Toast To Trinity IV

Trinity College Dublin Alumni Association
The Albany Club, Toronto
Saturday, November 4, 1992

I believe this is the fourth time I have proposed the toast to Trinity at these dinners and that perhaps illustrates the difference between the Irish and the Jews. The Jews leave a party without saying goodbye whereas the Irish say goodbye without leaving.

At the outset, on behalf of the Canadian graduates here, may I say cead mile failte to the contingent from the United States who are participating in this joint dinner. May I also extend a warm welcome to Senator David Norris from Dublin. In Ottawa, we have a home for the aged and infirm, known as the Canadian senate, virtually a life appointment. On the other hand, I note that another Trinity graduate, President Mary Robinson, has temporarily ended Senator Norris employment.

Welcome to Toronto. A former mayor of this city once said:

"Nobody should ever visit Toronto for the first time." Obviously, he didn't take English under H. 0. White or R. B. D. French. He meant, of course, that visitors should keep returning to Toronto as often as possible, which we hope you will.

We promise not to burden you with our constitutional problems — Canada's national sport — nor rehash the recent US election nor speculate on what may happen in Ireland on November 25 lest you leave with the impression that, in coming here, you truly passed the 49th platitude and reached Toronto.

Nor will we rub in the fact that Toronto is the domain of the Blue Jays, baseball champions of the world. Please take any boastful remark in that connection as a taunt cordiale.

We are delighted you are joining us tonight in recalling Trinity days, the common bond that unites us. The profits from this dinner, if there are any, which is unlikely, will help to defray the expenses of our association. So, after we have eaten, it can be said that those who came to scoff remained to pay.

Incidentally, the originator of that pun was a former Trinity provost, the illustrious John Pentland Mahaffy. He coined it in l892 during the Trinity tercentenary fund-raising campaign, in which he played a leading role. The upshot of these efforts was the erection of the Graduates Memorial Building, which replaced a Queen Anne terrace known for its rundown condition as Rotten Row, adjacent to Botany Bay.

Many of the guests invited for the main events of the tercentenary on July 4, by the way, arrived on the Holyhead-Kingstown mail boat. The editor of the Tercentenary Records wrote that while many who would be at the next centenary celebrations — and that includes some of you here tonight — would no doubt "boast that they are living better than their ancestors in most things ... it is doubtful whether they will, even in a hundred years, have surpassed the splendid boats of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company."

In a speech during the celebrations, Dr. Mahaffy noted that the tercentenary made Trinity men (there were no women enrolled in 1892) feel" they were members of one great family of letters and learning which tends to make human nature larger and loftier and purer throughout the world." Noble sentiments indeed in keeping with the Victorian era, which was Mahaffy's pride and joy.

My own introduction to Trinity came 50 years later, in 1942, although I didn't tarry very long then. It was not until l946 that I really entered college life. It seemed as if the Victorian age still lingered on. Some of Mahaffy's contemporaries were now senior fellows and members of the governing board. They had seen a great many changes in their day, and had been against them all.

Women had been admitted as students long before then, but their freedom of movement within college was severely restricted. They had to vacate the premises by 6 p.m., except for those using the reading room. In that event, they had to sign in at the front gate and again at the reading room on arrival. The procedure was reversed when they left. This tight time schedule gave little leeway for dalliance, or negotiating the front square cobblestones on high heels.

When my wife as chairman of Players (the word chairperson had not then become politically correct), sought permission from the board for women to attend rehearsals at night in a cramped top-floor room in Front Square, she was solemnly instructed to make sure that no ladies sat on gentlemen's knees during rehearsals.

TCD, a ribald, scurrilous College Miscellany, produced by what might today be called Satanic Erses, was the bane of the board's life and was frequently threatened with suppression. Each new editor, on taking over, had to wait on the provost. I well remember Tubby Alton — a gracious gentleman of the old school and the last Latin scholar to fill the position before our present provost — gently admonishing me not to allow anything to appear in the magazine that would cause a tear to drop on a pillow in Trinity Hall, the women's residence.

Women were supposed to, though not all did, find board and lodgings from a list of landladies approved by the college. In some instances, it was a case of "students taken in and done for." College women, however, have always been a hardy and resourceful breed, and fraternization between the sexes, and subsequent marriages, soon developed.

Roman Catholics were forbidden to attend such a godless institution or Protestant bastion as TCD then was without a dispensation from the Archbishop of Dublin. That didn't deter those Catholics determined to acquire a Trinity education, including one lady who went there because TCD was on her bus route and UCD was not.

Living conditions were fairly primitive, especially in Botany Bay, where I lived before moving into the GMB. There was no indoor plumbing and just a gas ring for cooking. In the terribly cold winter of 1947, there was little to put in the fireplaces in rooms except for wet turf, almost impossible to burn. In this world, however, many are cold but few are frozen. Resourceful students chopped up the college-supplied furniture for firewood and went to bed in their overcoats. No doubt this was all good training for those of us who subsequently roughed it in below-zero temperatures in parts of Canada and the US.

However, a university of the calibre of Trinity is not measured by its physical plant or infrastructure. You may recall how Stephen Leacock, the great Canadian humorist and head of the economics and political science department at McGill, placed his priorities. He said if he were founding a university and had the money, he would first found a smoking room, then a dormitory, followed by a decent reading room and library. After that, if his money held out, he'd hire a professor and get some textbooks.

What has always been the distinguishing feature of Trinity — certainly in my day — is its spirit and character, its jealously-guarded academic freedom, its independence bravely maintained at times when government, holding the purse strings, wants more scholar for the dollar, and its respect for, though not always its approval, of individual thought and unorthodox behaviour.

