Trinity is an old institution with its own rituals and traditions. Whether deservedly or not, the college has a certain prestige around it because of this heritage. Anyone who has been lucky enough to attend a Trinity graduation knows that the ceremony is more akin to the conferring of a religious sacrament than simply ageing out of university with your degree in hand.
Whilst other institutions may have deep reserves capable of funding state-of-the-art buildings equipped with the latest scientific gadgets, no amount of money can buy the image of being a grand old university. This image is often associated with institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity, and a few others.
But in recent years a critical lens has been turned inward, with an increasing awareness that Trinity — despite all its mummeries and appeals to tradition — must reckon with its own history. The decision to rename the Berkeley Library was a significant part of this reckoning. Now we are faced with the onerous task of doing justice to the principles of equality and fairness whilst also honouring and remaining faithful to tradition. This means striking a delicate balance.
I believe such a balance can be struck by naming the library to honour the legacy of Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-1798). As a PhD student in the Department of History, I appreciate the historical importance of Tone, but also as a member of the committee of the 1916-1921 Club, I value Tone as a highly significant political figure whose legacy should be commemorated. The 1916-1921 Club was founded in the 1940s with the intention of healing the divisions of the Civil War by focusing on the period of republican unity achieved between the Easter Rising but before the divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty.
Wolfe Tone was one of the college’s most illustrious alumni. A former auditor of the College Historical Society (the Hist), it was here that he honed his natural ability as an orator and leader. Writing in 1796, Tone acknowledged how he had been somewhat “distracted” as a student, but recalled: “I preserve, and ever shall, a most sincere affection for the University of Dublin.” This is surely a feeling many graduates understand well.
As a champion of Irish freedom, he gave his life in service of the noble cause of uniting Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters. The historical record is well known. Tone and the United Irishmen took up the struggle to establish an Irish Republic and break the link with England.
Opponents of renaming the library argue that it amounts to cultural vandalism. It is said that although people like Bishop Berkeley may have carried out actions which are regarded today as deeply wrong, we should not spiral into a tendency of erasing the past just because someone’s halo has fallen. However, it is a fallacious argument to suggest that renaming things in light of changed cultural and societal mores is somehow a newfound ‘modernist’ phenomenon. This can be seen in many of Dublin’s streets – such as in 1924 when Great Brunswick Street became Pearse Street whilst Sackville Street became O’Connell Street.
It cannot be said that renaming the library after Wolfe Tone is an act of spiteful dehistoricization. Rather it points to a historical road not taken, yet one that ought to have been taken. It demonstrates that we care deeply about our history. Our institutions are not mindlessly tearing down tradition to make way for a modern blandness. We aren’t groping around trying to construct a synthetic pastiche historical legacy to replace the hideous British colonial legacy associated with Berkeley. Even philosophically Berkeley’s ideas are considered dated and unconvincing.
By contrast, Wolfe Tone’s ideals have stood the test of time. He left an indelible imprint on how Irish people think about our place in the world. Even amongst the constitutional nationalists of the late nineteenth century, Tone was always regarded as a key figurehead of Irish aspirations for independence.
It should be noted that Robert Emmet, the leader of the 1803 Rebellion, already has a lecture theatre named in his honour. This is despite Emmet having been expelled by the college for political reasons in 1798. There is also a lecture theatre named in homage to Thomas Davis (the leading light of the nineteenth-century Young Ireland movement, which aimed to forge a distinct cultural and political Irish national identity) who was a devotee to the legacy of Tone and laid the first memorial stone at his grave in Bodenstown in 1844. It is perhaps somewhat curious that Trinity has recognised Emmet and Davis, who were inspired by Tone, whilst largely overlooking the man himself (apart from a bust of Tone in the Old Library).
Tone was a figure with a global significance who every Trinity student and graduate can be proud of. Tone’s ideas on Irish neutrality were articulated in the pamphlet The Spanish War (1790), which argued Ireland had the right to avoid being forced into participating in a war on the side of Britain, when the threat of war beckoned between Britain and Spain. This could be considered an early harbinger of Ireland’s proud tradition of neutrality – a tradition which today is in danger of being overturned.
Recognising the problems associated with certain figures in Trinity’s story is just the first leg of a journey. But that process should not solely be about pointing out the wrongness of some unattractive figures and tendencies associated with Trinity (colonialism, discrimination, slavery), it should also be about asserting the rightness of some people and worldviews which we believe were and are firmly on the right side of history.