What does Trinity stand for? Students and guests debate the Berkeley’s new name with the Hist

Oscar Wilde, Eavan Boland, and the year 1904 were just a few of the new names suggested by speakers on Wednesday night.

On Wednesday evening, Trinity’s Exam Hall was – in a fashion rarely seen at the very start of the semester, long before exams – packed. Abandoning the sacred Graduates’ Memorial Building (GMB) for the night, the College Historical Society (the Hist) held their long awaited “The Renaming Library X” debate to provide five students and five guests with the space to explore potential options for the new name of the former Berkeley Library.

The library was denamed in April 2023 following a months-long student-led movement. Pressure was placed on the College due to the legacy of slave ownership surrounding Irish philosopher and the library’s former namesake George Berkeley.

Hist Auditor Áine Kennedy was quick to emphasise that the debate would play no part in actually deciding the new name of the library and as such, there was no vote at the end of night. This decision ultimately rests with the Trinity Legacies Review Working Group which was started by the College in November 2022 to consider “evidence-based submissions” on the naming of the Berkeley Library.

Anybody with ideas for the new library name are welcome to submit their suggestions to the group before February 18th. 

Oscar Wilde 

The night kicked off with a speech by English and Classical Languages student Brian Lennon, advocating for the naming of the library after Oscar Wilde. Dressed in a brown fur coat to help him “look the part”, Lennon maintained that while Wilde’s literary achievements speak for themselves, the more significant reason for naming the library after him revolves around his championing of individuality and youth. 

Quoting Wilde, Lennon said: “Ambition is the last refuge of failure,” and added that for Wilde, living in accordance with what fuels you, and only you – irrespective of societal expectations – was most important. A “defence for not knowing what you want to be”, according to Lennon, is a valuable lesson for all Trinity students to live by. 

Lennon also addressed Wilde’s sexuality and explained that as a queer man, he faced challenges and stereotypes that many still face in Ireland today. Naming the library after someone whose experience reflects the changes that still need to be made in Irish society was, for Lennon, another core reason for naming the library after this literary icon. 

Theobald Wolfe Tone 

Professor of History Emeritus at Notre Dame University James Smyth took the podium next.  Smyth started his speech by posing the question of whether Thomas Jefferson should be removed from all aspects of American society given the fact that, like Berkeley, he was a slave owner. 

Without providing a concrete answer to this question, he then advocated for the renaming of the library after Irish politician and advocate for Irish independence Theobald Wolfe Tone. Explaining Tone’s encounters with Trinity’s elitist, protestant culture as a student, Smyth described Tone as “an exemplar of a particular strand of dimension in the history of this college.” 


The next speaker, student Malika Maniar, took an unconventional approach to the new name and addressed perhaps the biggest elephant in the room: no major building on campus is named after a woman. She cited the tradition amongst female Trinity graduates of flipping off the Front Square statue of Trinity provost George Salmon who famously said: “Over my dead body will women enter this college,” and argued that there is not anything on campus that actually celebrates women who have graduated from Trinity. 

Instead of awarding one incredible woman, amongst thousands, with the honour of having a library named after her, however, Maniar suggested that the building be named after the year that represents “the first step in a long journey of inclusion”: 1904. 

1904 was the year that Salmon died and coincidentally the first year that women were allowed to enter Trinity. Maniar asked the audience to consider what values Trinity wants to uphold and concluded with a powerful statement: “By representing none, we represent all.” 

Paul Koralek

When students talk about the architecture of the former Berkeley library, it is almost never described in a positive light. But the fourth speaker of the night, architect Róisín Murphy, termed it the “pet brutalist building” of Irish architects and explained that it is beloved amongst professionals for what she called its “youthful, ambitious” design. This “youth” can, according to Murphy, be attributed to the building’s young architect Paul Koralek.

Born in Austria, Koralek was only 28 years old when he was chosen for the project in an open competition. For Murphy, he represents a vibrant period in Irish architecture when young professionals, full of fresh, unconventional ideas, were encouraged to experiment. She explained that architecture is so tied to power and that when the British arrived in Ireland, the design of the country’s buildings was one of the first elements of the country that they worked to control. This control is evident in Koralek’s later work – for example, Trinity’s Arts Block — as his creative freedoms became severely restricted by King Charles who described Koralek’s proposed extension to the UK National Gallery as “a carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend.” 

