The one thing common… is that they have nothing in common: Some Aspects of the Unique Electoral Politics of Dublin University in Irish Legislative Assemblies c1919–1979

Limond D.


Trinity College, sole college of the University of Dublin, was almost unique in the world by 2022 in having elected representatives in its country’s national legislature. This was a legacy of a system first devised in Britain but defunct there since 1950. This work concerns the election of representatives by graduates of Trinity College/University of Dublin to various legislative assemblies between c1919 and c1979. Using sources including autobiographies and memoirs of elected representatives, election addresses (a sample of approximately 40 issued by approximately 50 candidates in the period) and correspondence concerning elections in the National Library of Ireland, it seeks to explore the implicit rules by which campaigns were waged. It also explores the liberal turn following the first (1951) campaign of Owen Sheehy Skeffington (1909–1970), which resulted in the de facto need for candidates to espouse liberal principles if they were to stand much chance of being elected. It finds that there was a deep form of conformity at work even as Trinity graduates praised themselves for their individuality and that, although Trinity elections’ outcomes were not connected to Irish elections and party politics more generally, Trinity representatives were often significant political pioneers.

‘Trinity [College Dublin], unlike Oxford and Cambridge, does not tend to produce a type. It has never, as far as I know, fathered a cult, a movement, a school or an “ideology”. It specialises in the individual. The one thing common to Trinity men [sic] is that they have nothing in common’ [31].


In Ireland in March 2022 an unusual by-election was held, unusual in that the number of candidates was very high, fully 17, unusual also in that it was for a representative of a kind more or less unique in the world by that point. The outcome, the election of an ex-army officer, turned writer and activist, was noted to some extent locally [15; 78; 79] and nationally [21; 8], but not beyond. Though, had anyone noticed there was a chance here to report on something that was, depending on point of view, a quaint and picturesque anomaly with its origins, if not quite in the medieval period, then certainly the early modern, or an un- or even anti-democratic outrage that entrenched privilege in Irish life. To explain any of this it is necessary to take some steps back, as far back as 1592. It also requires a certain degree of semantic explanation, and it is to these semantic issues I turn first. To those who are not Irish (and perhaps to some who are) it bears saying that Trinity College (or Trinity College Dublin, TCD, Trinity or College) is the sole college of the University of Dublin or Dublin University [DU]. DU is a rather notional entity and is rarely invoked in everyday life. Usually, it is to Trinity, not DU, that students, staff and graduates have what might be called their socio-cultural loyalty. Trinity was founded in 1592 at the behest of Elizabeth I (1533–1603), then the Queen of England and Wales (reigned: 1558–1603) and Queen of Ireland. It has had a distinguished history since then [41; 35]. I treat Trinity/College/TCD and DU as interchangeable hereafter.


My intention here is not to reconstruct every campaign or describe every election for which I have abundant sources between 1919 and 1979 (which period I have selected as allowing consideration of campaigns and candidates before and after Irish independence but still a manageable chronological span). That would be a pointless thing to attempt (even if, to repeat, I did not lack sources for many of these) because some (for example, in the special circumstances in [18] and immediately after the First World War, in 1919 [16], and in the early 1920s, amidst continuing turmoil in Irish and British politics [44], and as late as the 1930s, when somebody was elected unopposed in the by-election following the death of Teachta Dála [TD] James Craig (1861–1933) [43]) were uncontested elections and had no campaigns. It is also not my intention to explore the record in office of everyone elected to represent Trinity c1919–1979 and nor is it my purpose to write about any direct relationship between Trinity elections and Irish elections as a whole, because there is none. These had/have nothing in common, except in the attenuated way I explore in the conclusion. Rather, I want to develop a sense of how such elections and their campaigns worked and to explore the way in which Trinity’s representatives have, through their campaigns predicted and presaged Ireland’s general socio-political and cultural liberalisation. Thus, in what follows I briefly consider the historical context in which Trinity’s representation has operated and its technicalities. I next introduce the discussion of campaigns and candidates and deal variously with: Trinity connections and informal constituencies, personal appeals/supporters, election addresses, the importance of political independence and what might be called the liberal turn taken by many candidates from the 1950s onwards. Finally, I attempt to draw some tentative conclusions.

To avoid lengthy explanations of the lives and careers of the various characters involved I give three appendices (I–III) that detail these below. Another appendix (IV) provides details of results although, for brevity/practicality, I exclude by-elections.

