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To Berkeley or Not Berkeley

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

29 April 2023

Berkeley Library, Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College Dublin has announced it is to “dename” the Berkeley Library at the university due to his links to slavery.  Who, or what is to replace him as the titular of the library is not clear yet, though we can be certain about who is excluded from the list: those who actually fought against slavery.

It is a strange moment, as Trinity is not exactly a progressive institution.  It was founded as part of an act of colonial conquest of Ireland and until 1793 effectively excluded Catholics from its hallowed halls. Yet now it seeks to apologise for having named a library after one Berkeley.  Exactly who is this reprobate?  He is none other than the philosopher George Berkeley, who was a graduate of Trinity and an influential thinker in the 18th Century, with some periods of revival in later years. He was also an Anglican Bishop.  He, like many of his ilk in the period owned and trafficked in slaves, which is the reason proffered by Trinity College for removing his name from the library.

There are various questions that arise around this issue. One is whether he was ever a worthy character to have a library named after him. Only the most ignorant woke idiot could question his role in the development of philosophy, which is why Trinity decided to lend his name to its new library in 1978. His contribution to philosophy and learning is beyond doubt.  So why should his name be removed from a library?  He committed the cardinal sin of having been linked to the slave trade.  His role and that of others in the slave trade should not be over looked.  But this is just virtue signalling. Trinity is not serious about examining its past, nor are the Irish people either.

Berkeley is almost certainly not the only slave trader linked with Trinity, nor the only slave trader linked with Ireland.  A very celebrated event in Irish history is the sending of 170 dollars from the Choctaw Nation to Ireland for famine relief and a monument has been built in honour of this genuine gesture of solidarity.  Except of course, the Choctaw Nation were slaveholders and owned over 2000 black slaves and it has been said that the money raised for famine relief was the result of the sale of slaves.  Suddenly, denaming Berkeley is a bit more complicated.  Shouldn’t we also do something about the Choctaw? i.e. knock down the wonderful monument erected in their honour as a sign of gratitude during the famine.  Or would a more nuanced discussion be warranted?

Liberals and woke types writhe in agony at how to resolve these questions.  Marxists do not.  They sleep a bit easier.  Partly because they lay no claim to the laws, traditions and institutions that have arisen from them.  Whether Trinity was founded by slave traders or not, is irrelevant.  Those who seek to claim these institutions not only as their own, but as institutions in their own image, reflecting some biblical creation of a god and his own image are a little more taxed.

So, to be clear.  What is Trinity University?  It an educational institution that was established as an act of the colonisation and conquest of Ireland.  Its formal name is telling:  The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin (it was outside Dublin at the time, located at All Hallows, hence the near). Up until 1793, Catholics were, in effect barred from graduating, the final restrictions on their full participation not lifted until 1873 and women were not accepted until 1904.  Of course, neither Catholics nor women are worthy subjects for our woke warriors.  There is nothing progressive about Trinity’s history, but that does not mean we should abandon it, in the name of virtue signalling.  It has produced many a great contribution to society. Oscar Wilde was a graduate, Edmund Burke, whose statue adorns the entrance was a philosopher who argued against slavery.  The institution was throughout its history a faithful reflection of Irish upper-class society, its mores and class relations.  The Anglo-Irish dominated it for centuries.

Though to be clear Berkeley had his name added in 1978, it is very recent and was an example of intellectual name dropping.  Although he was a graduate of Trinity and even lectured there at one point, he was a well-travelled man, spending most of his life away from the institution and when he died at Oxford, he was the retired Church of Ireland Bishop of Cloyne.  Lots of places could claim him.

There are two other libraries at Trinity.  The Ussher library, named after a sectarian bigot who opposed Catholics right to exercise their religion stating “to consent that they may freely exercise their religion, and profess their faith and doctrine, is a grievous sin.”  The Lecky Library is named after an opponent of Home Rule, and one of his works is The Empire, its Value and its Growth.  Let’s remember that the Empire was the organised plunder and rape of a huge part of the Planet.  Trinity is unlikely to apologise for that, as many of them probably harbour a yearning for the days when Ireland was part of the UK and perhaps even lament the passing of the golden days of the Empire.  But in fairness, Ussher was a man of his time and his views were quite common amongst Protestants throughout Europe and indeed Catholics generally held a similar view of Protestants, though in the case of Ireland, the Protestants held power at swordpoint.

So, he is not the only problematic person associated with Trinity.  Its School of Genetics is named after Smurfits, the Irish paper and packaging magnate whose company has a very dubious record in Colombia and other parts.  One day, we might frown upon the company and the family with a similar disdain.  One day we might also remove the names of English lords, Lord Lieutenants, Viceroys and others from the main streets of Dublin city centre.  But the time for doing that probably passed, when the counter revolution won the Civil War, defeating Irish republicans.  When societies change, the nomenclature changes.  It is in periods of upheaval that this happens to reflect the changing order, not the other way around.  No one is going to argue in favour of keeping the name, but it is just virtue signalling.  Who will replace him?  Probably some banal figure that reflects the current political order.  If it was named after Zelensky, it would only surprise me a little.  But maybe Trinity could reflect on its imperial past and name it and the Ussher Library after two famous graduates and rebels: Wolfe Tone, the founder and leader of the United Irishmen, and the leader of the 1798 Rebellion and Robert Emmet, the executed Irish patriot.  But don’t hold your breath, it will take other times and renewed political consciousness for that to ever happen.  Virtue signallers won’t be doing that, ever.  They are not part of the solution.

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