Old Trinity: Good-humoured rioting on degree day

By Peter Henry

Any sensible person ought to be irritated by the perpetuation of fabricated stories of university traditions. I have met a graduate who claims to know the student who invented the “you can shoot Catholics from that window” story. And walking under the Campanile will cause you to fail your examinations? They have that one in Cork.

Perhaps people aren’t to be blamed for peddling these lies. After all, since the 1960s this university has divested itself of most of the things that made it unique. Falsities rush in to fill the vacuum left by the eradication of our true traditions.

Commencements is one of the survivals. The human condition seems to demand solemnity, ritual and formality for great occasions, and so we are lucky that no know-all administrator or left-leaning academic attempted to interfere with the ceremony in the wake of the Sixties. We could have been saddled with a vernacular smile-fest in the Arts Building. With everyone wearing his best hoody.

This etching must be one of the oldest depictions of Commencements – perhaps the oldest. Printed in the Daily Graphic newspaper on May 14, 1890, it shows how few people took their degrees at each session in the 19th century. Just a few candidates are lined up, with some young females eyeing up the group. In the picture, several men can be identified. The provost, George Salmon, is seated to the left. Then there’s the Rev Dr Haughton, professor of Geology, who is famous for perfecting the hanging of criminals, ensuring their necks broke at the time of the drop. The man in the large chair wearing glasses is the Rt Hon John Thomas Ball, then Vice-Chancellor of the university. A Trinity graduate himself, Ball was Attorney General for Ireland and an MP for Dublin University. Mr Cathcart, a Fellow, is in the chair to his left.

The accompanying text lets us know that professors Dowden, Mahaffy and Tyrell were also there, and explains that, in 1890, the event had become relatively tame: “These so- called ‘commencements’ used to be the occasion for a great deal of good-humoured rioting and horse-play on the part of the students. The Trinity boys are now far quieter than they used to be.”

An account of the proceedings at Commencements earlier in the 19th century is preserved in a letter of William Smyth Guinness. He wrote about his 1816 BA Commencements to his brother. (He later took the MA, in 1826.) Mr Guinness’s letter was reprinted in the late provost William Watts’s 2008 A Memoir.

The young Guinness recounts how, at the time, graduands knelt to receive their degrees: “We the candidate bachelors knelt at the table and repeated, after one of the Senior Fellows, who read them out of the Statutes, certain oaths in the Latin language… Then we individually knelt upon a cushion at the Vice Chancellor’s feet, and having laid our hands upon another velvet cushion upon the table before him, he covered them with his and pronounced in Latin the form of conferring the degree.”

The hand-touching is also no more, but a similar ritual is preserved in Cambridge, where five graduates will hold the five fingers of the chancellor when receiving their degrees. The Latin survives, and, mercifully, invocations of God. The Chancellor opens the ceremony, even today, by saying “Comitia fiant in nomine Dei” – Let Commencements begin in the name of God. The conclusion is appropriately Trinitarian: “Comitia solvantur in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti” – Let Commencements be adjourned in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

THIS COLUMN has already pointed out that both MBs and BAs – that is, all medicine graduates and most other bachelors – are supplied with hoods of incorrect shapes when receiving their degrees. This has not yet been remedied. I also noticed at Summer Commencements this year that no master received a Dublin masters’ gown – everyone was supplied with an Oxford MA gown. The difference is slight, the shape of the end of the sleeve being distinctive – but when handing over money, one does expect the correct gown. One MA was even given a Queen’s Belfast bachelors’ gown – nothing at all like a Dublin masters’ gown. The staff members’ enthusiasm for pinning the hood to the gown is contemptible. A hood will sit perfectly well without safety pins.

ON THE subject of degrees, a nice Limerick stands out among the unfunny rubbish in the Trinity Rag Mag of 1980. Unlikely to have originated here, it is nevertheless witty: “A maiden at college named Breeze/Weighed down by BAs and LittDs/Collapsed from the strain/Alas it was plain/She was killing herself by degrees.”
A timeless warning to perpetual students, I suppose.

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