Scholars' Dinner

Dining Hall, Trinity College

Trinity Monday, 29th April 2019

Pro-Chancellors, Fellows, Scholars of the Decades and New Scholars, Distinguished Guests,

Welcome to the Scholars’ Dinner. Today began with a meeting of the Board and the subsequent announcement of the new Fellows and Scholars from the steps of the Public Theatre.

This evening we formally welcome the new scholars, all 58 of you. You join our distinguished community of scholars and past scholars, some of whom, I’m delighted to say, are here tonight, including ten who became scholars in 1959, and four who became scholars in 1949, seventy years ago.

There are 109 scholars of the decades here tonight – the largest response we have ever had from returning scholars! And two scholars from 2009 were married on Saturday in Trinity chapel - Christoph Walsh and Roisin Donnelly.

Tonight, we also recognise fifteen new Fellows and five new professorial Fellows. Fellowship is a singular distinction that can only be achieved for serious scholarly research of international standing.

I’d like to extend a particular welcome to our guests from our sister Colleges. From St John’s College, Cambridge, we welcome Dr Graham Lads and Dr Orietta Da Roid.

From Oriel College, Oxford we welcome Wilf Stevenson, the Treasurer, and Sean Power, the Development Director.

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Today we also award Honorary Fellowship to Mrs Justice Susan Denham and Peter Fox.

Susan Denham is a ground-breaker – in 1992 she was the first woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court and in 2011 the first Trinity graduate to be appointed chief justice of Ireland. She served as Pro-Chancellor here from 1995 to 2010. She was involved in the establishment of the European Network of the Councils for the Judiciary, serving on its board.

It’s appropriate that as we celebrate Justice Denham’s achievements, the Trinity Discourse today was on Thekla Beere, a graduate who became the first woman secretary of an Irish government department in 1959. In her retirement, Thekla Beere chaired the Commission on the Status of Women, producing the landmark Beere report in 1972.

Peter Fox served as Trinity’s Librarian and College Archivist for a decade from 1984 and in this role oversaw the building of the Hamilton Library and the remodelling of the Old Library. In 1994 he moved to Cambridge as University Librarian and Fellow of Selwyn College. He is the author of Trinity College Library Dublin: a history, published 2014.

We are delighted to recognise the achievements of Mrs Justice Denham and Peter Fox and to welcome them here tonight.

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In Trinity Week we celebrate academic achievement, and this dinner is my chance to tell you about the opportunities we face as a university and the impact we’re making.

This evening I’d like to talk about Trinity’s relationship with the United Kingdom. At the Trinity Monday Dinner in 2017, which took place nine months after the vote to leave the European Union, I said that “None of us knows what the end picture will look like” and I quoted Robert Frost to offer the hope that “the ‘countless silken ties of love and thought’ which bind the universities on these islands may long continue.”

Two years on, and unfortunately it’s probably still true to say that ‘none of us knows what the end picture will look like’. Lack of clarity has brought frustration to many, and it has embittered political discourse. The backstop has emerged as a contentious issue.

Interviewed in The Irish Times on Saturday last, the Labour peer, Lord David Puttnam, who is a great friend of Trinity’s and a benefactor of our Access Programmes, gave his opinion that “the rebuilding of trust between the UK and Ireland will take at least a decade”.

This is obviously a highly regrettable situation. I’m sure we all join in wishing politicians and civic leaders well in finding a way through. I don’t seek to comment on the political situation. But I think it’s right to take this time to reflect on Trinity’s relationship to the United Kingdom.

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Trinity was founded by royal charter of Elizabeth the First, on lands granted by Dublin Corporation in 1592. Behind me here is a portrait of Adam Loftus returning, charter in hand.

From the start, the college had a dual purpose – Elizabeth wanted to further the Protestant reformation in Ireland; Dublin Corporation and merchants were conscious of the economic, social, and cultural advantages conferred by having a university in the capital city.

Given such origins, it’s not surprising that over the next three centuries, Trinity operated as a kind of hybrid - I think that’s the best way of describing it. It was an institution of the British Empire, but at the same time it educated many who criticized imperialism and fought for catholic rights and independence – people like Jonathan Swift, Henry Grattan, Henry Flood, Wolfe Tone, Thomas Addis Emmet, Robert Emmet, and Thomas Davis.

The gamut of opinion on campus ran from conservatism to nationalism, exemplified by the fact that the two leaders of unionism and home rule in the early 20th century, Edward Carson and John Redmond, were both educated in Trinity (though Redmond didn’t graduate).

These hybrid allegiances, together with a certain college pragmatism, proved crucial after Ireland gained independence in 1921. Probably the majority of staff would have preferred to remain within the United Kingdom, but they got on with the hand they were dealt. For their part, the new Irish government was also pragmatic, recognising the importance of continuity. In this transitional period, Trinity’s hybrid nature was important; it gave reassurance to many and the college proved useful as an all-Ireland body, arguably the most successful such educational body on the island because Northern Irish students continued to attend in large numbers.

