Trinity College

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Trinity College

Trinity College, Dublin, the only college of the University of Dublin, was the first Irish university, founded in 1592. From medieval times there had been repeated efforts to establish an Irish university—an obvious need in a land devoid of higher education—but in a divided island it proved difficult to agree on a site or secure financial backing. During the sixteenth century there were a number of "paper universities" proposed that never got beyond the drawing board. It was not until the end of the sixteenth century that a proposal was finally successful, when the combined efforts of the Protestant archbishop of Dublin, Adam Loftus, some prominent Dublin aldermen, and the support of the English authorities led to the foundation of Trinity College on the site of an old monastery, Old Hallows.

The long delay had an influence upon the nature of the new university. Some of the earlier proposals had envisaged a broadly-based humanist institution. But by the time it came to be founded, the divisions between Protestant and Catholic had eliminated any broad consensus on educational progress in Ireland. Loftus and his allies among the Dublin aldermen were committed to the Reformation, and the university that they established was firmly Protestant, even Calvinist. Its appeal to the Irish population was therefore limited to those willing to conform to the state religion; indeed, it became the sole native seminary for the Church of Ireland. This essentially Protestant orientation was not finally lost until the late twentieth century.

After a difficult start, when the destruction of the Nine Years War (1593–1603) severely curtailed its income, Trinity found its feet in the early seventeenth century. Under the watchful eye of its first professor of theological controversies, James Ussher (1581–1656), Trinity built up its library and had by 1620 about eighty undergraduate students. Its theology was decidedly Calvinist and strongly anti-Catholic. The first three provosts—Walter Travers (1594–1598), William Alvey (1599–1609), and William Temple (1609–1626)—were all English Puritans, and the first two professors of theology, Ussher and Joshua Hoyle, spent much of their time in their lectures rebutting the claims of the great Jesuit controversialist Robert Bellarmine. As Hoyle put it, the purpose of his lectures was to "love God and hate the pope."

The character of Trinity changed dramatically in the 1630s with the appointment of a new chancellor, Archbishop William Laud in 1633, and a new provost, William Chappell, in 1634. Chappell was an Arminian—that is, theologically opposed to the narrow Calvinist system of double predestination—and was specially chosen by Laud to reform Trinity and bring it under closer control. New statutes passed in 1636 fixed the constitution of the college and reinforced the authority of the provost. Under Chappell the college expanded considerably, with the addition of new buildings and the appointment of medical and legal fellows, broadening its previously exclusively theological bent. The Irish rising of 1641, which destroyed many of the college's estates and greatly reduced its income, brought a dramatic fall in student numbers, and it was not until the Cromwellian reconquest and settlement (1649–1660) that Trinity regained its equilibrium under the leadership of the Independent, Samuel Winter.

The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 saw Trinity returned to firmly Anglican hands, and under the leadership of provosts such as Narcissus Marsh (1678–1683) the college began a long period of expansion. This was briefly interrupted by the arrival of James II in Ireland in 1689, when Trinity was occupied by royal troops and a Catholic was appointed provost of the college. But the victory of William in 1690 restored the status quo, and Trinity during the long eighteenth century, and throughout the nineteenth, became the bastion of the Protestant Ascendancy.

It was during the eighteenth century that the impressive architectural shape of the modern university was created with the help of generous parliamentary grants which led to the opening of the new library in 1732 and the completion of the examination hall in 1791 and new chapel in 1798. As the largest library in Ireland and chief seat of learning, Trinity played a vital role in the development of Irish culture, producing such notable graduates as Jonathan Swift and Edmund Burke. Though Catholics were allowed to earn degrees at Trinity beginning in 1793, the college's Divinity School was the seminary for the Church of Ireland, and the prevailing ethos of the college remained firmly Protestant. Even after all religious tests were abolished in 1873, many Catholics were reluctant to send their children to Trinity. One area where Trinity was in the vanguard of change was in relation to female students—in 1904 it became the first of the older universities in Britain and Ireland to admit women.

During the first half of the twentieth century Trinity struggled to come to terms with the rapid changes in Irish society, as the Protestant Ascendancy disintegrated and the Twenty-Six Counties became an independent Irish state. From the 1970s onwards, however, the university changed dramatically, developing as a modern center for research in the arts and sciences, with an extensive building program that saw the college grow beyond its original site to occupy forty-seven acres. The turning point was probably the lifting by the Catholic hierarchy in 1970 of its former ban on Catholic students attending Trinity. By the end of the century its student body reflected the composition of modern southern Irish society, with 550 full-time academic staff and almost 15,000 students, both of varied religious backgrounds.

SEE ALSO Bedell, William; Church of Ireland: Elizabethan Era; Church of Ireland: Since 1690; Dublin Philosophical Society; Education: 1500 to 1690; Education: University Education; Education: Women's Education; Maynooth; Ussher, James


Holland, C. H., ed. Trinity College Dublin and the Idea of a University. 1991.

McDowell, R. B., and D. A. Webb. Trinity College, Dublin, 1592–1952. 1982.

Mahaffy, J. P. An Epoch in Irish History: Trinity College, Dublin, Its Foundation and Early Fortunes, 1591–1660. 1903.

Alan Ford

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Trinity College