Between War and Revolution: Trinity College Dublin 1914-22.

This post has been contributed by Dr Tomás Irish, lecturer in Modern History at Swansea University. He has recently released a new book looking at Trinity College Dublin in war and revolution, 1912-1923, available here.


On 24 April 1916, nationalist rebels seized the General Post Office in the centre of Dublin, inaugurating the Easter Rising which would lead to a week of fighting in the name of a newly-proclaimed Irish republic. At Trinity College Dublin, the university’s porters, fearing the worst, quickly locked the gates to the venerable institution, already depopulated owing to the ongoing war. In the hours that followed, a motley crew of students, professors, and alumni organized the defence of Trinity. They were joined in this by a small number of soldiers on leave from the front, from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. On the first night of the Rising, this improvised garrison numbered 44 men who acted in the full expectation of an attack upon the university, one which ultimately never came to pass.

In the week ahead, Trinity would become the hub from which British forces suppressed the nationalist rising, although it would in turn inspire a war of independence leading to the secession of 26 Irish counties from union with Britain in 1921. Trinity, traditionally a unionist institution with strong links to both the government in Westminster and the British Empire, was out of tune with the nationalist revolution and found itself sidelined by the new Irish Free State, which prioritized funding and influence for the National University of Ireland, where many of the revolutionaries had been educated. This left Trinity both emotionally and practically distant from the new state in the decades following the latter’s establishment.

Trinity College Dublin forms an unusual example of a university which saw its normal activities turned on their head by not one, but two conflicts in the second decade of the twentieth century. It found itself, in 1916, a site of mobilization for conflicts being fought at home and abroad. While the First World War was a transformative moment for universities in most belligerent states, few universities found themselves directly threatened by military action (with the notable exception of Belgian universities in August 1914). Moreover, none, to the best of my knowledge, found themselves unwitting participants in two different military affairs with conflicting aspirations. This was the experience of Trinity College Dublin in the period 1914-1922.


MS EX 02

British troops in Trinity College Dublin during the Easter Rising, 1916.

Image owned by, and reproduced here with the kind permission of The Board of Trinity College Dublin:

Exhibition material from the Long Room Exhibit ‘Dublin; The College and the City’ as compiled by the Manuscripts Department, Trinity College Library, October 2009

The example of Trinity College Dublin, founded in 1592, exemplifies both the richness and the challenges of writing university history. At the turn of the twentieth century, TCD formed part of a wider academic world, with its lecturers travelling to international conferences, receiving honorary degrees from institutions elsewhere in Europe and North America, and its graduates frequently gaining employment elsewhere in the British Empire. This was exemplified by its tercentenary celebrations of 1892, where scholars came from across the world to honour one of Europe’s ancient universities.

In an Irish context, Trinity was seen as antithetical to resurgent nationalism which had grown in strength in the decades before 1914: it had, until 1793, excluded Catholics, and was still a strongly Anglican institution. It was initially resistant to the teaching of Irish, central to the nationalist cultural revival, and it was a politically unionist institution. Moreover, TCD’s graduates elected two representatives to the Westminster parliament who were unionist in outlook. Indeed, Sir Edward Carson, the unionist leader by 1912, represented Trinity College Dublin (Dublin University) in parliament between 1892 and 1918. Cultural nationalists and nationalist publications frequently cited the institution as exemplifying all that was wrong with British rule in Ireland. The Leader, an especially vituperative nationalist newspaper, frequently referred to Trinity as ‘the Parochial University’ and ‘England’s Faithful Garrison’.

The institution’s experiences in this period exemplify the tension between national and international concerns that mark the experiences of universities in this period, where academics and institutions (almost) universally supported the war and their respective national causes, leaving the appeals to the scholarly internationalism to one side while the conflict was ongoing.

The period of the First World War was transformative for universities around Europe. The conflict was a ‘total war’, meaning that states mobilised the entirety of national resources available to them in their bid to both sustain and win the war effort. For universities this meant that, as the war progressed, national governments increasingly leant on them for expertise and resources. Specialist learning, from the humanities to the hard sciences, was applied to war and its associated problems, with historians and philosophers writing propaganda, physicists and chemists applying their knowledge to weaponry, geographers and legal scholars planning the post-war settlement, while sociologists and economics managed the wartime division of labour. The historian and president of the Board of Education, H.A.L. Fisher, noted in 1917 that ‘the Professor and the Lecturer, the Research Assistant, and the Research Student have suddenly become powerful assets to the nation.’