Context / Technicalities

Trinity (formally styled the Borough of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth, near Dublin) had representation in the Irish parliament (a body that ceased to exist in 1800, with its representatives then becoming members of the Union parliament sitting in Westminster) from 1613. But the practice of allowing universities to have seats in parliaments appears actually to have started in Scotland. James VI/I (1566–1625; King of Scots: 1567–1625; England, Ireland and Wales: 1603–1625) carried it with him from his northern kingdom to his newly acquired southern one when the unmarried Elizabeth died childless and he succeeded. For various lengths of time between the early seventeenth century and 1950 other British universities and one in what is now Northern Ireland enjoyed the same right. But these rights remained extant in Ireland, even after comparable arrangements in India and Australia had also lapsed. Thus, by the time of writing, with the exception of the National University of Ireland [NUI], Trinity had become unique in the world in having elected parliamentary representation. The NUI dates its origins to 1850 when separate institutions, styled Queen’s Colleges, in Belfast, Cork and Galway, were federated as the Queen’s University of Ireland. In 1880 the Queen’s University was superseded by the Royal University of Ireland, itself dissolved in 1908, being replaced by the NUI [38], with its graduates retaining voting rights, though those of what, when it separated from the NUI in 1908, became Queen’s University Belfast lost theirs in 1950.

Even graduates of Ireland’s other universities have no representatives, although a 1977 referendum, the result of which had not been enacted in law by 2022 allowed them to have [33]. As to specific technicalities, there were two members for the DU constituency in 1919, as had been the case since 1832, when the reduction to one that took place with the Union of 1800 was undone. This rose to four between 1921 and 1923, in both the Southern Irish parliament (which existed between 1921 and 1922, following a partition of the island that saw legislative authority devolved to new assembles in Dublin and Belfast in an attempt to head off the growing demand for independence in much of the country while also protecting the unionist minority in the northeast) and the Free State Dáil (which operated from 1922 to 1937, when the Irish Free State Constitution was replaced).

Membership was reduced to three TDs in August 1923, something achieved amicably, with Gerald Fitzgibbon (1866–1942) indicating that he would not contest the general election that year [80], allowing the three others to be returned unopposed [44]. Whether as TDs or senators, there have been three representatives for the DU constituency thereafter. University representation was provided for under Article 27 of the Free State Constitution (‘Each University in the Irish Free State… which was in existence at the date of the coming into operation of this Constitution, shall be entitled to elect three representatives’) and then, as in 2022, the electors were graduates, and a few students who enjoyed the special status of receiving prestigious fully-funded College scholarships (University electors had also to be Irish citizens thus disqualifying any foreign national graduates).

After protracted wrangling, university representation was abolished in the Free State in 1936, ostensibly on the grounds that it was un-democratic, even anti-democratic, to allow some people an additional vote, but more practically, it seems, because Fianna Fáil [FF] (the more right-wing of Ireland’s two Christian democratic parties, then the party of government, as it has repeatedly been since 1932) had often struggled to get candidates favourable to its political position elected to either Trinity or NUI seats and because there was still antipathy in its ranks to the former institution and its Anglo-Irish graduates. Resistance to this on the part of the Free State Seanad contributed, in part, to the latter’s own abolition not long thereafter in the general constitutional re-writing of 1937 [83; 84; 11; 87]. It was, however, reinstated under Article 18 (at sections 4 1 [i] and [ii] dealing with the NUI and Trinity, respectively) of the 1937 Constitution, although in revised form. Elections in the TCD/NUI constituencies have, since 1937, been governed by that year’s Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act [60]; this has only been amended once, by the Electoral (Amendment) Act of 1973 [19]. Prior to that their equivalents were dealt with under various other pieces of legislation, some of it, obviously, predating Irish independence. A seat in the 60-member upper house or Seanad (colloquially, the senate) established in 1937 usually came through a complicated formula involving election from a very limited franchise or by official fiat. Only the TCD/NUI graduates elected anyone en masse; elections for their senators coming slightly after a general election (other than in by-elections, obviously) and being by postal ballot.

Aside from the move from electing MPs to electing TDs and (after the enforced hiatus of 1936–1937) senators, perhaps the most significant change in the procedures concerned the enfranchisement of female graduates in 1918. The 1918–1919 DU University Calendar noted, but did not comment on, this change, sanguinely reporting only:

[u]nder the Representation of the People Act, 1918, the University of Dublin returns two members of Parliament, under a system of Proportional Representation. Every person of full age (ie 21 in the case of a man and 30 in that of a woman) is entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector in the Constituency of the University of Dublin [82: 16].

A Note on Electorate Size / Turnout

Though they have grown gradually, as admission to and graduation from university has been more common electorates for the university seats have never been large. Using publicly available sources, largely press reports, it is possible to say that in 1927 there were some 2,000 voters in the Trinity or DU constituency [75] and the number in 1919, at the start of the period, could only have been equal to or lower than that, even if not by much. By 1938 the number had risen, but only to 3,000 [9: 121]. It continued gradually to rise through thought the 1950s and 1960s, and in 1973 the electorate was around 7,000 [74]. Finally, in 1979, at the end of the period, it stood at 8,000 [33; cf 57: 60]. In one view it can seem surprising that not all those who have this unique privilege and are able to do so do actually exercise it. Indeed, turn-outs have fallen over time. Albeit it is outside the period in question, that for the 2022 by-election (when 13, 418 valid votes were cast) was under 20% [78].

But prior to the mid-1960s, especially in the NUI, over half those eligible often voted [9: 121]. One exception to the general downwards trend seems to have been in 1977, when just over two thirds of the eligible Trinity voters (of whom there were 8,000 at the time) voted [10].

