Ernest Alton was a Mullingar born academic and politician who was Professor of Latin at Trinity College from 1921 to 1942 .He served as Provost of the University from 1942 until his death and Senator and TD for Trinity College from 1921 to 1942.
During the Easter Rising he led the defence of the College against possible attack by the rebels,for which he received a bravery award. While Provost, he attended one of the most significant lectures in the history of 20th century science.
Ernest Alton was born at Marlinstown Mullingar on September 21st 1876. His Limerick born father,James Poe Alton was a bank official. His mother was Margarita Keely. The family later moved to Dublin and Ernest attended the High School in Rathgar. He entered Trinity College in 1892 and studied Classics and Philosophy. He was a brilliant scholar and graduated with First Class Honours in 1896.
After a period working in London as a journalist,he returned to Trinity in 1905 after passing the rigorous examination for a Fellowship in the College. He would spend the rest of his career in the university. A tribute to him after his death stated that Alton: “Believed in God and the Church of Ireland and he loved the Classics.”
Alton was a member of the Trinity College Officers Training Corps. The OTC offered military training to boys and men in schools and universities across Britain and Ireland. When the Easter Rising began on April 24th 1916,Alton,who held the rank of Captain, found himself in command of the OTC as the more senior officers were away on Easter vacation.
He organised the defence of the College against a possible attack by the rebels,who had taken control of nearby Westland Row Station and had access to the loopline rail track overlooking the eastern side of the College Park. Alton feared that the Irish Volunteers might try to seize the weapons held in the College armoury.
Leading a group of about fifty OTC members-comprising students,lecturers and servants,he ” managed to keep up communications with the British military at Beggars Bush barracks and the police at Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street “We removed windows which we filled with sandbags.Firing platforms were constructed along the walls..
We organised our guards,ambulance units,cooking etc.” For two days he and his men patrolled the college while running the risk of being hit by sniper fire. from buildings along Nassau Street and Great Brunswick Street. However the rebels did not attack.
On the third day of the Rising the College was relieved by the 5th Battalion of the Leinster Regiment (the Royal Meath’s),who had just left Mullingar Barracks the previous week after a nine month tour of duty there. As the fighting continued outside,the college grounds filled up with soldiers.
One of the chaplains ministering to these soldiers was Father Bernard Farrell from Mullingar,who would later serve in Mesopotamia (now Iraq).before returning to Mullingar to serve as Administrator in the cathedral. He made history during Easter week when he said Mass for the soldiers.It was the first time a Catholic Mass had been held in Trinity since 1689.
Although grateful to the military for saving the college,Alton was not comfortable with their presence."Soldiers invaded the sacred grass plots,horses and mules kicked up the honoured cobbles,and impeteous Tommies brushed aside impatiently the most august of our academic figures."
For his own military service during Easter Week,Alton was awarded the Military Cross (MC),the third highest bravery award in the British Army. and also received a cup from the College.
In May 1921,elections took place to what the British called the House of Commons of Southern Ireland and the Irish regarded as the Second Dail. Alton was one of four Unionists elected to the 128 seat Dail,along with 124 Sinn Feiners.
The Southern House of Commons met just once,with Alton and his three Unionist colleagues the only members to attend. He did not attend the first meetings of the Second Dail. However he did vote for the Treaty in January 1922. He was elected as one of the Trinity College members to the Third Dail in June 1922 and continued to sit as a TD until the abolition of the university seats in 1937.
In 1938,he was elected to the Second Seanad for Trinity and served in the Seanad until 1942. Although he came from a Unionist tradition,he was loyal to the new state and wished to serve his country. He was on friendly terms with leading government figures such as President Douglas Hyde and Taoiseach Eamonn De Valera.
In 1921,Alton was appointed as Professor of Latin at Trinity. He was a major scholar and was regarded as a world authority on the Roman poet Ovid. His scholarship earned him honorary doctorates from the universities of Oxford and Padua and he lectured across Europe.
In May 1942 he was elected Provost of Trinity. .The following year, he attended a series of lectures given at Trinity by the Nobel Prize winning Austrian physicist,Erwin Schrodinger. Professor Schrodinger was then living in Dublin working as Head of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS).
His lectures at Trinity,in February 1943,entitled “What is Life” would inspire a new generation of scientists to research the structure of the human genome and work out how genetic information might be stored. The result of this was the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. Schrodinger’s lectures at Trinity are regarded as among the most significant Scientific talks of the 20th century.
In May 1945,on VE Night,as Europe celebrated the end of the war in Europe,there was serious rioting in Dublin between Trinity students and UCD students. Some Trinity students burned the Irish flag and some UCD students responded by burning the British flag.
Professor Alton was deeply angry and embarrassed by the actions of his students. and condemned them. He was anxious to integrate Trinity fully into Irish life and end the perception that it was still a Unionist “West British” institution. He wrote that he “intended to do all in his power to make TCD a truly national college and to prevent any developments of an anti Irish nature.”
His friendship with De Valera and other government ministers helped secure Trinity its first grant from the Irish State in 1947. Alton was noted for his great personal charm,which “conciliated some enemies and won the college new friends.” In early 1952,shortly before his death,Alton was greatly cheered by a visit from De Valera who informed him that “a very substantial increase in the college grant could be expected.”
Ernest Alton died on February 18th 1952,aged 75. His funeral cortege proceeded from Provost’s House across the Trinity Courtyards to the College Chapel for the funeral service.A tribute to him from a colleague noted ” A chapter of college history closes. The man and his college were one”
Professor Alton’s nephew, Bryan Alton was personal doctor to Eamon De Valera for many years. He followed his uncle into politics,serving as a member of the Senate representing Trinity College from 1965 to 1973.One of Ernest Alton’s grandsons,R.J Babington,also had a short political career. He was Unionist M.P for North Down in the Northern Ireland Parliament from 1969 to 1973.
By Historian RUTH ILLINGWORTH ©