One of the seven ancient universities of Great Britain and Ireland, Trinity College Dublin is a distinctive landmark in the heart of Dublin city and a national treasure. Established all the way back in 1592, it was modelled after the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge universities across the water in the UK. Now Ireland’s most revered university, it is also one of Dublin’s most popular visitor attractions, and since it has a history that ties in intimately with that of Ireland as a whole, we thought it was worth exploring.
History of Trinity College
Originally outside the walls of the city, Trinity College was established on the grounds of a former All Hallows monastery. Its construction was intended to consolidate Tudor rule in Ireland after the Reformation, which saw an end to monasteries and religious centres being the primary means of education for a small section of the population. It had one single square, a Provost and two Fellows, and a handful of students that began studying there two years after its foundation.
They set about expanding the college in all areas, and some fifty years later it began to resemble the type of university we know with a library, curriculum, and a growing community of students and teachers. Over the next two centuries as Ireland prospered, so did the college, expanding in all directions and academic areas. Ireland’s original houses of parliament (now the Bank of Ireland building) were built next door to the college on what became known as College Green, and many of the beautiful stone buildings still standing today were constructed.
It quickly became known as one of many symbols of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland; with British rule in Ireland came a suppression of all things Catholic, with practising Catholics forbidden from doing just about anything important in society including owning a business, joining the government, owning land, and much more. In 1793 Catholics were finally allowed to apply for admission to Trinity College, although very few were successful in the attempt. It wasn’t until 1970 however that a general ban on Catholics entering campus was lifted by the Archbishop of Dublin (although enforcement had become lax in the previous decade).
It was also forbidden for women to be admitted to the college until 1904, and only thirty years later in 1934 was the first female professor appointed. In 1958, the first Catholic Senior Fellow reached the Board of Trinity (the governing authority). From today’s prospective, this may seem very backwards and unprogressive, but at the time in Ireland each of these events was heralded as forward thinking and almost revolutionary. Ireland was struggling to release itself from British control and in doing so was holding on to or reviving all of its original practices and loyalties; this included the Irish language, arts and culture, and most importantly of all, the Catholic faith and all of its beliefs. So as a result of this, women were not given equal footing in society until the mid to late 20th century.
These days, Trinity College is a centre of academic excellence in Ireland, with all of its past controversies long behind it. In the 1980s and 1990s attendance almost doubled, and it is regularly ranked in the top 100 universities of the world. Its beauty has lasted for centuries and will continue to do so with each building painstakingly maintained and kept just as it was built centuries ago.
Even more interesting than the history and traditions that surround Trinity College is its architecture. The campus consists of a number of different squares situated around one centre known as Parliament Square. Surrounded by high walls, it’s a calm oasis in the middle of the city despite the traffic circulating it every day and the crowds of people that pass through the grounds. The main entrance stands at College Green with a magnificent front arch and wooden doorway, with the neat and tidy College Park just off the centre.
The western side of the college is older and has the most stunning buildings. When you emerge from the Front Arch, the cobbled Parliament Square opens out before you with the Campanile (or bell tower) in the centre. Constructed from Portland stone with intricate carvings, a dome and a lantern on top, this is the by far the most beautiful structure in the college. The Campanile is flanked by symmetrical stone buildings that include the Examination Hall, Chapel and Public theatre. All feature arched doorways, Doric columns and triangular pediments in a classical style.
The Old Library, while much like the rest of these buildings on the outside, is a knockout on the inside. Not only does it house Ireland’s greatest treasure the Book of Kells within its walls, but it is also home to one of the most beautiful libraries in the entire world. The Long Room is stuffed from floor to ceiling with thousands of extremely rare pre 18th century texts in a wooden-arched room that seems to stretch on forever. Adjacent to the Old Library is the Rubrics building, which stands out from everything else due to its warm red bricks and the perfectly manicured patch of grass in front of it.
This is used as university housing and is the site of the legendary events that inspired the Trinity ghost (see below). Arguably the most spectacular building of all however, and the one that lies right in the middle of the campus, is the Museum building. Designed in the Byzantine Venetian style, it has over 100 highly decorative carvings on the exterior, a domed central hall with Romanesque arches and columns, and a central staircase with balconies. Apparently there is stone from every quarry in Ireland used in various parts of the building, which is fitting considering it is the home of the Geology department. There is a small museum on the upper floor (hence the name) that houses Geological treasures.
