Launch Gwynn Family Papers 'A Splendid Tradition'

The Long Room, Old Library

11th February 2019


Thank you, Helen, and good evening, everyone.

A special welcome to all the members of the Gwynn family who are here this evening and whose generosity has enabled this extraordinary exhibition.

Like many people in Ireland, and certainly in Trinity, I had some sense of the achievement and contribution of the Gwynn family to Ireland and to scholarship. I was aware of my predecessor as Provost, Edward John Gwynn, whose portrait hangs in the College Boardroom, an outstanding scholar in Celtic Studies and the first Provost to be appointed after Irish independence. I knew he was just one among numerous members of his family to adorn the faculty of Trinity. Indeed, of Provost Gwynn’s siblings, his brother Robert was professor of Hebrew here and Senior Dean; his brothers Lucius and Arthur played cricket and rugby for Trinity and for Ireland, and his sister, Lucy was the first lady Registrar of Trinity – she was appointed in 1905, just a year after women were admitted to study.

This dedication to scholarship has continued up to the present day. Here this evening isDr Daniel Kelly, Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College Botany Department, and another member of the family is Professor Fergus Kelly from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

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The activities and events around the ongoing Decade of Commemorations, has also brought to my attention the remarkable career of the politician and writer Stephen Gwynn, yet another brother of Provost Gwynn. Stephen Gwynn was a Redmonite MP for Galway City, a member of the Irish Convention, and author of some sixty books, including biographies of at least four Trinity graduates - Swift, Grattan, Moore and Emmet.

When you’ve spent as long in Trinity as I have then you can’t but be appreciative of the Gwynns. However, this exhibition is still a revelation to me, as I’m sure, to many. I confess I wasn’t aware of the extent and depth of the Gwynn contribution to Irish history. In this exhibition is an 1850 letter from the Young Irelander William Smith O’Brien, from exile in Van Diemen’s Land, to his daughter, Lucy who married John Gwynn, Regius Professor of Divinity in Trinity; she was the mother of the future Provost. This letter directly connects the Gwynns to the Young Ireland Rebellion, led by Smith O’Brien. That is truly remarkable.

From 1848 to independence and beyond, the Gwynns were intimately involved with every major development in Irish history including the Parnellite movement, Horace Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, the Gaelic League, the First World War, 1916, and the Irish Convention. And indeed their influence went beyond Ireland – yet another of the Provost’s brothers was a major in the British army with significant postings in West Africa and he wrote a book, Imperial Policing, now regarded as a classic in the field of low intensity conflict.

The Gwynns’ deep contribution to Irish history justifies this exhibition. But I would venture that even if members of the family had not been so involved with matters of national importance, this exhibition would still be important because it documents over 200 years of a family. Few families have documents and sources going back so far. That the Gwynns preserved so much is a measure of their prominence and also a measure of their scholarship.

Scholars and researchers don’t have to be told about the importance of original documents; they have an inbuilt sense of their historical significance. For many families, when they move house or move abroad, they whittle down their papers and possessions. They throw out correspondences, diaries, photos, drawings, press cuttings and legal documents for reasons of space. It’s true that over generations these things can accumulate. We can’t really blame our ancestors that they didn’t have space, nor see reason, to store them.

But when you get a family like the Gwynns who understood the immense social and historical importance of such documentation, who took the trouble to preserve and pass them down from generation to generation – well that family has earned our interest, regardless even of their political or academic prominence.

Our excitement about the current exhibition comes from a sense of touching on great events like the 1848 rebellion, but it also comes from viewing this continuous record of normal domestic life going right back to the 19th century.

For us, entering the second decade of the 21st century, we view this collection with particular poignancy because we’re aware that our own recent lives haven’t been preserved in this way. Our past is online and virtual – emails, social media posts, digital images. That’s the way it is – there is probably no going back. But when we look at an exhibition like this, we know that emails can’t compete with visceral handwriting on a page.

On behalf of Trinity, I would like to thank the Gwynn family for this really wonderful donation. I would like to thank them and their predecessors for their prescience and diligence in preserving these records. I would like to thank them for their trust in presenting these to Trinity. We look forward to honouring that trust – after this exhibition, we will begin the task of cataloguing and cross-referencing the collection and making it available for general consultation.

It’s my honour to declare this exhibition open and I hope that as many people as possible in Trinity and Ireland, and visitors, get a chance to see it.

Thank you.

It’s now my pleasure to invite the curator of the exhibition, Ellen O’Flaherty, Assistant Librarian, to address you.


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