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Oxford and Cambridge Society of Ireland Annual Dinner
Since its very foundation in 1592, The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin (aka Trinity College Dublin, and hereafter TCD) has been joined at the hip to Oxford and Cambridge.
In its first century, successive TCD provosts were, to a man, Anglican clerics and Oxbridge graduates. Though in scale and purpose all three universities have since changed beyond recognition, those ties persist, testimony of which was TCD playing host (hours after the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, 26th March) to the second annual Dublin Oxford-Cambridge dinner.
Master-of-ceremonies and honorary chairman of the Irish Cambridge Society, Charles Lysaght congratulated Oxford on its win, while consoling his fellow alumni that Cambridge, with 60 black-tied or evening-gowned alumni to Oxford's 58 (plus another four with claims to both universities) had taken line honours at a dinner with Tenderloin of Wicklow Lamb, Sundried Tomato Crust, Rosemary Jus, Bearnaise Sauce and Seasonal Vegetables as its centerpiece, complemented by Chilean Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon.
TCD's 18th century dining hall offered scant evidence that evening in support of the notion that Ireland as uneasy with the pomp and pageantry, which the English so adore. Irishwomen Dr. Deirdre Kinlen (Oxon.) proposed the toast to Queen Elizabeth, with British Embassy First Secretary Elizabeth Green (Cantab.) doing the same for the Irish President. In the Provost unable to attend, TCD was represented by its Pro-Vice-Provost, Michael Marsh. In tribute to the fraternal ties between TCD and two particular colleges of England's oldest universities, George McCaw, Ireland's most senior Cambridge alumnus, of St. John's, Cambridge (this year celebrating 500 years since its inception), offered the pre-prandial grace, with John Dillon, an Oriel scholar and former TCD Professor of Greek, offering its post-prandial counterpart.
The Oxford toast to Cambridge was courtesy Ulsterman John Lennox, Oxford Professor of Mathematics and a public figure thanks to his spirited defense of Christian faith in the so-called "God debate," pitting him against such atheists as Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in venues as disparate as Edinburgh, Sydney and Birmingham, Alabama, as well as Oxford.
Harnessing heartfelt passion and erudition to his purpose, he repudiated the argument that religious faith and scientific explanation based on evidence were mutually exclusive. This was a false dichotomy, he insisted, comparable with the notion that the modern motorcar owes its genesis either to the science of the internal the internal combustion engine or to Henry Ford.
To propose Cambridge's toast to Oxford, Ireland enlisted James McGuire (Caius College), history lecturer at University College Dublin and joint-editor of the nine-volume Dictionary of Irish Biography. Drawing on the Dictionary's on-line entries for Oxford (nearly 1,000), he spoke of several favorites, including a Brasenose graduate, Hugh Cuwin, appointed Archbishop of Dublin and Chancellor of Ireland by Queen Mary to restore Catholic liturgy to Ireland, and who was quite as diligent in dismantling al he had done for Mary's Protestant successor, Queen Elizabeth. Whne the Virgin Queen was advised that Cuwin had become speechless, insensible and wanted to resign, she appointed him Bishop of Oxford.
Another who caught McGuire's eye was a former TCD Provost, John Pentland Mahaffy, an eminent classicist, Egyptologist and musicologist. To a TCD undergraduate, Ireland's most (in)famous contribution to Oxford, Mahaffy apparently declared, "Go to Oxford, Wilde, we are far too clever for you here."
Then there was Charles Monteith (Magdalen) and later Fellow of All Souls, the son of an Irish draper who, with the English publishing house Faber & Faber, accepted William Golding's Lord of the Flies after its rejection by 21 other publishers, and who added to Faber's stable such poets as Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Tom Paulin.
McGuire's last choice of Irishman with claims on Oxford was batsman Sir Timothy Carew O'Brien (1861-1948). McGuire paid tribute to his namesake, Kevin O'Brien, who this year scored 113 runs from 63 balls for Ireland to defeat England, a record in the 50-over World Cricket Cup. McGuire insisted, however, that Kevin O'Brien "has some way to go" to match his namesake, who had scored 11,397 runs in 266 first-class cricket matches, including fifteen centuries. Aged 23, he was enrolled in Oxford, "reputedly with the sole intention of obtaining a blue, which of course he did. Of his degree the Dictionary of Irish Biography is silent."
