Trinity Tales: dripping with privileged nostalgia
What may be an enjoyable slice of nostalgia pie for Trinity graduates may leave others with indigestion, suggests Diarmaid Ferriter
Susan Murray a TCD business student and model wearing a ballgown designed by Brid Nihill during a photocall to publicise the 1999 Trinity Ball. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh.
Trinity Tales: Trinity College Dublin in the Nineties
Edited by Catherine Heaney
What a shower of spoilt, preening, indulged and pampered little brats populated Trinity College Dublin in the 1990s. Okay, I exaggerate, but only slightly. This book drips with privileged nostalgia and scant engagement with a wider world, which I suppose is how these books are supposed to be. This is the fourth instalment in the Trinity Tales series and sentimentality is once again embraced as contributors outdo each other in wistful remembrance, or what the editor, Catherine Heaney, refers to as “a collective sense of fondness”. As contributor Alex Massie recognises, “the temptation to wash one’s youth with nostalgia is as ever present as it proves irresistible”. The contributors are far too happy with themselves and their ecstatic undergraduate days and it is striking how many of them married classmates, suggesting a woeful lack of ambition, adventure and awareness – “I met my beautiful wife at the Ball!” or “I’m married to the boy who asked me to go for the coffee.”
As Ed Brophy recognises, “Trinity teemed with tribes, marinated in the narcissism of small differences”, and too many never left; Brophy tells us there is “rarely a day I don’t walk through the front square on my way to Leinster House”. With all their drunken laziness, they gave students a bad name. Dominic West remembers David Norris: “I enjoyed a whole year of his seminars on Ulysses without ever actually reading it”. Lecturers frequently gave the students the essence of the exam questions, because, according to Norris, “we’re not trying to catch people out here”. Brendan Kennelly marked Dominic West’s work easily “because I had fallen in love with Catherine, whose mother he knew from Kerry”. As Mario Rosenstock recalls, they were “in a bubble, totally protected and free to do pretty much whatever we wanted”; just consider “an 18-year-old being able to walk into campus wearing ripped trousers, a cravat and eyeliner and going up to a barman at 11am on a Monday morning and ordering a pint of Guinness”.
Thankfully there are a few who do not join in the party, including John Boyne who was “a loner. An introvert. A complete mess.” Struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, he was miserable there and only interested in hurried, anonymous sex. Jolly Trevor White studied for a theatre diploma; his brother, a wise man, pointed out “you can be a gobshite and still get into Trinity”. For Antonia Hart, living on campus, the height of liberation was “setting my digicube alarm clock for 9:58 and being on time for a ten o’clock lecture”. Plenty of students hadn’t a notion of moving into the real world: Larkin Feeny asserts “I had the pleasure of spending eight years as a TCD undergraduate: 1989 to 1997.”
There are funny passages and interesting threads here, including the intensity of the experiences of those immersed in the drama group Trinity Players, though the sense of living in a period of national transition – Alex Massie refers to the idea of the 90s as a “hinge”, closing the door on one era and opening another – is not really teased out. As Heather Jones admits, despite the peace process, “the North was not that frequently discussed”. But why would they be discussing something as shamefully parochial as the North? After all, as Barry McCrea observes, conceited Trinity boys “when they talked about ‘the Labour Party’, meant the British one”; they also argued “in the style of the House of Commons”. No wonder the Irish Labour Party is wrecked. Paschal Donohoe is quite restrained in his contribution but he does remember fencing: “There was something so enticing about waving a sword or stick at an opponent.” Apparently he now does this weekly at Cabinet meetings. As for the relevance of the wider world, poor lecturer Ron Hill in October 1991, when introducing his course on Soviet Society, announced: “I have news for you all – there will be no course this term because there is no Soviet Union.”
There were students active in the campaign for abortion information, but the protests most remembered were those over the shortage of library spaces; Claire Kilroy remembers the delusional protest banner: “Paris 1968: Dublin 1993”. They could just have got up earlier and bagged a desk. Newspapers and tabloid sheets thrived and there were many nascent journalists; Nick Webb was editor of Piranha in 1990, 28 pages of “whimsy, vitriol and fart humour”. He initiated the photo bubble cover, including one with “a photo of serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer who’d just been collared by the Feds. The caption just read ‘Burp’ and it probably wasn’t the worst”. Miranda Kennedy, from New York (“I was an outsider picking fights with a country I didn’t know”) was involved in Harlot magazine, which was “pro-sex feminist, which makes me cringe deeply”. Tom Farrell spent 95 per cent of his time “smoking and playing chess in the rooms of the Theological Society”, while Luke McManus enthuses about “a dizzying variety of hedonistic possibilities; from sipping Pimm’s on the croquet pitch to necking pills at the Trinity Ball”. I suppose the experience of hedonism is relative.
The methods of communication pre-internet now seem so quaint; as Belinda McKeon remembers (she “had a crush on almost every man I met”), people got information on those they fancied on toilet doors: “A person’s name would be scrawled on the door in biro, followed by ANY INFO? And underneath, helpful souls would share the facts and qualities of which they were aware”. These were the final few years before mobile phones or, in Gráinne Maria Lina Hayes’s (some students in Trinity had far too many names) accurate summation, the last stage “before mobile phones took all the guesswork (but also some of the magic) out of being out and about”. Students from the North were intriguing and, according to Michael Brown, had a “very healthy disregard for authority and convention”; one of them, Penny Storey, arriving in Dublin in 1991 recalls, “The most striking thing was the absence of threat.”
Anna Carey rightly recognises that one of the great privileges of university is “the ability to devote entire days to one’s friends on a regular basis” and this book is, hardly surprisingly, wrapped in that warm haze. But how representative these Trinity experiences are is debatable, given that contributors to this type of book are more likely to be approached because of their high profile then and now. At least Austin Duffy demonstrates a social conscience: “Can I stipulate that it was an immense privilege to go to Trinity and agree that you don’t have to look very far at all to see the enormous size and shape and statistical unlikelihood of that privilege.”
For those who considered themselves movers and shakers in Trinity in the 90s this book will provide an enjoyable slice of nostalgia pie. Others might be left with indigestion. More of the Trinity students should have gone to UCD, where they would have had a far earthier experience, been more politically aware, spared the consumption of Pimm’s and been much more likely to find marriage partners outside university. Not that I am biased, or tribal, or marinated in the narcissism of small differences.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, where he was a student in the 1990s. You’d never guess.