Trinity College in Dublin: The Complete Guide

How to explore Ireland's most famous university and the Book of Kells

courtyard of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland

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Trinity College is the oldest university in Ireland that is still in operation today. The historic college is an unmissable part of the Dublin landscape and sits right in the center of the city. Its hallowed halls have educated some of Ireland’s most famous figures over more than 400 years of distinguished operation.

From its history to its must-see sights, here is your guide to visiting Trinity College in Dublin.

History

Trinity College has been a part of higher education in Ireland for centuries but it is not technically Ireland’s oldest university. The Medieval College of Dublin was established in 1320, but closed down due to lack of funds and changing political pressures during the Protestant Reformation.  

Founded in 1592, Trinity College has its own ties to the Reformation. The college was established on the site of a former monastery by royal charter by Queen Elizabeth to stop the Irish from being “infected with popery and other ill qualities” at universities in Italy, Spain and France.

Starting in 1637, Catholics were banned from attending Trinity, a ban which stayed in place until the Catholic Relief Act of 1793. However, bans can go both ways and even though Catholic students were technically allowed in, they were never allowed to achieve the same recognition as scholars. Because of these rules, the Catholic Church retaliated and banned its faithful from enrolling at Trinity until 1970.

These days, Trinity College is the most prestigious university in Ireland and has a student body of all genders and religions.

Famous Graduates

Many famous scholars have roamed the halls of Trinity in the 400 years since the college first opened its doors. Some of the most notable graduates are Nobel-prize winners Ernest Walton (physics) and Samuel Beckett (literature). In addition to Beckett, other world-renowned authors who studied at Trinity include Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker.

Trinity has also educated famous Irish politicians including the first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, as well as Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, who also both served as presidents of Ireland. And though Trinity was first known for its Anglican leanings, some of the most important figures in the fight for Ireland’s independence were also educated here. That includes Theobald Wolfe Tone who graduated with a degree in law in 1786 and went on to lead an Irish rebellion; as did Robert Emmet who studied here but then led the 1803 revolt.

What to Do

Trinity College offers official tours of the campus to learn about the history, experience the modern day-to-day life of Trinners (slang for Trinity College students), tour the celebrated library, as well as to see the university’s most famous attractions: the Book of Kells.

The Trinity College Library is a deposit library, which means that it has a copy of every book printed in Ireland. It is also entitled to a copy of any book printed in the United Kingdom — all free of charge. Over the years, the library has amassed a collection of more than 5 million volumes.

The most famous of all, however, is undoubtedly the priceless Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is one of the most important illuminated manuscripts in the world. The book was created in the 9th century by Irish monks who wrote elaborately scrolled text and created detailed decorations on each page of the four gospels included in the calf-skin book. Only two pages from each of the two volumes are on display at any time, but it is an essential stop on any Dublin itinerary. The book has been on display in Trinity’s Old Library since 1661.

While most people have to take a tour, or buy a ticket, to see the Book of Kells, one of the many perks of studying at Trinity is that students are allowed to visit the celebrated manuscript as much as they would like — free of charge.

However, there is a plus side to being a visitor instead of a student. There is an old superstition that says any student who walks under the bell tower while the bell is tolling will fail their exams. That means the beautiful campanile is usually free of crowds — except on graduation day when the graduates (who have now passed all their tests) march underneath it.

If you would like to explore the campus on your own, the main entrance is the most impressive and opens onto Front Square. However, you can also access the campus from Nassau Street and through the entrance off of Lincoln Place.

What Else to Do Nearby

Trinity College is truly in the heart of Dublin and there is plenty to do nearby. First, head to the National Gallery to admire the extensive collection which includes works by Rembrandt and Diego Velazquez. After taking in the art, stroll along Merrion Square, where you can see the most impressive examples of Georgian architecture in the city.

The award-winning and thought-provoking Science Gallery is also nearby, or you can head up Grafton Street to experience the liveliest shopping area in Dublin. Otherwise, unwind with a pint and some live Irish music at O’Donoghue’s — one of the best pubs in the Irish capital

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