Old square hits Front Square
VETERAN'S VIEW: A quarter-century after his last visit PAUL CULLENreturns to the Trinity Ball to see if any of the old magic has survived
WITH THE TICKETS firmly in my hand – €78 each, still not cheap – the memories come flooding back. I spent the first half of the 1980s in Trinity, and each spring the ball loomed ominously, challenging me to overcome shyness and invite a partner, or shun it and be miserable for the night. One year, I had the largest 21st party in Ireland, thanks to my birthday coinciding with the day of the ball. And I heard some great live music, including the Go-Betweens, the Cure and the Clash (well that’s a lie, actually, because the Clash played the year before I entered college. Let’s say I was there in spirit).
The doubts set in as I walk down Dame Street to the college, where hordes of young men in dress suits jostle and stagger and roar. One fine specimen, beer glass in one hand, simulates sex with a traffic bollard for the delectation of a nonplussed taxi-driver idling at a traffic light. Hemlines are generally in inverse proportion to the long night ahead, although sensible pumps win out over high heels in the footwear division – Trinity’s cobbles take no prisoners.
Many things have changed since I last attended the ball. It’s hard to explain now, but back in the depressed 1980s, nothing happened in Dublin or beyond, not outside the pubs anyway. This was an era before late bars and big concert venues, and house parties were the virtually the only form of late-night fun. As a result, the ball stood out as one of the biggest forms of organised entertainment on the annual music calendar.
Back then, the event was run by the students themselves, and the results were as shambolic as you’d expect from any business operated by a bunch of hedonistic teenagers. Some years it was great, and the bands who played became big names later, while other years were loss-making disasters. Today, concert promoters MCD have taken over, with all the professionalism and predictability that that brings.
Our first mistake this year is to arrive too early. By 11pm, only a fraction of the 8,000 ticketholders have filtered through the security checks. Not to worry, we’ll have a quiet drink in the Buttery, or the Arts Block. This is another mistake: these days, all the historic college buildings are off-limits – with burly security staff at every turn to let you know if you’ve strayed. The ball is played out in Front Square, and in a number of large marquees around the campus, so apart from the backdrop, it could be happening anywhere.
Asking for a glass of wine is another bad mistake. Heineken, vodka, water and the ubiquitous Red Bull are the prescribed and only poisons on offer for the night – unless you want to shell out €5 for a shot of oxygen. I’m sure we ate in the old days but today’s rumbling bellies are being fed by big names in the fast food business: Abrakebabra, Tacoman and Chick King.
From New Square, I look with nostalgia at the rooms I once occupied for a year, where on the day of that year’s ball we pulled up the floorboards and smuggled in a bunch of friends from outside. Stocked up with a supply of beer, they happily passed the evening playing cards by torchlight. Once the college guards had passed by on their round of inspections, they emerged happily to enjoy a free night’s entertainment – except for the pair who fell asleep and missed the ball completely.
In the 1980s there were string quartets and jazz bands, though I’d never have ventured into the halls where they were playing. Tonight, cold and tired from constant standing, I’d only love an earful of Ella Fitzgerald, but no luck. All the music choices are loud and raucous, which is fine by me, but largely unfamiliar, which is more problematic. From the line-up, only Dizzee Rascal and the Delorentos mean anything to me. In another tent, Example are cursing their way through a lively set and it’s apparent that the ironic tradition of working-class Brits entertaining middle-class Irish kids is alive and well.
As the night wears on, the crowd thickens and the giddiness rises. There’s necking in the back corners, there are long queues for the Portaloos and there is much falling over. It’s all very debauched but in a relatively harmless sort of way, to my eyes. The ball is due to go on till 5am but long before this, we know our number is up. My back aches from the constant standing and my belle is freezing, poor thing. There’s only one thing for it: act our age and slope off, leaving the young things to what they do best. I reserve the right to return in another quarter-century.
