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History of the Office of the Senior Dean

One of the oldest officerships in the College, the positions of Senior and Junior Dean were set up by Provost Temple (1609-27) some time in the second decade of the seventeenth century. The Laudian statutes of 1637 carried a chapter outlining the functions and duties of the Deans with their most important functions being keeping discipline and, in the case of the Senior Dean, keeping the keys of the chest which contained the College’s money. At this time the Senior Dean was elected only from the body of the Senior Fellows with the Junior Dean elected from among the Junior Fellows as his assistant.

In terms of discipline, Richard Bolton’s translation of the College Statutes (1749) lists the range of potential offences the early Deans had to consider including, according to Bolton (1749), “Perjury, notorious Theft, wilful Manslaughter, Fornication, Adultery, Incest or violently striking a Fellow or Scholar, by which they are severely wounded, or shall even slightly strike the Provost, Vice-Provost, Dean, Chief Lecturer, a Doctor or Bachelor in Divinity, or shall on purpose spoil the Locks of the Gates, or by Stealth open the Gates of the College, or shall promote Conspiracies or Snares against the College”…punishments that could be, and were, meted out by the Senior Dean ranged from fines to whipping. In addition, the Deans were also responsible for overseeing the attendance at prayer of all members of college, issuing sanctions against those who did not attend, and for monitoring the activities of the scholars.

In 1699 discipline was lax: Two students who were found in the company of lewd women in a Brothel, and who had occasioned a riot there to the scandal of the College incurred no further punishment than public admonition.

Hely-Hutchinson (1775) gives a good example of the sort of disciplinary problem faced in 1720. “An exemplary punishment was inflicted on a person guilty of voluntary homicides; he was removed by the provost and Senior Fellows as a pestulent Member, and it was thought proper at the same time to resolve that no man should hereafter send, carry, or receive a provocation to single Combat, under the pain of perpetual emotion, and the possession of swords was prohibited under the pain of contumacy against the regimen. A Student was admonished for knowing of the late duel, and not informing either of the Deans, or the Provost, and soon after a Student was removed for having a sword within the walls of the College. The attendance on Divine Worship was also carefully enforced at that time: two persons were publicly admonished for not having attended the Sacrament for a year, and also for neglect of other duties.

1722 seems no easier for the Deans as Hely-Hutchison (1775) states that “From the many punishments inflicted and the enormous offences committed during this period this Society must have remained in a very disturbed state: many of the Students were expelled and several of them removed with resolutions against their readmission in the future. The offences were of an enormous nature, such as interrupting prayers in Churches, raising tumults in the College Courts, hissing the Fellows, violently shaking the commons intended for the Fellows out of the hands of the Sizers, cutting down a great number of trees in the college parks, insolent behavior to the Provost and Fellows and gross abuse of them." And in 1724 one student was publicly admonished for ‘’admitting a woman of evil fame into his Chambers” and another for “breaking the windows of the provosts house”. Later, in 1731 one student was removed for having a woman in the bed with him in his chamber, and another expelled for “furtiem notabile” (AKA theft).

The most extreme example of poor discipline occurred in 1734 when the then Junior Dean was threatened by students and had his windows broken. The Dean, who kept pistols and ammunition in his room threatened to open fire, which only incited the students further. One of the students was wounded in the ensuing fight and the Dean was killed by returned fire. This death, instead of raising compassion in the public mind produced very different effects. Some of the assailants were from powerful families who used their influence to prevent conviction, and in the course of the prosecution, which was supported by the College, a great number of aspersions were cast against the Fellows, and the College. The persons tried for murder were acquitted and the student who was accused of firing the gun left the country, living abroad for the rest of his life.

By the time of Hely-Hutchinson in the latter half of the century, the College had regained control of discipline and he states that “the Senior Dean, formally a Sinecours [sic: Sinecure], has been made an efficient office, and a considerable annual award given to him for his exertions.”

As might be expected many of the earlier functions and actions occurring at that time have no modern parallel but the generality of the Dean’s responsibilities in relation to discipline remains the same.

Prof. John Parnell

Bolton, R. (1749). A translation of the Charter and Statutes of Trinity-College, Dublin. Together with the Library-statutes and the Rules of the University. To which is added, a Table of Expences for each Degree. Oli Nelson, Dublin.
Boyle, P.H. (2015). Trinity College Dublin. The Provosts 1592-1927. Hinds, Dublin.
Hely-Hutchinson, J. (1775). An account of some regulations made in Trinity-College, Dublin, since the Appointment of the present Provost. Unpublished manuscript. Transcribed May 10th 1902.