Trinity College Dublin to ‘dename’ Berkeley library due to philosopher’s link to slavery

Renowned philosopher and former bishop George Berkeley bought and sold slaves in the United States

Trinity College Dublin (TCD) has decided to remove George Berkeley’s name from its main library because of the Irish philosopher’s association with slavery.

The Berkeley Library was named after the Kilkenny man George Berkeley who entered TCD as a graduate in March 1700 and was elected a fellow in 1707.

A working paper produced by three academics at the university, Dr Mobeen Hussain, Dr Ciaran O’Neill and Dr Patrick Walsh, states that documents show Berkeley bought and sold slaves on his Rhode Island estate. He also produced a pamphlet suggesting that slaves should be baptised as it would encourage greater obedience to their owners.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Trinity College Dublin said it would “dename the Berkeley Library while adopting a retain-and-explain approach to a stained-glass window commemorating George Berkeley”.


“Portraits depicting Berkeley will be assessed in the future by a new overall College policy on artwork, while the academic Gold Medals memorialising Berkeley will be reviewed by the relevant academic department.”

A separate process will be followed to find a new name.

Outside the former Berkeley Library on Wednesday evening, first year art history students Beth Taaffe (19) and Amy Melia (19) saw the “denaming” of the library as a positive change.

“Things change, statues are taken down. It’s just a name and as white people it’s not really our place to say, ‘let’s keep it’. If somebody is offended then just change it, it doesn’t affect us but it might hurt someone else,” Melia said.

“I wouldn’t see the point in keeping the name after everything that’s been uncovered and that’s known about Berkeley. There’d just be questions of why they’re keeping it, because it’s really unnecessary,” Taaffe added.

The two students hadn’t yet thought about ideas of who the library should be named after next, but, Melia said: “We were saying as a joke we could call it the [Paul] Mescal Library because Normal People was filmed here.”

Sarah Power, a third year Trinity student said it was “a good idea” to change the library’s name.

“He was selling slaves: that’s obviously not something you ever want to promote. I think it should be named after someone more recent to make it more modern,” she said.

Berkeley served as Church of Ireland Bishop of Cloyne and became one of the world’s most famous philosophers. The city of Berkeley, California and its university were named after him.

As Trinity librarian from 1709, Berkeley played an active role in bringing the project for a new library (now the Old Library) to fruition.

From the mid-1720s he began to develop the idea of a university in the American colonies, the so-called Bermuda Scheme.

Calls for the library to be renamed surfaced after the Black Lives Matter movement drew attention to the legacy of transatlantic slavery. TCD Students Union voted in February to rename the library.

The Trinity Legacies Review Working Group, set up last year to examine the university’s links with slavery and British imperialism, agreed that it was no longer acceptable to name the library Berkeley.

In a statement, Trinity said the continued use of the name is “inconsistent with the University’s core values of human dignity, freedom, inclusivity, and equality.

“The denaming does not deny Berkeley’s importance as a writer, philosopher, and towering intellectual figure. His philosophical work will still be taught at Trinity and remains of significant contemporary relevance. A separate process will determine what the new name for the library should be.”

Trinity’s Provost Dr Linda Doyle that each generation of students and staff deserve a chance to influence decisions.

She added: “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.”

In a piece written for The Irish Times earlier this year, Philomena Mullen, Assistant Professor of Black Studies at the Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin, said Berkeley being a slaveholder was long known, referenced in the Journal of Negro History by William Sypher as far back as 1939.

Many of those who defend Berkeley, Prof Mullen wrote, argued he was a man of his times and should not be blamed.

“However, the man of his times argument is demonstrably ahistorical. And profoundly in error.”

Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin (UCD), criticised the move, pointing to a difference between heritage and promotion.

“I’ve heard students quoted saying we can’t be seen to be promoting slavery as if the library in Trinity being named after Berkeley is a promotion of slavery; it’s of its time,” he said.

“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?”

Prof Ferriter questioned, hypothetically, whether the same thinking could one day be applied to UCD’s James Joyce library.

“Will we reach a point where somebody will decide that it’s not appropriate…because they will find something objectionable in his life and his career and his correspondence? I just don’t know where this line is drawn and I find it really problematic.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson is a reporter for The Irish Times

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times