UCD in the 1960’s: The Gentle Revolution
In mid-1968, I became aware of a student revolution at UCD. A militant “communist” group calling themselves the Students for Democratic Action (SDA) began clamouring for the octagonal church at Belfield to be turned into a science lab or a library, because, in their view, the Church had no right to exist within the grounds of a non-denominational University. I asked to be heard at one of the first mass-meetings, and explained to the 500+ students in that hall, that the Belfield campus had in fact been built on lands donated by the Catholic Church, ON CONDITION that the first building to be erected would be a Church, for the use of the students as a place of worship. There was loud applause at this revelation, and the following day, on returning to class, I was surprised to find that the students had boycotted classes for the day, in order to hold elections for a “Steering Committee” for a revolution which was, I then understood, to take place.
To my yet greater surprise, I was elected as the representative of 2000 Science students. Since I was under a vow of obedience, I explained to the students that I would not be able to accept their will and to act as their representative unless my religious superiors approved. I returned to the Seminary and explained the situation to my Superior, who gave his unconditional approval, saying, “Go, and defend the Church, Nigel”, as he blessed me. Then, telephoning the Provincial, Fr. O’Driscoll, he explained the position, and asked for confirmation of his decision. I was then sent to the Provincial’s home, en route to the University. He met me at the doorway and there, in the street, he made me kneel down, blessed me, said, “Go, in the name of God, and defend the Church”, as he gave me two oranges for lunch!
There followed six months of nightly mass meetings at the Great Hall in Earlsfort Terrace. There were 10 of us on the Steering Committee, 5 SDA “Communists”, 4 “Conservatives”, and myself, the lone cleric, who was branded by the newspapers, “the fascist cleric who is trying to save the students from Communism.”
They were trying times, those meetings. Each night, I would arrive on my trusty black bicycle, purchased from the Garda Siochana for the princely price of £1.00, at the end of the annual Police Auction, after all the desirable units had been bought, and held together with miscellaneous wires and strings. Making my way to the rostrum, I’d be greeted by a few who knew me and others who wished me well, but all looking at me strangely, as if to say, “What’s a cleric doing here, anyway?” I’d mount the rostrum to my seat, and organize my papers, such as they were, and wait for the “Chairman” to arrive.
Before you knew it, we’d be off to a galloping start. Issues would be written down on slips of paper, and passed by hand to the front of the room, and on up to the rostrum, where they would be read out over the PA system by the Chairman. As each item in turn was announced, comments would be made and noted by our Secretariat, and on we’d go until the issue was voted on, a decision made, the paper dumped into a large collecting box, and we’d move on to the next issue before the meeting. Occasionally, a discussion would take place between the 10 of us on the rostrum, concerning one thing or the other, and at the end of a few hours, I’d wend my wear way back to Kimmage, where I’d park my bike and head for bed, to join the rest of my sleeping confreres for a few hours of restful balm.
Such was the state of affairs, and such were our activities when, one day, the newspapers blasted the fact that in Paris, a similar movement had been taking place, when a number of students went out into the streets, marching in support of the striking workers of the day. The workers objected, it seems, and angry words were exchanged, when they began telling the students to go back to their classrooms. Fights broke out and shots were fired. I believe that some students were badly injured. Some may have died. However, back in the Emerald Isle, I realized that we could have a problem, because, at that same time, the workers of Dublin were on strike, and the SDA had been calling for supportive action by UCD students. We could have a repetition of the Paris mess.
I called a meeting of the Belfield Science students the next day and said to them, “You know, I think that you are being very unfair. You have elected me to be your representative at the ongoing discussions for a new University Constitution, and I am doing the best that I can. I have attended every meeting so far, and my studies at Belfield are suffering. I am finding it difficult to keep up with the curriculum, and I never see any Belfield students attending any of these meetings at Earlsfort Terrace. You are giving me no support whatever. And yet, I am supposed to represent you.”
“Now, a situation has arisen, which demands that you MUST take notice, and you MUST attend at a meeting, which is due to take place in three days’ time. A motion is going to be proposed, requiring that ALL UCD students put down their books and come out in a demonstration of sympathy with the workers of Dublin. You all know what happened in Paris, when a similar situation developed. Do you want to miss your classes? Do you want to go down town marching with striking workers? I don’t think so. I don’t think you will support the motion, and you want me to represent your views.”
“I want to ask you, therefore, if you do not wish to go marching, that instead, you come to the meeting at Earlsfort Terrace in three days’ time, BUT COME EARLY. Come at 6.30 p.m., and when you arrive at the Great Hall, I’d like you to position yourselves right up against the rostrum, as closely as you can.”
