The Berkeley Library and Trinity College Dublin

Coming to terms with history

Sir, – Anne Chambers suggests that the second Marquess of Sligo (whose biographer she is) would be a more suitable person that Bishop Berkeley to give his name to Trinity College Dublin’s second library (Letters, February 6th).

Her case is that the Marquess deserves to be commemorated instead of the philosopher because he was an abolitionist during his time as governor of Jamaica – though he was also, as she acknowledges, a sometime slave-owner himself. There is, however, a problem she does not face: Lord Sligo was a slave-owner on a greater scale than George Berkeley. Indeed the compensation paid to him after the abolition of slavery came to £5,526 and eight shillings, a sum close to half a million today. (Berkeley, by contrast, owned four slaves as against Lord Sligo’s 286).

Berkeley’s intellectual eminence and connections with Trinity (of which he was, as Lord Sligo was not, both a graduate and a fellow) are greater and closer than those of Anne Chambers’s preferred candidate; furthermore his connection with, and profits from, slavery were far slighter than those of the peer. Berkeley is clearly a more fitting candidate for Trinity to remember than Lord Sligo. But if Trinity College wishes to remove the name of the former Bishop of Cloyne from the library a new name will have to be found that some in future ages will not seek to expunge on the grounds of changed opinions – and that will be a hopeless task indeed. – Yours, etc,




Sir, – While the word “abolitionist” could reasonably refer to the desire to ban almost any activity, it is used specifically in recent generations to define opposition to slavery. It seems unimaginable now that there was ever disagreement on this matter.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, though, the first use of the word in this sense was in 1791. It seems anachronistic to me to demand the removal of George Berkeley’s name from the eponymous library in Trinity College for not subscribing to this view, given that he was born over a century earlier, as Prof Philomena Mullen (Opinion & Analysis, January 26th) and several correspondents (February 6th) have done.

It is remarkable that Trinity College can claim as a graduate an individual who has one of the top universities in the world named after him, as well as the surrounding town in California. It is a historical legacy that most centres of learning would envy, this ability to meaningfully name a building after a major luminary from over three centuries ago and whose philosophy has been so influential. Clearly, few people have ever had more impact on humanity thinking, in areas ranging from morality to physics, all done while sparring intellectually with contemporary giants such as Isaac Newton and John Locke.

Advocating that we remove his name, Prof Mullen is unwilling to accept that Berkeley was simply a “man of his time”, pointing out that “many people of Berkeley’s time held different views”. Most of the names she then lists are far more obscure and I’m unclear of their links to Trinity or even Dublin. Probably the most recognised is Frederick Douglass, who at least visited and liked Ireland. He rather stretches the description of being “of Berkeley’s time” though, having been born over 130 years later. Naming a library in Trinity College after him would, I think, be explicable only as virtue signalling.

Equality that we now take as natural justice was barely dreamt of in the era in question. Only a few thousand men in the UK and Ireland had the right to vote. Literacy was rare, healthcare and education limited to the few and social support non-existent. The lot of 90 per cent of humanity was a struggle for survival, with such roles and destinies rigidly defined from birth. Dying from what are now trivial injuries or starvation was entirely foreseeable. Owning property was not. Such was the life of most of those fortunate enough not to be enslaved. The divine right of kings was broadly accepted.

If we are going to erase from history contemporaries of Berkeley, however, we should probably also begin to deracinate the influence of George Frederick Handel from Dublin. Among the greatest composers ever, indeed reputed to be Beethoven’s favourite, his links to our capital involve the first performance of his Messiah there in 1741. He was born the same year as Berkeley. He speculated financially in the slave trade repeatedly, and used the considerable funds so generated to support his musical career and endeavours. It is not hard in Dublin to find locations named in his honour, while performances of Messiah are among the cultural highlights of Christmas.

Ultimately, I believe we have to accept that when we honour anyone, we are acknowledging a human being, and thus one who was “of their time”. To criticise someone who made massive contributions to some field of expertise, such as physics, because they didn’t do it in another one, such as fighting oppression, seems absurd. We should understand that even our heroes are human beings and not necessarily right on everything.

Perhaps a notice attached wherever anyone is commemorated, devil’s advocate-style, alluding to their shortcomings, might serve as a useful memento mori to the thoughtful observer. Quite possibly the university students frequenting the Trinity of today will be harshly judged by their descendants for their carbon footprint, their fast-fashion purchases sourced from sweatshops, or the inequalities on a global scale that we all somehow manage to ignore. To my mind, the bishop’s name should stay attached to the library precisely to stimulate such warts-and-all analysis of the totality of a life. This should make us ask how someone can be so perceptive and insightful on so many things and yet so wrong on other important matters, and so question our own quotidian actions as we get on with our lives. – Yours, etc,



Co Cork.