Leo Varadkar becomes first ‘Trinity Taoiseach’
Election marks a milestone in ‘normalising’ an institution once linked to Protestant elite
Leo Varadkar on his way into talks with Fianna Fáil in 2016 on forming a government, at Trinity College in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
Leo Varadkar’s election as leader is a first for many reasons, but a less well known one is this – he is the first Trinity College Dublin graduate to become Taoiseach.
For historians and academics, it marks a significant milestone in “normalising” an institution which for so long has been a place apart from Irish society.
Ever since its foundation, during the reign of the original Queen Elizabeth, it was regarded by many as an extension of the crown and the preserve of the country’s Protestant elite.
UCD, by contrast, founded as the Catholic University of Ireland, counts at least four taoisigh among its graduates.
“It signals something – presumbly that we are becoming more mainstream,” says Trinity’s provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast.
“If it was the 1960s or 1970s, people would have been surprised. Now, it has become much more central to politics.”
Contrary to popular belief, Trinity opened its doors to Catholics from the 1790s onwards.
Until as recently as the early 1970s, however, Catholics were required to seek the permission of their local bishop to attend. In practice, many never did.
Tensions also occasionally flared up between Trinity and an increasingly nationalist Ireland in the early decades of the last century.
During the 1916 Rising, an entire battalion of British troops was stationed on the campus.
Following Victory in Europe day in May 1945, some Trinity students provoked a mini-riot after flying Union Jack flags, while one apparently burned a Tricolour. As word spread, more nationally-minded students from UCD arrived on the scene, including a young Charles Haughey. Police baton charges prevented an invasion of the college.
Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern history at UCD, says archival records at his university give the sense of students who were steeped in nationalism and prepared to play their role in leading the country.
Trinity, because of its unionist tradition, remained much closer to Britain culturally and politically.
Much has changed since, says Dr Prendergast.
“The [ban on Cathlolics] was a rather unusual step which prevented many coming here who might otherwise have done so,” he said, “It’s strange to think of it now. I couldn’t tell you the religion of anyone.”
Prof Ferriter says both universities had been working closely with other for years and had moved on from the sharp differences that once defined them.
“Even when I came into UCD in 1989, there was still a sense of Trinity being a competitor in representing something different, culturally and ideologically,” says Prof Ferriter.
“But if you look at south Dublin schools nowadays, they are sending students to both colleges in near-equal numbers . . . Both universities work closely together. TCD and UCD are now really singing from the same hymn sheet.”
Dr Prendergast, meanwhile, has welcomed the election of the first “Trinity Taoiseach”.
“We are delighted for Leo on this historic day,” he said. “It is a major achievement for him both personally and professionally and we wish him well in the new role. We also look forward to welcoming him on campus as Taoiseach and for staff and students to meet with him.”
Mr Varadkar studied medicine at Trinity and completed his six-year degree in 2003.
Staff at the college say that, as a student, he was serious about his academic work and engaged with interests beyond his medical studies.
He was active in Young Fine Gael at the college and served as vice-president of the Youth of the European People’s Party.
He was also selected for the prestigious Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership, a six-month programme of personal and professional development for Irish university students.
“We are proud of Leo Varadkar and his achievements,” says Prof Paul Browne, head of Trinity’s school of medicine. “He has been involved in the school of medicine since he graduated and has been generous with his time with both students and faculty alike.”