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

Front Square: Trinity College Dublin in the 1980s. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Sat, Oct 5, 2013, 01:00

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.

The more I burrowed into history, the less interested I became in it. I wondered uneasily if I had made a mistake, but I had my new coat now, and there seemed to be no going back. In my second year I tried half-heartedly to transfer to psychology but didn’t pursue it.

My other subject was English. The English departments of many universities are probably deemed to be slightly more eccentric than other departments. Ours included a man famous at the time for advertising cars on television, although he didn’t drive; a man who was later to run, controversially, for the presidency; and a woman who never looked at her students, preferring to address her lectures to a point on the ceiling above our heads.

I did not drink alcohol for the first three years of my four at college. My preferred drink was soda and lime on our nights out at O’Neill’s on Trinity Street. Perhaps it was my clear head on these evenings that made me realise how insidious the culture of alcohol was within the English department. Our lecturers regularly drank with us in O’Neill’s, and several times we were the ones who had to help them out of the pub.

One night I was crossing campus on my way home when I came across two classmates supporting one of our lecturers by the Long Room. He was so drunk he was unable to walk. It required three of us to frogmarch him across campus, out of the back gate at Lincoln Place and along Westland Row to the flat he rented from college.

We were invited in, and he stood on a chair, swigging whiskey from a bottle and reading aloud to us from Martin Amis’s novel Dead Babies, periodically vanishing to noisily throw up. I had little life experience at the time, but something told me this was a bizarre form of student-lecturer relationship.

Not long after that the same lecturer, coming home one night, fell down the steps to his flat. He ended up in hospital. He did not reappear on campus the following year.

Then there were the English lecturers who arrived drunk to class. Today it seems unimaginable, but it was pretty common at Trinity in the 1980s, and we took it for granted. Drunken lecturers might sound bohemian, but the reality was embarrassing.

Notorious lecturer
One lecturer in particular was notorious for turning up drunk. We never knew what we were going to get: an offbeat, mildly entertaining lecture or an off-topic rant on virtually any subject, from politics to Irishness. As the year progressed we drifted farther and farther back in the room, leaving more and more space between the lecturer and us.

One afternoon I was sitting beside a friend, waiting for class to start. The lecturer was so late that we were in the middle of debating if we should leave when he arrived, slamming the door behind him. We were stupid, he informed us immediately. We were sheep. We had no original thoughts in our heads. He, however, was an original thinker and in time would bring us around to his way of thinking.

From the back of the class, where I ritually sat, trying to avoid attention, I could smell the alcohol. We were simultaneously appalled at and riveted by this implosion of authority. Some people walked out. He told us they were cowards.

His eye alighted on my friend, and he ordered her up to the blackboard. Students were never called up like this; the blackboard were for the use of lecturers. She went reluctantly. He ordered her to write what she had learned so far at university that had made her think. It was an impossible demand. She tried to write something, but between his sneers at her attempts at an answer, her tears and our palpable discomfort, any pretence at a class fell apart. She fled the room, sobbing. I gathered her belongings and followed.

I was happiest in my final year at Trinity. I had made good friends. My fashion choices were slightly better. I moved on from soda and lime to gin and tonic, and Guinness.

I was confident enough about my work that I reversed the habits of the three previous years, and spent more time in the pub than in the library, while everyone else was doing the opposite.

I enjoyed the melancholic old stones of Trinity, islanded within a city. I had favourite places to sit in the Berkeley and the Early Printed Books reading room, which you enter through a tunnel. I regularly bypassed the queuing tourists to flash my student ID and wander through the Long Room, always ending by looking at the Book of Kells, whose pages at that time, unlike now, were still turned regularly.

But I could not wait to leave. After my final exam I ran shouting from Front Square, under Front Arch and into the world beyond. It was 1987, in the middle of a horrible recession, and I had a plan: I was going as far away as possible from everything and everyone I knew.

I had a one-year working visa for Australia. The Usit return fare to Sydney cost me £1,250 – an inordinate sum, by today’s standards, that I had saved by working in London the previous summer.

These days I often walk through Trinity on my way to and from The Irish Times. Every freshers’ week, when the stalls are out, and the slightly dazed-looking freshers wander around, I recall Christina Murphy’s attempts to interview me.

She died just before I joined the paper, so I never had the opportunity to know her or to tell her how I now understood what it was like to be the reporter with the notebook, seeking interviewees for the record, on deadline and under pressure.

To this day I regret not letting her interview me. Why? Mostly because college is a time when you should be saying yes to new experiences instead of a cautious, qualified maybe.

This is an edited extract from Trinity Tales, published by the Lilliput Press on Tuesday

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