within a few days. De Valera continued to smile on Trinity, even though by 1952 only 34 per cent of its students came from the South, while 30 per cent came from Britain, 18 per cent from Northern Ireland, and the rest from overseas. Of course there were reasons. Irish Catholics still disliked Trinity and resented its lofty claims. The Catholic Hierarchy forbade its flock to go there. In any case, the quality of the education at Trinity wasn’t so wonderful that a Catholic would try very hard to get the Church’s permission to enter. Trinity wanted to maintain its connection with the North, since it meant a connection to Britain. And they made a particular virtue out of the circumstance that a fairly large number of foreign students, for whatever reason, came to Dublin. When I taught at University College, I felt some resentment toward Trinity, its historical privilege, the complacency of its ethos, its easy and unearned assumption of superiority. It was pointed out that the Government grant to Trinity, on a per capita basis, exceeded the grant to any of the National University colleges, and that, in effect, the plain people of Ireland were subsidising the education of foreign students at Trinity, which was itself, in another sense of the word, foreign. More specifically, I resented the policy by which my colleagues and I were required to teach thousànds of students, while our opposite numbers in Trinity dispensed sherry to their chosen few. When I protested to my President, he replied that Trinity was an irrelevance to Ireland and its development, it was merely an appendix to the country, the future was in the hands of the thousands of bright young men and women my colleagues and I would train. We would win, without the sherry or the Trinity Ball or the Elizabethan Society.

McDowell and Webb think well of Trinity, and why not? They are so closely identified with the College that to think well of it means to think well of themselves – a natural pleasure. From time to time they lament the fact that Trinity was ‘the silent sister’ to Oxford and Cambridge, rarely engaging in scholarship. They have to report that many Senior Fellows never published a line, coasted along for sixty well-paid years on the wind of a pamphlet. Half-heartedly, they offer a few reasons: teaching duties, College administration, outside commitments. But it is a pity, they think, that their elders didn’t try a bit harder. Productive themselves, they are rueful about the lazy rascals of earlier times. But they haven’t really gone into the question, or considered the full implication of Trinity’s character in the country. My own view is that Trinity’s sin has always been complacency. For centuries, the Fellows saw themselves as a higher breed, comparable in civility and intellect with their colleagues in Oxford and Cambridge, and surrounded by a populace they despised. Some Trinity Fellows still see themselves in this light, though the delusion is harder to sustain: it needs to be maintained by a great deal of High Table port. But they are great praisers of gone times: nearly every room in the new Arts Building is called after some great or ostensibly great man in Trinity’s past. To be fair, any university that has lasted nearly four hundred years is likely to have some outstanding people on its list. Trinity has its share, including Berkeley, Swift, Rowan Hamilton, Lecky, Dowden, Bury, Douglas Hyde, J.M. Synge, Samuel Beckett.

Since 1952, and beginning with McConnell, Trinity has gradually acknowledged its responsibility not only to the past but to Irish taxpayers. It has opened its gate for more students. For many years the student population numbered a happy 2500 or so, but the number has now risen to about 6000. University College has about 11,000. Trinity has also allowed its campus to be a little cramped: the Arts Building and the new Library are handsome modern buildings, but already too small for their purposes. Still, many a Senior Fellow must have wept to see his college grounds diminished, its green reduced, for the sake of demonstrating that Trinity was indeed an Irish university. But it must be acknowledged that Trinity has made these important changes with every show of good will. Indeed, so far as the question of public relations arises, Trinity has now outrun University College. Trinity goes out of its way to be helpful with advice, discussion, clarification. University College is widely regarded as indifferent to the civilities or the amenities of discourse. Trinity is more gracious in its arrangements. If you want to see a fine Henry Moore and a dashing Alexander Calder adorning a campus, see them in Trinity. It begins to appear that University College has adopted Trinity’s vice, and has become, for quite different reasons, complacent.

McDowell and Webb have written the history of Trinity as if it were an internal matter. They have told the story as if it were a story of Provosts. When necessary, they have set internal events against their external contexts, but they seem reluctant to go far beyond the Front Gate. Trinity’s happiest years, it appears, were those in which nothing particularly stirring or dangerous was happening outside its walls, and the community within could attend to its genial interests, a decent mixture of College administration, teaching, sport, dining, and – not least – respectable scholarship. When these conditions did not obtain, according to McDowell and Webb, Trinity fell into bewilderment and error. It was ever thus. I assume that 1952 was chosen as the end-date of their history mainly because their account of recent and current events would require an intolerable degree of reticence. It is more comfortable to write about the dead.

Of the Provosts, I find the most interesting, not Mahaffy, but George Salmon (1888-1904). McDowell and Webb write splendidly, with great narrative verve and far more wit than I thought their subject would provoke, but they are particularly lively on Salmon and on Humphrey Lloyd (1867-1881). There are a few pointless paragraphs. Edward Dowden is absurdly compared with F.R. Leavis because both admired Middlemarch. The only error I came across was a reference to Yeats’s ‘no petty people’ speech in the Senate in which he declared that the Protestants of Ireland, according to McDowell and Webb, were ‘the heirs of Swift, Berkeley and Grattan’. Not quite: he cited Burke, Grattan, Swift, Robert Emmet and Parnell, but not Berkeley. On Mahaffy: it may be that McDowell, who joined with W.B. Stanford to write the life of Mahaffy, has tired of the man, but the account of him in the present book makes him appear tawdry and obvious. His views on the Irish University question aren’t interesting, his contempt for the Irish language is predictably ignorant, his pretence that he didn’t know who Padraic Pearse was is silly. McDowell and Webb, sensing perhaps that Mahaffy comes out as a rather small man, try to enlarge him by Latinising his going. But an epitaph made by Pope John III in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Rome hasn’t much bearing upon a man who would have hated to receive it.

The Latin reminds me that there is far too much of it in this book. McDowell and Webb write so well in English that it is supererogatory to resort to Latin for a grand style. Somebody saw himself as ‘Hely-Hutchinson redivivus’, when a plan didn’t work out it was because dis aliter visum est, R.M. Gwynn’s naivety is glossed with Sancta simplicitas, the Senior Fellows hoped to find themselves ‘not so much in otium as in negotium cum dignitate’, an important topic should not be decided sede vacante, McConnell ‘gave the impression of being the superior of Duncan in suaviter in modo and of Parke in fortiter in re’, some request or other was ‘the sine qua non of reform’, an item in the modern College Calendar ‘repeated the ipsissima verba of 1905’. Still, it is a splendid book – even if it doesn’t mention the Book of Kells.