Ussher Lecturers Celebration
Provost's House, Trinity College Dublin
7 June 2012
You're all very welcome to the Saloon of the Provost's House. This is a unique occasion for a unique group – the Ussher lecturers and their mentors.
Since becoming Provost last August – and indeed since before, when I was Vice-Provost – it has been my intention to hold a reception to mark these lectureships, to welcome you all, and to give you an opportunity to meet each other. I think it's interesting for you to meet because while you hail from different disciplines across different schools, as Ussher lecturers you form a cohesive group.
I know that some of you have been Ussher lecturers since 2010 but most of you only took up your appointments within the last year, which is why it's only now, at the end of the Trinity term, that I finally get this chance to meet you collectively, and to celebrate your appointments.
Of course new appointments are always welcomed, but the academic body of the College as a whole, is particularly heartened by you Ussher lecturers. Not only are there so many of you across so many Schools – but you represent hope, growth, and Trinity's faith in the future in a time of difficulty and recession. In fact in the call for applications, these lectureships were referred to literally as ‘new blood’!
In Ireland, in these years, universities that are in the public sector are facing cutbacks and are unable to recruit academic teaching staff in the way they desperately need to, to meet student demand for high quality higher education. A university is only as good as its staff – not to be able to hire, not to be able to renew and develop academic staff is nothing short of a disaster; it really is a question of the university's lifeblood being cut off.
Fortunately in Trinity we were able to find non-exchequer funds to enable these lectureships. I would like to acknowledge the role of the Treasurer, Ian Mathews, in securing these non-exchequer funds. Schools were invited to apply for candidates to meet priority research needs. One of the criteria was that Schools appoint mentors because these lectureships are specifically intended for academics at the start of their careers. We're extremely grateful to the mentors – and I'm sure the mentors, in their turn, are greatly enjoying the experience of “communing” with younger experts in their disciplines.
I'm particularly proud of this initiative since it was one of my priorities as Vice-Provost in 2009. It's not always that an idea bears fruit so triumphantly, but from a short paragraph in the College Strategic Plan of 2009-2014, there are now almost 40 ‘flesh and blood’ new lecturers in the College, from many different countries, and ranging in expertise from nanomagnetism to music composition, from implantable medical devices to 18th century French literature. If only all ideas could bear out so well.
A word on your progenitor – the onlie begetter of all these... As you probably know the lectureships are named for Archbishop James Ussher, who is often referred to as Trinity's first scholar. This is his portrait here.
Ussher was an extraordinary man - I don't have time to tell you all the stories about him. He was hailed as a prophet because he predicted the 1641 rebellion in Ireland, forty years in advance. He declined the provostship of this university – which I certainly consider extraordinary! He took the royalist side in the English civil war, yet when he died Oliver Cromwell insisted on burial in Westminster Abbey and a state funeral.
A fascinating man, but the reason why we gave his name to the lectureships is that he was a pioneering and meticulous scholar. His most famous feat was to painstakingly calibrate biblical events with those in ancient secular history to establish 23 October 4004 BC as the date of creation. This was widely accepted until well into the eighteenth century. It involved astonishing research – but it's a pity in a way that it's what Ussher is most famous for, since obviously it couldn't survive Darwin. What is more significant is the way he prioritised primary sources. He was a protestant evangelist during a time of religious warfare but he insisted on authenticity, rigour and accuracy in the use of medieval manuscripts. Scholarship owes him much. He deserves to name not only one of our libraries but these important lectureships.
You are the first Ussher lecturers - and you may indeed also be the last Ussher lecturers! We expect a lot of you – that you will help enliven and regenerate your departments; that you will open up new avenues of research, and inspire young minds as you too were inspired.
No pressure – but we will watch your future careers with interest. I hope that some of you will flourish here in Trinity; some of you may go further afield. But each of you can achieve your ambitions here in this great centre of learning and of research. I hope that wherever you are, you will be proud of having started your academic life as Ussher lecturers.