The engagement of universities in the war was not restricted to academic staff. Students volunteered for service in great numbers, with over 3,000 Trinity students, staff, and alumni undertaking some sort of military service over the course of the war, leaving classrooms empty and universities deprived of student fees. Cumulatively, the university was deeply invested in the prosecution of the First World War. The population of the university dropped from an average of 1,200 before the war to a low of 721 by 1917-18, while students and teaching staff mostly swapped academic work for war work for the conflict’s duration.

Like their counterparts at universities elsewhere in Europe, TCD students volunteered for a myriad reasons: for adventure, out of a sense of solidarity with their fellow students, out of a belief in the righteousness of the cause. To this list can be added two more reasons: in 1914, the two major political factions in Ireland (unionist and constitutional nationalists: both of whom were led by Trinity alumni: Carson and John Redmond) were united in support for the war, and many Trinity students enlisted for this reason. Radical nationalism was still a minority movement at this time; indeed, in November 1914, Patrick Pearse, the man who would lead the Rising in 1916, was forbidden from speaking to the student Gaelic Society owing to his anti-recruitment activities. John Pentland Mahaffy, the Provost of TCD who numbered King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II amongst his acquaintances, did not want ‘a man called Pearse’ disseminating his ‘traitorous views’ at Trinity College Dublin.

The Easter Rising occurred in the middle of this unprecedented mobilization for war. Its leaders allied themselves to Germany and explicitly rejected the allied war effort. The Trinity community was steadfastly against the Rising and its goals and shocked by the devastation to property across Dublin’s inner city. However, the execution of the leaders of the Rising by the British authorities did much to lend popular support to the republican nationalism which grew in the years that followed, culminating in a War of Independence fought by nationalist insurgents and British military between 1919 and 1921.

Trinity College Dublin found itself caught between two major national movements. In a British context, the wartime efforts of universities transformed their relationship with the state. The establishment of the University Grants Committee in 1919 created a mechanism through which British universities could claim state funding from a centralized body, remuneration universities for their wartime privations and ensuring ongoing state funding of higher education and university research for the first time. To prepare the way for this, a Royal Commission sat in 1920, recommending a capital grant of £113,000 and an annual grant of £49,000 for the university.

In Ireland, the revolution established a new state which was unsympathetic to TCD, its unionist traditions, and its wartime record. Following the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty on 6 December 1921, Prime Minister David Lloyd George made it clear to TCD that all future financial claims should be taken up with the new Irish government, and the Free State government, in turn, made it clear that they would not honour the recommendations of the Royal Commission of 1920.

It was not until 1947 that Trinity College Dublin would receive a state grant for the first time from the Irish government. This followed decades of slow adjustment to the new political regime. While Trinity still displayed the trappings of the old regime – singing ‘God Save the King’ and flying the Union Jack into the late 1930s – it also attempted to build a solid working relationship with the new one, giving honorary degrees to leading figures in the Free State, such as the President of the Executive Council (and veteran of the 1916 Rising) W.T. Cosgrave, in 1926. The process of readjustment was fraught, contested by students and staff alike, and fought out in official ceremonials, student societies, and in the day-to-day business of the university.

Trinity College Dublin’s experiences a century ago are most likely unique in the history of universities. A.A. Luce, one of three fellows of TCD to fight in the Great War and one of the defenders of Trinity on 24 April 1916, commented in 1965 that ‘historians may say that Trinity backed the wrong horse’. Trinity’s case demonstrates the richness of university history and the tensions between the international connectedness of scholarship and its national and local environments.


Gategate*: How a Parking Dispute Changed University Governance

*Gategate: probably not what Manchester students called their first direct action.

The cover image for this blog shows the Whitworth Building on Oxford Road (where the gates in question were locked) as the site of a later student protest in the 1969/70 academic year.

This article has been contributed by Dr Sarah Webster, who has completed a PhD on student activism and protest in England.


One January morning, University of Manchester porters needed bolt-cutters to prize open the metal gates to three staff car parks. Armed with heavy chains and locks, disgruntled students had chained the gates shut at 8.30am, protesting some unpopular edict from the University authorities. The gates were open again by 9am, making the protest minimally disruptive. However, it was the first ever direct action protest on the Manchester campus.

