Trinity College Dublin opts to de-name Berkeley Library

Trinity College Dublin is to de-name the Berkeley Library because the renowned Irish philosopher after whom it is named was a slave owner on Rhode Island in America in 1730-31.

The university, which is Ireland’s oldest, was founded in 1592. It said that the continued use of Bishop George Berkeley’s name on the library was inconsistent with the university’s core values of human dignity, freedom, inclusivity and equality.

Trinity has also decided to adopt a retain-and-explain approach to a stained-glass window commemorating the clergyman who studied, lectured and became a librarian at the university.

Portraits depicting him will be assessed in the future by a new overall college policy on artwork. Academic gold medals memorialising the philosopher will be reviewed by the relevant academic department.

The university said that these decisions represent a nuanced approach and are the result of careful consideration. They followed several months of research, analysis and public consultation overseen by the Trinity Legacies Review Working Group, which is considering legacy issues. Just under 100 submissions were received from the general public, alumni, current students and staff about the library.

Professor Eoin O’Sullivan, senior dean and chair of the group, said: “Especially influential on our thinking has been the pioneering work at the universities of Glasgow, Dalhousie, Brown and Harvard, all of which have faced similar issues to those we face at Trinity as we reckon with our past. We are committed to addressing issues around Trinity’s complex legacy, from an evidence-based perspective and on a case-by-case basis.”

Bouquets and brickbats

The move has been welcomed by the Trinity Students’ Union which had supported a petition calling on the university to drop Berkeley’s name from the library which was opened in 1967. The union has been referring to it as the X library since August 2022 and will continue to do so until a new name is agreed.

The response elsewhere has been mixed, with the predictable bouquets and brickbats on Twitter. Some praised the decision while others saw it as another woke example of ‘cancel culture’. A few wondered if Berkeley City and the University of California at Berkeley (UC-Berkeley), which also bear his name, would follow Trinity's example.

When asked to comment on Trinity’s decision, Dan Mogulof, UC-Berkeley’s assistant vice-chancellor, Communications & Public Affiars told University World News via email: “We acknowledge that the university’s founders chose to name their new town and campus after an individual whose views warrant no honor or commemoration.

“At the same time, we are cognisant of the fact that over the course of the ensuing 155 years since the university’s founding, ‘Berkeley’ has come to embody and represent very different values and perspectives – including our belief in, and actions in support of equity, inclusion, diversity, social mobility and the application of academic excellence to support the greater good.”

Trinity’s decision prompted several letters to The Irish Times including one arguing that: “The question that now must also be considered is whether naming the college after the Christian theological concept of the Trinity is appropriate in the modern era. Surely it must be offensive to other religious beliefs and is the ‘othering’ of these students.”

Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin (UCD), said that “Trinity dates back so long that it has been associated with so many different eras of Irish history and various things that a 21st century audience would find grossly offensive. But does that mean that you start eradicating?”

Legacies of colonialism and racism

The name of the library became an issue in 2021 in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement which gave rise to global debate surrounding the legacies of colonialism and racism. This prompted questions about Ireland’s past.

As Jane Ohlmeyer, professor of modern history at Trinity has noted in The Irish Times: “Until recently few fully appreciated the significance of Ireland’s imperial past but this is changing and there is a growing awareness of the importance of discussion and debate.”

She went on to remind readers that Ireland was England's first colony, writing that: “We lived as part of the English, and then British, Empire for over 700 years. The Normans first conquered Ireland in 1169 and aside from a brief decade of independence during the 1640s Ireland formed an integral part of the English imperial system until 1922 and the foundation of the modern (Irish) state. As well as being colonised the Irish operated as active colonists in the empires of Britain and other European powers.”

George Berkeley fitted into that latter category. A working paper produced by three Trinity academics Dr Mobeen Hussain, Dr Ciaran O’Neill and Dr Patrick Walsh, states that documents show Berkeley bought and sold slaves on the Rhode Island estate to which he moved. The slaves he purchased were named Philip, Anthony, Edward and Agnes Berkeley. He also produced a pamphlet suggesting slaves should be baptised to encourage greater obedience to their owners.

He influenced early American higher education through his writings and through donations of books and property. He returned from America when his plans for a university in Bermuda proved unsuccessful and was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland.

A non-static landscape

Defending the decision to de-name the library, Trinity’s Provost Dr Linda Doyle said: “The landscape of a university, especially one as old as Trinity, is not static. Each generation of students and staff deserves a chance to influence decisions. In this case, it was our students who called on us to address the issue. We welcome their engagement, and we thank the Trinity Legacies Review Working Group for its assistance in providing evidence-based information to underpin this decision.

“George Berkeley's enormous contribution to philosophical thought is not in question. However, it is also clear that he was both an owner of enslaved people and a theorist of slavery and racial discrimination, which is in clear conflict with Trinity’s core values.”

A firm assurance that Trinity will continue to hold Berkeley’s philosophical works in the library collections and continue to teach and to research his works was given by Helen Shenton, librarian and college archivist, who said: “Technological advances, societal changes and cultural evolutions shape the library for each generation. Libraries are both fundamental constants in the university and simultaneously constantly in flux.”

Trinity’s decision to de-name the library is likely to provoke further debate on what Ohlmeyer called Ireland’s complex imperial legacy. She cited the example of another famous Trinity alumni whose statue is located on the lawn, north of the entrance to the university: “The great 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke was a vocal critic of the East India Company and compared Ireland and India on the basis that they were ‘similarly victimised’.

“Burke thought that empire was morally indefensible; yet he had interests in sugar and slaves in the Caribbean.”