High Office – Frank McNally on Oscar Wilde’s professorial birthplace and other startling new developments in artificial intelligence

If walls could talk

Amid all the talk about renaming Berkeley Library, a more astonishing development at Ireland’s oldest university has gone largely ignored.

But there it was, mentioned in passing at the weekend in our review of Chris Morash’s Dublin: A Writer’s City, as follows: “Now a professor of English at Trinity College, his office is in the room where, it is likely, Esperanza laboured and Oscar [Wilde] first drew breath.”

The possibility that an office could be appointed professor of anything had escaped me, at least, until this. Indeed, only the other day, I heard myself say of an old building: “If walls could talk”.

By which, of course, I meant that they couldn’t.


But clearly they can these days, thanks to the dramatic strides being made in artificial intelligence. And why shouldn’t an office be able to teach students? Especially one that has been exposed to as much history and culture as this one, thanks to Oscar Wilde and his mother?

We used to speak of educated people having “well-furnished minds”. Now, it seems, technology is cutting out education’s traditional middleman. It’s a brave new world. Extra-mural studies will never be the same again.


Perhaps this is what estate agents mean when they say that offices or homes are “well appointed”. I had long thought that to be just a vague, even meaningless, cliché.

But by a small coincidence, I also noticed the phrase recently on the website of a Dublin pub, which read (the website, that is, not the pub, although no doubt the pub can read too now) as follows:

“Arthur’s is . . . old style but well appointed. It has been a pub for over 200 years, and has many historical connections, being beside St Catherine’s Church, outside of which the patriot Robert Emmet was hung, drawn and quartered”.

I don’t for a moment cast doubt on the appointment process by which the premises has earned its position. Like Oscar Wilde’s birthplace, it has a fine CV, especially for a job in the history/heritage sector.

Even so, I have one small quibble. Grisly as poor Robert Emmet’s fate was, it did not include drawing and quartering. Tolerance for that atrocity had declined over the centuries. So, after the hanging, and despite the official sentence, they merely beheaded him.

That small correction aside, I wish the pub continued success on its appointment.


Speaking of hangings and getting back to the professorial office in Trinity, pedants may claim the whole thing was just a misunderstanding caused by what grammarians call a “dangling modifier”.

Also sometimes known as the “dangling participle”, this is where – typically – the opening clause of a sentence become accidentally divorced from what follows. And although the classic example does not involve an office or even a pub, it does centre on a building: namely the house in which veteran English journalist Richard Ingrams grew up.

At least that’s what Ingrams had in mind when, writing in 1987 about this childhood home (as quoted in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage), he said: “Now demolished, I can recall it to mind in almost perfect detail”.

Contrary to the unfortunate implication, Ingrams had not been demolished at the time, or since. He still stands today, as far as I know. And as a Grade A literary man dating from the late Edwardian/Art Deco period, he may now be listed for preservation.

Another example in Fowler is from a retired British airman who, in a letter to the Independent, wrote this of his wartime days: “While serving in the RAF in North Africa the cockroaches and other creatures baked in the bread provided an interesting gauge as to how long the recipient had served out there.”

Maybe the cockroaches and other creatures were indeed also official RAF recruits. But we must assume the sentence’s opening clause was intended to refer to the writer instead. That – to paraphrase Patrick O’Brian’s joke about insects in Royal Navy food rations – seems like the lesser of two weevils.


Yet another of Fowler’s citations for the dangling participle was from a 1980s BBC broadcast, which went as follows: “After inspecting a guard of honour, President Reagan’s motorcade moved into the centre of Moscow.”

And yet that is also an example of something whose meaning would be even less clear today. We can be reasonably sure, given the technology of the time, that the Soviet guard of honour was inspected by Reagan himself, not his motorcade.

But cars are vastly more intelligent now. For educational prowess, not even Trinity College offices could compete with some of them. Witness Joe Biden’s motorcade last month. If we had been told that part of it – a well-appointed armoured vehicle, perhaps – was his head of security, nobody would have been greatly surprised.