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The Scholars of Trinity College

The last two days have been in Ireland. We flew into Dublin on Thursday night and spent Friday in Maynooth and Saturday in Dublin. The Maynooth position is very tempting, tenure after one year, access to large grants for research, good pay and a role in moulding the direction of research in the Institute of Immunology. My big concerns were that last time (due to HR gone mad) I wasn't allowed to meet the faculty as my application had to be kept confidential (regardless of my personal preference, or the way every other university operates, with open interviews), and that mouse immunology was at a fairly low base in the institute so it would take me a while to build up to the infrastructure I needed for my research. So it was a big relief to me to be able to return and talk to some people.

It really eased my mind that the HR issue wasn't covering up some big problems. I was also impressed that they had Max Cooper there that day to give a talk on the evolution of alternative adaptive immunity in lungfish and hagfish, a fantastic talk. Lydia was less impressed with the opportunities Maynooth presented for her to work, she wouldn't have difficulty in finding work in administration or teaching, but nothing really jumped out at her. Walking down the tiny high street of Maynooth, we both agreed that we didn't really want to live in Maynooth either, so it'd probably have to be Dublin and commuting for me.

Saturday was to see Dublin. We started out at Connelly Station and did a circular walking tour of the city, through the main shopping district north of the river, crossing to Temple Bar (despite the current status as a binge drinking centre, it is named after the teacher and philosopher Sir William Temple, 1555-1627, Provost of Trinity College) and Christ Church Cathedral, and then walking to Trinity College.


Trinity College was an unexpected delight, and by the end of our tour Lydia was ready to sign up for another degree. Trinity College was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth the 1st, on the site of an Augustine Monastery (closed by Henry VIII). The College is built around four squares. The first square we started at was Parliament Square, so called because it was built 1710-1840 after being founded by the short-lived Parliament of Ireland. The chapel on the square (designed by Williams chambers and identical to the exam hall) was the first chapel in Ireland to be consecrated for both Catholic and Protestant religions, but only alumni within five years of graduating can get married there. The scholars hall is also on Parliament Square, it is here where the Commons Lunch is served everyday, which is actually highly exclusive.

Students can chose to sit the scholars' exam after their second year, and those who do very well become scholars, being given a stipend to study, a scholarship for the rest of their degree and their post-graduate degree, and a free lunch every day. Scholars are called to lunch from the belltower, where school myth has it that anyone who walks under the belltower will never gradate from Trinity College with an academic degree. Our guide tells us that no student would ever walk under there sober, and he laughed when a group of school kids on tour did so. Next to the belltower is a statue of George Salmon. He was head of the university when there was a big push to allow women to join. He held out as long as he could, saying that women would enter "over his dead body". In 1904 the King decided to allow women to join and forced him to sign, he did so but said "I agree with my hand and oppose with my heart". He then made up a bunch of rules restricting women once they joined, such as only letting them enter by the back gate. By delicious irony, the old bigot had a massive heart-attack and died before the first woman entered, in the back gate over his grave.

The next square was Library Square, which contained the Old Library and Oregon maple trees planted in the 1820s, and New Square, with a nice law that only the croquette club are allow on. Since 1801 Trinity College has been a "copyright" library, meaning that they have a right to a single copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. To house the enormous number of books they had to build a new library, which was built in 1967 in horrible brutalist style and is called the giant concrete photocopier by students. The last square was Fellow's Square, with the arts and social sciences buildings, built by the same brutalist architect, and joining onto the Old Library again. The Old Library was built in 1712, and is the largest single room library in the world. The room is lined by busts of scientists and philosophers, and all the books are arranged not by subject or author, but instead by book dimensions, making it great for packing in books on shelves and horrible to find a book unless you know its exact size. Within the Old Library is the Book of Kells, which we then went and saw.

The Book of Kells is a partial bible with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all heavily illustrated in Celtic style. It is these illustrations that the book is most famous for. It was written about 800 CE in St Colum Cille on Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, by after raiding by Vikings was moved to Kells for safety. It was then stolen in 1007 from Kells, recovered two months later minus the heavy gold of the cover. In 1653 it was sent to Dublin, and in 1661 loaned to Trinity College, where it has stayed. The book is written on vellum (calfskin immersed in lime or excrement and scraped clean of fur with a knife), and took 185 calves to write. The 8th century Book of Mulling and Book of Dimma are older, but neither have the stunning illustrations.

The illustrations required inks from around the known world. The brown of the written was just crushed oak apples and iron sulphate, but the colours had rare reagents in them. Blue was made by crushed lapis lazuli from a single mine in Afghanistan and by the plant indigo, native to northern Germany. White was chalk and white lead. Yellow was orpiment (yellow arsenic sulphate), while red was from the Mediterranean plant Crozophora tinctoria. Kermes red was made from the crushed pregnant bodies of the insect Kermococcus vermilio, only found in the Mediterranean. Green was copper and eggwhite.

We also saw the famous harp of Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland. It is featured on the currency of Ireland despite being made a few hundred years after Brian Boru died in 1014.

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