Visitors to Dublin are likely to pay a visit to the Trinity College campus, with its beautiful buildings, and the famous Book of Kells on display. So how did it get to be so important?
English Rule Over Ireland
Right, so before we get to the university itself, we need to cover a little bit of context. For centuries, Ireland was its own country, and today it is again (except Northern Ireland), with the formation of the Republic of Ireland in 1922. But for several centuries, Ireland was under English rule.
Norman invasions of Ireland started in the 12th century, and established themselves as lords there. But it wasn’t until the 16th century that Ireland came under the rule of the English Crown. After his break from the Catholic Church (when the Pope refused to divorce his first wife), Henry VIII invaded Ireland to seize control of the country, under his own, new Protestant Church. In 1543, he declared himself King of Ireland. His daughter, Elizabeth I, would go on to consolidate English power, taking more lands around the country. Then, in 1801, Irish Parliament was dissolved and Ireland fully joined the United Kingdom (which Scotland was also a part of by then).
English rule over Ireland wasn’t just a case of clashing nations though – the Christian religion lay at the heart of it all too. Ireland was a Catholic country, whereas both Henry and Elizabeth were firmly Protestant. Thousands of Protestants moved over to Ireland after Henry became King there, and spent a long time trying to stamp out Catholicism.
Establishing the University
So what does all that have to do with Trinity College Dublin then? During the Tudor era, England had two major universities growing, Oxford and Cambridge. Most other European nations had their own institutions as well, which were becoming a growing source of pride and achievement for them. So it was about time Ireland got one as well then! The important thing too, was that Elizabeth I would establish this university by royal charter – to strengthen English rule over Ireland! And, at a time when religion affected every part of daily life, it would be for Protestants only.
Trinity College was established in Dublin in 1592, and is the oldest surviving university in Ireland today. Originally, it was meant to be the first college within a larger institution, the University of Dublin, similar to the many colleges within Oxford and Cambridge. That never happened in the end though, so ‘University of Dublin’ and ‘Trinity College Dublin’ are essentially the same thing today.
They used the old All Hallows monastery site, just outside the city walls. They had only a few buildings at first, with just a Provost and two Fellows. But over the course of the 17th century, Trinity College grew. The community gave them funding, they started more fellowships, planned the general curriculum, and began collecting books for the library. They also received the Book of Kells in 1661 – more on that later! At that time, undergraduates studied a general curriculum, instead of specialising in one or two subjects, as we do today. Though some would go on to study further in law or medicine. During the 18th century, they built much of the current campus seen today, including the Old Library. Trinity College soon became a well-established university, able to stand alongside other major European institutions
The clash of Catholics and Protestants has been a huge part of Irish history, and it’s no different for Trinity College Dublin. For the first two centuries of its existence, Catholics could not attend. This changed in 1793, when they finally got admission. But – since nothing is ever simple! – they could not be elected as Scholars, Fellows, or professors. Actually, only Anglicans could, so that excluded other Protestant faiths too, like Presbyterians. This lasted until 1873, when Trinity decided to become less religious. They stopped discriminating against Catholics, and stopped all religious tests (previously mandatory) except for those studying in the School of Divinity.
However, in response to that decision, Irish bishops banned Catholics from attending! They still felt Trinity was a Protestant institution, and it was now too easy for their Catholic followers to attend. If you wanted to go, you now had to get special permission from a bishop. Although, during this ‘banned’ period, the university got its first Catholic Senior Fellow in 1958. The Catholic church eventually lifted this ban in 1970. Trinity invited them to set up a Catholic chaplaincy on campus the same year. Eventually, the university even elected its first Catholic Provost in 1991.
Growing Trinity College
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the university continued to grow. From the 1830s, students could choose to specialise in an honours subject (as they do today), instead of following the general curriculum. New schools and subject areas were added over the years, including the first engineering school in the English speaking world in 1842. They added new buildings to the campus as well, to accommodate all these new departments, as well as the iconic Campanile in the middle of campus, completed in 1853.
Administrative power also changed, as it slowly broadened beyond just the Senior Fellows, to allow other professors to have their input. Women were able to study at Trinity College from 1904, and they appointed the first female professor in 1934 – although women couldn’t live on campus until 1972! However, by 1986 (and still today), women make up over half of the student body. The curriculum continued to expand all the time. Today, there are three faculties, each headed by a Dean, with many schools within them. The library now holds around 7 million books, housed in various locations. Student numbers also kept growing, including more international students, to around 17,000 in total now.
