Blagging rights: a dummies’ guide to culture

Being in college means being in the know about all things music, art, film, food and politics, so here’s a cheatsheet to start you off

You can coast through school on a diet of whatever you’re told and what your friends like, but college is different. Now you have to be a cultural aficionado. Too lazy to bother, or in need of a crash? Follow our dummies’ guide for all you need to know.

Nobody really cooks in college. You're supposed to live on a healthy combination of pasta with "sauce", tinned tuna, and takeaway pizza, all of which you pay for with coupons. Oh, and breakfast rolls. Somehow, disgusting eating habits such as a breakfast roll with brown sauce, mustard, ketchup and salt are considered acceptable in your college years: if it's still acceptable a few years after leaving, it might be because you are all alone. Students are gross. You're also supposed to watch an unhealthy number of cookery shows. You cannot miss Masterchef, ever.

Three things you must know
Places you should buy food in: ethnic food stores, euro value shops, fruit and veg stalls, Aldi, Lidl. It's not just poor students who are doing it: even the rich people who stole all our money wouldn't shop anywhere else (except M&S, of course). Anyone who tells you to shop around has too much time and money on their hands. Thank them for their generous offer of shopping around for you, seeing as it's so easy.

If you're eating out, go cheap. Cork and Dublin have particularly excellent options at student-friendly prices. Dublin's student hotspots include Camden Street and Capel/ Parnell Street. You'll find Galway isn't half bad either.

There are plenty of useful websites with advice on cooking and eating out. Check out and the BBC Good Food website for recipes. Try to bring your own lunch to college: you'll save a fortune.

Don't say: "Let's just slum it in the Trocadero. I mean, it's hardly Guilbaud's, but it will do."
Your killer line: "Forget burritos. I know a great place on Parnell Street serving knish."


School students have better things to do than read philosophy. As do grown-ups. Students, however, do not: irrespective of your course, college is a time when you should bone up on your existentialism, analytic theory and structuralism, using bits of various theories to create your own wildly fallible, half-baked, clumsy and ultimately inaccurate view of the world. Think of it as phase two of your adolescence, only you're now wise enough to pursue your own interests, choose friends you actually like, and direct your tortured musings towards bigger questions.

Three things you must know
Hilary Putnam, widely regarded as the world's greatest living philosopher, inspired the Matrix movies with his "Brain in a Vat" theory. Who knew Keanu Reeves is basically Buddha? So, The Matrix is possible... No boring undergraduate philosophy discussion would be complete without a lengthy dissection of this.

Brains in vats? Allegories in caves? Dead Gods? What the what? If the rather complex and detailed philosophical musings of Putnam, Plato, and Nietzsche are putting your tiny mind in a spin, try reading philosophy for dummies: Alain de Boton.

Good luck thinking you can learn everything you need to know about philosophy on Wikipedia and regurgitate it in your essay/spout it out in the bar. This is a subject you actually need to understand before you can try to explain it to someone else. Besides, everyone knows this Irish Times guide to philosophy is the definitive voice in metaphysical epistemological karma or something – and sure who can really know or understand anything?

Don't say: "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get." (This is just wrong: the chocolates are clearly marked by their shapes or wrapping, and there's a menu that comes with the box.)
Your killer line: "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk." It's a GWF Hegel quote that basically means philosophy is redundant, so that should bring an end to this tedious conversation – if the conversation is, in fact, real.

College English students expecting Jack Kerouac and other romantic heroes are quickly set straight with a heavy dose of Beowulf which, written in Old English, is basically in another language, much closer to the German from which our modern tongue evolved. Enjoy.

While they're distracted with The Canterbury Tales, everyone else can check Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, and Joseph Heller out of the library.

Three things you must know
Certain novelists are required reading for any college student who wants to at least appear smart. You need to be able to discuss certain classics, including 1984 (George Orwell), Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad), The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov), Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald). Skippy Dies (Paul Murray) is a modern masterpiece. Also, anything by Carol Joyce Oates, Robert Coover, John Steinbeck, Haruki Murakami, Virginia Woolf. Sci-fi and fantasty buffs have Tolkien down; impress them – if you really want to, for some reason – with your knowledge of Ursula Le Guin. There is no excuse for reading Ayn Rand: shun those who tell you she may have been on to something with her mean and tiny hopes for humanity.

