University challenged

 

SOCIAL HISTORY: Trinity Tales: Trinity College Dublin in the Sixties,Edited by Sebastian Balfour, Laurie Howes, Michael de Larrabeiti, Anthony Weale, The Lilliput Press, 271pp. €20

I THOUGHT I would like this book before I opened it. I saw the necessity for it before I knew it existed. There’s a reason for these unvigilant attitudes. Most people see their college years as intimate, formative and unnerving. But after a lifetime of hoarding memories, what they usually confront, sooner or later, is disappointing and unrepresentative: an official history of their university, complete with maps, dates and donors. Utterly emptied out of the late nights, the cobbled lumps of moonlight, the conversations, the revelations.

The title of this book announces its difference. It’s called Trinity Tales. As in tall ones or the Arabian Nights. The decade it covers ranges from the late 1950s to the end of the 1960s. The voices in these 37 essays are various, but they have one purpose. To evoke the moment of college life in which their writers existed.

There is a convincing nonchalance about many of the pieces. The result is a book of amazing charm and real candour. “What did I do in Trinity in the Sixties?” writes Nicholas Grene, echoing many an undergraduate experience. “I don’t know, I don’t remember, I was only there.” Derek Mahon adds his voice to the chorus “Work? I hardly did a hand’s turn in four years.”

But the nonchalance is deceptive. This book is a valuable map of the cultures and conversations which then animated Trinity. “It was a lively place,” writes Brendan Kennelly in an eloquent preface, “full of characters from different parts of the world who added colour, charm, difference and mischief.” The cartography succeeds by reversing text and context. The text is personal reminiscence; the context has to be inferred from it. This results in an array of anecdotes, self-deprecations, minute details of daily life. As Mary Carr writes, “No trivia too trivial. It was all stamped with something.”

Amazingly the result is not haphazard. Jeremy Lewis’s first impression, as he comes from London, of a Dublin which was “small and rural” fits well with Harriet Turton’s memory of a great aunt who lived in Ballsbridge with a butler. Deborah de Vere White’s affectionate account of her father, Terence, collecting her from a party at midnight in his Morris Minor can be weighed with Roy Foster’s memories of a Dublin which still had “surviving pockets of atmospheric urban decay”.

Each brought their separate histories and solitary states into a college which was still small, still capable of engagement with individual students and still prepared to gather even the stubbornest sceptic into its grace and history.

The editors here are Sebastian Balfour, Laurie Howes, Michael de Larrabeiti and Anthony Weale. (Michael de Larrabeiti died last year, and the book is dedicated to him.)

They have produced a wonderful book and yet they announce their purpose in a preface of disarming modesty. This, they seem to say, is an effort of affection. Not an act of sociology or history. “What becomes clear from these memoirs,” they write in a graceful summary, “is that Trinity, and indeed Dublin itself, were very different places at the beginning and the end of the decade. But this was only to become apparent in the Seventies, reminding us that while history is written backwards, life is lived forwards.”

They are also candid about their principles of selection. “We make no pretence that the views represent a cross-section of life in TCD at the time. Inevitably, many of the contributions arise from our networks of friends and acquaintances, though we have tried to reach beyond them to reflect other experiences of Trinity and Dublin.”

This statement glances at the book’s limitations. But since these are so close to its charm and strength it seems ungenerous to carp. This is, after all, a picaresque account of education and locale. This is molten memory, intended to be mercurial and celebratory. Nevertheless, as the editors themselves say, certain elements are bound to be emphasised and some shadowed.

I came to Trinity in 1962 and studied there, as did all these writers, for four years. I became a junior lecturer in 1967. Many of the details here seem to me accurate and lyrical. Some of them touch on darker realities. There is a poignant realisation of what had been too narrow for too long in Edna Longley’s wonderfully eloquent remark about Brendan Kennelly: “If I had never met anyone like Brendan (and still haven’t) he also seemed to distil all that Trinity had never been.”

Certain conversations I had as a student seemed to point towards a rich future of contradictions. They were not always comfortable. They unsettled some of the ease and affection this book mines so well. I remember Mary Robinson, or Mary Bourke as she was, speaking about becoming the auditor of the Law Society, determined to challenge fixed attitudes in that role.

I remember Cian Ó hÉigeartaigh talking movingly about what it meant to be an Irish speaker on campus. I remember Terence Brown, who was my classmate, speaking about a Northern Ireland I had no way of imagining. And David Norris about a Dublin I failed to understand.

The truth is that in the time covered by this book, Trinity was beginning to piece together a new identity, painfully and bravely made out of its old estrangements. Like the country and the city to which it belonged, the university stood on the edge of immense change. I can only imagine how hard it is to gather pieces for a book like this. But these voices, which so influenced me when I was young, which allowed me to eavesdrop on the first mutter of transformation, would have been a welcome addition.

But absence is not a criteria. The truth is that the editors, and their contributors, have produced a book of immense value. It manages to be a portrait of an institution that is not institutional. It provides access to a moment that is more human than historic. Best of all, you don’t need to have been a Trinity student to enjoy reading it. Just young.


Eavan Boland’s most recent book is The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthologyco-edited with Edward Hirsch (WW Norton 2008)