‘My objective? To have the most fun night of all time’ JONATHAN WYSE recounts his adventures from the night
I roll out of bed, just in time to collect my ticket for the main event. While queuing, I meet many people with whom I share an identical conversation.
First, we establish that both of us are attending the ball. Second, we acknowledge that the results of pending exams may suffer as a consequence. Third, I insist that we meet up “at some stage during the night” to have a drink. We agree to this, each of us confident in the unspoken knowledge that the likelihood of us crossing paths at the ball is nil.
Meanwhile, the Students’ Union is handing out free condoms to students as they exit — making clear to all attendees that having clandestine sex on campus before, during and after the Trinity Ball is not only expected but demanded. Optimistic male freshers stuff their pockets with contraceptives, unaware of the crushing reality regarding the promiscuity of college girls.
My roommate and I head to the nearest off-licence to stock up on refreshments. After some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, I determine that Tennent’s offers most units of alcohol per euro and is therefore holistically the most satisfying beer on offer. We head back to our apartment on campus and stash our drink. During the course of the night, I will return home periodically and emerge with a plastic cup filled with beer, thus evading the high prices most patrons are subjected to.
I inspect my dress suit and realise I am missing a bow-tie. My efforts to locate a replacement from shops within walking distance of college fail as all venders are sold out. I wear a tie instead.
Due to an intricate scheme to manipulate the ticketing and entry process (with details too complex for elaboration), it is necessary for my friends and I to be outside Trinity campus between 6pm and 7pm to avoid room searches. We toast our criminal genius at a local tavern.
After grabbing a bite to eat and returning to campus, we arrive at a pre-party. My friends and I discuss our plans. What is my objective? To have the most fun night of all time, which I can then recount in the pages of The Irish Times.
As campus residents, we are fortunate enough to avoid the usual rugby scrum for entry at Front Arch. We are not however able to evade the other scourge of the Trinity Ball: the chaos and confusion that prevent any group from staying together or communicating. Within moments, I am jostled, causing my drink to spill all over me and my tie. Rather than go all the way back to my apartment, mere yards away, I spend 20 minutes queuing for a drink. While I soak up the atmosphere, my tie soaks up new and strange beverages as more people spill drinks on me.
I go on a circuit of the various tents. Impatient ball attendees are shaking a Port-a-Loo in an attempt to dislodge the current occupant.
Walking past the First Aid tent, I am reminded of the darker episodes of M*A*S*H*, as the contents are both tragic and comic. I see people dropping their drunk friends off and disappearing quickly to avoid any responsibility for them.
Having avoided the self-described “gourmet” burger van, I meet my girlfriend in Front Square. We head to see one of her favourite bands, Delorentos. The acoustics are terrible, and we can’t hear anything. She enjoys herself immensely. Leaving my girlfriend, I arrive at the steps of the Graduate Memorial Building and am reunited with my buddies from earlier in the night. My friend Sam is jacket-less, having offered it to a girl in a desperate but ultimately unsuccessful advance. Later, I will learn that his jacket never resurfaced.
My roommate’s girlfriend is annoyed, because he never offered her his jacket and also because she missed Delorentos. My roommate is pleased that he missed them, and quips that he only likes cheese and onion flavour Delorentos anyway. He offers to “Jamaican” up my beer with some rum.
My girlfriend and I have agreed to rejoin each other at Dizzee Rascal. It is only after arriving that I realise the folly of using a tent containing hundreds of people as a meeting point. We somehow locate one other. At this stage, my tie has become dangerously flammable due to the quantity of alcohol spilled on it.
My memory of the next hour is relatively hazy, but I think I remember that the performance by Digitalism was fanastic. I will later learn that Digitalism pulled out of the ball at the last moment, so my whereabouts during this period are as yet unknown.
I am feeling extremely tired. I soon decide that it is time to leave the ball, so my friends and I head back to my apartment. We cook a frozen pizza and have a nightcap.
– Additional reporting by Dave McGuire and Howard Helen.
Jonathan Wyse is editor of the Piranha, TCD’s satirical student magazine