Today, Trinity College Dublin is the top ranked university in Ireland, and among the top in Europe. It enjoys a level of prestige, being one of the seven ‘ancient universities’ of Britain and Ireland. The others are Oxford and Cambridge in England, and St. Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen in Scotland.
Year of graduation
Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels – 1686
George Berkeley, philosopher – BA 1704, MA 1707
Edmund Burke, statesman – 1748
William Rowan Hamilton, mathematician – BA 1827, MA 1837
Charles Algernon Parsons, engineer, inventor of steam turbine – 1873
Oscar Wilde, author & playwright – 1874
Bram Stoker, author of Dracula – BA 1870, MA 1875
Samuel Beckett, author & playwright, Nobel Prize for Literature – 1927
William Campbell, biologist, Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine – 1952
Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland – 1967
Mary McAleese, second female President of Ireland – Trinity Professor, 1975
The Book of Kells Exhibition
Right, we’ve mentioned this Book of Kells a couple of times already. By now you’ve probably figured out that Trinity College has it – but what is it? To put it bluntly, it’s one of the oldest and yet best-preserved books out there. It’s a Latin copy of the Gospel, believed to have been created in a British or Irish Columban monastery around 800AD. The exact place and date is unconfirmed though! The book is one of the most incredible pieces of calligraphy and illumination in existence, beautifully crafted! There’s plenty of Christian imagery in it, as to be expected, but also images of people, animals, and mythical creatures, and Celtic knots, patterns, and symbols.
The name comes from the Abbey of Kells, in County Meath, where the book was housed until the 17th century. When Oliver Cromwell’s troops came to Kells during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (a series of civil wars around the UK), the town governor sent it to Dublin for safekeeping. Trinity College received it in 1661, and it has been on public display since the 19th century, in the Old Library.
Visitors will get to explore an exhibition about the book first, covering its origins and history, how it was crafted, and some details about the images inside. The Book itself is in a glass case, under low lighting, and they switch which pages it is open to on a regular basis – so you’ll just have to wait and see when you get there! A visit to the exhibition also includes entry to the Long Room of the library, a beautiful room housing 200,000 of the library’s oldest books.
Touring the Campus
While many people go to Trinity College for the Book of Kells, it’s also worth exploring the rest of the campus too. Entering through the Front Gate, you will start in Parliament Square, flanked by the chapel and the theatre. This western end of campus is the oldest part of the university. In the centre is the Campanile bell tower, and the Dining Hall to the left. Beyond, you will find Library Square, with Botany Bay and Fellow’s Square on either side, followed by New Square. The Old Library sits between Library and Fellow’s Square. The campus is then bisected by College Park, with newer buildings at the eastern end (mostly for sciences). Buildings are a mix of teaching rooms, offices, library buildings, and student residences.
A great way to understand what you’re looking at is to join one of the campus tours, led by current students. The ticket includes your entry to the Book of Kells, and is only a few euro extra! Students can tell you more about the history of each building, what it is used for, and some other fun facts and traditions connected to the university. For example, students never walk under the bell tower – otherwise they’ll fail their degrees!
Also, in summer the Zoological Museum opens for visitors, and the Science Gallery hosts three free exhibitions throughout the year (see website below for details).
Exhibition – Adults €14 peak/€11 off peak, Concession €12, Family (2 adults & 2 children under 17) €28, Children under 12 free
Tour – Adults €15, Concessions €14, Family (as above) €30
To take a tour without Book of Kells entry is €6. Visitors with an online Book of Kells ticket can upgrade to add the tour for €4. It is also possible to walk around the campus yourself for free.
Exhibition – May-Sep – Mon-Sat 8.30-17.00, Sun 9.30-17.00 / Oct-Apr – Mon-Sat 9.30-17.00, Sun 12.00-16.30
Tour – Schedule is posted at the Front Gate and online here, and is updated seasonally
Trinity College is a working university, so be quiet and respectful around the buildings, as people will be working and studying inside. It is centrally located in Dublin, with the Front Gate on College Street, opposite Dame Street. You can reach it on foot from most accommodation, or by several bus routes, or taxi. Information brochures about the Book of Kells are available in several languages, and there is a gift shop at the end.
Have you visited Trinity College Dublin before? Leave a comment about your experience!