Campaigns: Introduction

The first task is to reconstruct a sense of how campaigning worked in the period. The most complete account seems to be that appearing in the autobiography of a successful candidate, later President of Ireland. She relied especially on family members and pupils from her former school, Mount Anville Secondary School, a prestigious girls’ fee-paying establishment.

The electorate was comprised [in 1969] of approximately eight thousand graduates of Trinity. The team I assembled wrote letters to everybody we could think of, and asked everybody we knew in the Trinity establishment to write their letters in support of me. My family and friends worked morning, noon and night, targeting doctors, lawyers and friends of friends. I joked that I had sewn up the ‘nuns’ vote’ as my aunt Ivy in India looked to be the only one on the electoral register [57: 60; cf 23: 32].

A biographer, who was also the wife/widow of her subject, Owen Sheehy Skeffington (1909–1970), to whose story I return in greater detail below, recalled the first electoral campaign he ran in similar terms, it being: ‘run on a shoestring… [with f]amily and friends gathered round the dining-table to fold, address and stick envelopes, while he did a limited amount of personal canvassing on postcards’ [65: 150].

The only other account of conducting a campaign I have been able to locate, provided by a failed candidate in 1977, though one who would later be elected as a TD for Fine Gael [FG] (Ireland’s other Christian democrat party) and to become a government minister, is less use, but to the extent it was fought at all, this campaign was evidently fought conventionally.

After the general election [17 June 1977] I… secured a small list of prominent former graduates willing to be named as my supporters, and devised a printed leaflet… I sat back and waited to be elected. I assumed the publicity around the [recent] publiccation of my family law book and past media coverage of my promoting [various liberal causes]… would result in a successful outcome. I was wrong… I was rapidly eliminated [64: 200].

These accounts of three campaigns point to the key elements: connections and constituencies, personal appeals, supporters and addresses.

Campaigns: Connections and Constituencies

It was never necessary to have been a graduate of Trinity to represent it, nor was it necessary to be amongst its lecturers/fellows, but it was customary for candidates to be graduates (as all its TDs and senators were until 2011, though some of its early MPs had not been) and many MPs/TDs/senators have been staff. Also, in general, stressing one’s links to TCD was common in election campaigns. Perhaps few candidates/incumbents in the period 1919 to 1979 had connections as strong as those of William Bedell Stanford (1910–1984) whose very name hinted at the fact that he was descended from William Bedell (1571–1642), fifth provost, from 1609 until his death and the second MP, though that only in 1628. But others staked their claims in like manner.

For example, an unsuccessful candidate in 1973, Lionel Fleming (1904–1974), an Irish Times journalist who only ever had ‘a slender chance’ of election [6], ostentatiously pointed out: ‘I was born in Cork… [coming] from a family… [with] a long and continuous connection with Trinity. When my daughter recently graduated from there, she represented the sixth successive generation of Flemings in Trinity’ [20]. Having a specific group or pool of voters from whom one could draw was also an established feature of elections. This was clearly the case with the medical candidates who typically relied on the bonds of fraternity (literal fraternity before women were admitted to medical studies and fraternity in a metaphorical or attenuated sense even when they were) that specialist, sequestered education, such as in medicine, with its hospital placements and the like, can tend to foster.

William Jessop (1902–1980) (who was twice voted into office in by-elections, the first in 1952 when he replaced a candidate who had been elected but who did not actually serve as, shortly thereafter, he was appointed to act as a judge, making him ineligible, losing that place in 1954, and the second in 1960, when he replaced his fellow medical doctor, William Fearon, 1892–1959) was not above making quite overt reference to the idea that his role would be to serve medicine. In his ‘Summary of principal claims for consideration’ at his first by-election attempt, his second point, after ‘Interest in General Education’, concerned his ‘Interest in Medical Education and Research’. He said:

[t]he standard of accommodation, staffing, and equipment in British Medical Schools has undergone consideration expension [sic – expansion?] during the last fifteen years and is now far ahead of ours [27].

He offered to use his election as a senator to rectify this. In 1954 he again stressed his medical work, especially his having ‘had the honour of being chosen as the first head of… the Moyne Institute’ a centre for research in preventive medicine, named after Walter Edward Guinness (1880–1944) the first baron Moyne [28]. And after he was again elected in a 1960 by-election, standing in the general election of the following year, he quite unashamedly stated his belief that: ‘the Medical School [in Trinity] would be at a serious disadvantage without a representative in parliament’, reminding his potential voters that: ‘[i]t has had at least one representative continuously since the [Irish Free] State was founded’ [29]. Needless to say, he could also muster a roll call of fellow medical practitioners to support his cause, such lists being (as the auto/biographies cited above make clear) very much expected. For example, his ‘Supporting Committee’ in 1973 included some 40 or so people with medical qualifications (if we count a small number of dentists and one veterinary surgeon), approximately a third of them.

