I was an Engineering student in UCD from 1948 to 1951 (Trams still ran in my first year but the rails were lifted before I graduated). When I say UCD, I really mean the College of Science in Merrion Street with excursions to Earlsfort Terrance for Physics. The Aula Max, where I was given my scroll is now the Concert Hall and the College of Surgeons keeps in touch with me as the background to every big political story on RTE TV News.
Being an Engineering student meant that you weren’t really part of student life unless you played football or drank and I did neither. My window to intellectual life was the L and H on Saturday nights. I wasn’t a participating member, but enjoyed hearing and seeing the verbal jousting and fencing of our future leaders and lawyers. Being a quiet country mouse, the confident sons of solicitors and forceful people generally were a mystery to me. I gradually sorted them into fascists and democrats and there weren’t very many of the latter. One of the “fascists” that I deplored, Enda Gearty, became a great friend in later life. I had to wait ’til my last year for a democrat to emerge – Ritchie Ryan. “Red” Ritchie to the Irish Press when he became minister for Finance.
Some Saturday nights were less scintillating than others and if things were a bit flat we looked forward to learning from the Prince of Hecklers, Ulick O’Connor. Ulick was irrepressible, a great favourite with the audience but regarded as a menace by the authorities. I was there the night he was put out (and suspended for a month) for exceeding the normal limit of bad behaviour. The following Saturday night was terribly well conducted but subconsciously everyone was saying to themselves, “You’d miss Ulick”.
The night wasn’t far on when Ulick’s unmistakeable voice started to emerge from a blonde “girl” in a head square. Irresponsibles like me were thrilled but the authorities were appalled. Porters were sent up the Physics theatre steps to remove Ulick but it couldn’t be done. Ulick was handcuffed to the desk and no sign of the key. He couldn’t be let win so business was concluded for the night and the meeting abandoned.
My main recollection of “academic” life in the College of Science was coping with Professor “Johnny” Nolan. The method of imparting knowledge was verbal and “Johnny” spoke very rapidly and transferred chemical formulae to the blackboard with machine gun efficiency. You could either follow his line of thought or write it down. I wrote it down but had great difficulty deciphering my private shorthand afterwards.
Our main human contact was with Freddie Lewis who taught mechanical drawing. Freddie was an old-fashioned conservative Ulsterman from the Laggan district of North East Donegal and he never lost his Laggan accent. He trained generations of young engineers to be capable draughtsmen in Consulting Engineers offices and in the office of County Councils around the country. We must have spent half our time in UCD in Freddie’s drawing office or listening to his lectures on drawing and engineering design. “Now then, come along to a lecture, please.” Freddie’s material was not considered to be intellectual with the result that he spent half of his life hankering after the Ph.D. that was his holy grail. Eventually the great day dawned and Freddie spent several hours in the glorious robes of a Ph.D. Next morning the porter greeted him with his usual address, “Good morning Mr Lewis”. His answer was, “It is now DOCTOR Lewis”. The reply to this corrective mini lecture was “Yes, Mr Lewis”.
In times of Nationalist fervour some student usually stuck a potato on the exhaust pipe of Freddie’s standard Vanguard, presumably as a protest against the tiny Union Jack mascot on the bonnet. His first port of call on these occasions was the porter. After the first time the porter surreptitiously removed the “spud” as he passed the back of the car, tried the started and apparently did the impossible. Freddie’s accolade was “You have the magic touch, young man.”
We had very little contact with Trinity College in my time except to see Kenneth More types driving out the front gate in two seated sports cars usually with a glamorous companion. The only time I experienced Trinity students close up was when UCD Engineers played Trinity Engineers in a football match. When we were warming up I heard a Trinity man ask a colleague “Who are these chaps?” The answer was “The Tech”. Tech or no tech, we won 3-0.
When I saw “Brideshead” I wondered had we been to a University at all. We didn’t have red sports cars or have a champagne soaked lifestyle but our Alma Mater prepared us to be useful members of society. In fact, I am proud to have been a member of the generation that pulled its then depressed country up by its boot straps.