The action calls to mind the student racialism of the late sixties, when the world seemed to teeter on the brink of a revolution led by student radicals. But the reality is that it was a cold morning in January 1959. Fifties students are not immediately associated with student protest. They are more commonly characterised as a sombre and studious lot, interested in their lectures and tea dances, not civil disobedience. The decade is also not famed for its student political activism; there were only 10 protests involving University of Manchester students between the academic years of 1950/51 and 1959/60. With two protests occurring in 1950/51 and the rest falling after 1955/56, there was not even one protest a year. Yet, in 1959, with no obvious build in campus discontent, a small group of students attempted to seriously disrupt the University’s daily functioning. They were protesting a ban on students parking in the main university car park, an edict suddenly imposed by the university over the Christmas vacation.

It is perhaps the most middle class of student protests. White, middle-class students dominated the mid-twentieth century student population, but, even so, car-driving students were likely a campus minority. Although car ownership soared in fifties Britain, very few families could have afforded to run two cars, and the available state grants and scholarships would not have stretched to a car as well as tuition fees and accommodation costs. With the possible exception of some mature students (mainly ex-servicemen), any car-owning student was likely to be from a very wealthy family.

It is easy to dismiss the protest as the temper tantrum of a few entitled young men. To some extent that is true, as the ban affected only a small minority. However, the protest is also an expression of student discontent about their exclusion from university governance and decision making. Over the Christmas vacation, the University Senate had not only banned student cars, but also voted to make major changes to the academic year and exam system. The new changes would require students to study independently over the long summer vacation for exams in mid-September, long after the end of teaching in May; this was a major shift from the existing system of end of year examinations. The University Lodgings Officer had also issued guidance to local landladies on curfews and rent rates for student tenants. Although students were assured the guidance was only suggestions, there were complaints of problems and evictions as landladies felt compelled to apply the university’s rules.

The university’s failure to consult students or their Union representatives about decisions directly affecting the student body incensed undergraduates. An editorial in the student body’s newspaper, News Bulletin on 22 January 1959 complained, “it will not help staff-student relationships if they treat us like a lot of schoolchildren”. They conceded “that the university authorities have our best interests at heart”, but implied those authorities to be a patronising dictatorship with little regard for student opinions. The action had reiterated the student body’s exclusion from all levels of university governance.

Most British students were not formally represented in university governance structures before the late sixties. Although student unions were well established, any student consultation was highly informal, occurring in semi-regular meetings between union presidents and university vice chancellors. The system excluded students from all decision-making committees and bodies within the university. They had no voice on decisions, however significant, regarding their university education and experience. While unions could and did put forward complaints and requests in union meetings, the action taken by the universities was entirely discretionary.

Many academics and university administrators considered students to be too naïve, immature and ill-informed to participate in the serious business of university governance. That attitude sat at odds with university students’ status as the best and brightest in Britain, and with students’ own self-conceptions as articulate participants in the university community. They felt equally involved in and affected by any changes (or lack thereof) on campus and thus well qualified to comment on issues like curriculum development, exam systems and library overcrowding. Student representation was an area of bitter resentment and frustration on many British campuses. News Bulletin captures regular calls for better staff-student relations and greater student consultation.

Student representation was a key area of activism in the late sixties. Pickets, occupations and marches were all used to challenge and pressurise the universities on student participation in governance structures alongside appeals from student union officers. At Manchester, protests around representation continued into the early seventies, but students eventually secured their representation at every level of the university and in all matters. Representation at every level was a major change to the university’s governance structure. Students were now able to contribute to proposals made by the university and to bring forward their own complaints, ideas and demands. They weren’t shy about doing so either. In the early seventies, they demanded in multiple council meetings the sale of shares in South Africa, something the University were initially reluctant to agree to.

Change to student representation came long after that cold January morning. But those grumpy souls can be seen to mark the start of a concerted student effort at Manchester and beyond to force students onto all university committees. Regular student protest activity only emerged in the mid-sixties, but the chained car park gates represented a new willingness in British students to directly challenge their universities.


News Bulletin, 22nd January 1959. University of Manchester Student Union Archive. SUA/8/1/16. Available in the University of Manchester Archives and Record Centre, located in the University of Manchester Library.

For more on student representation:

Ashby, E., and Anderson, M., 1970. The Rise of the Student Estate in Britain. London: Macmillan and Co Ltd.

Pullan, B., and Abendstern, M., 2000. A History of the University of Manchester, 1951-1973. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Pullan, B., and Abendstern, M., 2004, A History of the University of Manchester, 1973-1990. Manchester: Manchester University Press.