Old Trinity: The mystery of our first female graduate

By Peter Henry

IT WASN’T until 1904 that women attended this university. In January of that year, the Board minutes recorded that “royal letters patent permitting women to receive degrees in the University of Dublin were received from the Lord Lieutenant”. That December, the university admitted women to the ranks of its graduates for the first time, when Isabella Mulvany, Sophie Bryant and Jane Barlow received honorary degrees.

But did another woman sneak into the Public Theatre to take a degree nearly two decades before these took their doctorates?

In April 1885 the Prince and Princess of Wales – the future Edward VII and consort – visited Ireland. Trinity College was one of the couple’s destinations during the royal visit.

They were received in the Examination Hall, where, the Weekly Irish Times said, “thoroughly pleasant humour was the order of the day”.

The newspaper reported: “There was not an inch of space in the hall, and the tedium of the long wait was beguiled with much harmless and hearty sport.” The undergraduates kept their seniors entertained, and, when the heat became uncomfortable: “The whole body of students by common impulse set up the cry ‘win-dow! win-dow!’ … until at last an adventurous don upon the dais seized the rope of one of the skylights.” Unfortunately for the don it was the wrong rope, and the hilarity continued.

The royal pair arrived eventually, and were treated to speeches from the Vice-Chancellor and members of the various societies. The prince recalled that he had previously received an honorary LLD from the university. He had been in Ireland several times previously, and even had his first amorous encounters at The Curragh.

After the visit, The Graphic newspaper published some attractive depictions of the scene in the Examination Hall. In one, the undergraduates are seen waving their caps as the princess is escorted to her seat, accompanied by the gowned dons and led by the macebearer.

There is a particularly interesting engraving on the same page. The princess is depicted holding a tasseled mortarboard, wearing the gown of a doctor of music. (This is identifiable despite the monochrome of the picture, as it is our only doctors’ gown which is not scarlet – it is white flowered damask with rose satin sleeves and facings.)

In the picture, the princess is being awarded a degree. The caption reads: “The Princess of Wales receiving the certificate of her degree as MusDoc from the Chancellor, Trinity College, Dublin.”

We might call it the MusD degree and be careful to mention the Chancellor in connection with the university instead of the college. But here is a woman receiving a degree from the University of Dublin – many years before those of the fairer sex were officially admitted.

A photo taken by Lafayette at the time shows the princess in her doctors’ gown. Georgina Battiscombe’s 1969 Queen Alexandra also mentions that the princess received the MusD from our university.

But the Weekly Irish Times piece says nothing. Its detailed account says that the royal carriage drove around the college as the crowds cheered, before leaving. But nothing about an honorary degree. Nor is the princess listed in volume three of the DU Catalogue of Graduates, which covers the period, or the 1913 Red Calendar, which lists all those who had received degrees honoris causa from the university up to that year.

On the same visit, the princess was made a doctor of music of the Royal University of Ireland, with her husband being awarded an honorary LLD. The RUI’s garb for a doctor of music was the same as Trinity’s. Could this photograph be of Her Royal Highness in her RUI outfit, rather than Dublin University, as indicated?

Did The Graphic make quite a large mistake, and fabricate its depictions of the scene in the Exam Hall based on confused information from its Dublin reporters, with the biographer Battiscombe being misled many years later? Or did the princess receive a Dublin University degree without the fact being widely publicised?

ON SUNDAY, the great 19th-century scholar, author and Catholic convert John Henry Newman was beatified Pope Benedict XVI in Birmingham.

The young Newman once wrote: “I really think, if anyone should ask me what qualifications were necessary for Trinity College, I should say there was only one – drink, drink, drink.” Sadly, that honour goes to Trinity Oxford, where the blessed-to-be was an undergraduate.

He was later a fellow at Oriel. In the historical essay “The Ancient University of Dublin” in his University Sketches the Oratorian seems to avoid mentioning our Trinity. Similary, the addresses delivered in Dublin and published as The Idea of a University make no mention of Trinity – certainly not directly. Perhaps Father Newman was being tactful, intending to prevent conflict or rivalry between the new Catholic University of Ireland, of which he rector-elect, and the well-established Trinity College.

Did Blessed John Henry Newman have anything to say about Trinity College, Dublin? If a reader knows, I would be interested to hear.

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