Launch of the Freyne Library

Arts Building, Trinity College

17 May 2014

Colleagues, Freyne family, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Welcome to Trinity on this unique occasion. Today we celebrate the learning of a remarkable man, as well as his generosity and that of his family. We launch his final book, and we also launch a new Trinity library. This is something that doesn’t happen every day, or every year, or even every decade.

Today the Department of Religions and Theology receives a unique and prestigious bequest: the life’s collection of its founding professor, Seán Freyne, who served this college for almost thirty years, until his retirement in 2007.

The Freyne Library, as we are calling it, is a multidisciplinary collection – with books from Biblical Studies, History and Archaeology, Theology and Philosophy – all centring on Seán’s field of expertise, the Galilee region in the first century as a context for the ministry of Jesus, and for the emergence of a particular strand of the early Jesus movement. This collection is important in its own right and also for the insight it gives us into the sources which informed the extraordinary scope and depth of Seán’s intellect.

The Department of Religions and Theology at Trinity College Dublin is privileged to house this library in fulfilment of Professor Freyne’s wish that it be made available to future scholars in his memory.

This is a momentous day for the College. I know that our Chancellor Mary Robinson, and Professor Mary McAleese - both of course former Presidents of Ireland - are regretful that they are abroad and unable to attend. Professor McAleese, a former colleague of Seán’s, described him as “an absolute gentleman… the quintessential Irishman, always asking the probing question.”

“Pluralism” is a word frequently associated with Seán. He was pluralist in his interests, in his interdisciplinary approach, in his travels, in his openness to other cultures, and in his commitment to disseminating discourse outside the university. When he arrived in Trinity in 1980, as the founding professor in the then School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies, he had a rich and varied background for an academic, particularly for that period and time.

He was a sportsman and a Mayo man – and these two traits were indivisible and essential to who he was. Famously he captained the Mayo minor team that got to the All-Ireland final in 1953 but he was barred from playing in the final by the authorities in Maynooth, where he was studying for the priesthood. Apparently, the final was on a Sunday and it was felt inappropriate to play on that day. Of course Mayo supporters protested vehemently but luckily the team prevailed on the day and Seán remained on the GAA board and was a stalwart supporter of Mayo football for the rest of his life, travelling down from Dublin whenever possible to attend matches.

He was ordained in 1960 and embarked on a glittering academic career. A creative, courageous and independent thinker, he allowed his life take an unexpected turn when he left the priesthood, married and became father to two daughters. We welcome his wife, Gail and his daughters, Sarah and Bridget here today.

Prior to taking up his Trinity appointment, Seán lectured at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, at Loyola University in New Orleans, and at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia. This experience and his growing reputation as a scholar brought him a large network of professional contacts in the English-speaking world and in Europe. This proved crucial in helping build up Trinity’s nascent School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies.

This school constituted the first non-denominational setting for the study of the Bible and theology within the humanities at any Irish university. Seán  helped shape an interdisciplinary academic programme that bridged biblical studies, history and archaeology, hermeneutics and literary theory, and theology and ethics, including liberation theology and feminist ethics.

Through his leadership, his publications, and his research initiatives, he brought together multiple voices, convinced that a pluralism of starting-points, disciplines, and perspectives was needed to unlock the Bible, in its own contexts and as a cultural heritage.

A former student - from his early days lecturing in Maynooth - remembered his “extraordinary capacity to communicate his excitement, and an extraordinary ability to ground the scriptures in the ordinary and the everyday”.

This talent for grounding the scriptures is apparent in his life’s work. His insistence on not isolating Jesus from the Judaic Galilean tradition was radical in its time. Prior to 1980, very few works focused on Galilee, especially within New Testament studies. Seán’s landmark book in 1980, “Galilee: From Alexander the Great to Hadrian”, was a watershed which unleashed a wide range of Galilean studies. Seán wrote on the historical Jesus, and took an interdisciplinary approach to studying Galilee in the cultural and political currents of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

He was not just a remarkable scholar, he was an immensely gifted director, manager, administrator, fundraiser, motivator. He had all the skills set and stamina of the great academic. He was instrumental to the creation of Trinity’s Centre for Mediterranean and near Eastern Studies, of which he was director. This provided the basis for teaching and research in Jewish and in Islamic Studies, and recently gave rise to a new academic unit, the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, within Trinity’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultural Studies.

Seán believed in the public dissemination of knowledge beyond the university lecture theatre, and was a frequent contributor to television, radio, newspapers and journals. His influence went far beyond these shores. After his retirement he spent the academic year of 2007–2008 as visiting professor of Early Christian History and Literature at Harvard Divinity School, and served as president of the International Society for the Study of the New Testament.

His imprint on this university and on his discipline is immense. And today, with the launch of this library, it becomes even deeper. I thank Gail, Bridget and Sarah Freyne for their generosity. We are furthermore happy to announce today the inauguration of a biennial Seán Freyne Memorial lecture.

Through these initiatives, we help cement Seán’s place in the life and history of Trinity College Dublin. As lecturer and scholar and academic director, he helped inspire generations of students and shape his discipline. Through his own publications and his library, as through the department he helped build up, he will continue to inspire generations more.

Thank you.

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