Trinity College Dublin ponders de-naming Berkeley library

Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin (founded 1592) will shortly decide whether or not to retain the name of its largest library, which is called after Irish philosopher and former slave owner in the United States Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753).

The outcome will be of interest to the University of California (UC), Berkeley and Berkeley city, both of which are named after him, and to Yale University where there have been calls from student activists to rename one of its colleges which also bears his name.

A Trinity Legacies Review Working Group has been examining the issue of the library following a demand by the students’ union that it be de-named. The group was set up to document the historical evidence on specific legacy issues, to seek evidence-based submissions from the college and wider community on each identified issue, and, based on the evidence collated, provide options for consideration to the relevant decision-makers.

It will within the next few weeks submit a report to the provost, Dr Linda Doyle, who will bring it to the college board for a final decision. The options are to retain the existing name, to retain and explain it (perhaps through wording on a plaque) or de-name it. The group will also outline options for three portraits, a stained-glass window and two gold medal awards, all of which commemorate Berkeley.

Racism accusations

The fact that the former bishop, hailed as a brilliant philosopher, purchased slaves when he was in the US was the catalyst for the call by the students’ union last year. Critics also cited his views which would now be called racist.

In his book A Word to the Wise he described the Irish poor as “a lazy destitute race” and added that “these people are more destitute than savages and more abject than Negros. The Negros in our plantations have a saying ‘if Negro was not Negro, Irishman would be Negro’.”

The union and the student newspaper Trinity News now refer to the ‘X Library’.

Born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, Berkeley enrolled in Trinity in March 1700 where he rose to become the librarian. While at Trinity he published some of his most important works, including An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision and A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, before going to America with the idea of developing a colonial university in Bermuda to provide a supply of zealous missionaries.

On his way to establish it, he disembarked in 1729 at Newport, Rhode Island, where he remained until the negotiations about the funding of the college were concluded. He bought a farm to sustain him and his family and also purchased at least three slaves to work the farm for him.

When the Bermuda scheme failed, he returned to Europe but made significant donations to a number of American universities. Even though he had stayed in the US only 33 months his “lively mind and sympathetic spirit involved him in a great variety of interests”, according to the book jacket for George Berkeley in America.

International approaches to de-naming

A working paper for the Legacies Group issued last week by three Trinity academics, Dr Mobeen Hussain, Dr Ciaran O'Neill and Dr Patrick Walsh, reviewed Bishop Berkeley’s history, the submissions received and international approaches to de-naming.

They recalled that in January of this year, Yale Divinity School’s Dean Greg Sterling issued an acknowledgment of the school’s “historical complicity in slavery and racism”. Sterling specifically noted that early scholarships or ‘Berkeley Premiums’ were funded by “profits from George Berkeley’s farm in Rhode Island, which was worked by enslaved people”.

The school has promised to allocate a US$20 million endowment to fund 10 social justice scholarships each year for incoming students dedicated to social justice work. The Episcopal seminary within the Yale Divinity School, however, still bears the bishop’s name to honour his “American experiment in higher education” and gifts including a “farm in Newport”.

They also noted that last April Harvard University created a US$100 million endowment for slavery reparations.

Turning to UC Berkeley, they reported that the university preferred to address the 400-year-old legacy of slavery in North America as part of a reconciliation programme, which does not specifically address George Berkeley’s American legacies.

One UC Berkeley faculty member told University World News that it was doubtful that the founders of the university (founded 1868) were aware that the bishop was a slave owner. He said that the inspiration for using Berkeley’s name was in large part due to his writings on advancing the arts and learning in a pre-revolutionary America when he lived in Rhode Island.

The founders were also moved by a verse from his poem “On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America”. It reads: “Westward the course of empire takes its way ... Time’s noblest offspring is the last”. This was an early version of “Manifest Destiny”, the 19th century cultural belief that American settlers were destined to expand across North America. These words inspired Americans both as British colonists and later as citizens of a new nation.

Small number of evidence-based submissions

Meanwhile, at Trinity there was some disappointment at the relatively small number of responses to an invitation for evidence-based submissions about the naming of the library which was opened in 1967 and which is regarded as one of Ireland’s finest modern buildings. Many offered no evidence for their views. Forty-seven were in favour of de-naming, while 16 supported retaining Berkeley’s name.

A further 23 suggested new names. Apart from some well-known Irish historic figures, one submission suggested Donna J Haraway, the Irish-American feminist and author of A Cyborg Manifesto. Another suggested calling it the 1904 Library to commemorate the year women were first admitted to Trinity.

In his submission Professor Nicholas Canny, a historian from the University of Galway, said that during Berkeley’s lifetime the slave system was part of the economic order in the Western world, as it had been for centuries, and its existence was seldom challenged on either religious or moral grounds.

De-naming the library would, he said, mean that in future the college authorities could only name a building when they had first conducted a character investigation “similar to that operated by the Catholic Church when selecting candidates for sainthood”.

Dr Phil Mullen, assistant professor of black studies at Trinity, rejected the argument that the bishop was simply a “man of his times” as, she wrote, Berkeley had chosen to engage in and profit from the “pernicious institution of slavery” while other moral avenues were open to him.

Two students, Sebastian Laymond and Massimiliano Romagnoli, criticised the procedure used by the students’ union to ascertain the views of the campus community. They wrote that only 584 people or 2.8% of the total college population signed the petition to de-name the library.

*Trinity is to return 13 skulls to the island of Inishbofin, off County Galway, from which they were taken without the community’s consent more than a century ago. The decision was approved by the board following work done by the Legacies Group. The university has also renamed a lecture theatre that was previously named in honour of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The move is in response to revelations about Schrödinger’s life, specifically that he groomed and sexually abused young girls.