Myths and Legends
Like any building steeped in history, the grounds and structures of Trinity College have their fair share of weird, wonderful and downright spooky legends and myths. Some are true, some are false and some are downright ridiculous! We’ve picked three of the most interesting and obscure ones to give you some idea of the sprawling history this Dublin landmark has. The crowning glory of the stunning main square of Trinity College is the Campanile. This beautiful bell tower has several myths and legends attributed to it, most of them associated with students getting up to no good. A long-held belief among all undergraduates, even today, is that if you walk or stand under the campanile you will fail your exams for the year.
Some insist that this will only happen if the bell tolls when you walk underneath, but either way there are very few undergraduate students willing to go within an arm’s reach of this stately structure! On graduation day, crowds gather around the Campanile to finally stand, walk, and get their photo taken under it. Another not so credible myth states that if you manage to climb to the top of the Campanile the Provost has permission to shoot at you without repercussions. On two occasions in the last few years the Climbing Club successfully scaled it, and thankfully lived to tell the tale without any bullet holes.
Another legendary story about the grounds of the university is that there is a network of underground tunnels or wine cellars running under its foundations. One tunnel whose existence has been proven is the one that runs between the ‘Old Library’, one of the older buildings where the Book of Kells is held, to the Berekely Library, where today’s students spend their studying time. There is a consistent rumour that another tunnel runs from the Provost’s house to Stephen’s Green, beneath the shopping mecca of Grafton Street. While there is a locked door near the Provost’s stables that appears to lead in that direction, nobody knows for sure if it’s another tunnel or not.
Fables about underground wine cellars are also rife, especially around the time of the annual Trinity Ball. Allegedly there is one underneath the front square, and if you believe the stories you hear on campus, a group of students in the 1980s apparently discovered one and helped themselves to several vintage bottles before getting caught. Since then the authorities have kept Trinity’s underground world strictly under lock and key.
Finally, there is the dramatic tale of Edward Ford. A fellow of the college way back in the 1730s, Edward was disliked by a group of students, supposedly because he had tried to track them down to turn them into the authorities for destroying his friend’s room. They had sent him threatening letters and took things a step further by one night assembling outside the Rubrics building where he lived. They began to throw rocks at his window, so naturally he retaliated by shooting at them out the window with a pistol! The students scattered but returned a short time later with their own guns and shot back, wounding Ford. He died that same night and his ghostly form is said to roam around the front square at night, still seeking justice.
In a cruel twist to the story, the students ended up being acquitted of all crimes since they were disguised and their identity could not be confirmed by anyone other than Ford himself, who died before he could name names.
Famous TCD Alumni
Any university with prestige and a long-standing reputation is bound to have plenty of exemplary alumni, and Trinity College is no different. It has churned out more than a few Irish legends over the past in all disciplines, and although many of these success stories have come from the areas of literature and politics, there are also a large number of historical greats in science, law, arts and religion to name just a few. Three of Ireland’s nine Presidents once walked the cobblestones of Trinity; the very first Irish President, Douglas Hyde, studied languages and by the end of his tenure was fluent in French, Latin, German, Greek and Hebrew.
His passion for languages that he gained during this time led to him forming the Gaelic League and saving the Irish language from certain extinction. The country’s first female President, Mary Robinson, also attended the university where she studied law, and her successor Mary McAleese also spent some of her education there, eventually becoming a professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology for a number of years. From the world of literature, at least four legendary, world famous writers spent their formative years at Trintiy; nobel prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett whose works include Waiting for Godot, Dracula author Bram Stoker, Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift, and the wittiest of them all, Oscar Wilde, whose portfolio includes The Importance of Being Ernest, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and many more.
In more recent times, the highly respected crime journalist Veronica Guerin earned her accountancy qualifications at Trinity before changing professions and making a career for herself in media. A tenacious and talented reporter, she took it upon herself to investigate and expose Dublin’s crime gangs, and was tragically murdered by members of criminal John Gilligan’s gang for her efforts. Other noteworthy past students of Trinity College include a handful of Irish rebels who helped set the wheels in motion for independence (Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone to name just two), and of course Ernest Walton, one half of the scientific duo credited with splitting the atom and discovering the nuclear age.