Unveiling of the Hall of Honour Memorial Stone

Front Square

26 September 2015

 

Your Excellencies, Senators, Pro-Chancellors, Visitor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

Welcome to Trinity College Dublin and thank you for joining us. Today we honour the students, staff and alumni of this university who lost their lives in the First World War.

We are now three years into "the Decade of Commemorations", the "long decade" from 1912 to 1923 which saw massive political change in Ireland, Europe, and the wider world. Trinity College was intimately involved in, and affected by, the events of the long decade, and we are playing an active role in Commemoration. We have organised events and exhibitions which explain the College's involvement, and which draw on our extensive archives and documentation relating to the period.

Today is one of the key College events marking this Decade. Few institutions in Ireland were more deeply engaged in the First World War than this College. Thousands of Trinity students, staff, and graduates fought, and almost five hundred died, in military service during the First World War and its aftermath. They fought on every front, from France to Macedonia, from Palestine to Mesopotamia.

Nearly a third of Trinity volunteers were associated with the faculty of medicine, but they came from all disciplines, and included senior academic figures.

Engagement on such a scale, in a conflict whose length and human cost no-one had anticipated, devastated the Trinity community. And that is not too strong a word.

The community then was so much smaller than now – in 1914 there were about 1,500 undergraduates.  To lose almost 500 Trinity people in four years was catastrophic – not to mention the very many who were wounded, physically and mentally, by participating in combat.

As early as November 1919, the university decided to build a memorial where the names of the dead could be held in "honoured remembrance", providing people with a sacred space to mourn.

The Hall of Honour, inscribed with the names of the 471 who died, was opened in 1928 having been funded entirely by subscription. It was designed as a portico to a new reading room, which was completed in 1937. The architect for both was Thomas Manly Deane, whose son Thomas Alexander Deane, was killed at Gallipoli. 

Through the beautiful and moving Hall of Honour, and the stylish Reading Room, the College commemorated its war dead.

But of course political circumstances had changed entirely since 1919 when the commemoration was planned. Already at the opening of the Hall of Honour in 1928, the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Glenavy – who himself had lost a son – spoke of "a growing conspiracy of silence" regarding the memory of the Great War in the Irish Free State.

In 1937, the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, opened the Reading Room but the war and Hall of Honour weren't mentioned in the speeches, and in the decades that followed it was referred to simply as the "1937 Reading Room".

When I was a student here in the 1980s, we were certainly aware of the Hall of Honour as we walked in and out of this building with its names of young men - Trinity students like ourselves - who had lost their lives so tragically several generations previously. But we weren't aware that the Reading Room was itself part of the memorial. And there was no state commemoration in Ireland at the time for the hundreds of thousands of Irish men who served in the British forces, and the almost 50,000 who died.

This began to change in the 1990s. Our Chancellor Mary Robinson became the first Irish Head of State to attend the Remembrance Day service in St Patrick's Cathedral. Kevin Myers, in the Irish Times, began writing articles on the Irish soldiers who served. President McAleese built on her predecessor's legacy by articulating so well the vital importance of both sides of the island commemorating what had been a joint war effort.

A state commemoration to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme was held at Islandbridge War Memorial Gardens in 2006, attended by the President, the Taoiseach and delegates from Northern Ireland. And in 2011 Queen Elizabeth and President MacAleese laid wreathes of poppy and laurel in Islandbridge to honour the dead.

The State was always going to commemorate 1916, but thanks to the "Irish glasnost", if you like, of the 1990s and the 2000s, it became axiomatic that "the Decade of Commemoration" would also include remembrance of the First World War. No major voice, I believe, has been raised against honouring the Irish people who served.

It's vital that as a country we acknowledge the entirety of our history, and do not value certain narratives at the expense of others. In Trinity we are proud of the part that our graduates and staff have played, nationally, in ending the silence that has surrounded participation in the First World War.

We are proud of our Chancellor Mary Robinson; of our former professor of Law, Mary McAleese; of our historians like John Horne and Tomás Irish, who have produced important works on Ireland and Trinity in the Great War; and we are proud of all those within the College who have helped disseminate the war experience during this "Decade of Commemorations" through teaching, research, and events such as last year's "World War I Roadshow", which invited the public to share Trinity's experience of the war, and to contribute their own stories.

In 2014, the centenary of the outbreak of war, Professor Horne raised with me the question of commemoration within College.

We decided that the best way to do this was to recall the true significance of this building. It can still be known as the "1937 Reading Room" but students and visitors should be made aware of the purpose for which it was built. We determined to commission a memorial stone which would explain this.

I thank the Memorial Committee, chaired by the College Secretary John Coman, for their work in making today happen. I thank the sculptor, Stephen Burke, for the really beautiful stone which we will see unveiled today.

In Trinity we have a mission to engage wider society, to demonstrate leadership, and to promote the values of a pluralistic, just, and sustainable society. Taking a role in publicly commemorating the First World War has been among the most vital ways in which we honour this mission. Edmund Burke put the importance of a nation coming to terms with its history most starkly when he said that "those who don't know history are destined to repeat it".

And by re-dedicating this memorial let us remind ourselves not to repeat it, that this poignant list of war dead, like so many other such lists in memorials the length and breadth of Europe, is a reminder of the destructiveness of war and the virtues of peace and negotiation.

I thank all of you most sincerely for furthering this commemoration by taking the time to be here with us today.

It's now my pleasure to introduce the President of Trinity Students' Union, Lynn Ruane, and the President of the Graduate Students' Union, Katie Crowther, who will read out profiles of some of those memorialised in the Hall of Honour.

Thank you.

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