But if somebody such as Jessop could see himself as the de facto “member for medicine”, there was equally a tradition of being “member for the Church of Ireland” (cf ‘[William Gladstone, 1809–1898] prized the Oxford seat [which he held, 1847–1859] above all others as… [making him] in effect Member for the Church of England’ [4: 311]) – something clearly shown in the case of William Bedell Stanford. In Stanford’s posthumously published memoirs he recorded that the then Professor of Divinity, Richard Hartford (1904–1962), approached him with the suggestion that he ran for a senatorial post. He stood in 1943 [17] and 1947 [46], before being elected in 1948, and recounted Hartford’s suggestion that he stand as follows.

[Hartford’s] motives were frankly sectarian. He felt that the Church of Ireland needed a forthright spokesman [sic] in the Oireachtas since in his opinion the existing Church of Ireland members were politicians first and churchmen second [72: 123; see also 72: 129–131, 142].

And as late as 1965 (he did not stand in the election of 1969) he used his address to his electors to pledge his opposition to ‘all forms of Apartheid and injustice to minorities both in Ireland [emphasis mine] and abroad’ [71]. There could be no doubt what this provocative wording meant, Protestants considered themselves oppressed in post-independence Ireland. Thus, here was somebody making a highly emotional appeal to a specific constituency: Anglo-Irish Protestants. Serving sectional interests is hardly novel in electoral politics but in this case the candidates were expected to belong to, even embody, these sectional interests and also to know electors, or at least to have indirect connections to them. It is to this point that I turn next.

Campaigns: Personal Appeals / Supporters

At once we have a sense of campaigns conducted in a highly personalised way: appeals made to sectional interests, but the personalisation of campaigning went far beyond that. For example, in 1961 Sheehy Skeffington, to whom I have already alluded above, experienced an unexpected defeat (when he was unseated by the same John Ross (1920–2011) who had sought his vote in a 1960 by-election). As a result, in 1965 his supporters mounted an especially vigorous campaign, starting even before the official campaign began.

In particular, they used a letter saying:

[m]any of us were very disappointed when by a mere twenty-four votes of a total poll of over 4,000, Owen Skeffington [sic] lost his seat in the Senate at the last election in 1961. Since there is about to be another General Election a group of us are making a personal canvass on his behalf (Anonymous. Untitled letter, March 1965, unsent [51: 546/9]).

In what proved to be his last campaign, his supporters used a variant of this tactic, a postcard reading:

In spite of his success in the 1965 Senate Election the re-election of OWEN SHEEHY SKEFFINGTON [sic] cannot be taken as a matter of course. I am therefore appealing to you to ensure his re-election by giving him your first preference vote, and should like to remind you that a second preference vote is often worth only one twentieth of a number 1 [sic] vote (Anonymous. Untitled postcard, undated, unsent [51: 546/34]).

These items are significant as taken in conjunction with other correspondence in his papers they show evidence of the great effort put into such campaigning. Candidates evidently recruited followers to form trees for the purposes of correspondence.

Thus, somebody might write to as many graduates as he/she knew in some context or other, while others did likewise. And people approached in this way might be encouraged themselves to contact others: like a tree branching. There are copies of clutches of such letters sent by Owen Sheehy Skeffington and the many replies he received to them in his files in the National Library of Ireland [NLI] (see: [51: section III.iv.4]).

As already noted above, amusingly, one such personal letter was sent to Owen Sheehy Skeffington. Addressing him by his nickname, somebody who was evidently an old friend solicited his vote, which, as a graduate he of course retained, at the time of a 1960 by-election.

Dear Skinny, I am writing to ask you to consider seriously the claims of John Ross… From my own personal knowledge of him I can vouch for the fact that he will, without fear or favour, speak and work for all the aims outlined in his Address (Andy [?]. Letter to Owen Sheehy Skeffington, March 1960 [51: 546/15]).

Another surviving example of such a personal communication relates to the campaign by mathematician Timothy Trevor West (1938–2012) in the 1970 by-election that followed Sheehy Skeffington’s death. Of West, the author wrote:

I have always believed that a good senator must be first and foremost a person not a politician, a good man [sic] and not just a party man. He or she should represent a whole outlook on life… I am [thus] supporting Trevor West as an individual [54].

Campaigns: Electoral Addresses

But in addition to highly personal appeals there were more impersonal election addresses sent to all voters. There is seemingly no complete set of election addresses available. The useful but haphazard Irish Manifestoes Archive has none (available at: A few survive in TCD’s library, but none before 1970. Others are available in the papers of Owen Sheehy Skeffington in the NLI, as he kept copies of both his own and some, though not necessarily all, of those issued by opposing candidates (c1951–1970). Using the libraries referred to above I have constructed an overview of the general approach taken to designing and writing these, especially for the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, reading more than 40 produced by around 50 candidates in the process. These candidates (those to whose addresses I had access) included ‘one-timers’, such as David Thornley (1935–1978) who stood only in 1965, serially unsuccessful candidates, and victors.

