Commencement Ceremony History


In Medieval universities one of the main methods used to advance learning and understanding, especially in theology and philosophy, was disputation, which consisted in the formal debate of a proposed thesis known as the Question (‘quaestio’ in Latin).

The role which members of the University could perform in such disputations depended on their degree status. Bachelors in Arts were permitted to counter an argument (‘reply to the question’). Masters in Arts could propose a question – the Latin formula for their degree includes the words ‘ad incipiendum’ which means ‘to initiate’. Only Doctors or Professors could ‘moderate’, i.e. chair, or preside over the debate. The award of a degree signified a step from one level of responsibility to another in the disputation. The recipient commenced a higher role in the search for knowledge and understanding. So we speak of the degree-giving ceremony as Commencements and, more recently, of students being commenced. Commencements is an ancient term which came to Dublin University through its founding scholars, most of whom were graduates of Cambridge University, in the late 16th century. The terms ‘Moderatorships’ for honors degrees in arts, and ‘Moderators’ for those who receive honors degrees also derive from the Medieval disputation but were not used here until courses for honor degrees began in the 19th century.

All degrees are publicly conferred under the student’s registered name, within degree class, by the Chancellor, or a Pro-Chancellor, in the Senate or Congregation of the University, at the ceremony known as Commencements.

Commencements are meetings of the Senate of Dublin University for the conferring of degrees; the ceremonies are conducted in Latin recalling the oldest traditions of European universities.

The Senate consists of the Caput together with doctors and masters of the University. The Caput consists of three people: the Chancellor or a Pro-Chancellor, the Provost, and the Senior Master Non-Regent, who is usually the most senior of the Junior Fellows and is elected annually to reflect the interests of graduates. Each member of the Caput has the right to veto any grace, or proposal, for a degree; a right that has been exercised only once - in the 19th century.

Candidates for degrees, other than doctorates, take the seat bearing their name in the Public Theatre no later than 30 minutes before the beginning of the ceremony. Candidates for doctoral degrees present themselves in the ante-room of the Board Room (entrance through House No. 1, Front Square) at least 20 minutes before the beginning of the ceremony, and walk in procession to the Public Theatre. Candidates will have their role during the ceremony explained prior to beginning of the ceremony. Candidates who fail to arrive in time may be refused admission to the ceremony.

Order of Proceedings

The order of Commencements varies from one meeting to another: at some only Bachelors are commenced, at others Doctors and Masters also receive their degrees, and, occasionally, honorary degrees are awarded.

The procession is preceded by the Book Porter bearing the Commencements Book, which contains the old statutes on the conferring of degrees and the signatures of Senior and Junior Proctors since 1625. Then follow any who are to be commenced as doctors including, on occasion, recipients of honorary degrees. Next comes the Senior Proctor wearing, as the Statutes require, a Bachelor’s gown. The Mace Bearer precedes the Caput: the Senior Master Non-Regent, the Provost and the Chancellor, or Pro-Chancellor, in this reverse order of seniority.

The Chancellor opens the meeting with the Comitia. The Registrar reads in Latin the minutes of the last meeting of the Senate which are then signed by the Chancellor. The Junior Proctor supplicates for the degree of Bachelor in Arts and the Senior Proctor supplicates for all other degrees.

The award of the degrees having been approved, the admission of the candidates begins. The Junior Proctor presents the Bachelors in Arts and the Senior Lecturer introduces those who are Moderators. In accordance with long standing custom the Regius Professors of Divinity, Law, Medicine and Surgery introduce candidates for degrees in these subjects. The Senior Proctor, or the head of the appropriate faculty or school, presents the candidates for other degrees. Candidates for each degree, within class, stand in their places and are presented to the Senate; they are then called to the dais in groups. Each is admitted by the Chancellor, and presented with their degree parchment. All sign the Register of Graduates before returning to their places.

Finally the Chancellor closes the Commencements ceremony with the Valete. The Caput, led by the Mace Bearer processes out of the Public Theatre, followed by the graduates conferred. The procession proceeds to the Dining Hall to where a reception is held for the graduates and their guests.