Trinity College prizes its past, looks to future Dublin institution to mark 400 years

January 19, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

DUBLIN, Ireland -- From Grafton Street below and Westmoreland and O'Connell streets above, the early-morning traffic of cars, bicycles and pedestrians flows steadily around the outer walls of Trinity College.

At midpoint, between the statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith that oversee this rush-hour bustle, the splendid facade of the college is pierced by a small archway, through which throngs of cyclists and strollers pass on their way to jobs or classrooms.

It has been this way for centuries at Trinity College, where every morning a passing parade of Dublin life moves out of the urban turbulence into the green and calm haven of what one 18th-century writer called the "rich enclosures and luxuriant fields" of Trinity.

Founded on the grounds of an old Augustinian monastery, then far removed from the city itself, Trinity has become, as Dublin's center of gravity has shifted, a key part of the city center.

Chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592 and due to celebrate its 400th anniversary March 15, Trinity has been a bastion of Irish culture since its founding. Its alumni include William Congreve, George Farquhar, Oscar Wilde, Goldsmith and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett, who also taught French there.

Jonathan Swift was a Trinity student, as were Thomas Davis, the 19th-century poet and nationalist; Douglas Hyde (1862-1949), Ireland's first president; and Mary Robinson, the country's current president and its first female chief executive.

Ireland's leading university, Trinity holds the same rank and prestige in its country as the slightly older Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland and Oxford and Cambridge in England.

Steeped in tradition, yet devoted to the advancement of learning, Trinity is an institution trying to look to the future even as it enjoys the riches of the past.

Thomas N. Mitchell, Trinity's new provost, or president, lives in a building completed in 1760 that is a small treasure house of artworks and memorabilia. But Mr. Mitchell is something new at Trinity. Although a native of County Mayo, he spent most of his academic career in the United States at Cornell University and Swarthmore College before coming to Trinity in 1979 as a professor of Latin.

Last summer, in an election to a 10-year term by his fellow faculty members, he became the first Roman Catholic provost of a school that for many years was considered a bulwark of Protestantism.

Mr. Mitchell points out that Roman Catholics have always been eligible to become students at Trinity and that since the late 19th century the school has de-emphasized its Protestantism, until today it is what Mr. Mitchell calls "a non-denominational institution with a liberal non-sectarian ethos."

Mr. Mitchell, a quiet man of passionate convictions, is aware of the deep divisions that separate Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Trinity has 10,000 students, 300 from Northern Ireland, and if Mr. Mitchell has his way, that latter number will increase.

"Perhaps," Mr. Mitchell says, "by bringing students from the north, by letting them live here in Dublin for four years, we can do our part in erasing and forgetting the prejudices and differences that have bedeviled Northern Ireland for these many years."

Meanwhile, with students "from every corner of this island" and a smattering of international representatives, including 50 Americans, Trinity is edging past its neoclassic dimensions.

The Front Square, with its elegant 19th-century bell tower, still gives the college visitor an impressive introduction to the campus, and beyond that the New Square and the green of cricket and rugby fields provide handsome vistas.

The school's tradition of excellence in literature and philosophy continues: About 38 percent of its graduates have taken a degree in the arts, and two of the college's six faculties are devoted to letters and humanities. But the school also has a rich legacy in the sciences, counting among its graduates the physicists George Francis Fitzgerald and Nobel Prize-winner E. T. S. Walton.

With an annual operating budget of about $70 million, a little more than 10 percent of the University of Chicago's $652 million, it is not in the upper stratosphere of academic fund-raising. Mr. Mitchell says the school suggests to its full-time students that about $6,000 a year can cover tuition and living expenses -- less than half the room-and-board expenses alone of many major American universities.

A few modern buildings and a Henry Moore sculpture already dot the campus, and more new buildings -- a science library, a residence, a biotechnology building and a drama center named in honor of Beckett -- will be opening on the school's borders.

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