Trinity wanted to avoid sense of ‘winners and losers’ in renaming of Berkeley library

Records show review group concerned about ‘reputational impact’ of changing name due to slavery links

Trinity College Dublin (TCD) wanted to avoid any sense there would be “winners and losers” in resolving the controversy around the naming of one of its libraries after a slave owner, the Irish philosopher George Berkeley, new documents have revealed.

Internal university records, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, show the painstaking efforts undertaken by Trinity’s advisory group to manage competing sensitivities surrounding the controversial name-changing of the 56-year-old library.

The decision taken to rename the Berkeley library in Trinity College Dublin due to George Berkeley’s association with slavery, was not about “cancelling Berkeley as a writer, philosopher and intellectual historical figure”, the group said.

The initial meeting on November 23rd, 2022, heard there could likely be a “reputational impact” from changing the name, minutes show. This related to concerns philanthropic donors might disagree with the name change, according to one source at the meeting.


Some of the group expressed views that the decision was being “rushed” during a February 10th meeting.

Denaming the library should not be treated as a “celebratory occasion”, in order to “reduce potential hostility” and any sense of their being “winners and losers”, minutes stated.

Last month TCD announced it would remove Berkeley’s name from its main library, on the recommendation of a group set up to review the 430-year-old university’s “complex historical legacies”.

Berkeley, a renowned 18th Century philosopher from Co Kilkenny, was elected a TCD fellow in 1707.

While later living on an estate in Rhode Island he owned several slaves, and his writings include suggestions that slaves should be baptised, as it would encourage greater obedience to their owners.

Of nearly 100 submissions made to the group set up to review the proposal to “dename” the university library, 16 opposed changing the name of the building.

The internal records show the group stated its recommendation the library be renamed, did not amount to “cancelling Berkeley as a writer, philosopher and intellectual historical figure”.

The group also considered what to do about three portraits of Berkeley in the university, the location of one of which was “currently unknown”, a March 10th meeting heard.

It opted against taking any decision on the portraits, as that would “undoubtedly have knock-on effects” and might require a review of all portraits owned or displayed by the university.

In a submission to the review, Gabi Fullman, TCD students’ union president, suggested the library be renamed after a notable year, such as 1904, when women were first allowed to study in Trinity.

“But honestly – call it whatever you want. Just stop glorifying a slave owner,” she wrote.

In another submission, Nicholas Canny, an emeritus professor of history at University of Galway, felt the decision to rename the library was unjustified.

“By the moral standards of his own time, there was nothing reprehensible about owning slaves provided their owner treated them fairly”, he wrote.

In a memo outlining its recommendations to Provost Linda Doyle, the review group said many submissions opposing a name change had pointed to Berkeley’s significance as a philosopher, which “is not in dispute”.

It added a decision on academic ‘Berkeley’ Gold Medals awarded to students was referred to the university’s department of classics, who reported that “they would wish to rename the medals”.

The library was named after Berkeley a number of years after it was opened, as part of a move in the late 1970s to name buildings and lecture halls after distinguished graduates.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times