Leo Cullen

Seven years in UCD

October morning, and the doors of academia have opened again to the scholars. You remember how, on a day over forty years now gone, this same morning broke wet and blustery for you. Blotches of damp showed up on the walls of the old university and dark clouds hung in the sky. The Indian summer that everyone had been praising was routed overnight. The day before, as on every previous day, the sun had shone on roads where nothing seemed to change, where the light on the slightly yellowed trees would remain sleepily the same forever. That day, leaves lay wet underfoot and people walked suddenly full of resolve. For you, the student, the changed weather seemed somehow appropriate to the new life upon which you were embarking – the gravity of it, the putting away of frivolity.

Armed with notepad and pen you headed for town and the Freshmen initiations at the Great Hall of the University, The Aula Max of Earlsfort Terrace, where the Freshmen of all the far flung campuses came together. You knew nobody. Did that worry you? No. The atmosphere was scholarly, but cheery, and you felt you belonged. This was not like at secondary school where authority watched from the high rostrum of a hushed refectory and you felt as prescribed in your movements as a piece on a chessboard. So unleashed you had now become, you might spin away in any direction. Thousands of Freshers thronged the enormous hall. Sound boomed and echoed around the vaulted ceilings. Some Freshers called to others with wild shouts and laughter. They knew one another from the secondary schools they had left at summer’s beginning to go and work in pea canning factories of England or as housemaids of second rate hotels or to lay drainage pipes for the Green Van or the Brown Van Murphys. They now had ready cash and tales to tell. Some looked very confident, as though they’d been at university all their lives. These were mostly the Dublin ones. Some wore suits; some wore casual clothes, very casual clothes. Some were scruffy, with loose pullovers, and with hair so hippy it looked like they had just got out of bed. You loosened your tie, opened your shirt at the top button. You spotted a group of girls in the throng. They were clasping hands, in such a state of delight, some of them, that they were in tears! Had you ever seen such excitement leak out of girls! Faculty scarves were draped around their necks, blue, black and gold, the Arts faculty scarf. Some of the fellows wore them too. You promised yourself that blue, black and gold scarf even though you would be studying Agricultural Science. Then, as you’d planned, you headed for a pub. The buildings of the street were so high above your head they seemed to slope towards you; rainwater slapped onto the pavement from broken down pipes; a bus, awaiting the traffic lights to change, revved up, shaking off the shower drops that had fallen upon it. From a Guinness lorry, men dropped cylinders that clanged loudly onto the pavement and then rolled along in a seemingly aimless direction until the men directed them with glove covered hands. You were at the throbbing hub of the world.

The pub was named ‘The Kirwan House’, a pub where students gathered. Inside, it was crowded and dark, with cubicles and low slung bench seats. The dampness of the day outside drifted in with the customers. You thought it an appropriate scene, satisfying your expectations of what a university tavern should look like. You set a bowl of oxtail soup and a crusty bread roll in front of you on the low table.

When you got home that evening to the house your father had bought and moved to in Dublin so that his family would be close to all the opportunities for betterment that he said he saw before them but had not come his way, he asked you for your impressions of the day. His face was filled with pleasure, ready for the reply. But after all the things you had seen and all you had thought on the subject, you could only say: ‘It’s a big place.’
‘Well that’s good, and when you’ve finished and got a job you can in turn help your younger brothers and sisters through university.’
‘Oh I can.’
‘And you’ve considered what direction you’d like to take when you’ve got your degree?
‘Oh I have.’

You hadn’t. You hadn’t the slightest idea. Or maybe, you had. Something outdoors, that would do; something outdoors. You were as aimless in your direction as would have been those Guinness barrels on the pavement without the steadying hands of the gloved lorry-men. So little an idea did you have about anything in fact that it took you seven years to get through. You learned lots in those seven years; while you learned barely enough of and academic nature so that in the spring of 1975 you would at last graduate, you learned lots about everything else.