Spring Commencements Dinner

Dining Hall

Thursday 18th April 2019


Chancellor, Pro-Chancellors, Visitor, Distinguished Guests, Honorary Graduates,

Welcome to the Spring Honorary Commencements dinner. Today we’ve paid tribute to six exceptional individuals by bestowing on them our highest honours.

Since the Middle Ages, universities have granted degrees ‘honoris causa’ on individuals anywhere in the world who are judged of merit. Only a few exceptional individuals are ever honoured annually.

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This year is a very special honorary commencements dinner. For 21 years this dinner has been presided over by Mary Robinson in her role as Chancellor. This year she is stepping down from this role; this is her last honorary commencements dinner as Chancellor. I would like, therefore, to take this opportunity, on behalf of all of us present here this evening and of the whole Trinity community to thank her and acknowledge all she has done this university.

Mary Robinson is a graduate, a former professor in the School of Law, a senator for the university seat, and Chancellor. She has brought great distinction to each of these roles.

As a student in the late 1960s, she led the drive to re-think Irish society. As auditor of the Law Society, she stood up in front of a packed Exam Hall, just across the way, and argued for the removal of the bans on contraception and divorce, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality and suicide.1

As Reid Professor of Law, and Senator for Trinity in the 1970s and ‘80s, she came to national prominence for her courage in taking on then controversial campaigns for women’s rights and other liberal issues. She was notably successful in many of her campaigns and it’s a measure of how far she brought the country with her, that she was elected the first female president of Ireland in 1990. Her distinction in that role, and in her subsequent one of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, needs no elaboration.

For 21 years Trinity has been fortunate indeed in its Chancellor. Her international renown confers distinction on the university. Through her tireless advocacy for the causes she believes in, she has been an inspiration to generations of students, staff and alumni.

Her most prominent cause over the past decade or so has been, of course, Climate Justice. Her leadership here has directly inspired our students with their prominent campaigns of divestment in fossil fuels and a plastic-free campus.

Just a fortnight ago, we received the wonderful news that Trinity has been ranked 10th in the world for Climate Action, by the Times Higher Education rankings. The table measures universities for the quality of their climate change research, their energy usage, and how prepared they are for the consequences of climate change. I think I can say without equivocation that we would not have achieved this remarkable ranking without the example and leadership of our Chancellor.

I like to think of Mary’s causes as being distinctively Trinity causes – pluralism, human rights, higher education, justice, environmentalism, cultural diversity. I like to think that this university helped create her commitment and passion; there can be no doubt that she helped create the university as it is today. It would be hard to overstate her importance in inspiring generations.

And this evening I am pleased to announce that a portrait has been commissioned of Chancellor Robinson to hang here over the fireplace in the Dining Hall. The portrait will be unveiled here on the 28th of May.

I am particularly glad to announce this here today as Mary Robinson’s contributions like those of our honorary doctors, reminds us that a university’s primary purpose is to enhance the public good by educating the thinkers, doers, artists, and reformers that society needs, as well as yielding the research which improves our way of being in the world. Like Mary Robinson, the six individuals whom we honour today have served the public good in their different spheres. Between them, our six honorees have illuminated the fields of environmentalism and natural history, architecture, visual arts, economics, law and diplomacy.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s my pleasure now to introduce you to Trinity’s six new honorary graduates.

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David Cabot is a naturalist, ecologist and ornithologist who has devoted his life to the study of this island’s flora and fauna. His latest work, The Burren, was published just last year. He is a Trinity graduate and a distinguished film-maker as well as writer; he founded Wild Goose Films in 1988, and has produced renowned documentaries for RTÉ and the BBC. He has served as special advisor at the Department of the Taoiseach, and as Head of Conservation at what is now the Environmental Protection Agency. He has also served as President of the European Committee for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. At a time when the world is too slowly waking up to the importance of biodiversity and the threat of species distinction, his work is of the greatest international importance.  

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The Grafton Architects: Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara   
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara co-founded Grafton Architects in 1978. They have received many accolades for their pioneering work, including appointment as the sole curators of last year’s Architectural Biennale in Venice. Their university commissions are particularly celebrated including work at the Luigi Bocconi University in Milan, voted ‘World Building of the Year’ by the World Architecture Festival in 2008 and at Universidad de Ingenieria y Technologia in Lima, Peru, awarded the inaugural Royal Institute of British Architects International Prize in 2016. As it happens, their first university building was at Trinity (the Parsons Building) which they have described as an important turning point in their career.

Both Farrell and McNamara have taught in numerous European and American Schools of Architecture, including jointly holding the Kenzo Tange Chair at Harvard. They are both elected members of Aosdána.

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Carmel Naughton is a pre-eminent advocate of the visual arts in Ireland. After being appointed to the Board of the National Gallery of Ireland in 1991, she was elected Chair in 1996 and served till 2002, overseeing the fundraising, construction, and opening of the new millennium wing.

Between 2007 and its publication in 2014, she was the driving force behind the first ever comprehensive reference text on Irish art and architecture, coordinated by the Royal Irish Academy.

A Trinity graduate, who worked for many years as a primary school teacher, her commitment to education saw her establish, together with her husband Martin, the Naughton Foundation, which supports worthwhile causes in the arts and education, including the Naughton scholarships to promote the study of science, engineering and technology at third level in Ireland. Together with Martin she was named Philanthropist of the Year by the Community Foundation for Ireland in 2016. Her contribution to the visual arts has been recognised by numerous organisations, including the Royal Irish Academy, who elected her a member in 2006; the Royal Hibernian Academy who awarded her their gold medal in 2015 and elected her an honorary member in 2016; and the Prince Charles Medal for services to the Arts in Northern Ireland.

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Cormac Ó Gráda, Emeritus Professor of Economics in University College Dublin, is the preeminent Irish economic historian of the last three decades. His research interests range from eighteenth-century France to nineteenth-century Manhattan, to Mao’s Great Leap Forward. As a demographer his profound insights into the Irish Famine have broadened to a reinterpretation of famine in global history and a rethinking of the impact of bubonic plague. Of his many publications, Black ’47 and Beyond and Famine: A short history have received significant international notice. His award-winning Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce (2006) marked a new departure and displayed his remarkable disciplinary breadth. He was recently elected president of the Economic History Association for 2017-18, the first time an Irish-based historian has been so honoured. 

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Patricia O’Brien served as Under Secretary General and Legal Counsel to the United Nations from 2008 to 2013 – this is one of the highest posts in the UN and it’s regarded as the most important position held by a lawyer in any international organisation. Appointed to this role by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, she advised on all legal issues faced by the Secretary General, the UN Secretariat and the other principal organs of the United Nations, including the upholding and strengthening of the rule of law, the pursuit of justice and the ending of impunity for war crimes, genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. In 2013 she returned to Irish Public Service and was appointed Permanent Representative and Ambassador of Ireland to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva. She is a Trinity graduate and is currently Ireland’s Ambassador to France and Monaco.

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These six women and men are true role models of what can be achieved – in terms of their specific fields, and of serving the greater good. I congratulate each and every one of our distinguished and distinctive new honorary graduates.  We are privileged to have you join the family of the University of Dublin.

Before I call on Patricia O’Brien to respond, I would ask you all to rise for the first toast of the evening.

Ladies and Gentlemen, To Ireland.

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