According to Murphy, this monarchical influence is reflected in the Arts Block which she described as “sad” when compared to the  “bubbling, young” design of the library complete with “concrete, sharp windows, portholes, and glass.” For Murphy, the Berkeley represents freedom and naming the library after Koralek, “makes you think that Trinity is vested in the power of young ideas.” 

Leabharlann na Saorise (Freedom Library)

Similarly to Maniar, the fifth speaker of the night, student Ben Kieran-Glennon, spoke fervently against naming the library after one individual. He explained that “naming the library after an individual perpetuates this idea that individuals alone make history,” and added that the concept of “the great men of history” is “neo-colonialist.” 

To really drill his opening point home, Kieran-Glennon asked the audience: “Who is Lecky and why does he have a library that’s always closed?” With the audience laughing and gripped, he advocated for a new name that reflects a common value among each candidate: a search for freedom. 

In order to do this while honouring the Irish language,  Kieran-Glennon proposed the name “Leabharlann na Saoirse” (Freedom Library). Along with allusions to a much-loved Irish actress, according to Kieran-Glennon, “freedom” is also significant to the library’s new name because it is something that George Berkeley took from human beings. By simply choosing a different person’s name for the building, Trinity would be only glazing over its past mistakes, instead of acknowledging what has been missing. He concluded with the following: “Don’t name this library after a person, name it after a value that acknowledges its flawed past.” 

Owen Sheehy-Skeffington

Some people like their dads. But we’re not all lining up to name libraries after them. The sixth speaker of the night, however, Professor of Botany and feminist Micheline Sheehy Skeffington had good reason to do just that. Before unpacking her father’s biography, Micheline briefly explained the achievements of her famous grandparents. Her grandmother was Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, one of Ireland’s most notable suffragettes who worked toward obtaining the right to vote for women. Her grandfather was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who was killed while fighting for Irish independence in Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising. But the focus of Micheline’s speech was the achievements of her father: Owen Sheehy-Skeffington. 

A slightly controversial but ambitious figure, Sheehy-Skeffington served as a Trinity Professor of French and a member of the Seanad. He fought for the inclusion of women into the Hist, was an advocate for ending corporal punishment in schools, and was one of the first individuals to expose the exploitation of children in industrial schools. He was famous for his letters to the press which were always “slightly comedic,” according to Micheline and it was these letters that eventually caused him to get banned from speaking at other universities. This willingness to go against the grain, according to Micheline, made him a champion for “freedom of expression in a very one-sided Irish state.”

Anton Wilhelm Amo 

Of all the name suggestions of the night, student Clare Tobin’s was, on the surface, perhaps the most random. Upon her proposal that the library be named in honour of Ghanan philosopher and academic Anton Wilhelm Amo, many in the audience looked visibly confused as to how Amo had any relation to Ireland, much less Trinity. Quickly, however, Tobin addressed this potential criticism and explained that it is the values that guided Amo’s life that make him the perfect candidate. 

Born into slavery, Amo confronted the society that did not value his existence by writing critical, highly persuasive scholarly works that attacked the status quo. He mastered six European languages and was one of the first African philosophers to work in Europe. He did all of this while maintaining his pride in who he was, using the title Anton Wilhelm “Amo Afer”, meaning “of Africa.” Addressing another large elephant in the room, Tobin acknowledged that she was the only speaker to suggest that the library be named after a person of colour and emphasised the importance of acknowledging the institutionalised racism that Trinity helped perpetuate in Irish society by platforming men like Berkeley – a contemporary of Amo.

Jonathan Swift 

The next speaker, Rev. Gordon Linney, started his speech with a line that caused the entire audience to grimace and then burst into laughter almost instantaneously. He exclaimed:  “Just to make you all feel comfortable, I’m going to talk about underpants in a moment.” 

As the laughter quieted down, Linney’s speech took a rather unexpected, slightly provocative turn as he asked the audience to consider whether it is fair to dename someone who is dead because he doesn’t have the chance to defend himself. Without dwelling much on this particular point (perhaps because the room became a little too silent), Linney addressed the fact that the crime that Berkeley committed – slave ownership – is still very much rampant today. 