Trinity in my time not only had character but characters. Of what a rich vintage some of them were. I wish I could parade them here tonight for you to pay tribute to them. Personalities such as Edmund Curtis, T. W. Moody, Otway Ruthven, Constantia Maxwell and R. B. McDowell, all historians, since history was my subject.

Who among his students will ever forget the sight of McDowell, dashing in at the last minute to give an early morning lecture in winter, his overcoat under his gown, a large scarf wrapped around his neck which always became unravelled as his excitement and energy mounted, revealing his pyjamas underneath.

Georgie Simms, dean of residence for Church of Ireland students, whose permission I had to seek as a resident student to get married; Jean Montgomery from Ballymena, who fed us on Buffet and Commons, a bonnie fetcher if ever there was; Harry Thrift, the genial well-named bursar who handed out the life-sustaining ex-service cheques; Walter Starkie who went a-gypsying through the world; Frank Mitchell, junior dean at the time and a stern disciplinarian.

Owen Sheehy Skeffington, whose socialist views few of his contemporaries on staff shared, but who served Trinity well as a senator, an honour richly deserved and exemplifying Trinity's respect for unorthodox opinions.

What a contrast he was to another senator, W. B. Stanford, my wife's tutor, who unsmilingly broke the sad news to her that, despite three school certificates, she would have to spend an entire summer cramming Virgil Books 4 and 6 to qualify in Latin, then a compulsory entrance subject. She did.

Sir Robert Tate, an accomplished ballroom dancer in his youth, who, as a tutor couldn't be bothered with such trivial matters as what courses to take, but would move heaven and earth if one of his students was likely to be sent down. And Francis LaTouche Bodfrey, that paragon of all tutors, whom I was fortunate to have.

Those in the professional schools — medicine, engineering, law and divinity — will have their own professorial memories. Some I remember in other connections — Willie Pearson, Freddy Gill, Fanny Moran, Bronte Gatenby, David Webb, A. A. Luce, the vice-provost. The list is a long one. Indeed, let us now praise famous men and women.

Let me add one more name, R. M. Gwynn, then senior lecturer, who used an ear trumpet because of a hearing impairment. You may remember the famous story about the time he was the only faculty member at the high table on Commons one night, and the scholar saying grace thought that he would take advantage of Gwynn's poor hearing. So he rattled off the grace in this fashion: "He thinks I'm saying the grace but I'm not, he thinks I'm saying the grace but I'm not, he thinks I'm saying the grace but I'm not, per Jesum Christum dominum nostrum."

At the end of term, the scholar went to Gwynn's office to collect his five pound stipend for saying grace. Gwynn looked at him and said: "He thinks he's going to get paid but he's not, he thinks he's going to get paid but he's not he thinks he's going to get paid but he's not ." And he didn't.

Of course, an essential element of university life is its student body. I believe that the winds of charge began to swirl through Trinity with the large influx of students after the Second World War. Many students had been denied the opportunity of a university education during the war years and there was a huge demand for admittance, not just from returning Irish ex-servicemen and women, but from Britain and other countries including Canada and the United States.

Attendance more than doubled in a few years, creating problems with which the college was hard pressed to deal. Sidney Smith, a former president of the University of Toronto, once observed: "Change within a university encounters all the difficulties of moving a cemetery."

However, slowly, but perceptibly, Trinity began to move with the times. It has now reached the stage, I'm sure Senator Norris will tell us, where it actually spearheads change. Change in my day was gradual. Some of the more irksome restrictions were removed, but the college's financial position did not stretch to much improvement in living conditions and other amenities.

Trinity became less inbred than during the war years with this larger more cosmopolitan enrolment. — breath of fresh air entered what had been a slightly stale atmosphere. The newcomers, with new approaches to life, played a full part in most college activities — academically, athletically, socially and in the societies and clubs.

Admittedly, some of the ex-service men and women, who had acquired a champagne taste now had to survive on a beer income, meted out to them in quarterly installments by the British and allied governments. For some of us, it was a cadge-as-cadge-can existence between the grants. We lived on an ad hoc basis, the nearby pawnshop being our help in ages past and our hope for years to come. When the cheques arrived and we could reclaim our belongings, we knew indeed that our great redeemer liveth.

The Dublin pubs prospered from the larger student intake, alcoholically as well as numerically — The Bailey; Davey Byrne's; Jammet's Back Bar; O'Donohue's, The International, The Lincoln Inn and bona fides such as Traynors at Goatstown and The Widow Quinn's at Step Aside, to name a few.

Long before McDonald's became the lord of the fries on Grafton Street, coffee at Bewdley's or Roberts provided a welcome pick-me-up the morning after the night before.

Any recollection of student days is necessarily highly subjective, as mine has been. All of us have our own personal memories which we share tonight. For some of us, Trinity was a golden opportunity to waste time — creatively of course. For others, it was the launching pad for subsequent careers in Ireland and all over the world. We here tonight have chosen Canada and the United States as our adopted countries for reasons we need not list. Perhaps the immigration laws were more generous here than elsewhere when we arrived.

But, here we are together, Trinity men and women, celebrating a common heritage. My college memories go back 50 years, some of yours are more recent. But Trinity still goes on as it has for 400 years with its innate ability to absorb succeeding freshmen and women and to stamp something more on them when they graduate than B.A., B.Eng., MB, or whatever other manner of degree or diploma they attain.

If a sheepskin and a parchment scroll were all we derived from our years at Trinity, I doubt many of us would be here tonight with cause to celebrate, or that the college would have lasted 400 years.

Let us, therefore, charge our glasses and, with fond affection and gratitude, drink a toast to Trinity.

Jack White