Toast To Trinity II

Trinity College Dublin Alumni Association
The Albany Club, Toronto
November 14, 1981

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It's my privilege to propose the toast to Trinity and to introduce the Provost to you. Three years ago I performed a similar function when Dr. Lyons was our guest. Indeed, that was the last time our association met.

To begin with, therefore, Dr. Watts, we thank you for giving us this opportunity by your presence to have another Trinity get-together, to meet old friends and to recall College days.

As a preliminary note, I would ask those characters who were contemporaries of mine at Trinity to show some discretion in turning the clock back. After all this veritas in vino business can be carried too far. If you don't tell any lies about me, I won't tell the truth on you.

Dr. Lyons established a precedent by being the first Provost to address our association. We are delighted to see, Sir, that you are turning a precedent into a custom — and a very good one, I would add — of making a visit to Canada part of the Provost's itinerary during his term of office.

I am not suggesting that to make these visits regular occurrences Trinity should change Provosts as frequently as Italy her Presidents or Irish pubs the price of a pint of porter.

Trinity graduates have a deep-felt affection for their old university. Tonight's dinner is a sell-out — at a price that once would have paid one's bar bill for a month at The Lincoln Inn or at O'Donohue's.

So, welcome to Canada, Dr. Watts, in your own right and for the news you bring us of Trinity. Had you arrived a few weeks ago we would have put you to work on patriating Canada's constitution, which for so many years has been as insoluble a problem as partition.

In any world menu, Canada, it has been said, is the vichysoisse of nations. It is cold, half-French and hard to stir. In Ireland, on the other hand, too many cooks tend to spoil a broth which is always boiling over and is often hard to digest.

There are about 350 Trinity graduates living in Ontario, according to our membership list, and probably as many more again reside elsewhere in Canada — proof positive that a Trinity commencements sheepskin can cover not only intellectual nakedness but also keep the wolf from the door.

A proposer of the toast to Trinity can but give his own impressions of the university he once knew. Mine go back almost forty years when Trinity was trying to establish an identity in what was then a young Irish state still in its adolescent years.

The search for identity is an elusive pursuit. Canadians have an identity problem too. As the Vancouver writer Eric Nicol has observed, "Canada chased its identity in ever-diminishing circles until it finally disappeared up its own aspirations."

Trinity lifestyles go in one era and out the next era. I was at College briefly during the last war and for a longer period immediately afterwards. When asked awkward questions about the degree I took, I resort to the reply Dr. Mahaffy once gave to an evangelical clergyman who earnestly asked him, "Are you saved?" "Yes," replied the Provost in his well-known lisp, "but it was such a vewwy nawwow squeak I nevah boast about it."

The novelist William Trevor was also at Trinity during my time, though I don't recall him, and he admits that his four years in the history school didn't "impinge" on him. From his account in The Trinity Trust News, he didn't so much live in Trinity as lurk there.

"It's as though I wasn't there at all," he writes. "I actually reversed day and night. Someone answered for me at lectures. I rose in time for Commons. A kind of ghost I must have seemed to anyone who noticed." He gives this description of College life in the late 1940s, the period I know best.


I came up from the the country — from the town of Portlaoise, where my family then lived — and found digs in the house of a dog breeder in Blackrock* (*He later moved into rooms in Number 30). It was soon after the war: the character of Trinity took its flavour from the ubiquitous ex-servicemen — G.I.s, Poles Dutch, English — who dominated the scene because of their greater sophistication and age. We mere Irish were not outnumbered, but these were men who played a mean game of bridge, drank cocktails instead of stout, and had a way with women — men who had grown up from the boys we so often still were. It wasn't a bad thing that that happened, for as a result of this hard little influx Trinity presumably had to begin wondering what kind of a place it was going to be in the future: an easy berth for all-comers or an Irish university in the old Protestant tradition. Circumstances, and perhaps some Trinity wisdom, permitted the avoidance of either extreme, and what came about was infinitely more valuable and attractive — or so at least it seems to me.

Trevor's account is an ingenious blend of fact and fiction. No wonder he has made a mint out of storytelling — he has a talent for it. His TCD Cox and Box act has paid off.

I didn't know any ex-servicemen who played much bridge — poker perhaps. They had cocktail tastes but lived on a stout income — cocktail drinking was confined to the day when the quarterly support cheques arrived from Buckingham Palace, or wherever. By then most of us had reached the pint of no return.

