Libraries, lectures and drunkenness
Trinity College Dublin seemed to have an especially fine array of eccentrics in the 1980s, making first year even odder for a convent girl from the west. This article features in a new book about the university in that decade
Front Square: Trinity College Dublin in the 1980s. Photograph: Peter Thursfield
In my first week at Trinity College Dublin, in 1983, I was politely accosted at Front Arch one day by an enthusiastic woman with enormous glasses and a notebook. Was I a fresher, she inquired, waving her notebook with urgency. With my blue school duffle coat, and an expression that vacillated between excitement, anxiety and joy, it was obvious I was the most emerald green of freshers.
I replied that I was indeed a new first year. Would I speak to her for a newspaper article about the fresher experience for The Irish Times? Would I allow myself to be photographed for it? Her pen was poised over the notebook. I was rendered speechless with horror.
I could think of nothing worse than putting my fresher head over a parapet that I as yet knew nothing about. I said I would talk to her but did not want my name published and would definitely not pose for a photo.
Christina Murphy, the well-known Irish Times education correspondent – for it was she – explained swiftly that newspapers need people to go on the record, then hurried off in search of a more media-friendly student.
I had come to university straight from a convent boarding school where uniform was mandatory six days a week, including a special one for Sundays. Many of us even wore full uniform on Saturdays, or wore a blue school jumper over jeans. As a result I possessed virtually none of what we had called civvies at school.
I unselfconsciously wore my school duffle coat around Trinity for a while – to registration, and orientation parties, and for coffee in the buttery – until I slowly realised that I looked different from the other young women students.
Mine appeared to be the only duffle coat on campus. I started to feel as if it was as conspicuous as the scarlet letter of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel on my course reading list. I had never given clothes a thought before. Now I was in the strange position of feeling embarrassed by something as inanimate as a coat.
When my father took me out for lunch not long after I arrived in Dublin he asked if there was anything I needed. Yes, I replied, prepared for this question. A coat. I had even done some groundwork.
I marched him into Mirror Mirror on St Stephen’s Green, about where Oasis is now, and walked out with a black swing coat with two big buttons. I wore it like a carapace for the rest of that first year, and tried to pick up fashion tips by discreetly studying what my fellow students wore.
Not many culchies
At Trinity I became acutely aware of being from the west of Ireland – Co Clare, in my case. There didn’t seem to be many of us culchies in my classes: virtually everyone I met was from Dublin and was networked into a system of school friends and shared histories that had begun long before any of us walked through Front Arch. I didn’t mind this at all: I was delighted at the thought of reinvention.
I read modern English and history, one of the combinations known at Trinity as a two-subject moderatorship. I soon learned I had chosen two subjects with a huge reading list – and also learned the classic lesson that just because you are good at something at school doesn’t mean it’s a subject that will sustain your interest for years when studied in detail.