In April, student protesters at the University of Cape Town (UCT) successfully brought down a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes. The statue used to stand in prime position at the entrance to the campus with the imposing Devil’s Peak mountain in the background. Rhodes, the founder of the De Beers mining company, originally bequeathed the land on which UCT now sits. His history will forever be tied to the university. However, earlier this year a focused and uncompromising protest campaign sought to reevaluate that relationship.
The statue had long been a much derided symbol of colonial oppression, but more pressingly served as a reminder that a university of majority black students, was led across all levels of teaching, research and management, by whites. Cecil Rhodes’ statue embodied a racial hierarchy that still lives on. So, when UCT student Chumani Maxwele threw human excrement over the statue in March, it engaged much of the student body and inspired the #RhodesMustFall campaign. Incidentally, excrement was a particularly apt choice of material. In the late 19th century, the illicit trade of diamonds was a significant drain on mining companies, with an estimated onethird of all diamonds being stolen and traded illegally. For this reason, Rhodes introduced what was called the closed compound system into his Kimberley diamond mine so that stones could not be smuggled out. Workers could not leave the mine compound until their contract expired, and when it did they were forced to remain in the compound for a further two weeks whilst their excrement was examined.
Rhodes Must Fall is not an isolated case. In the US this summer a number of protests were staged against Confederate symbols, which are ubiquitous and celebrated in certain southern States. Flags were lowered and statues were defaced. These movements are part of a growing feeling that our monuments to history what they signify and if they can be aligned with our values today must be examined.
Of course, Trinity too can submit to that examination. For most students the fact that the full name of the university is The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin doesn’t have any particular purchase on the everyday imagination. Nonetheless, the university does command certain connotations within Dublin and throughout Ireland, and the statues around campus play a role in what those connotations are. Queen Elizabeth is memorialised in name only, however there are many monuments here which symbolise a number of things in addition to Ireland’s colonial past. Perhaps none of our statues deserve to fall just yet, but it is only right that we should first check to be sure.
If there were to be single physical representation of Empire in the campus architecture, it would probably be Edmund Burke in statue form. He is remembered for his attempt to establish a moral underpinning of the British Empire, as well as the pioneer of the political philosophy of conservatism. He also famously objected to the French revolution.
It would be easy to characterise Burke’s statue as the manifestation of the very chains Ireland fought so hard to throw off. Yet a mob with ropes in hand ready to pull down the looming statue from Front Gate would do well to remember Burke had a sort of integrity too. The MP for Bristol was a son of Dublin, and voted in the British Parliament for great emancipation rights for Catholics in Ireland. He also attempted to impeach the corrupt GovernorGeneral of India, Warren Hastings. It is still an insult, but he believed in a just British Empire.
He even founded Trinity’s Historical Society. For any mob with ropes in hand and looking for blood, there are more reprehensible statues to come.
Standing adjacent to Edmund Burke is his less wellknown neighbor, the poet, playwright and Trinity alumnus Oliver Goldsmith. With his left hand holding up an open book, and his gaze fixed on a page of no doubt exquisite verse, Goldsmith looks the picture of studious respectability next to Burke who stands tall and arrogant, hand on hip, looking into the distance and surveying College Green.
Goldsmith gave us one of the 18th century’s most popular comedy plays, She Stoops to Conquer, which last Christmas enjoyed a successful run at the Abbey. He came up with such politically astute lines as: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.” And also the humblebrag: “Modesty seldom resides in a breast that is not enriched with nobler virtues.” His epitaph, written by Samuel Johnson, only bolsters the case for his continued position guarding Front Gate: “The love of companions, / The fidelity of friends, / and the veneration of readers, / Have by this monument honoured the memory.”
However, the deeper you look into the details of Goldsmith’s biography, his goldenboy literary reputation begins to tarnish. Goldsmith was born in Longford in 1928, and enjoyed an unremarkable academic career, failing to achieve the grades required to access a career in the Church or the legal profession. Conversely, his extracurricular activities were much more colourful. During Goldsmith’s undergraduate years he took part in what is known as the Black Dog riot. (The Black Dog was another name for Newgate Prison, primarily home to debtors.) When a fellow student was arrested, a number of his classmates, including Goldsmith, kidnapped the bailiff (who had arrested their friend) and dunked him in the college trough. Then they took it upon themselves to storm the prison. Their group quickly grew into a mob as they marched through Dublin’s streets. Unfortunately, the guards fired on the mob as they arrived and two people were killed. In the aftermath, four of the instigators were expelled from Trinity. Goldsmith was very lucky to escape this fate and eventually be permitted to graduate.
As incoming first years stride through Front Arch as Trinity students for the first time, do we really want to send the message that Oliver Goldsmith is a figure they should emulate? One day Trinity may erect a statue of you too if you achieve mediocre grades and decide to storm the local prison.
