A Derry Girl in Oxford: ‘The Troubles followed us over the Irish Sea’
Mary Minihan recalls the challenges and thrills of her student days in England
At Oxford, one fellow student told me he was scared of me because I was from Derry, “and the IRA were from Derry”.
Oxford was a bit of a shock at first, meeting all those jolly Delilahs and willowy Ambers who’d been sent to boarding school as children and seemed to transition seamlessly to college life, landing confident and with fully formed opinions in the junior common room. One fresher had just found out Martin Amis was her father. And they all seemed to know what sub fusc meant when it came to dressing for formal occasions.
Lots of students were braying about what they’d done on what they called their gap year. I’d been working in the Malibu Cafe in Derry’s Diamond, near the first World War memorial which most people ignored. Meanwhile, at Oxford, young people sat around talking late into the night about the beauty of mathematics. That wouldn’t have been me now.
There was a smart lad there from Belfast called Cliff. Never mind the Delilahs and Ambers, Mary from Derry hadn’t met too many like him back then. We didn’t fall in love across the barricades or anything like that, but we did get miserably drunk behind the college bar the night the IRA ceasefire broke down. Unfortunately for the customers, we were the bartenders.
I can’t remember how we heard the news because nobody had mobiles hopping with news alerts in those days. There were a couple of booths in quite public areas of the college, with payphones inside, which students queued outside to call home, and everyone heard everything you had to say. Email was just coming in, but you had to trek to a basement computer room to access it.
The Troubles followed us over the Irish Sea. One fellow student told me he was scared of me because I was from Derry, “and the IRA were from Derry”. I couldn’t get over people who didn’t know anything about me asking probing questions about religion, politics and violence, in front of everybody in what became our local, the Gardener’s Arms. We’d been brought up to say nothing, whatever we said.
Our home economics teacher, who doubled as a careers adviser, at the convent grammar the school in Derry Girls was based on, had encouraged me to apply. I wouldn’t have considered it myself in a million years. Would that every young person starting off in life had a forward-thinking woman like Miss McAlinney at their back. I went over to an open day – it was my first time on a plane – then sat an entrance exam and was called for interview.
On the way to the interview, I saw a regular British bobby on the beat, with his comical constable’s helmet and truncheon, and thought he was a character in fancy dress, so unlike an RUC man was he. I can still see myself gawking at him, standing tall against the warm yellow-coloured sandstone from which so many of the grand buildings were made. I told them about that encounter at the interview, and they laughed, although I hadn’t really been joking.
They offered me a place. Later, a tutor told me she selected students either because they were brilliant or because they amused her. I didn’t need to be told which category I was in.
I had a modest room in the Edwardian building at St Hugh’s College. My granny had fretted about me going to what she called a pagan country, but every Sunday I was woken early by evangelical Christians singing and clapping on the landing below my room.
We had our meals in a big dining hall. It wasn’t always fancy, but sometimes it was very formal, and I remember, with shame now, feeling perfectly resentful that my parents hadn’t taught me how to use a fish knife, or that such an implement even existed.
One morning I came back from breakfast to find a squirrel staring at me, having come in through the open sash window and ripped open a loaf of bread I’d left in the room. The keen-eyed creature was rusty red, with cute ear tufts, not like the stocky and ubiquitous greys you see these days (although I believe the reds are making a comeback against their invasive cousins). The squirrel stared at me for quite a while before finally putting down the bread and scampering out the window again.
When I told the story afterwards, everyone laughed at how I said “squirl”. People seemed to laugh at how I spoke a lot. Maybe they still do.
There was punting, of course, and goalkeeping for the college’s hilariously bad women’s football team, and plenty of clubbing and cycling. I left my bike behind and just got back on the saddle, like so many others, during the first lockdown.
So few of my memories are around studying, proving the old adage that youth is truly wasted on the young. Sometimes I wish I’d gone as a mature student, particularly when I think about sitting mute and terrified in classes while the poet Tom Paulin got exasperated trying to teach us about Yeats.
But wasn’t Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris spot on when he said recently that “college is not something that’s meant to be done at the corner of a kitchen table or in a box room”.
Feeling like a fish out of water – homesick for a place you thought you couldn’t wait to leave – rather than a lonely soul in a cage is a wonderful learning curve.