Going to UCD in 1978: the experience of one Tullamore man. By Declan McSweeney

I recently found myself reminiscing about the experience of moving from Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore, to University College Dublin in 1978.

In many ways, there was a sense of culture shock, it was like moving to a foreign country, though I suspect the transition would be less for today’s students.

I was moving from what was then a small secondary school where I knew all my classmates to a university which even then had around 10,000 students.

As you were in different classes with students for different subjects, it was obviously very difficult to get to know many of your classmates.

Nowadays it has over 33,000 students! 

I recall very well my first day arriving at the Belfield campus, to which most of the faculties had moved from Earlsfort Terrace nearly a decade earlier.

Agriculture building. Courtesy of UCD, Belfield 50 years

In those days, there was no Internet and no mobile phones, so you had to make major, potentially life-changing decisions there and then, such as what combination of subjects to study.

A cautionary tale is not to base one’s choice of degree subjects on Leaving Cert. results. I arrived expecting to do a degree in French and economics, only to discover that this combination was impossible. As Coláiste Choilm in those days had no guidance counsellor, we had no access to information on options.

So, I had to make up my mind there and then what to study, and a chance encounter with a history lecturer, the late Michael Richter, was to change my life. Sitting there in jeans and a blue jumper, the bespectacled German looked at my Leaving Cert results and advised me to study history.

I ended up doing history and economics (or political economy to use the precise term then in vogue) with politics as a subsidiary in First Arts. At the end of that year, one of the politics lecturers, Maurice Manning, told my father I could go onto do politics in the degree if I wished, and with hindsight I regret not doing so, as would have suited my talents better than political economy.

Being away from home was, of course, a big transition, and I initially lived in digs in Herbert Park, Donnybrook, run by an elderly couple, the Hartigans. Mr Hartigan, a retired publican, died during that year, but I was actually back in Tullamore when it happened. 

The new wing at Colaiste Choilm c. 2000

I later spent two years in Terenure with Mr and Mrs Kent, and a short while in Ballsbridge, where the digs were run by Mrs Coyle.

I came home, on average, every second weekend, but it wasn’t a full weekend as we used to have Saturday morning lectures. I recall getting the bus from Belfield through the city centre, up the North Circular and walking down past Phoenix Park, along Infirmary Road and past O’Devaney Gardens, along Parkgate Street and down to Heuston station.

In my first year, I shared digs with a young man from Andersonstown, Belfast, called Damien O’Reilly, who told me many stories about the Troubles. Unfortunately, I lost contact completely with him afterwards.

In many ways, the university experience isn’t just about the academic education, but getting to know fellow-students from a range of backgrounds. It seemed to me there was a certain divide between those from Dublin and from the rest of the country. Most of the Dubliners tended to be from the affluent suburbs on the southside and many had been to school together or in neighbouring schools, so it was not surprising they would tend to gravitate to each other.

The rest of us came from many parts of Ireland, particularly the Leinster counties but also from Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford, and from Northern Ireland, with a scattering from west of the Shannon. That said, the only fellow-students I remain in contact with are actually from Dublin.

There were a few students from Offaly but contact was rare as often they were in other faculties – one of my old classmates was at UCD at the same time but he studied engineering, then largely based in Merrion Street.

Of course, another big transition was coming from an all-boys’ school into a mixed environment, where I was to encounter the other half of the human race! I was to encounter young women from Dublin, many of them alumni of Mount Anville and Mount Sackville, as well as from Limerick and Wexford, Cavan and Monaghan, but it was a very innocent age, where Catholic mores were still very influential.

Colasite Choilm c. 1987

Mixing with the opposite sex was an education in itself, and I recall the words of one of my old Coláiste Choilm teachers, Murty Davoren, who said “What good is it if you pass all the exams in the world but you don’t know how to talk to a girl.”

That said, times were beginning to change and coming from a Catholic school to the somewhat more cosmopolitan university atmosphere forced you to consider important questions. UCD had a strong Catholic influence, as the successor of the Catholic University of Ireland, which was headed by St John Henry Newman.

