Higher education postcard: Trinity College, Dublin

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’ postbag takes us to the seventh oldest university in these isles

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

In 1592 Britain and Ireland had very different government and politics from today.

There was no United Kingdom: Scotland was independent, but an assertive England had long since ruled over Wales. Ireland was under English rule, and only recently a policy of establishing plantations, populated by settlers from England and Scotland, had begun.

Religion was also the cause of strife – or at least an excuse for it. The Anglo-Spanish war (the one with the Armada, Francis Drake and all that) was underway, and in that year a treasure fleet was intercepted by English ships in the Azores, realising tremendous gains and setting the tone for the English approach to building an empire (which involved a lot of violence and plunder).

It was in this context that Elizabeth I established Trinity College Dublin. Although modelled on Oxbridge, it had some peculiar features, as set out in its original charter. Firstly, the names of the college and its corporate form:

The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity Near Dublin Founded by the Most Serene Queen Elizabeth

The Provost, Fellows and Scholars of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth Near Dublin.

Already, seeds for confusion there: the second gives the first a different name, and it was separated only by one paragraph of charter.

Secondly, it was established as “the mother of a University”, with the power to award degrees, although not with the title of a university (in practice it has been regarded as Trinity College of the University of Dublin, the two institutions being co-existent).

Nevertheless, a college and a university it was. An early and consistent focus has been the library, in respect both of the collection of books and the building of libraries big enough to hold them in.

The 1600s were a violent century, especially in Ireland. Two events threatened the growing university: the collapse of government from 1641, during the civil wars, and the puritan government which followed; and the short-lived Catholic government of Richard Talbot, Viceroy of Ireland appointed by James I and Earl of Tyrconnell, which between 1689 and 1691 closed the university, turning its buildings (except the library) into a barracks.

Having survived these incidents, the college continued to grow through the 1700s, with magnificent new buildings, one of which is shown on the card. As the college itself notes, “[t]hese buildings reflected a seriousness of purpose absent from English universities of that era.” Alumni in the eighteenth century included George Berkeley, Edmund Burke and Jonathan Swift, which is not a bad midfield. And from 1793 Catholics were permitted to graduate, significantly earlier than at Oxbridge.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Trinity had an uneasy relationship with the Irish state. During the Easter rising, unionist students defended it successfully against the Volunteer Army and Citizen Forces; the Union Jack was still flown on special occasions. And the Irish state reciprocated: certain county council scholarships were not available to students at Trinity.

Trinity was once outside Dublin. The city has grown, and it is now firmly in and of the city, right next to the Parliament but with a cloistered campus of 47 acres (or over 750 tennis courts, to use the official EU measure). Its motto – Perpetuis futuris temporibus duraturam or “It will last into endless future times” – has so far not been disproved.

Judging by the cars and buses, I would guess that the card dates from the late 1940s or 1950s, but if anyone knows better please say!

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