Women's hour at Trinity


Women students form the majority at Trinity, but it wasn't always the case, as Rosita Boland finds out

A hundred years ago, Isabel Marion Weir Johnston, an enterprising young woman from Derry, somehow managed to become the first woman to register at Trinity College, Dublin. She did this in January, 1904, nine months before the other 40 registrations, which marked that year's intake of Trinity's first women undergraduates.

"We're not sure how she did it," admits Susan Parkes, former head of Education in Trinity, and editor of the forthcoming Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004. "She didn't attend lectures for the first few months, but she took the exams that summer." Weir Johnston read English and French for two years, before falling in love with Stephen Kelleher, a Junior Fellow who lectured in Classics. They married, and she never completed her degree, but she retains her place in college history nonetheless.

Parkes herself graduated in History in 1958, when there were 2,500 students on campus. At that time, women were obliged to leave college grounds by 6 p.m., and they were still not permitted to eat with male students. "To some extent, the six o'clock rule added some excitement. There was always someone with a back-door key. Or the men would put a hat and scarf around a girl and put her in the middle of them and walk her out of college. On the whole, we took the restrictions for granted," Parkes says. "We didn't protest enough, but we were girls of the 1950s and we thought we were terrific."

By that time, the Elizabethan Society, of which Weir Johnston was a founder member in 1905, was still very much active. "Girls weren't allowed join the two debating societies, the Hist and the Phil, until the 1960s," says Parkes. "So the Elizabethan Society in House Number Six was formed as the women's debating society. It was lots of other things too; there was a drama and literary society attached, and it was where we ate our lunch. It was the women's centre; our haven."

Melissa Webb of Dalkey, Co Dublin, graduated in Modern Languages, French and English, in 1965. Women were still not permitted to eat with male students, although they did not have to leave campus until 10 p.m. "But in the nicest possible way, we held our own," Webb says. "It taught me to be strong. In the 1960s, we were dutiful daughters; we were brought up differently. We didn't question restrictions."

The Elizabethan Society, of which Webb was president while in Trinity, was still thriving in the 1960s. "There was nowhere else for women to eat in college at that time. It was a place where women had their own solidarity and refuge. We had a telephone in there, and a sewing machine."

A sewing machine?

"In our day, there were endless balls," Webb explains. "A lot of Irishwomen, including myself, tended to make their evening dresses out of curtain material."

And the Englishwomen?

"Oh, they bought their dresses in Brown Thomas."

In 1904, there were less than 1,000 students in total on campus, 40 of them women. Today there are 15,500 students, more than 8,000 of them women.

Michelle Curtin is a current junior sophister (third year) in French and Sociology. She looks politely blank when reminded of the restrictions on female students. She "never thinks" about it.

"It's amazing to think not everyone could come here and that there were rules about what you could and couldn't do as a woman. We just take being here for granted," says Caoimhe Nic Giolla, who is a Masters student in Irish drama and film.

Muire McCallion and Jennifer Rothwell, both junior freshmen in Film Studies, consider the fact this is the centenary of women in Trinity. "It'd be just so weird to think about that now: that women couldn't come to Trinity," says Rothwell. "It is appalling when you think about those restrictions," McCallion says. "There's a creche and all here now."

Lorraine Ní Bhriain and Vicki Hastie are junior and senior sophister music students. "I remember my landlady telling me she couldn't come here. That was the religion ban, though, but it's still awful," says Ní Bhriain.

They are unsurprised to hear women now outnumber men on campus. "There definitely seems more women around," Hastie says. "There's always more women than men in the gym."

"And in the library," Ní Bhriain observes. "The guys keep a low profile in general. You don't see them round in the evenings much. They must all go home early."

If so, things have truly come full circle in Trinity in the last hundred years.

A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004, edited by Susan Parkes, will be published by Lilliput Press on May 6th