The Provosts of Trinity College Dublin: 335 years of the good, bad and indifferent

Peter Boyle profiles the 37 men who held Trinity’s top job until 1927, including the translator of the Bible into Irish, the founder of Marsh’s Library and one who as a boy killed a fellow pupil

Some Provosts were outstanding scholars. Some were able administrators, men of vigour, vision and integrity. Unfortunately, however, there were others, equally able and efficient, but ruthlessly so, power hungry and corrupt

Some Provosts were outstanding scholars. Some were able administrators, men of vigour, vision and integrity. Unfortunately, however, there were others, equally able and efficient, but ruthlessly so, power hungry and corrupt

 

Trinity College Dublin was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I but it was not until 1845 that the first history of it was published, by WBS Taylor. Nine histories later we have much information on the Provosts who headed the college over the years. But these histories focus necessarily on the college, and surprisingly no book has ever appeared with its focus on the Provosts.

This new book attempts to fill the gap. It deals with the 37 men who were in charge of Trinity between 1592 and 1927, the latter date offering a natural cut-off point, because Provost Bernard died that year. He was the last Provost to have been appointed by the Crown.

Of these 37 men, strictly speaking two of them were not Provosts. A colourful character called Faithful Teate took over the college for two years when Provost Washington fled from Ireland in 1641 but he was never formally appointed as Provost. Later in 1688, with the threat of James II looming darkly over Trinity, Provost Huntington decamped to England, and King James appointed a Catholic priest called Michael Moore to run the College. Trinity never accepted Moore as Provost, but nevertheless the College owes much to him, for he bravely preserved its library from the marauding soldiers of King James, and a plaque in his memory may be seen on the wall of the entrance vestibule of the 1937 reading room.

These 37 men form a disparate group. Some of them, a few, were deeply spiritual, almost saintly men, such as William Bedell. Although an Englishman, he employed a little boy to teach him Irish, and then arranged for the translation of the Old Testament into Irish. He went on to become bishop of Kilmore where he was beloved by all, Catholics and Protestants alike. In the 1641 rebellion he was imprisoned in a cold, damp, dilapidated castle on an island in Lough Oughter in Co Cavan, which so destroyed his health that although he was released, he died soon afterwards in 1642. But the rebels turned up at his funeral, formed a guard of honour, and fired a volley of shots over his grave in his memory. Another deeply religious man was Narcissus Marsh, who eventually became Archbishop of Armagh. In collaboration with Robert Boyle, Marsh published Bedell’s Irish Old Testament in 1685, and it was he who gave us the beautiful Marsh’s Library in Dublin.

Some Provosts were outstanding scholars. Some were able administrators, men of vigour, vision and integrity. Unfortunately, however, there were others, equally able and efficient, but ruthlessly so, power hungry and corrupt. John Hely-Hutchinson, although he completed our eighteenth-century Front Square and gave us the Examination Hall, was ambitious and grasping, and had no scruples in using his position to advance the fortunes of himself and his family. A famous story said of him “that if you were to give him the whole of Great Britain and Ireland for an estate he would ask further for the Isle of Man as a potato garden”. The origins of his predecessor, Provost Baldwin, make an interesting story. Baldwin started off life as a boy of humble origin in a Lancashire village but was obliged to flee when he accidentally killed a school companion. He ended up in Dublin, a boy crying in the streets, from where he was rescued by Provost Huntington, who gave him a job. Baldwin went to Kilkenny College, then Trinity, became a Fellow, and was eventually made Provost in 1717. He died in 1758, at the age of 86, the oldest Provost ever. He was also the longest serving Provost ever, at 41 years.

Three of our Provosts were obliged to spend time in compulsory confinement, which is to say in jail, although this was in no way to their discredit. Provost Chappell was jailed for being a Royalist in civil war times, Provost Martin for insulting the Privy Council, and Provost Seele for using the Book of Common Prayer when it was banned by the Puritans. Yet another Provost was said to have been born in jail. That was Andrews, who built the Provost’s house. One of our most famous Provosts was Mahaffy, who loved consorting with princes and kings, but was also one of the most renowned scholars in Europe, and also a famous wit. He has never lived down the incident in which he refused permission to Patrick Pearse to speak at a meeting in Trinity, and famously referred to him in a letter as “a man called Pearse”.

Eleven of our Provosts in the 17th century were Oxbridge men. From 1692 to 1991, however, every Provost was educated in Trinity, and the sequence was only broken in 1991 when Provost Mitchell was elected. Mitchell came from University College, Galway. Another interesting statistic is that from 1592 to 1927 all but four of the Provosts were in holy orders. Provost Bernard, who died in 1927, was the last provost to have been ordained.

The Provosts of Trinity are worthy of a new book in their memory.

Peter Boyle is a Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College Dublin.
Trinity College Dublin: the Provosts 1592-1927 by Peter Boyle is published by Hinds Publishing, Dublin

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