Carrying around a dog-eared copy of Ulysses is so old hat. It's all about Moby Dick which, by virtue of its narcoleptic properties, is much more challenging than Joyce. Or just read the Cliffsnotes.

David Foster Wallace, who died in 2008, is rightfully being added to the canon on many English literature courses. His book Infinite Jest is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of contemporary literature, and his already sterling reputation has grown since his death. Read him.

Don't say: "I really love this month's James Patterson novel – it's so complex."
Your killer line: "Heathcliff's dark broodiness speaks to the restrained passions bubbling under our skin."

There are two types of students who need to know about politics: those who plan on eventually running for public office, and those who plan on destroying those who run for public office. Fine Gael to the Labour Party to the socialists to despair and disillusionment is a well worn path, although students going from the socialists to Fianna Fáil tend to be rarer.

Three things you must know
The students' union is a self-consuming bubble which tears itself apart on a regular basis, with an acrimony that is seldom found in grown-up politics. SU types tend to believe their tiny little dramas are massive, all-encompassing scandals; the vast majority of students could not care less. That said, getting involved in your SU or running as class rep does give you a say on the issues that affect your life, helps you learn about cooperation and teamwork, and can be good fun.

Joining every political party in your first few weeks will not only give you a chance to sample a menu of political opinions; it will also cause the two major competing forces of Satan (the Socialist Party and Fianna Fáil) to engage in an entertaining battle for your soul, which should ideally include bribes.

There's no difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, just as there is no difference between the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. Say this out loud and you will be subjected a long-winded and turgid lecture about why you are wrong. Say it in the college newspaper and you should receive some angry letters which might entertain you for at least a line or two.

Don't say: "I'm in it for the connections." (Especially if you are.)
Your killer line: "The outdated orthodoxies of left and right have no relevance anymore, so I think we need to be more diagonal. Diagonal."

Want to be patronised with stories about hilarious cops and their madcap antics? Or would you prefer to mindlessly watch giant robot monsters fight other giant robot monsters? Go to the cinema. Otherwise, TV drama and comedy is where it's at now.

Almost nobody under the age of 30 allows the TV schedule to dictate what they will watch. TV is on demand, available through your laptop, and with an infinite amount of choice.

The latest episode of Game of Thrones airs on HBO in the US, and is downloaded and streamed across the world within minutes.

Three things you must know
Most of the best drama comes from America. You won't be allowed participate in conversations or have any friends unless you're up to speed on Game of Thrones. Reading the books brings less kudos as, by universal acclaim, the TV show is better. But it's not all about that racy fantasy drama. Hannibal, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad are all rather extraordinary. And of course, all self-respecting students must skip several days of lectures to watch the entire series of "the best TV show ever", The Wire.

Sitcoms you must know about include Parks and Recreation, Girls, South Park, Louie, and Happy Endings (a Friends/ Arrested Development/Scrubs hybrid: it is a lot better than it sounds and, although cancelled, is destined for cult status). Modern Family is so passé.

During the student years, you are expected to become familiar with daytime TV. Drop what you're doing whenever Reeling in the Years comes on air. Home and Away is the undisputed king of daytime TV for students; there is no shame in knowing who the Braxton brothers are. However, when you leave college, people will feel sorry for you and discuss interventions if you spend time with the vile Jeremy Kyle.

Don't say: "None of that high-falutin' nonsense – I'll stick with Nationwide and a cuppa after tea, just like mammy does."
Your killer line: "Game of Thrones is so populist. Have you seen the Danish political drama series Bergen or the Swedish drama The Killing?"

Cinema and theatre
Cinema lacks the pulling power it once had, with many of the most creative minds now gravitating towards TV. Still, there's no shortage of classic student movies to while away the weeknights – chances are you're now streaming these movies on your laptop as everyone crowds around a tiny screen.

Students can't afford to go to the theatre, but they can afford to make plenty of hammy productions, and they do.

Three things you must know
Be a good all-rounder by mixing up your high and low culture. There's no harm in juxtaposing your seven-hour single camera Japanese black and white 1940s classics with a little bit of Hot Tub Time Machine and The Hangover. Well, maybe all three will harm you, but in different ways. For something in between and a little more engaging, try The Light House cinema in Dublin or the Eye in Galway.

Students are required by law to watch at least some of the following movies during their time in college: Mean Girls, Whitnail and I, High Fidelity, The Big Lebowski, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and This is Spinal Tap.