Moreover, most of the ex-service men and women — and there are some here tonight — were as staunchly Irish. North or South, as their fellow students. G.I.s, Poles, Dutch and English were the exception rather than the rule. The ex-service influx did cause an overcrowding problem, especially in College rooms. But Trinity's student population today is twice what it was then.

Trinity adjusted to the increased enrolment then as I am sure it is doing today.

To say that the Trinity of the post-war era took its flavour from the ubiquitous ex-servicemen is to ignore the very real contribution that so many other students made to College life in those days. Trinity's innate genius through the years has been the ability, not so much to assimilate, as to find room for most lifestyles and shades of opinion. Sometimes it takes time. Once a man named Pearse was banned from appearing in College. Today the Junior Dean would roll out the green carpet for him.

Nevertheless, Trevor raises some pertinent points. Thirty five years ago Trinity was beginning to wonder what the future held.

Has Trinity been able, Dr. Watts, to maintain its position of independence as a bastion of academic freedom and a citadel of learning for the arts, sciences and professions at a time when government in Ireland, as in Canada, controls the purse strings?

Does Trinity still march to the beat of its own drum, however out of step the marchers and out of tune the music is at times? Does it still have an international outreach, a cosmopolitan ambience, a tolerance of dissent, a healthy disdain for authority and conformity yet a respect for tradition, a sense of community, a reputation for scholarship and athletic achievement? Are the standards of its professional school still universally recognized?

Do the sons and daughters of irreverent Northerners, hard-nosed Cork businessmen and pecunious Longford farmers still raise hell at Boat Club dances? Is there an invigorating influx of foreign students and faculty members to keep Trinity from becoming insular and inbred? That's the Trinity I remember.

Undoubtedly, Trinity has taken steps to reform a system of College government that in my time was an anachronism and an irritant. Unquestionably, too, it has made considerable structural advances in new academic buildings, residences, recreation and sports facilities, equipment and creature comforts of the kind that Canadian students take as their birthright, thanks to the generous dispensation by government of tax revenues. Public money in Canada, Dr. Watts, is like holy water — everyone wants a drop.

In short, is Trinity observing the first rule of intelligent tinkering with a system, which is to save all the parts that are worth saving, replacing just those that are really worn out?

Unfortunately, we get so little news about Trinity in Canada. Because of our postal strike last summer we were unable to vote for the Trinity seats in the last Irish Senate election — and the election was over before you could say Mary Robinson. So we are keenly interested in what you have to tell us, Dr. Watts, about Trinity and Ireland.

Now let me introduce the Provost and tell you what's his line. William Watts is a Dubliner, born near the Liffey, the product of whose waters many of us know well.

He is a botanist and a geologist, graduating from Trinity in 1953. As a botanist looking at the task he assumes as Provost, perhaps he can take comfort from Professor Parkinson's advice: "It's not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can tell us how fast they grow."

A geologist, on the other hand, has been defined as a person who can tell virgin metal from a common ore.

Dr. Watts had more than rocks in his head as an undergraduate. He also took a degree in modern literature. He was a lecturer in botany at Trinity from 1955 until named to the chair of botany in 1965. He became a fellow in 1960 and, in 1980, transferred to a seat of his own, a personal chair in quaternary ecology, which I won't try to explain.

His administrative experience includes terms as Senior Lecturer and Dean of The Faculty of Science. In my time, Dr. Watts, there were no has-deans at Trinity. Then, it was said, old deans never die; they just lose their faculties.

The Provost has been a visiting fellow at numerous universities abroad and had made several field trips to the United States. He is the author of various scientific papers and is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Dr. Watts has served on a number of public boards and commissions. He was chairman of An Taisce back in the sixties. He is keenly interested in conservation and was so actively involved in the movement as to have taken part in the famous Hume Street preservation protest. I believe he went along for the riot.

And, O tempora, O mores, unheard of in my generation, Dr. Watts was elected as the college's nominee for Provost this year by a democratic vote of the entire academic staff and some students, and the Irish government confirmed Trinity's choice. His appointment is for ten years.

His wife, Geraldine, is also a Trinity graduate, as are their two sons, and their daughter is an undergraduate in the School of Modern Languages.

On behalf of this association of Trinity graduates in Canada, I congratulate you, Dr. Watts, 6n your appointment as Provost and wish you a most successful term of office.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, charge your glasses, rise and drink the toast to Trinity, to which the Provost will reply.

To Trinity.

Jack White