While Trinity College Dublin was founded in 1592 with the Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I, women couldn’t actually study there until 1904. Certainly, there was a belief among some in authority within the university right up until that point that the admission of female students was strongly undesirable, with the Board warning in 1895 that “If a female had once passed the gate….it would be practically impossible to watch what buildings or what chambers she might enter, or how long she might remain there.”
In January 1904, the short notice that “the Board of Trinity College have received a letter from the King authorising them to admit women to the degrees of Dublin University” appeared in several Irish newspapers. This was the end-product of many years of debate among the Board of Trinity College Dublin and university society more broadly speaking.
The first female student to enter the institution was Isabel Marion Weir Johnston. She hailed from the north of the country, and was the daughter of Sir John Johnston, who had been a prosperous businessman in Derry and was a former president of the ‘Londonderry Chamber of Commerce’.
In a 1964 article on the subject of Trinity’s earliest female undergraduates, G.C Duggan wrote that “those women undergraduates of her time who are still alive have vivid memories of her remarkable personality shown not so much in brilliance in examinations as in outstanding character symptomatic of the new world of the 20th century.” Johnston organised dances, tennis tournaments and established the Elizabethan Society, an important society as women were barred from the major societies right into the 1960s.
Certainly, the final Provost of Trinity College Dublin in the years prior to the admission of female students had opposed any change in the admissions policy for much of his reign. George Salmon, who today gazes over the square of the university, ran the institution on fiercely conservative lines which included opposition to female students, though he dropped his veto on the matter when the Board of Trinity voted in favour of female admissions in the early twentieth century. The popular Dublin story has it that Salmon remarked “women will enter Trinity College over my dead body”. While I’ve never quite been convinced Salmon made this remark, it’s interesting just how long people have been attributing it to him. Susan M.Parkes, in her fascinating article ‘A Danger to the Men? Women in Trinity College Dublin in the First Decade, 1904 -1914’, quotes from Johnston herself who recalled:
I had to keep my terms by examination and was not allowed to attend lectures. Dr. Salmon had said that women would only enter TCD over his dead body, and when I arrived in Dublin in January 1904 I was informed that as he had died that day, the examination had been put off until after the funeral.
There were very real restrictions on Isabel Marion Weir Johnston and other early female students in the university, who were essentially shielded away from the male student populace, and who did not enjoy many of the same rights of their fellow students, such as the use of dining facilities. The graduation of the first female students from the university was reported in December 1905, with the Provost of Trinity College Dublin addressing female graduates and their guests in the dining hall the institution, a place ironically normally off-bounds to them.
Isabel was not there however. She did not complete her degree, instead marrying Stephen Kelleher, a young Fellow of TCD who lectured in Classics, and later settling down in England. Only a few short years after Isabel in 1909, the following short news-item appeared in The Irish Times:
While women may have entered Trinity College Dublin as students as early as 1904, there were restrictions on their rights as students right into the 1960s, which included a ban on joining major societies, and being off-campus by 6pm. Speaking in the 1950s, Dr. Owen Sheehy-Skeffinton told one Trinity College newspaper “women form half the society with which one has eventually to come to terms.” Today, there is a female majority in the student body of Trinity College Dublin.