A unique view of Irish history at Trinity College

Trinity College has more to see than only the Book of Kells

I was certain that I could cut into Trinity College from Pearse Street, but the college area is sealed from the rest of the city with only four entrances. Our walk took us around the curve to the main entrance. I walked in over wooden pavement that spanned the entryway and where I promptly saw a sign advertising walking tours of the College.

I was a bit surprised since I thought this was a day that would find Dublin closed for the most part. A student wearing some sort of college robe, just a few steps later, was hawking his tour and he assured me that the Old Library and the Book of Kells exhibition were both open.

The student tour leader, Jaime was his name, collected €10 for the tour and entrance to the Book of Kells, then suggested we head across the street and pop into the Bank of Ireland, that used to be the Irish Parliament. (The bank was open on a bank holiday; go figure.) He told us that we could wander in and see it before his walking tour started.

Of course, there is more to the story, I am sure, but Jaime quickly offered the basic history that the Parliament was here until that parliament was abolished by the Act of Union of 1800 and moved to Westminster.

The building was to be the first purpose-built two-chamber parliament building in the world. When the British mandated that the Irish Parliament be consolidated and moved, they also decreed that the building be modified so that it could never be used as a parliament building again.

The original House of Lords chamber, which remained unscathed, can be visited. When we walked through the door to the chamber it was filled with students getting a lecture on Irish history. Unfortunately, the House of Commons was split up into smaller offices.

We hurried back across the street into Trinity College, where Jaime was gathering his tourist flock of about two dozen travelers from the corners of the world for their stroll through the college grounds.

This college quadrangle saw the development of some of the world’s great authors — Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, John Ruskin, Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Swift, among others. This is one of the centers of the modern Western literary world.

Global Entry Primer DownloadWe learned about the founding of the college in 1592 just outside of the city walls in the remains of an Augustinian Monastery that had fallen into disrepair after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. Religious friction has always played a part in the history of the college, as it has in the country in general. (Catholics who attended could face excommunication.)

Women were not admitted until the turn of the century, in 1904. Of course, former provost George Salmon, who actively opposed the admission of women, has a prominent statue in the quadrangle. Jaime wryly notes, “He bequeathed a massive amount of money to the college with the stipulation that a statue be erected.” So, there he sits next to the bell tower, or Campanile.

Jaime let us know that Trinity College was the only foreign college that was approved for the GI Bill. That brought lots of former soldiers to the campus, where they added a new element to the student life and were known as Ginger Men. J. P. Donleavy’s racy novel, “Ginger Man,” about bawdy adventures in Ireland, was originally banned in Ireland and the US for obscenity.

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At the ends of the first U-shaped courtyard buildings entered through the main entrance stands the examination hall on the left and the chapel on the right. We learned that it was presented that students would be examined by both man and by God.

The entryway with the wooden pavement passed directly under the school of music practice rooms. Hence, the wooden pavement I noticed; it was installed to provide less noise than cobblestones in consideration of students practicing music.

The Campanile

The Campanile, or bell tower, stands where the original Augustinian one stood. We heard about two bells that are rung from the campanile — one only rarely and the second from the original bell tower of the priory that is rung daily to summon students to meals.

On the other side of the bell tower, a quadrangle with giant maples transplanted by students who brought them from the US were standing in their autumn glory. Of course, the gas-powered blowers were noisily blowing those leaves that had already fallen.

Finally, Jamie told us a tale of a student prank gone bad — a professor, living in the oldest building on campus, ended up dying after being wounded in a very sensitive area of his body.

It seems that students thought it might be fun to throw rocks at a particularly difficult professor’s windows. Unfortunately, most of the windows in his apartment were broken from the barrage of rocks. He fired his pistol in the air to disperse the crowd. Most of the students fled, but a few took the professor’s actions as an attack and ran back to their rooms and regrouped with weapons.

Museum Building — arches that echo the Mosque in Cordoba.

A battle ensued and the professor received his wound and died. In the court case that followed the judge decreed that since there were no witnesses (the night watchman admitted that he has been “in drink”) and since the professor had been part of the action, no charges would be filed. No students were found guilty. Of course, no professors have been gunned down since, either.

Jaime recounted a story about the Old Library and how it is a bit larger than the library in Oxford (an important bit of Irish pride). He followed with a tongue-in-cheek comment about the modern cement building, supposedly based on the architect’s concept of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, that stands in stark contrast across from the Old Library.

As an aside, Jaime suggested we take a look at the Museum Building prior to entering the Old Library and the Book of Kells exhibition. He explained that he found that building the most enigmatic of the campus, with an exterior based on a Venetian palace and the hallway and staircases are adorned with arches that echo the Mosque in Cordoba and an entrance way is flanked by giant skeletons of moose.

Finally, we headed to the normal tourist haunt of Trinity, the Old Library and its Book of Kells exhibition. It is the equivalent of our Library of Congress for Ireland. The Old Library is one of the world’s largest reading rooms. It is rumored that it was used as the inspiration for one of the settings in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. Books are organized, not by title, not by author, not by subject, but by size. Very strange.

Finally, we walked into the Book of Kells exhibition. It is simply spectacular. The decorations of the illuminated manuscripts are considered to be the most beautiful in the world. The story of the book, its creation, Viking battles and its eventual salvation is something that could very easily be made into a movie. (It may have already been done.)Trinity College Dublin

Afterward, we headed out the Nassau Street exit of Trinity, walked through the Kilkenny Design exhibition and stopped for a cup of coffee and a scone at Coffeeangel, that turned out to be the perfect spot to park ourselves for a few minutes.