Exhibition charts the extraordinary history of the Gwynn family

A new exhibition in the Library of Trinity College Dublin charts the extraordinary history of the Gwynn family, whose influence on university life led to Trinity being dubbed ‘Gwynnity College’ in the early 1900s. The Gwynn family papers, donated to the Library in 2017, offer important insights into life and events in Dublin, Ireland, and the wider world during this fascinating period of Irish history.

The Gwynn family represents one of the most significant dynasties in the history of Trinity. The family had important historical connections with the university spanning over 200 years and has produced a number of high-ranking university officers (including a Provost, Vice-Provost, and the first Lady Registrar), as well as professors, scholars, fellows, sportsmen, soldiers, and numerous alumni. Their achievements outside the university, in Ireland and abroad, were no less impressive, in politics, in military engagements and in?exploration.

Now for the first time the public can view highlights of the fascinating Gwynn family papers which were donated to the Library in 2017 by the great-grandchildren of John Gwynn. The exhibition, featuring 60 letters, photographs, diaries and legal documents, reflects not only the long association of John Gwynn (1827-1917), and his children with Trinity, but also offers fascinating insights into life and events in Dublin, Ireland, and the wider world between the 1850s and 1950s.

The exhibition ‘A Splendid Tradition: the Gwynn family papers’ will be on display in the Long Room of the Old Library until the end of March and forms part of the ‘Book of Kells’ exhibition. An online exhibition can be viewed at https://www.tcd.ie/library/exhibitions/gwynne/.  The exhibition is being launched by the Provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast, today, Monday, February 11, 2019.

Wedding of Hannah Gwynn to James Quinn, Trinity College Dublin, 1942. Hannah was the daughter of Rev. Robert Malcolm Gwynn (right, with cap and gown).

Speaking about the research potential of the collection, Ellen O’Flaherty, Assistant Librarian, and curator of the exhibition said: “The Gwynns were prolific letter correspondents as is evident by the over 3,000 letters in the collection. These letters, as well as beautiful photos, diaries and legal documents, offer enormous research potential to scholars and students of history interested in this fascinating period of Irish history. The collection, which is currently being catalogued by the Library, covers a broad range of topics: the experiences of Irish emigrants to the West Indies in the early 1800s, the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, the Pigott forgeries, the ‘Irish University Question’, the mapping of the Sudanese-Abyssinian border at the beginning of the 20th century, the First World War, and the 1916 Rising.  As well as getting an insight into these major social and political topics of the day, the reader can – through touching personal correspondence between various members of the Gwynn family – follow their daily lives, loves and adventures.”

Highlights of the exhibition include:

  • A letter written by the nationalist MP William Smith O’Brien to his daughter Lucy Gwynn (wife of John Gwynn) from Van Diemen’s Land in 1850. O’Brien was sentenced to penal servitude in Australia for his part in the Young Irelander rebellion of 1848. In a letter he wrote on Christmas day, 1853, Smith O’Brien sends ‘a parent’s blessing’ to Lucy and her siblings, and declares sadly ‘Happily for you, you do not know what it is to be alone.  Otherwise you would feel with me that Christmas day is the sad death of the year’.  At this point he had been in enforced exile for five years.
  • Photos and letters of Lucy Gwynn who as a woman did not have the opportunity afforded to her brothers of studying at Trinity after she left school. She went on to be appointed as the first Lady Registrar of the College in 1905, one year after the admission of women as students to the university. On her retirement as Lady Registrar in 1918 Lucy was awarded an honorary degree by the university in recognition of her services.
  • A letter from Maude Gonne McBride to Edward Gwynn congratulating him on his appointment to the Provostship of Trinity College in 1927; Edward was also president of the Royal Irish Academy between 1934 and 1937 and was a scholar of early Irish who authored a catalogue of Irish-language manuscripts in Trinity Library.
  • A letter from Charles Gwynn to his nephew John David Gwynn describing the Battle of Gallipoli. Major-General Sir Charles Gwynn (1870-1963), was a soldier, geographer, explorer, and ADC to King George V (1923-24). When he wrote this letter to his nephew David he was over 90 years of age, and in it he describes and analyses the Gallipoli campaign, in which he took part. Charles, who was himself the recipient of the Belgian Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’honneur during the war, claims that Churchill ‘had many great ideas but little grasp of many essential details on which the development of his ideas depended’ and that ‘the correct strategic decision was to accept the Greek offer of the direct advance by land on Copenhagen’.
  • Letters and documents of John Gwynn, who, like his family, had a long and distinguished association with Trinity. John (1827-1917) was RegiusProfessor of Divinity in Trinity, member of the University Council, a mathematician, a scholar of old Irish and of classics, and a self-taught expert in the Syriac language.  He is probably best known as the editor of the seminal edition of one of university’s most important manuscripts the Book of Armagh.  The published announcement of his election – in 1853 – to a fellowship in Trinity enthused that ‘[f]rom the day of his entrance into the University – when he obtained ‘first place’, a Royal Scholarship of £50 per annum, and First Hebrew Premium – to his election to a fellowship on Monday morning, his success in all the varied branches of learning cultivated in Trinity College, has been most marked’, and that he ‘is honourably known in College as one of the most elegant classical scholars of his standing.’

German and Irish engineers at the site of the construction of the Shannon Hydroelectric station at Ardnacrusha, county Clare, in 1928. David Gwynn – a student of engineering at Trinity College Dublin at the time – is fourth from the left.


Eunan O’Halpin, Professor of Contemporary Irish History added: “This collection of papers is extraordinary not only in reflecting the Gwynn family’s long and deep association with College, but the complexity and richness of their own lives as Irish men and women on the island, in Britain, and across the world since the early 19th century. The collection will be an enormously valuable resource to political and social historians alike.  The papers can only be made fully accessible, however, when they have been conserved, listed and digitised.  Their processing will require substantial resources, but the investment will prove its worth in terms of cultural and historical value.”

“For every single collection of material held by families — both from celebrated ones such as the Gwynns, and others less well remembered — which eventually reaches Trinity for conservation in perpetuity, hundreds are lost when attics are emptied, old suitcases thrown out, and dust-and-water stained papers and other material are consigned to the rubbish on the assumption that they would be of no wider interest.  Anyone visiting this remarkable collection should reflect on what their own families still hold unsorted and in danger in attics, sheds, box rooms or wherever.”

A Splendid Tradition: the Gwynn family papers’, Long Room, Old Library, Trinity runs until the end of March and forms part of the ‘Book of Kells’ exhibition. For booking, opening hours and entry fees please see here: https://www.tcd.ie/visitors/book-of-kells/

An online exhibition can be viewed here: https://www.tcd.ie/library/exhibitions/gwynne/