Even if few or no copies survive, there evidently were printed election addresses in circulation as far back as the 1910s and 1920s. One, issued by failed candidate Bolton C[harles] Waller (1890–1923) in 1927, occasioned some complaint, when a correspondent wrote to the Irish Times to insist that it had unfairly alleged the elections were in danger of being decided by an inner circle of fellows [58]. The details of the issue, which prompted other correspondence at the time and even an editorial [73], are not entirely relevant. But it is clear this charge was made in ‘a printed communication’ of a kind circulated in British and Irish elections, with postage free of charge to candidates, since 1918, under the Representation of the People Act [55: section 33, sub-section 2].

Simply as a matter of practicality, election addresses were not radically altered between elections. If we examine those of a long-serving senator, William Bedell Stanford, or as many as are available in the Sheehy Skeffington papers, we see remarkable consistency. In 1951, he was able to list what he deemed his achievements since he was first elected in 1948 [68]. But with that exception, we can assume the pre-1948 documents resembled those of 1951 and thereafter. The general approach conformed to this plan: a long list of supporters, much stress on academic credentials (which in his case were many, he being one of the greatest classicists of his age) and, a point to which I return below, an assertion that he was: ‘an independent candidate’ [68]. In 1954 (he did not, of course, have to stand in an intervening by-election) we find much the same thing [69].

Nothing of his seems to be available for 1957 but in the addresses of 1961 [70] and 1965 he followed the same pattern as before [71]. He did not stand for election again.

Candidates: The Importance of Being Independent

In addition to things candidates were expected to do (to make personal appeals and so forth) there were things they were expected to be. Being an independent was an important part of university senatorial campaigns for long. The convention that parties did not involve themselves in these races (as opposed to general Seanad elections) was apparently only broken by FF as late as 1977, when it explicitly offered a candidate in the NUI panel who had been seconded by no less a figure in its ranks than Vivion de Valera (1910–1982), eldest son of its founder. That particular candidate was not elected (continuing a trend of more conservative and FF-leaning candidates struggling to be successful with NUI electorates) and university races largely reverted to being apolitical thereafter [22]. But Helena Concannon, (1878–1952) sat as an NUI FF senator from 1938, having previously between that party’s TD, [52] and other NUI senators had sometimes taken party whips before 1977 or done so subsequently. Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917–2008), to whom I return below, was a Labour member when he was elected, though not a Labour candidate, and resigned from the party in September 1977 after a dispute with its then leader, Frank Cluskey (1930–1989), and Catherine McGuiness (first elected, 1979) had long been linked with Labour when she stood, but, again, she did so as an independent.

More significant was the decision of Mary Robinson to contest a Dáil seat as Labour member, having joined the party late in 1976 [63; 50; 61]. After losing in a particularly vitriolic contest for an area in Dublin, a campaign that saw opponents of her views on the availability of contraception smear her [62; 2] and in which even some members of the Labour branch did not favour her being their TD [25] she was obliged to stand again for her senatorial seat, knowing that voters might turn on her for having abandoned the historic compact [42]. Thus, though her senatorial campaign was not necessarily directed by the Labour Party – university campaigning having its own quirks, she had joined a party and stood for election as a TD under its auspices. The issue of independence then became prominent in the campaign [59]. She was re-elected, but with a reduced majority [12] and there was a sense that she had been punished by an electorate feeling betrayed.

Noël Browne (1915–1997), to whom I return below, was a Labour member when he was elected in 1977, having been a TD in its ranks since 1963, though he was not actually recognised by the Labour Oireachtas group [14; 24: 250–253] and later left the party. But there was something quite different in Robinson changing her status in this way.

Candidates: Owen Sheehy Skeffington and the Liberal Turn at Trinity

Though election addresses or their equivalents, such as personal letters to potential supporters, are not readily available before the 1950s, it seems reasonable to say that campaigns between c1919 and 1951 were staid affairs – at least in public, though bitter, but undisclosed, personal rivalries may sometimes have been at work. The main issue, when elections were even contested, was typically the shift of the balance of power between the legal and medical blocs in College. But from 1951, when Sheehy Skeffington first became a candidate, though he was not elected until 1954, a more radical tone began to creep into the addresses. Consistently, from 1951 to 1969, Sheehy Skeffington openly referred to himself as a liberal socialist in his, saying: ‘[b]y this I mean, in the first place, that I believe that a socialism which does not bring about a true liberation of the individual is a betrayal of socialism’ [66]. He also used his address to acknowledge that some people considered him a communist, a charge he refuted but which was certainly made in his lifetime, with, for example, one Irish Times profile noting: ‘[he] is often regarded as a Bolshevik adept’, though it went on to say: ‘he would certainly be more at home in the British Labour Party than in [an Irish political group]’. The profile added that he was not a fanatic of any sort, and especially not ‘anti-British’, despite his family’s tragic history – his father having been shot out of hand on the orders of a British officer during the 1916 Easter Rising though he was uninvolved [53]. The 1951 address was truly innovative, not least in that he conspicuously refused to publish the names of supporters. More significantly, he attacked what he considered a culture of complacency and complicity in Irish political life.