For some, getting involved in student drama societies is a sure-fire way to develop a lifelong, money-saving hatred of theatre. For others, it is the key to a lifetime of self-expression. Either way, give it a lash.

Don't say: "Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston? What's not to like?"
Your killer line: "3D is ruining the film industry. I know a cool new director who's making movies in seven dimensions."

In the months before the Leaving, the closest you came to fashion was wiping the crisps off your tracksuit. Prior to that you and the girls liked to coordinate hair accessories before heading to the local chipper. Now it's all about to change as you move to the city, perhaps to an art college or somewhere people know a thing or two about a belt or shoe.

The Higher Education Authority's Eurostudent survey says the average European student spends €587.40 annually on clothing – how will you spend your €50 quid a month?

Three things you must know
The 1990s are back so if you've never heard of Kurt Cobain sort it out and get yourself a lumberjack shirt.

Bad hair extensions that approximate your own hair colour are out. If you can’t pay for a good weave, just get purple ones and make a statement

If you are very confident indeed, you can get away with anything. Fake fur oven mitts and X-ray flower print playsuit, a lord mayor chain, blue eyebrows and a flower crown are absolutely right now.

Don't say: "I didn't think there was such a thing as boot sandals."
Your killer line: "Denim-on-denim was decriminalised last fall, darling."

You and all your sixth-year mates may have been happy to spend the last year shouting "hey" with The Lumineers but that's not gonna cut it at college. Pop-folk is so hot it's cold and you need to get on the next train before you open your mouth at university.

Depending on the crowd you’re moving in you can either go slightly left of where you’re at now or disappear completely up your own arse. Or the easiest of all, irony, which allows to you “like” just about anything as long as it’s really rubbish.

Three things you must know
Swot up on math rock. Some of the best bands from Ireland are in this genre including The Cast of Cheers, And So I Watch You From Afar and Adebisi Shank. For background, Steve Reich is the godfather. Sounds very clever.

Move beyond pop-folk into something with just as many strings but a bit darker: the freak-folk of Joanna Newsom, the other-worldly Unthanks or the broody Low Anthem.

Pretend to be all over the UK industrial techno scene (name drop Blawan and Pariah), the New York punk DIY aesthetic (LIES, Hamilton Audio) or Russian underground drum 'n' bass (Receptor, North Takeover). Who's going to contradict you? Or like you?

Don't say: "I'm thinking of taking up the banjo."
Your killer line: "The Electric Picnic? No thanks, I'm heading to Bulgaria to see Editors at the Spirit of Burgas festival."

Social networking 

A recent survey of 4,000 Irish students found that more than 95 per cent have a Facebook account.

If networking sites were Dublin streets, Facebook is Grafton Street. How do you get off the beaten track? Is there any point in being on social networking sites no one else is a member of? Maybe not, but talking about them is cool at least.

Three things you must know
It has now been around long enough to have a past, and where there's a past, there's fashionable nostalgia. Bebo's coming back, apparently. Why not be retro and get a vintage myspace page?

Pinterest is really for the craft set. You could try to make your page edgy by showcasing your collection of slaughtered animal photos but you’d probably be better off on Tumblr. Or in therapy.

If you have a LinkedIn page, bully for you. However, your new mates might not be charmed by a slew of LinkedIn requests from you on week one so save the networking until you've formed some actual friendships.

Don't say: "I spent hours on Facebook last night looking at your photos. Can we be friends?"
Your killer line: "Actually, when I'm not offline I'm into Next Big Thing. It's interactive hacker news for musos, basically."


If your knowledge of art stops at the Statue of David apron your dad wears to barbecue, you might want to catch up. That hot digital arts undergrad you've been drooling over in the library might by turned off by the poster of Mona Lisa smoking a joint above your fireplace. It doesn't take much to update.

Three things you must know
It's not about paint anymore. Contemporary art comes in all sorts of crazy mediums from vectors to bicycle chains to 3D graphics to dead insects.

Punk art, protest art, squat art and intentional communities. You don't need to know anything about them, just insist that you love them. Also mention Kumi Yamashita once or twice.

Don't expect your new art- student friends to wear berets and don't buy them a paint- by-numbers pony set for Christmas

Don't say: "Isn't graffiti a crime?"
Your killer line: "Real art shouldn't last. Once it is defined it ceases to be. I'm working on a portrait in steam."