Trinity College Dublin and the Berkeley Library

Coming to terms with history

Sir, – As a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and one-time frequent user of Trinity’s Berkeley Library, I read with interest Prof Philomena Mullen’s piece on Bishop Berkeley and the debate around denaming the library named after him (“‘Man of his times’ defence does not cover Berkeley”, Opinion & Analysis, January 26th).

I take more than a passing interest in this issue because I have a small personal connection through my late father Prof John Luce, who was entrusted by the TCD Board in 1957 with managing the design and construction of the library, and through my grandfather Dr A A Luce, formerly of the department of philosophy in Trinity, and author of several books on Berkeley, including The Life of George Berkeley, published in 1949.

While I fully appreciate the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to alter our perspective on history as our knowledge and sensitivity grows and changes, I feel Prof Mullen’s choice to call Berkeley a “slaveholder” several times in her article risks giving a false impression of the sort of man he was certainly perceived to be by many contemporary and subsequent scholars and admirers.

Berkeley spent only 2½ years of his life in America, living on a farm near Newport, Rhode Island as he waited to know if he would be granted funds to pursue his Bermuda college project.


During this short time, as far as is known, he had four slaves working on his 100 acre estate.

While any slave labour exploitation is seen by us now, rightly, as unacceptable, to bring him down on the grounds of profiting from being a slaveholder doesn’t seem entirely justified as it focuses on one short, almost incidental chapter of his life.

As I remember family discussions around the kitchen table in the later 1960s, the significant project of establishing the Berkeley Library in TCD was not clouded by dark references to Berkeley’s slaveholding past. Even though the fact of his sojourn in Whitehall, Rhode Island, with four slaves on the estate was known, it was not then judged to be the most important part of the sum of his life’s achievements as a philosopher and scientific thinker. It would certainly never have been the reason why Trinity wished to celebrate its connection to one of its famous alumni. In other words, the perception of his achievement had everything to do with his significant contribution to scholarly thought and philosophy, in particular to the doctrine of immaterialism, and not to these other aspects of his life that others choose to highlight now.

Acknowledging that slavery was part of the fabric of life in the ancient world does not prevent us from admiring and celebrating the work of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero and all the other great thinkers, architects, inventors and writers of the past. In the spirit of accepting context and keeping things in proportion, maybe it will prove possible to avoid shaming Trinity into denaming its Berkeley Library while honouring the important research and work of bodies such as the Colonial Legacies Project. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 6.

Sir, – Philomena Mullen is to be commended for informing readers that the Co Down Philosopher Francis Hutcheson, a contemporary of George Berkeley, condemned slavery at a time when the good bishop mused about kidnaping “the children of savage Americans”.

Hutcheson published his important philosophical work while working in Dublin before moving to Glasgow, where he is remembered today as the “Father of the Scottish Enlightenment”.

Hutcheson loved Dublin and died while visiting friends there in 1746. He was buried in the churchyard of Saint Mary’s (now Wolfe Tone Park) and lay almost forgotten in an unmarked grave. In 2013, a group of former loyalist and republican prisoners from Belfast came together in Dublin to erect a plaque to honour this benevolent philosopher and champion of human rights. The plaque can be viewed at the church on the junction of Mary’s Street and Jervis Street. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 7.

Sir, – Perhaps an alternative name for commemoration might well be that of Howe Peter Browne, Marquess of Sligo (1788-1845) from Westport House, Co Mayo.

Known in the history of Jamaica as “Champion of the Slaves” and where Sligoville, the first free slave village in the world, is named in his honour, on the abolition of slavery in 1838 Sligo’s name, together with those of Wilberforce and Buxton, was commemorated on an emancipation memorial medal.

As governor general of Jamaica from 1834 to 1836 and also owner of two plantations and their slaves on the island, inherited from his grandmother, the savagery of the slavery system which, as he wrote on his arrival, he found “repugnant to humanity”, turned him into “the warmest advocate for full and immediate emancipation”.

His efforts on behalf of the black population were bitterly opposed by the planter-dominated Jamaican assembly. They began a campaign of vilification against him in the Jamaican and British press which resulted in his eventual removal from office.

On his return Sligo became a determined campaigner for full emancipation. One of his anti-slavery pamphlets, Jamaica under the Apprenticeship System, influenced the “Great Debate” on slavery held in the British parliament in February 1838. On March 22, 1838, he publicly announced in the House of Lords that, regardless of the outcome of the Government’s deliberations, he would free all workers on his own estates on August 1st. His public pronouncement left the British government with no alternative but to implement full emancipation for all on the same date.

Sligo’s efforts to end slavery also influenced the struggle in North America, which he visited in 1836 to consult with the anti-slavery organisers in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

As a few hundred (out of the many thousands he left behind) of Sligo’s original letters and correspondence, and which contributed to his recently published biography From Rake to Radical: An Irish Abolitionist, are preserved in the archives of Trinity College, perhaps the name Sligo might prove a more appropriate alternative there to that of Berkeley. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 6.