A self-proclaimed relic of “old Trinity” and an oracle-like presence that remains little-known to most of us, even as we walk past his office every day, Joseph Mockler has been central to many of Trinity’s most magical days. With his distinctive ceremonial hat and gown, and his frequent presence at Trinity’s most formal events, from graduation ceremonies to Schols announcements, Mockler will be recognisable to many students. Many, however, may have wondered what his precise role entails or how he fits into each ceremony.
Speaking to The University Times, it is clear that Mockler doesn’t possess one, single overarching title. He explains his role, which entails a dizzying assortment of various responsibilities: “I’m the Chapel Attendant, also the Chapel Presenter and Mace Bearer.” His duties also extend to Trinity Week, on-campus weddings and once-off special occasions. “They find it hard to put a title on me”, he explains, “but I do the ceremonial work in the College. So the happy side of college life. It creates a good atmosphere for working, always meeting people who are in a good mood”.
We have these beautiful buildings and we have this beautiful space but also within that space, we have beautiful people, staff and students, that are creating their own history and adding to the layers of Trinity’s story
This sort of positive working environment would easily explain how Mockler has spent 30 years in Trinity. More than that, however, the man exudes an infectious attachment to the history, culture and tradition associated with life in the heart of Ireland’s oldest university. “We have these beautiful buildings and we have this beautiful space”, he says wistfully, “but also within that space, we have beautiful people, staff and students, that are creating their own history and adding to the layers of Trinity’s story”.
Trinity’s story has evolved considerably during Mockler’s 22 years in his office just off Front Square. When asking Mockler of the most notable change in campus life during his tenure, I am surprised to hear him talk of the buzzing social scene that centred around what was once The Buttery Bar. “There would be queues every night to get into the Buttery. It was a focal point for making friendly connections and a big social element of the College”, he explains. The place where today’s bleary-eyed undergrads line up for their coffee used to play host to live bands on a Thursday and Friday night. Following last call at 11pm or thereabouts, the crowds would migrate to Front Square where a drinking session might ensue into the early hours. “It makes things a lot easier for us”, Mockler concedes. “There’d be problems with drunk people and Fridays are much quieter, but there was certainly a good atmosphere.”
This fact plays into a broader narrative: that Trinity is now, more than ever before, seen as a place of work: “People just don’t socialise in college anymore. They come in, do their lectures, do their library and then go home to meet friends or hang out off campus.” He muses that maybe a better service is being provided elsewhere, or that perhaps the Pav has taken over. He admits, however, that he “wouldn’t be familiar with that [the Pav], it’s too far away”. Either way, our Mace Bearer no longer has to witness half as many shenanigans through his office window as was once the norm.
Yet, that which Trinity is perhaps best known for, the historical celebrations and festivities which from an outsider’s perspective may appear to belong to a bygone era, show no signs of fading: “It’s definitely an important part of Trinity. Rather than forcing our traditions on people, it’s more of a celebration of them and a connection back to where we came from.”
Mockler also asserts that, beyond its sentimental value, College’s unique culture has significant monetary value. “I take people over to the Exam Hall and show them around, tell them the history. We’re trying to book conferences for next summer, which would be a big windfall”, he says.
We have this history. It shouldn’t be forgotten. It should be encouraged. Of course the university has to modernise, but there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your traditions and where you came from
Yet he remains adamant that a heritage as rich as Trinity’s should be considered a gift in itself: ”We have this history. It shouldn’t be forgotten. It should be encouraged. Of course the university has to modernise, but there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your traditions and where you came from.” To the naysayers who disregard this aspect of college life as mere ceremony and pomp, he says: “I could understand people being cynical about it if we were making it up, but the fact of the matter is that our history is there and we’re just living it and we’re adding to it all the time.”
A brief roll call of the Honorary Degree recipients Mockler has crossed paths with is a testament to this. The College has gifted figures as diverse and influential as Nelson Mandela and Panti Bliss with these prestigious awards. Mockler says this is due to the fact that Trinity has been at the centre of many important movements: “Trinity has always been part and parcel of the whole equality movement. There have been so many people from Trinity that initiated the whole thing. We’re able to celebrate that in a way that modern universities probably couldn’t through our honorary ceremonies.” This is a privilege, he assures me, that none of us can take for granted. “When Nelson Mandela came out after the ceremony, that was a great moment. The whole Front Square was full and he was like Moses crossing the Dead Sea”, he recounts. “People just parted as he passed and gave him a very gentle applause. That was a beautiful day for Trinity and it’s probably only us that can do those kind of events.”
Other extraordinary people Mockler has been involved in paying homage to include the “very impressive” Bishop Desmond Tutu and Oscar winner Robert Redford. “I got to sit down and have a glass of wine with him for half an hour. He’s a very nice man, really down to earth and genuine”, Mockler says. “Though he never went to university himself, he finds our whole thing very interesting, especially the use of Latin. It made for a very nice ceremony when he was so appreciative.”
One particularly interesting meeting was the one between Mockler and former Vice-President of the US and subject of 2016’s favourite meme, Joe Biden, who visited Trinity last June. “If the Democrats had nominated him, he would have walked the election”, Mockler asserts confidently. “It was an honour to be at the ceremony with him. He gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard and actually made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.”
We pass through spaces that have once played host to prominent world figures every day, yet, for many students, this is an element of college life that fails to provoke much thought or consideration. Mockler’s thoughts on this hark back to an old Trinity graduate: “Youth is wasted on the young. Oscar Wilde, one of Trinity’s graduates said that. Everyone has it in their head that they’re so busy and they probably don’t have time to appreciate where they are but you grow into it. The Trinity connection never leaves you.”
When you’re 26 or 27 in Melbourne or Los Angeles and you see a Trinity club, I promise, you will feel that sense of nostalgia
My scepticism at this point in our conversation must have been apparent. “When you’re 26 or 27 in Melbourne or Los Angeles and you see a Trinity club, I promise, you will feel that sense of nostalgia. There’s a reason the Trinity Foundation Clubs all over the world are so successful”, he assures me jovially. Undoubtedly an authority on these matters, having seen students evolve from fresher to graduate, and to groom or bride in some cases, Mockler has witnessed time and time again the unshakeable attachment instilled in Trinity’s students. “Inviting graduates back for Scholars Dinners and that kind of thing is never any problem”, he laughs.
On a final note, I ask Mockler what he deems to be most special about Trinity. Can he define the essence of that unspoken aura you sense as soon as you pass through Front Gate? He procedes to tell me about the impact Trinity has had on Irish life and on Irish people, and indeed on the world at large. In many ways, this essence was embodied right before my eyes. Joseph Mockler, with his expansive knowledge, appreciation of our past and enthusiasm about our future, is the personification of that which every Trinity student should aspire to emulate.
Before leaving his office, Mockler asks would he be more likely to see me again in a newsroom or a court, acknowledging my status as a law student. At the end of my four years in Trinity, I recommend that one day he seek me out in some far flung Trinity club, where I’ll be recounting the best days of my life.