He wrote as follows.

More than ever before in Ireland, there is a need for public representatives who are prepared publicly to expose, whenever the occasion arises, all the secret and back-door methods and manoeuvres which bring discredit on democratic government in our country [66].

He was still striking the same tone in his final election address, that of 1969.

Trinity College can, of course, be much improved. It is far from perfect, but, in general, it does stand for the free expression of ideas and for the sharpening of intellects in free encounter. The bigot and obscurantist fear it, and with reason, I hope [67].

Though a later DU senator was sceptical of it (writing that ‘Trinity failed to live up to their [sic] vaunted liberal credentials’ [47: 469] in refusing to grant Browne, an often very controversial figure in Irish politics to whom I return below [5; 24], an honorary degree) from at least the time of Sheehy Skeffington’s first electoral campaign it became usual to refer to that idea.

Thus, though he evidently considered himself to the left of Sheehy Skeffington, David Thornley’s 1965 address referred to ‘the responsibility of all graduates who love the College and want to preserve its essential liberalism and independence, tolerance and ecumenism’ [76]. Mary Bourke, as she then was (later Mary Robinson), cast the tradition as one of ‘a strong sense of loyalty to the College’ which entailed ‘the hallmark of Trinity graduates… [being a willingness to] accept lower financial remuneration’, implying a liberal commitment to social justice [3].

Senators in office could, of course demonstrate their liberal credentials (and I note some cases of senators doing that in office in the conclusions, below) but the language of election addresses and their policy proposals and commitments allowed this also. Hence, after Sheehy Skeffington appeared on the scene, citing the possibility of using senatorial office for avowedly radical purposes became a marked tendency. For example, taking the matter of issues related to women’s rights, unsuccessful candidates in 1973 promised variously to: ‘improve the position of deserted wives… provide job parity for women… and [ensure] married women’s incomes [would] be taxed separately’, in addition to the more radical proposal of ‘[a]dvice on family planning… be[ing] made available to all sections of the community’ [85]; make moves towards achieving ‘planned parenthood… [that would make for] equality of opportunity with… fellow-Europeans’ [40]; contribute to ‘the expansion of womens [sic] horizons’ and ‘strive to have the role of women fully recognised in all walks of life on the basis of harmonious but equal partnership’ [49] and offer support if elected for ‘any moves which held end discrimination against anybody… [including] discrimination [against women]… over jobs and payment’ [56]. Another mark of Trinity liberalism, though one less obvious as liberal to anyone unfamiliar with the specific Irish context than stances on women’s rights, could be opposition to the mass learning of Irish, a contentious issue closely bound-up with aspects of Catholic integralist nationalism. In 1954 one ultimately unsuccessful candidate thought that learning of that language ‘should be encouraged by every means, short of compulsion’ [39] however a little over a decade later another doomed candidate was more overtly defiant, calling for the ‘abandon[ing of] the expensive lip service [paid] to the Irish language’ and the ‘slavish repetition of set texts [used in schools]’ [13].

Implicit in all such addresses was hostility towards a conservative model of ethno-nationalism, largely grounded in Catholicism, at least as a cultural identity then still dominating Ireland. Clearly, these candidates, even though none was elected, expected TCD graduates to think like them. TCD had long been deemed a seat of opposition to the teaching of the Irish language, with various of its best known academics in the early twentieth century, including J[ohn] P[entland] Mahaffy (1839–1919), reluctant to promote it [26: 21–25; 30]. Nothing along these lines could have been the official policy of any political party, even in the 1970s. Only an independent candidate specifically in a TCD election, given that longstanding equivocal relationship with Irish could have stood on such a platform with any confidence of electoral success. Though this reputation may not be entirely justified, with one of Mahaffy’s successors as provost, Ernest Alton (1873–1952), provost: 1938–1943, also a TD: 1921–1937 and later a senator: 1938–1943 [81] being much more willing to see Irish taught [30: 78–79].

True, even in the 1960s and 1970s there could be more obviously conservative incumbents and candidates, such as John Ross and Lionel Fleming [36; 6], however, the unseating of Jessop, the last, at least to date, of the “medical men”, marked a real turning point in an election that saw various upsets [86] and from his time can be dated the dominance of the strand of liberalism that had started to emerge in TCD’s senatorial politics in 1951. Therefore, in some respects there was competition to be seen as Owen Sheehy Skeffington’s heir.

Though the relationship of Conor Cruise O’Brien to liberalism could seem rather vexed (O’Brien was a former diplomat and Labour TD, 1969–1977, often thought of as having moved to the right over time, though he denied this himself [1; 48]), he could seem to be that heir, while, to many, Noël Browne seemed also to have earned that status. Even Trevor West can be considered an heir of sorts, as can Mary Bourke (later Mary Robinson).