For the history of TCD and its Oxbridge connections I am indebted to the late David Webb, botanist, and to historian R.B. McDowell, now 96, TCD dons and co-authors of a tome at once meticulous, affectionate and unsparing, Trinity College Dublin, 1592-1952 (1982).
Bear in mind the College was founded four years after the failed Spanish Armada. "In such an age of fierce ideological conflict, learning was intimately related to politics," the authors declared, "and it was clear that education might be used in Ireland as a powerful auxiliary to military force by breaking down the two great barriers to the spread of English influence, Catholicism and the Gaelic cultural tradition."
Any institution spanning centuries inevitably has its low points. Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud (Oxon.) and TCD Chancellor, 1633-45, noted it was "as ill-governed as any college in Christendom, or worse." In 1689 when King James 11's army occupied TCD to house soldiers and prisoners-of-war, many of its dons fled to Oxford or Cambridge, returning only when James' army was defeated nine month after at the Battle of Boyne.
Throughout its history TCD has both mirrored and counter-pointed the wider drama of Anglo-Irish relations. In 1793, and long before Oxford or Cambridge, it opened its doors to Catholics. Yet in that same era, spanning the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, the 1798 Irish rising supported by France, and the 1800 Act of Union, its ethos moved from liberalism and Puritanism to loyalty to king and country and intolerance of dissent.
As the 19th century progressed, TCD admitted Catholics as teaching fellows (1873) and women undergraduates (1904), following which, from Oxford and Cambridge, came the so-called Steamboat Ladies, who had passed their final exams but by virtue of gender were ineligible to graduate. TCD obliged by conferring on them its own degree. Alluding to this bond, Master of Ceremonies Lysaght added that "women have [since] become a force in both universities. It is happy testimony to this that almost a third of those here tonight are alumnae."
In his History of Trinity College Dublin 1892-1945 (1947) Kenneth Bailey tells of the TCD dons in 1912 declaring that theirs was "an Irish university, with her roots stuck deep into the soil of her native land." The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, was clearly unimpressed. During his episcopacy, 1944-70, Catholic faithful were banned from TCD, inspiring the doggerel verse, Young men may loot, perjure and shoot / And even have carnal knowledge / But however depraved, their souls will be saved / If they don't go to Trinity College.
The decline in Catholic undergraduate numbers in those years saw their places taken by English matriculants, both Catholic and Protestant, who, rejected by Oxford or Cambridge, preferred TCD to their own redbrick universities. Some Catholics, not least Mary Robinson, obtained dispensations to attend TCD.
The role of Oxford and Cambridge alumini in shaping its Irish protégé is increasingly reciprocated, conspicuously so in Ernest Walton who, working in Cambridge in the 1930s Ernest Walton with Englishman John Cockroft, were the first to split the atom, for which they shared the Nobel Prize for Science. Other TCD alumni now in Cambridge include Professors David Ford (Divinity) and Brendan Simms (International Relations) with Professor Roy Foster (Irish History) at Oxford.
Neither TCD, nor Cambridge, will ever match Oxford, with 26 prime ministers to date, as a cradle nurturing future leaders, but among TCD's own are Edmund Burke, 19th century New Zealand premier, Sir Edward Stafford, Jaja Anuche Wachuku (Nigeria's first parliamentary speaker, foreign minister and UN ambassador) and two Irish presidents, Douglas Hyde and Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Human Rights and current TCD Chancellor. Conceived to consolidate English rule in Ireland, TCD has become one of its most precious legacies.
(Chris Ashton (Trinity College, Oxford, 1965), graduated B.Litt. (Social Anthrop.) Australian by birth, freelance journalist and non-fiction author by calling, he now lives in Dublin, where he co-founded the Oxford & Cambridge Society of Ireland).
Added: 11 April 2011
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