Whipping out a fresh pair of his black Calvin Klein underwear slipped into a clear file case, he went on to explain that they were made in Bangladesh, likely by exploited workers. His central point was that slavery is not an issue of the past and that scrutinising someone who committed this crime without confronting its presence today would be wrong. This explanation comprised the majority of the Reverend’s speech but just before the time was up, he proposed Jonathan Swift as the perfect candidate for the new name. Citing Swift’s brilliant satirical writings, which challenged English Protestants and their mistreatment of Irish Catholics, and his generous donation of £12,000 for the construction of St. Patrick’s hospital upon his death, Linney had the audience in fits yet again as he turned to Records Secretary Tom Francis and told him off for ringing the bell so many times; turning back around to the audience, he mumbled: “father, son, and holy spirit.” 

Eavan Boland 

After Linney’s speech, what can only be described as a true rollercoaster ride of emotions, student Méabh Scahill walked to the podium and began by explaining her motivations for choosing Eavan Boland as the new name for the library. Her two reasons were both powerful and practical: Scahill first explained that Boland “carved out a space for women in Ireland’s [literary] tradition at a time where being a woman and a poet seemed irreconcilable.” Secondly and perhaps more importantly, “it would save someone a lot of hassle if they didn’t have to take the ‘B’ away from the sign.”

Scahill then recounted her Leaving Cert experience. To the surprise of the audience (clearly traumatised by their own secondary school days), Scahill spoke positively of her time studying for her exams as it pulled her toward the work of Boland. 

Scahill described Boland’s work as “arresting” and said that every one of her poems feels “like a challenge to the reader to think about our place in history.” A 1966 graduate of Trinity, Boland started working on campus as an assistant lecturer a year later in 1967 – the same year that the Berkeley (then called “New”) library opened. Listing off Boland’s many achievements, including her position as the head of the Creative Writing department at Stanford University and the task she undertook in 2018 to write a poem commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the first Irish women gaining the right to vote – which was then read at the UN General Assembly – the audience was left in awe. 

To finish, Scahill made reference to Boland’s poem “Outside History,” and explained that while the individuals that George Berkeley (and others) enslaved have “remained ‘outside history’” and while the wounds that they created will never fully heal, naming the library after Boland will, ”create distance from Berkeley’s legacy in an authentic way.” 

Constantia Maxwell and Annette Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven 

To conclude a night that repeatedly addressed Trinity’s failure to acknowledge the work of its female graduates, historian and Director of UCD Gender Studies Dr. Mary McAuliffe, honoured two women. While initially McAuliffe proposed naming the library after Constantina Maxwell, the first female staff member at Trinity and the first Lecky professor of history, she decided to add Maxwell’s successor – Annette Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven – to the name as well.

Otway-Ruthven was a medievalist who became known as the “‘Boodikka’ of the history school” for her “eccentric” personality and her outspoken defence of women as she nurtured the talents of many female students. Both women, according to McAuliffe, paved the way for future generations and did so while staying true to themselves and their passions; perhaps the best example of this was Maxwell’s unabashed love for her rather unusual pets as she and her sister regularly went to Dublin Zoo with their friends to feed their pet vultures. As McAuliffe explained: “anyone who has a pet vulture deserves a library named after them.” 

The Final Decision 

The night was a thought-provoking one that challenged all attendees to think about what they would like Trinity to stand for and the role that the new name of the library plays in shaping that reality. Speaking with Trinity News, Auditor Áine Kennedy said: “It was really great to provide a platform for this extremely important issue that is being so widely discussed and debated and to give the college community, particularly student voices, a space to talk about it … I think the Legacies Working Group has a big decision ahead of them.” 

Chair of the Legacies Working Group and Senior Dean Eoin O’Sullivan attended the debate and was also very happy with how the night unfolded. He told Trinity News about the importance of all voices in making the final renaming decision: “We have about 800 submissions and as the auditor suggested last night, to anybody who was in attendance or anybody else in  the community, we would really love to get your input … dates, concepts it doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. Submissions are open for another week and we hope Wednesday’s event encourages people to make more – either promoting the names from the debate or adding new ones.” 

Ruby Topalian

Ruby Topalian is a Senior Freshman, Dual BA student of Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures. She is the current Features Editor of Trinity News, having previously worked as Deputy Societies Editor.