Perhaps more conspicuously radical, and more a case of somebody seeking to displace Sheehy Skeffington as the champion of left-wing causes, was Thornley in 1965. A mercurial and ultimately somewhat tragic figure, intellectual brilliant and charismatic, but fated to die young, he followed Sheehy Skeffington’s lead but tried to surpass the middle-aged senator’s moderated ‘liberal socialism’. Born in England, though to Irish parents, he had been a child prodigy [77] and was an outstanding student during his time at TCD, appointed to a post there in 1955 shortly after completing his doctorate [77: 48], while also becoming a well-known figure through his presenting of a television current affairs programme [77: 50].

Though not mentioned by his biographer, his first brush with politics, prior to his becoming a Labour TD in 1969, a role he held until shortly before his death in 1978 [77: 91–108], was an attempt to be elected for the DU constituency in 1965. His campaign attracted considerable publicity, hardly surprising given that his public profile was already high [37; 45; 32].

He was long associated with Noël Browne, the divisive left-wing politician who was himself later, if briefly, a DU senator and would subsequently be a member of the political party, Socialist Labour, that Browne founded in 1977. However, in 1965, not yet a member of any party, he stood as an independent. His address saw him insisting that: ‘[t]he next few years will bring social and economic developments in our country on a scale undreamed of even a decade ago. A new society must be built’. Along much the same lines as Sheehy Skeffington, he added ‘Trinity possesses a unique legacy of independence of mind and a record of integrity in educational standards’, claiming that it was an institution well placed to contribute to shaping this [76]. Technicist visions of an emergent new society, one that would be the product of ‘sophisticated techniques of economics, social and administration and management… being applied to national problems’ [76] went beyond Sheehy Skeffington’s more genteel politics, with their quixotic opposition to Irish political mores as they then stood. And the gap between opposing what was wrong and proposing what he thought was right may have been what Thornley had in mind when he scornfully told somebody whose support he wanted for his campaign that he ‘“[saw] no future” in… [Owen Sheehy Skeffington’s] approach’, though he misjudged her loyalties as she reported the words to Owen Sheehy Skeffington (McGuiness, C. Letter to Owen Sheehy Skeffington, 5 April 1965 [51: 546/11]). However, he flattered through imitation, even as he affected to disdain Sheehy Skeffington behind his back.


First, it is important to be clear the results of the elections to the TCD seats tell us nothing about Irish electoral politics as a whole. They do not even tell us about the electoral politics of the city of Dublin, because graduates vote by post and can be resident anywhere. Trinity elections have no comparators except those of the NUI (and even that in only very limited ways, candidates either formally or informally linked to FG or Labour often tending to dominate NUI elections). They do not tell us anything about Irish party politics, because they have been largely disconnected from those. They do not even reveal anything about independents in Irish politics generally. These were strange elections for an almost unique role and (even when the turnout was relatively high) few people voted in them. Yet they matter. To return to an earlier point, Trinity’s representatives have predicted and presaged a more general liberal turn in Irish politics. They did this in the period, despite the elections’ eccentricities, in the issues on which, especially after 1951, candidates campaigned. In those campaigns they urged, and contributed to causing, that more general liberal turn.

Kingsmill Moore, himself a Trinity senator (1943–1947), wrote the lines with which I began this piece. I see him as speaking for many in his complacent view that TCD excelled in individualism. However, he was wrong, as the narrative of the election campaigns given above suggests. They had norms and rules. There was a high degree of conformity to those rules and the Trinity men (and women) of the period were often less individualistic than he imagined. They liked candidates/elected representatives to conform accordingly.

All these rules or precepts were broken by successful candidates in the period. Most obviously, Sheehy Skeffington stuck rigidly to his determination not to list his supporters, though their names are now known [65: 150], yet even as he flouted one rule, he laid the groundwork for another, the need to espouse liberalism. But, more importantly, Kingsmill Moore was wrong in another way.

Trinity did spawn an ideology, of sorts. In office its representatives have championed causes such as the abolition of corporal punishment in schools and making contraception easily and legally available. These causes were promoted, respectively, by Owen Sheehy Skeffington [65; 34] and Mary Robinson [23; 57], though it was ultimately others who changed policy on these issues. But, even those, indirectly, successful campaigns are largely beside the point. The issue is tone.

Post-independence, Ireland experienced a period of Catholic integralism that, at times, verged on theocracy. By 1979, however, it was embarked on a process of wholesale change through socio-cultural liberalisation. Clearly, there were other forces at work, and it was not simply Trinity TDs/senators in the period who brought about that liberalisation. But, at the same time, so detached were they from the ordinary processes of Irish electoral politics that it is wrong to suggest they followed already occurring trends. Trinity College has been an outlier or, to use a more provocative term, a vanguard. This much can be seen by studying its elections. Those elections have followed their own course but modern Ireland, in becoming more liberal – stutteringly, falteringly at times, yet ultimately inexorably – has followed Trinity’s.

Received 29.09.2022, revision received 24.10.2022.


As it has been common for MPs, TDs or senators to be medical doctors or lawyers these occupations are noted in columns. Other occupations are noted specifically.

