Installation of the Portrait of Mary Robinson, Chancellor (1998-2019)
28th May 2019
Chancellor, Pro-Chancellors, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Welcome to this very special event.
As most in Trinity know, the Dining Hall and the Exam Hall are home to the largest portraits in College – and the only full-length ones.
Framed, the Dining Hall portraits are just over 3 metres by 2 metres, very much larger than life.
The last time a portrait was added to the walls of this Dining Hall was 1868. For over 160 years, therefore, the same faces have gazed down on us. By now, of course, I’m very familiar with them. And, at events in this room, I like to point out who’s who – I’ve a particular fondness for Henry Flood and Henry Grattan because of their gifts of oratory, and because their work to secure the independence of the 18th century Irish parliament.
Trinity, which is very good at preserving its traditions, is also very good at changing them, as the situation requires. Progressing and evolving, in a cohesive and considered way, is Trinity’s strength. For some time now it has seemed to me and the members of the Board of the College that the Dining Hall was ripe for this spirit of progress and evolution. This room is a monument to the achievement of 18th century Trinity graduates. It seems to us right, at this juncture of the college’s history, to reflect also the achievement of our more recent graduates.
We are, of course, spoiled for choice, there being so much achievement. But because the majority of the portraits in this room, including all the best- known ones – Flood, Grattan, Yelverton, Kilwarden – are of politicians who were involved in advancing civic justice, we felt it right to continue in that tradition. At which point, of course, one name leapt out.
We wanted to do something significant to mark the chancellorship of Mary Robinson. She sat as a Senator for the University of Dublin constituency for twenty years from 1969 to 1989 and was Reid Professor of Criminal Law. With her husband, Nick Robinson, she established the Irish Centre For European Law here in Trinity in 1988. She has been an exceptional Chancellor of the University of Dublin, serving for 21 years, during which time she has been an international figure, known and celebrated around the world for her work on human rights and, more recently, on climate justice. She is also, of course, the first female chancellor. Her service to this university has been transformative. We felt this should be acknowledged and celebrated within the perpetual fabric of the college.
We should note also that, since 1760 – that is for the past 260 years - there have been only male portraits in this room. Women were admitted as students to Trinity in 1904 and today over half our student body, and over half our staff are women. It’s about time this reality began to be reflected in the Dining Hall!
In short, as soon as the idea for a new portrait of the Chancellor was mooted, it inspired us as absolutely the right to hang it here, in the Dining Hall.
We were conscious however that it presented a challenge. There wasn’t an issue around moving one of the portraits to ‘make way’ for the Chancellor because on these walls was a portrait of George III, who, unlike everyone else in this room, had no official connection to Trinity. He will be re-displayed elsewhere on campus.
Regarding the challenge of finding an artist I recall talking to Catherine Giltrapp, Curator of the College art collections, who told me just what kind of master skills and technique were involved in creating a full-length portrait. But we were fortunate - Mark Sheilds is a member of the Royal Ulster Academy and his work is represented in the National Gallery of Ireland and the Ulster Museum. We’ll be hearing from Mark shortly and he might tell us something about how he rose to the challenge.
The portrait is wonderful. We’re thrilled to have a 21st century portrait to add to our walls. The portrait could not have happened without the support of our alumni and friends. They understood immediately the importance of celebrating Mary Robinson’s Chancellorship, and how transformative a portrait of her would be for the Dining Hall. They responded with wonderful generosity to our appeal. Many of our donors who contributed to this portrait are here this evening. On behalf of the whole Trinity community, my great thanks to you all. This project is a particularly special one because it is community-enabled. The portrait is a tribute to the Chancellor from the graduates.
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There is just one other full-length portrait of a woman in college. It’s in the Exam Hall and it’s of the founder of the university, Elizabeth the First.
Elizabeth is obviously some act to follow.
Mary Robinson, like Elizabeth the First, needs no introduction. Students and guests to the college will point to this as the portrait of the first woman President of Ireland and the first Irish UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well, of course, as the first woman chancellor of the University.
There is no shortage of stories of her distinction in all these roles. At every stage of her career, she has stood up for pluralism, human rights, tolerance and justice.
She changed Irish society, she changed Trinity and she is helping to change the world. As we inaugurate her portrait here today, many around Ireland and Europe are celebrating the ‘Green Wave’ – the remarkable success of the Green Party in the local and European elections.
This success is indicative of the increasing concern that people feel about environmental issues. Through her Climate-Justice Foundation, Mary has kept such concern to the forefront.
From my own point of view, may I just say what a great pleasure it has been for me, as Provost, to work with the Chancellor. I well recall the day in April 2011 when I was driving home, kids in the back, after having been elected Provost and my mobile rang and I pulled up and had to ask the kids to be quiet - Mary Robinson was on the line. That name did manage to awe them into silence. She was calling to congratulate me on my election to the provostship.
That warmth and support has continued throughout my tenure. She has been a wise and steadying counsel at the head of the University. It has been wonderful every Commencements Day to see her in the magnificent gold and black gown - commemorated here in this portrait - bringing her warmth and congratulations to the newly-invested graduates.
It has been unforgettable to see her, at the Honorary Degrees ceremonies, with our new honorands – in 2000, Nelson Mandela, in 2008 John Hume, in 2017 Hilary Rodham Clinton. There are few people in the world who could greet any of these as an equal – but she can. I know that the whole Trinity community felt immense pride in our Chancellor on these occasions.
Before she became Chancellor, she was herself conferred with an honorary degree here in 1992. The Public Orator then greeted her with the words of Euripides: ‘Honour has returned to the race of women’.
Between 1971 and 1997, the University conferred honorary degrees on thirty-two women. As Chancellor, Mary Robinson has almost trebled that number: eighty-one women have been awarded honorary doctorates during her 21-year tenure. That’s part of her legacy as Chancellor, but it’s also, of course, her legacy as student, professor, senator, and President. If we’re getting better, in this country and university, at recognising the achievements of women, that’s thanks to the activism and the achievement of Mary Robinson, in all her roles.
On behalf of the whole Trinity community, I thank you for all you have done for this university, in all your myriad capacities. We will miss you very much as Chancellor, but we are grateful for your more than two decades of service. We wish you the very best with all your future initiatives. And we’re absolutely delighted that you are now here in our Dining Hall, presiding over all these admirable men. Collectively these portraits tell the story of Trinity graduates’ social activism and civic justice, their contribution to the improvement of Irish society, through the ages.
Before I invite our Chancellor to speak, it’s my pleasure now - not to unveil the Portrait – in truth there is no veil large enough! – but to illuminate it:
Ladies and Gentlemen, thanks to the generosity of our alumni and supporters I give you our Chancellor, Mary Robinson, by Mark Sheilds.
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