Naturally, over the course of the 20th century, Trinity became more and more confident of its place in the new state. When I entered here in 1983, coming from rural County Wexford, I was conscious of coming to a completely Irish university, but with important global and European connections, and valuable British traditions, which created a cosmopolitanism that was not in evidence - at least not to me - anywhere else in Ireland.

In the course of my time here - short by the standards of some present! - I’ve seen the relationship with the UK evolve into something remarkable.  We are now benefitting from a wonderful new dimension: research collaborations, enabled by European Union programmes, and bodies such as the Wellcome Trust.

We’re currently in a Golden Age for academic research collaborations. Irish and UK researchers enjoy almost a thousand collaborations under the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, far more than Ireland has with any other country in the EU.

And a really great achievement of the last two decades or so, has been the full ‘ownership’ by the college community of the totality of our legacy.

For much of its history, Trinity’s hybrid heritage could present difficulties. At different times, the college authorities have played down one, or other, of these traditions. In the early 19th century, Trinity distanced itself from the republicanism of Tone and Emmet; in the mid-20th century it was the unionism of Carson and the loyalty to empire of past staff and students that seemed problematic.

We’re now comfortable owning all the traditions that have flourished here. This has been a result of initiatives on campus and in wider society – including Mary Robinson becoming the first Irish President to attend the Remembrance Day service in St Patrick’s Cathedral. The current Decade of Commemorations has also played an important role.

The 21st century strength of Anglo-Irish relations is a great achievement, given the history between our two countries. I’m proud of the part that Trinity played. I don’t over-emphasize our part but I do acknowledge it. It’s something the whole college community can be proud of.

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But the situation today, almost three years after the vote to leave, gives rise to some concern.

There are specific concerns around education and research connections. As we wrote in our Open Letter published in the Financial Times last November, Trinity saw a 20 percent decline in applications from Northern Ireland in 2018, compared to the previous year, a worrying Brexit effect. Since them we’ve seen a further 20% decline.

Beyond specific concerns, is the more nebulous but pervasive concern of what any souring of relations might entail.

Universities don’t operate in isolation, and they never did, despite the old moniker of ‘ivory tower’. Politics has always affected academia.

Which is to say, that any souring of relations between the UK and Ireland - whether through a hard Brexit or through the perception that Ireland is somehow responsible for thwarting Brexit – cannot but affect Trinity.

Outside of Ireland, Trinity’s largest alumni community is in the UK. The majority of our research collaborations are with the UK. Of our students going on to do postgraduate degrees, the UK is their main destination. Of our graduates looking to build their careers about, the UK is their number one destination.

I have no doubt that of the 109 Scholars of the Decade here this evening, a large number of you will have spent time working in the UK and may have made your lives there, including Professor Roy Foster, who will shortly give the toast on behalf of the scholars of the decades. Professor Foster’s career and publications exemplify the communality of the Irish-British heritage, of which I’ve been speaking, as does that of our new honorary Fellow, Peter Fox.

My first duty as Provost is to ensure that future students continue to have the opportunity to benefit from the UK connection which has proved so inspirational.

In the Irish Times, Lord Puttnam gave his opinion that “trust between the UK and Ireland can’t be rebuilt by commerce alone”. I’d agree and I’d add that I don’t believe it can be rebuilt by politics alone, either. At times like this, a total civic response is required; everyone has a part to play.

What role can universities play? What part can Trinity play?

Trinity has a specific role, which I’ve outlined. Within this campus, we have managed to reconcile and celebrate our different traditions. We have a memorial to the dead of World War One and we’ve translated the 1916 Proclamation into the 17 languages taught at Trinity.

And beyond our specific history and heritage, Trinity can play the role that all universities on this island play: we can educate our students to be open-minded, tolerant, receptive to different cultures and ideas, global in outlook.

Universities have responsibilities. Who and how we educate determines what type of person enters leadership positions in society. It could hardly be more important.

When I first took office as Provost in 2011, I quoted Erasmus in my inaugural speech: Ego mundi civis esse cupio, communis omnium. "I long to be a citizen of the world, a fellow-citizen to all people."

This is in direct opposition to Theresa May’s ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’.

It’s Erasmus I want to channel for our students – education should lead out towards a sense of ‘fellow-citizenship with all people’. It is through education that we build our common humanity.

Tonight, as we celebrate our new scholars, we celebrate the brilliance and discipline that enabled them achieve this singular distinction, and we hope that they will use their gifts to inspire generations, to further our common humanity, and to maintain and strengthen warm neighbourly relations with our sister island.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, I now ask you all to rise for the first toast of the evening.
“To Ireland”.

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I now call on Professor Foster, scholar of 1969, to reply on behalf of the scholars.

[Professor Foster Speaks, and raises the Toast to the College]

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Ladies and Gentlemen, the final toast will be to the new Fellows and new Scholars should remain seated. Everyone else please rise.

“To the New Fellows and Scholars”

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