Nonetheless, by the late seventies, you could not avoid meeting students who were critical of the Church, and feminist groups had a strong presence on the college, raising debate on issues like abortion. There was also a presence of societies raising the profile of gay and lesbian issues – I had never met anyone openly lesbian until going to university.

At the same time, it is important not to exaggerate this, the reality is the great majority of us were still practising Catholics. The Church of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom was the chapel for the university and I recall attending Mass there on holy days and special occasions, when large crowds would attend.

For example, I recall the church being thronged at a Mass in memory of those who died in the Stardust disaster of 1981, I remember exchanging the sign of peace with one of the history lecturers, James Ivan McGuire, and it was standing room only at the ceremony.

The head chaplain when I started there was the late Father Jim Moriarty, who later became Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. I was to meet him years later, as a reporter for Offaly Express, at an event in Daingean. His successor was Father Con Dowling, and I remember other chaplains such as Fathers Brian Power, Shane Ó Cuiv (a descendant of de Valera), Derek Smyth and Pearse Walsh.

I also recall students who were active in Catholic societies, and giving out, for example, Miraculous Medals.

UCD 1978. Courtesy of UCD Belfield 50 years

In those days, UCD had relatively few students from Protestant backgrounds, as the tradition was still that Protestants went to Trinity, but there were some, particularly in the veterinary faculty. The Church of Ireland shared the chapel with the Catholic Church and on occasions I met chaplains of other denominations at get-togethers. 

I recall, in particular, Rev Alan Martin, Presbyterian chaplain, speaking fondly of the support the people of Tullamore had given the town’s then minister, Rev JT Riddall, and his wife, after their son was injured in an accident. 

I also recall an ecumenical event in the chapel, following the visit of Pope John Paul, chaired by the late Professor Brian Farrell.

In fact, I probably met more students from the Jewish community than from Protestant backgrounds. At least one of my classmates was Jewish, and when I lived in Terenure it was close to the city’s main synagogue. As I returned from Saturday lectures, I would see worshippers leaving the building. 

For the Ireland of the time, UCD was quite cosmopolitan, I had a number of British lecturers as well as men from South Africa and Australia, and there were quite a few overseas students. I recall two classmates originally from overseas, Abraham Habte Selassie from Ethiopia and Andrew Li from Hong Kong, who later settled in Ireland.

There was a presence of various other faith groups, including Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs, as well as such groups as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It was also striking that, even then, I encountered quite a few Irish students who came from an ethnic minority background, most of them from Dublin, though I recall one young man from Drogheda.

Passions ran high on certain subjects, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland – the 1981 H-Block hunger strikes saw emotions run high in debates.

However, it was certainly an education, where I became aware of the wide range of opinions which existed on such issues.

Student Union meetings were always interesting, even though tempers were sometimes raised. On occasions, national politicians would visit the university to address meetings, I recall listening to, for example, Michael O’Kennedy, Garret FitzGerald and Frank Cluskey

In general, I found the staff very courteous and helpful, and I refer not just to lecturers but to the porters, administrative, library and catering staff. In my early days, I recall my first meeting with one of my history lecturers, the late David Doyle, who was later my MA supervisor.

“How come you’ve such a southern accent when you’re from Derry?” he asked. I replied I was not from Derry. “Aren’t you Eamon Feeney from Derry?” he asked.

I replied my name was Declan McSweeney. “I wondered how the hell you could have a southern accent if you were from Derry.” 

I asked him where he thought I was from. “Westmeath or somewhere round there?” I replied he was close enough, that I was from Offaly, and he told me his great-grandfather was buried in Daingean.

I was a recipient of a bursary from a certain body, which I would prefer not to name, which financed my education. I do recall the help shown in this regard by a man who is now a councillor in Tullamore, Seán O’Brien.

Overall, my memories of UCD are very positive, not just in terms of the quality of education, but of the broadening of horizons involved in being away from home.

The Library, Stage 2, UCD Belfield. Courtesy of UCD and Belfield 50 Years