Turbulent times in Front Square

 

MEMOIR: ROY FOSTERreviews Trinity Tales: Trinity College Dublin in the SeventiesEdited by Kathy Gilfillan Lilliput, 296pp. €20

THE 1970S TRINITY experience was dramatic in every sense. These absorbing reminiscences present a gallery of theatre directors, actors, comedians, rock-music moguls, publishers, television producers, journalists, novelists and politicians: a golden generation. The selection may be inevitably skewed, but the unsuccessful and unhappy rarely want to write their memoirs. It also leads to a certain circularity of vision. The struggle between Paul McGuinness and Michael Colgan for control of Trinity Players, or the atmosphere of Helen Fleming’s boarding house in Rathmines, or the wonderful mystery plays performed on flatbed trucks in Front Square recur, until it is like reading one of those novels where the same events are replayed through different viewpoints, like The Alexandria Quartet. The time frame is also tipped decisively towards the early 1970s, blurring into the late 1960s: some of my own contemporaries seem to have managed a kind of Back to the Futuretime travel, with a negligent chutzpah that suits the era.

But the chronological arrangement profiles a genuinely interesting process of historical change, for Ireland as well as for TCD. The hierarchy’s much-mythologised “ban on Catholics” was lifted in 1970, and Trinity’s image shifted from Anglo-Irish oasis to somewhere that reflects a changing Irish identity – while retaining that contrarian twist. Patricia Quinn arrived in 1977 in search of what she had discovered, as a lapsed-Catholic refusenik, at Mount Temple Comprehensive, “mostly Protestants with a sense of autonomy and personal responsibility, and a strongly defined, if somewhat diffidently expressed cultural identity”.

The 1970s were also the decade when feminism changed everything: the excruciatingly genteel “Eliz” society for women was absorbed into the Phil, pubs had to agree to serve pints to women, and contraception arrived in student-advice centres, pioneered by Kathy Gilfillan, the editor of this volume. The patriarchalist assumptions of the flannelled-fool era more or less disappeared. By the end of the decade, the women who passed through Front Gate would go on not only to the stage and national journalism but also to the Law Library and the Dáil.

The collection also vividly reflects changes in Dublin: those city noises beautifully described by the novelist John Conyingham (“the castanet sound of the hooves of dray horses coming up from Ringsend, pulling carts filled with coal and grubby children”) fade to nothing by the 1980s. The poverty of inner-city Dublin, which strikes so many of the incomers, will not disappear, but its manifestations change. Student poverty, as in Liz O’Donnell’s memories of sleeping fully clothed in freezing digs, carrying bags of coal on a bike, and living off Carnation condensed milk, is something else. Several natives recall wistfully how grants enabled students from across the water to live high on the hog. And Gilfillan’s incisive introduction recalls the censorious notes left by her landlady about inedible meals, providing one of the best lines in the book: “Your heart is in the fridge.”

This cornucopia of perceptive, suggestive, often hilarious memories is not without the odd jarring note. There is a fond recollection of a gaggle of brawny male undergraduates, who seem to have three names apiece, “being hauled up in front of a Dublin magistrate for deliberately pouring Double Diamond beer from a balcony at Punchestown races onto the head of a plain-faced girl below; when asked if they had anything to say in their defence, one of them replied straight-faced that they’d merely been testing to see if Double Diamond really ‘worked wonders’ ”. The (female) author of this recollection apparently still thinks it’s funny. Sometimes I was reminded why I spent a lot of my TCD years socialising at UCD.

So did the novelist James Ryan, after arriving new-minted from a Catholic boarding school in 1970 and expecting to find “the beautiful people”. Ryan, like several others, recalls instead the public debates on the Dining Hall steps, the prominence of left-wing dons such as David Thornley and Kader Asmal, and the burning of the British embassy after Bloody Sunday, though “the North” is generally notable by its absence. Essays like his provide a valuable corrective to the sub-Vile Bodies catalogues recorded elsewhere: “port parties and black-velvet parties, flat parties, room parties and grand-house parties in Wicklow, Meath and Kildare, lunch parties, tea parties, cocktail parties, Elizabethan garden parties, Knights-of-the-Campanile parties”. As Ruth McCarthy recalls, “when I walked through Front Gate in September 1971 I was entering a new world that was paradoxically just about to melt away.”

Some autobiographers, such as the writer Robert O’Byrne and the publisher Antony Farrell, give us a vivid personal memoir where the institution itself rarely impinges, but the foreword by Terence Brown deftly conjures up the perspective from the senior common room. FSL Lyons’s impact as provost is noted by several autobiographers, but the quality of teaching is rarely commented on.

The dons who feature most regularly are Brendan Kennelly, David Norris, Anne Cruikshank and, if only by appearance or reputation, Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven and the just-late RB McDowell. Some of the most interesting pieces come from people who came to Ireland to study the Anglo-Irish literature MA, which suggests the importance of curriculum initiatives – not something that concerned too many of the apprentice glitterati, though they do note the disappearance of the safety-net “general studies”, which saved many of the butterflies from extinction. Rather unfairly, one gets the impression of an inverse ratio between academic activity and doing spectacularly well in the “real” world. Maybe this reflects the sample of contributors rather than a general rule, or maybe not.

James Ryan memorably describes the Trinity ethos of “negotiable conservatism” and points out that many students later prominent in public life learned their trade by challenging college traditions. Integration into the mainstream of Irish life happened through various channels – illustrated by Mary Harney’s piece, more like a manifesto than a memoir. Other budding politicos, such as Pat Cox, Dick Spring and the late Brian Lenihan, have not been enlisted for these pages, though Spring’s legs feature prominently in Ingrid Craigie’s piece. But the Hist was clearly catching up with UCD’s LH as a springboard to politics, and by the end of the decade the musty scent of hash cookies had given way to a different kind of smoke-filled room.

Besides a rich tranche of Irish social history, this is a record of enthusiasm, joie de vivre, high-octane nostalgia – and something sadder. It is striking just how many of the youthful stars of the era burned out to an early death, and are movingly mourned here by their contemporaries. A piece of the heart is left forever, if not in the fridge then at least beneath the cobbles of Front Square.


Roy Foster is Carroll professor of Irish history at Oxford University. His most recent book, Words Alone: Yeats & His Inheritances, was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press