Trinity College has an special laudatory distinction: it is both one of the oldest and most beautiful universities in the world.
Having spent four years there, I realised that one could often forget to appreciate its history and its aesthetics. As a reminder, and for your enjoyment (I hope), here is a casual little journal which was written after one of my last walks around Ireland’s oldest university campus, with maybe some serious points thrown here and there (and with a couple of pictures I managed to take during my four years as an undergrad).
As you probably know, Queen Elizabeth I founded the college in 1592, when she was in her mid-thirties. It was supposed to be the ‘mother’ college of the University of Dublin, but destiny decreed that it was to remain a childless mum. The university has not opened any other college ever since.
The official name, the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin (in Latin, rightly so) — now, its Theology Department hardly teaches a lecture on the Holy Trinity.
There are two iconic buildings which everyone associates with the university: the Campanile (1853) and the Old Library (1732). It is hard to decide which one of these works of architecture wins the first place as Trinity’s main landmark. In the end I decide to start by the campanile:
Designed by the famous Sir Charles Lanyon (you are not expected to know him so don’t worry), Trinity’s Campanile holds a series of features which are often overlooked by students and passersby.
There is one face-shaped keystone in the middle of each of the four archways. The faces are those of Socrates, Plato, Demosthenes and Homer. They are there to represent the key aspects of a liberal education which Trinity once espoused and cherished: Ethics, Logic, Rhetoric, and Poetry.
Can you imagine any of these four characters strolling around the university and holding conversations with various groups of students?
Would Demosthenes conform to the politically correct jargon which is now used by the debating societies?
What would Homer think about the patriarchy and all the feminist theory if he signed-up to a module in Victorian literature?
Would Plato write fictitious dialogues of Socrates arguing with the provost or the Student’s Union president?
At the corners of the Campanile, one can see four statues representing the Higher Faculties of Divinity, Science, Medicine and Law. Business and Engineering were not always university degrees you know.
The Old Library, Thomas Burgh’s masterpiece (another once famous architect which you are not expected to know), was arguably one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. I say ‘was’ because it has now been sadly turned into a museum.
No students reading books. Only tourists with cameras.
Here is a suggestion for the Provost. Why not close the Old Library on Fridays (at least) for tourists and let the students have it and enjoy it for themselves? After all, Trinity is supposed to be a ‘private not-for-profit’ institution that cares more about the pursuit of truth (and beauty) and the intellectual wellbeing of its students than about squeezing as much cash as we can from tourists.
Whenever I think about Trinity’s library, the same quote always comes to my mind: “A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.”
Indeed, as one enters the library’s Long Room, the majestic wood and the distinctive scent of old books invite the visitor to detach himself or herself from the current age and to experience what was once the heart of the college.
Both bookshelf rows are flanked in the inside by a series of marble busts depicting a few of the most important Western thinkers and writers, some of them happened to be alumni from Trinity.
The more faces you recognise, the more likely it is that you are a well-read person. But it would be more important to really understand the philosophy of one or two of them than to know the names of all. Non multa sed multum.
In the same library, there’s a harp. When I say a harp I mean The Harp. “Es de la Guinness,” says a young Spaniard to his dad. It actually belongs to the first king of Ireland, Brian Boru, or at least, so rumour has it.
As one would expect, Trinity does not have a reputation of being either republican or nationalist. Interestingly enough though, it holds the national instrument’s archetype alongside the country’s most visited attraction, the precious Book of Kells.
About this book — the most beautiful handwritten book in the West — I will say only one thing: Why do human beings bother so much in preserving beautiful and sacred things? And if we do it to deepen our knowledge of the past, why, as Aristotle claimed, do we desire to know the truth?
As usual, I see no Trinity students wandering around the book’s exhibition. The truth of the matter is that a great majority of undergrad students do not know anything about this incredible harp or about the Book of Kells. This fact should point to the sense of belonging (the impressive lack of it) which many students feel towards that which should be their alma mater, their ‘nourishing mother.’
It is lunch time, and as I walk towards the Dining Hall, I notice that more students decide to go into the cheap-looking cafeteria called the Buttery rather than going to the most pleasant place to eat in the entire campus (that’s only if it is not sunny outside, of course).
I walk towards the college chapel not expecting it to be opened. It is always closed except when services take place. It’s the same with every Protestant church so I don’t blame them. Protestantism doesn’t believe in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, so they don’t have as much of an incentive to pray inside their temples.
Your Trinity experience as a student will definitely be incomplete if you do no attend a Thursday Choral Evensong at 5:15pm at least once. Beauty and transcendence can both be found there weekly. And this is true as well, that when it comes to singing, Anglican services put many Catholic ones to shame.
There also happens to be one tiny little oratory as you go in the building to your left which students and visitors are welcome to use in case they would like to pray at any moment during the day. An old lady with her rosary beads is always there in the afternoons. I like to think she was always praying for Trinity students.
As I come out of the chapel I have one last glance at the whole Front Square area before going to the main entrance. Trinity would definitely be a completely different thing if someone decided to replace the beautiful neoclassical buildings with something absurdly modern as the Arts Block.
Veneration. Firmness. Tradition. Classical. Beauty. Magnanimous. Only a handful of adjectives that serve to accompany the feelings which these buildings evoke when you contemplate them.
At the entrance of Trinity College, there are two statues, those of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith.
About the former, the name of this publication says it all. As for the latter, Samuel Johnson wrote the following epitaph, “Oliver Goldsmith: A Poet, Naturalist, and Historian, who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn. Of all the passions, whether smiles were to move or tears, a powerful yet gentle master. In genius, vivid, versatile, sublime. In style, clear, elevated, elegant.”
When I first read this amazing praise, I remembered seeing a tomb of so-and-so just a couple of weeks before at the Glasnevin Cementery with the following epitaph, “BComm UCD.” Quite a different one alright.
I always wonder what I would like for my epitaph to say…
Hold on, it’s beginning to get serious. I will break for now, and finish up this journal some other time. I know I didn’t talk much (anything at all) about the modern buildings and modern sculptures around campus. That was done deliberately, just as a I deliberately tried to imagine they weren’t there whenever I strolled around campus. Why? Because I prefer to see beautiful buildings and not merely ‘nice’ or ‘cool’ ones.
P.S. My greatest pleasure when walking around campus was thinking that Oscar Wilde himself had many times walked around this university as well, perhaps philosophising about beauty and love when he did so.