If we were to bring down Goldsmith’s statue, it would not be the first time that its sculptor, JH Foley, would have had one of his works desecrated. A popular artist in Victorian England, a statue of Foley himself now stands at the front of the V&A Museum in London. Yet, unsurprisingly his works were less popular in Ireland following the creation of the Free State. Statues of Lord Carlisle, Lord Dunkellin and Field Marshal Gough were all deemed unsuitable and quickly dispatched of in 1922. If #GoldsmithMustFall were to become a viral Internet sensation, in a way it wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented for JH Foley, but merely the most recent in a history of dissatisfaction with his chosen subjects. And if Goldsmith were to be spared and Burke’s statue torn down instead, JH Foley would nonetheless suffer the same humiliation; indeed, Trinity’s two most prominent statues were chiseled by the same hand.
Anyone who has ever taken the time to piggyback onto a walking tour around College may know that the Provost George Salmon, who held his post from 1888 until his death in 1904, was not the paragon of gender equality Trinity strives to reach today. Any tour guide worth his salt will tell you that Salmon was quite the sexist, even for his own time. In 1895, the Board of Trinity College wrote: “If a female had once passed the gate… it would be practically impossible to watch what buildings she might enter, or how long she might remain there.” Salmon was a both a mathematician and theologian of great repute, however politically he was deeply conservative. As pressure to admit women into Trinity –atleast on a token basis to begin with – mounted, Salmon regularly enacted his veto to overturn the will of the Board that was gradually coming round to the opinion that women should be allowed to study as equals. It is rather fitting then that the first female students were admitted not long after Salmon died in January 1904.
Perhaps you think that this is justice enough retribution has been served and to take down the statue now would be excessive. Perhaps a student body, which today is nearly 60% female, is the best answer we have to the legacy of a sexist Provost so honoured in Front Square. That said, sexism is not the only objection to the statue. In 1961, the college authorities awoke to find that the statue had been vandalised overnight. If the college community did decide that Salmon deserves to fall, it almost wouldn’t be the first time it was attempted: taking inspiration from previous pranks on the statue of Lecky nearby, students threw paint and black ink all over Salmon during the night.
It is not entirely clear what the students’ motivation was. It might well have been that the upheaval of social norms the 1960s brought inspired the young students to desecrate this symbol of female subordination. Another plausible explanation is that the vandals were actually militant aesthetes. An Irish Times report from the scene noted: “it is considered by many to be rather ugly.” Writing in 1964, Owen Sheehy Skeffington too wrote that the statue “is not a work of outstanding artistic distinction.”
However, not all students were of this opinion. The sculpture is by John Hughes and was hewn from Galway marble. Noting this fact on the occasion when the statue was first to be moved from the Museum Building to its present site, a Trinity News article from 1955 bemoaned: “The statue is made of marble and it is not expected that it will survive openair conditions for more than ten years.” This sentence was typed in bold, such was the concern of the writer. Happily though, the prediction has proved incorrect and Salmon has remained intact in his current location for a number of decades in all his magnificent ugliness.
At the Lincoln Place entrance to campus there stands a sculpture commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA. There is nothing objectionable about the sculpture itself. Visually, it’s best described as a cross between a tractor wheel and a turkey twizzler (of Jamie Oliver fame). It could even reasonably be described as attractive, and of course a suitable commemoration of an event of endless significance in the history of science. And it seems the scientists were wise to make it a sculpture rather than a statue. They have learned the mistakes of their cousins at the older end of campus; history is kind to ideas, but not people.
Unfortunately, however, people are always involved somewhere. A quick glance at the plaque at the base of the sculpture will tell you that it was unveiled in 2003 by James Watson, one of the scientists originally awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA’s structure. So far, so good. Except, sadly Watson has a tendency to make the headlines for less cerebral reasons.
Aside from the fact that in his original work on DNA Watson famously failed to acknowledge the great contribution of two fellow researchers, Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling, Watson has voiced some really quite horrendous opinions in his time. The first concerns homosexuality: “If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn’t want a homosexual child, well, let her.” He has also suggested that it would be “great” if we “made all girls pretty” through genetic engineering. Then there is the racism: “[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same of ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”
The eminent biologist E.O. Wilson has described Watson as the most unpleasant person as he’s ever met. You might agree with this sentiment, but argue that the sculpture of DNA is not about Watson; it’s about a discovery which should be celebrated regardless of the individual who made it. Watson has no connection to the sculpture other than unveiling it, right? Well, not quite. Watson’s comments concerning race and intelligence were deemed particularly shocking, even for him, and so in 2007 when the quotes were made public he was forced to step down from his role as Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory. Then in 2014, Watson decided to put his Nobel medal up for sale, citing his lack of income since 2007 as the reason. The medal sold for $4.1million at auction.
With the money, Watson, who has ancestors hailing from Tipperary, decided to donate a six-figure sum to Trinity’s Smurfit Institute of Genetics, outside of which the sculpture stands. The double helix sculpture, then, is attached to James Watson by more than name and ceremony; it is an uncomfortable reminder that genetics research funding comes from an individual with a set of values that cannot be entertained by a progressive university.