Appendix I: MPs and TDs 1919–1937
Name Year of birth and death* Period[s] in office Staff** Trinity graduate*** Medical Legal Occupations[s] if not medicine or law
Samuels, Arthur Warren 1852–1925 1917–1919   X   X  
Woods, Robert Henry 1865–1938 1918–1921   X X    
Jellett, William Morgan 1857–1936 1919–1921   X   X  
Fitzgibbon, Gerald 1866–1942 1921–1923   X   X  
Craig, James 1861–1933 1921–1933 X X X    
Thrift, William Edward 1870–1942 1921–1937 X X     Physicist
Alton, Ernest Henry 1873–1952 1921–1937 X X     Classicist
Rowlette, Robert 1873–1944 1933–1937 X X X    

* If applicable.
** Current or former fellow, professor, lecturer, senior lecturer or reader.
*** Undergraduate and/or postgraduate but excluding honorary degrees.

Appendix II: Senators since 1938
Name Year of birth and death* Period[s] in office Staff** Trinity graduate*** Medical Legal Occupations[s] if not medicine or law
Alton, Ernest Henry 1873–1952 1938–1943 X X     Classicist
Johnston, Joseph 1890–1972 1938–1943 and 1944–1948 X X     Economist
Rowlette, Robert James 1873–1944 1938–1944 X X X    
Fearon, William 1892–1959 1943–1959 X X X    
Kingsmill Moore, T[heodore] C[oynghan] 1893–1979 1943–1947   X   X  
Bigger, Joseph Warwick 1891–1951 1947–1951 X X X    
Stanford, William Bedell 1910-1984 1948–1969 X X     Classicist
Budd, Frederick Gardner Orford 1904–1976 1951   X   X  
Jessop, William J[ohn] E[dward] 1902–1980 1952–1954 and 1960–1973 X X X    
Sheehy Skeff-ington, Owen Lancelot 1909–1970 1954–1961 and 1965–1970 X X     French linguist
Ross, John Nathaniel 1920–2011 1961–1965   X   X  
Robinson, Mary Ter-ese Wini-fred [née Bourke] b. 1944 1969–1989 X X   X  
West, Timothy Trevor 1938–2012 1970–1981 and 1982–1983 X X     Mathematician
Browne, Noël Christ-opher 1915–1997 1973–1977   X X    
Cruise O'Brien, Donal Conor David Dermot Donat 1917–2008 1977–1979   X     Civil servant/wri-ter/editor
McGuiness, Catherine Isabel Brigid [née Ellis] b. 1939 1979–1987   X   X  
Ross, Shane Peter Nathaniel b. 1949 1981–2011   X     Banker/journalist
Hederman, Carmencita Maria [née Cruess Callaghan] b. 1939 1989–1992 X       Local councillor
Henry, Mary Elizabeth Francis b. 1940 1993–2007   X X    

The table is not fully displayed Show table

* If applicable.
** Current or former fellow, professor, lecturer, senior lecturer or reader.
*** Undergraduate and/or postgraduate but excluding honorary degrees.

Appendix III: Incumbent Senators 2022
Name Year of birth First elected Staff** Trinity graduate*** Medical Legal Occupations[s] if not medicine or law
Norris, David Patrick Bernard 1944 2011 X X     Literary scholar
Ruane, Lynn 1984 2016   X     Social worker
Clonan, Thomas Martin 1966 2022   X     Army officer/journalist

* If applicable.
** Current or former fellow, professor, lecturer, senior lecturer or reader.
*** Undergraduate and/or postgraduate but excluding honorary degrees.

Appendix IV: Selected Election Results (Excluding By-Elections), c1919-1979
General/Seanad Election Date (month and year) Body to which eligible to be elected Candidates (Number of first preference votes won) Notes
December 1918 Parliament of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Samuels, Arthur (1,273) The situation in this period is not easily depicted in a table. There were competing claims to be the legitimate legislative body for Ireland and jurisdictions overlapped. Samuels, Woods and Jellett (he in a by-election, held in 1919) were the last MPs to represent DU in the Westminster parliament. Alton, Craig, Thrift and Fitzgibbon represented it, briefly, in the Parliament of Southern Ireland and then Dáil Éir-eann. Nobody represented DU in the nationalist assemblies of this period.
Woods, Robert (793)
Jellett, William (631)
Gwynn, Stephen (257)
May 1921 Dáil Éireann Alton, Ernest All were returned unopposed.
Craig, James
Fitzgibbon, Gerald
Thrift, William
June 1922 Dáil Éireann Alton, Ernest All were returned unopposed.
Craig, James
Fitzgibbon, Gerald
Thrift, William
August 1923 Dáil Éireann Alton, Ernest All were returned unopposed.
Craig, James
Thrift, William
June 1927 Dáil Éireann Thrift, William (614) Alton was elected despite his lower number of first preference votes.
Craig, James (356)
Waller, Bolton C (332)
Alton, Ernest (287)

The table is not fully displayed Show table


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