I then called a second meeting – of the “Singing Scientists” – the group of about 200 students, staff, janitors, etc., who I’d organized to raise money for the Biafra Relief effort in Nigeria. I asked them to come even earlier to Earlsfort Terrace, and to position themselves right up against the rostrum, even before the main body of Belfield students had arrived. I told them that I needed their help, and that I believed that the SDA would be pushing to have a motion approved by the students, which would compel them to go out on a march of sympathy with the workers of Dublin, who were at that time staging a strike. I emphasized the urgency of the matter and asked them to agree to come to the Great Hall on that night, in three days’ time, bringing with them their song sheets, which I had copied for them. The only difference here was that I wanted them to arrive even earlier than the main body of Belfield students – to arrive, in fact, at 6.00 p.m. and to crowd around the Steering committee rostrum themselves, in the same way that the SDA had been doing previously.
On the appointed evening, then, here was the situation. I found myself on the top of the rostrum at 5.45 p.m., prepared for the avalanche of students. In they came, promptly at 6.00 p.m., music sheets in hand – the Singing Scientists en masse. We began to sing – and as others came in they joined in too. Another swarm arrived at 6.30 p.m., my own Belfield compatriots. They, seeing their friends already on site, came close and joined in as well. We sang and we laughed and generally were having a grand time when, around 7.00 p.m., another sound was heard, that of the SDR camp and their followers, arriving with large red flags, and singing, “La Revolucion”, or something like that. The clash of songs was enormous. The chaos which resulted was amazing, but in the end we were able to hold our own and stand our ground, close to the rostrum.
The meeting began, with many red flags in sight, raised above the throng. There must have been 5,000 students in the room that evening. And of course, here came the proposals, just as I’d expected:
“Be it resolved that the students of UCD should show their support for the working poor of Dublin by abandoning their classrooms immediately and joining the striking workers in their march for better working conditions”
Whenever the motion came from the floor, no matter from what angle, the Belfield students were able to intercept and destroy it, so that it never arrived at the rostrum.
After a number of attempts, the SDA realized that the game was up, and that there was no longer a place for them in UCD politics – not then anyway. Picking up their flags, they began to file out of the Great Hall, singing less boisterously this time, but singing nevertheless, and they proceeded into the street in front of Earlsfort Terrace, where they held an informal meeting of their supporters.
Not only did the rank and file of the SDA leave the Great Hall. Immediately, in fact, the 5 SDA Steering Committee members (I’ve forgotten their names today, in 2007) got up and marched out as well. They were well and truly defeated.
I realized then that a historic moment had arisen and that I was right in the middle of it. Whatever one could say about the SDA, the fact remained that they had been the driving force behind whatever good had come from the Student revolution. They had been the ones to point out inadequacies, to make positive criticism, to suggest new ideas – and now they were gone. It was a shame. It was a crisis, and we had to be able to find a way to keep the momentum gong – otherwise, all the work of many months, all the deliberations, all the arguments and the debates would have been for naught, and we would have wasted our time.
Stepping down from the rostrum, I realized that the Great Hall was a shambles. No one, except a small few perhaps, knew or understood the significance of what had happened, and I had to find a way to avert the crisis. I found Sean Prendergast, a friend of mine who had closely supported my efforts on the Committee, and I asked him whether he could round up a few of his friends, whose names I knew then but of whom I today have absolutely no recollection. I asked him whether we could call a late night meeting at his apartment, to which he agreed. That said, we arranged to meet at his home in 2 hours’ time, there to consider our options.
I arrived at Sean’s home some time later and went in. The place was already abuzz with anticipation of what was to happen, and so we began to talk. I expressed to everyone my concerns that the void left by the departing SDA leadership and supporters had to be filled at once, or else the entire structure we had built was liable to collapse. We decided to form a “political party”, and furthermore, we even gave it a name, “Catholic Action”.
We called on everyone to put their thinking caps on and to consider what we should do next. Someone suggested that we should write a manifesto – whatever that was, and so we set to it. We argued, we deliberated, we wrote, we argued some more, someone brought coffee, we made notes, we pondered over things, and we wrote some more. The end result, by 5.00 a.m., was a “Manifesto” of the new Party – I wish I still had a copy of that old document today, but maybe someone in Dublin might still have a copy hiding somewhere. We printed off a few thousand copes and by 7.00 a.m. that day we were already prepared to hand out to the student body the results of our late night meeting’s work.
I remember that someone, was it Charlie McGarvey? Put together a piece on the Third World at the back of the Manifesto. I had no idea what the significance of that item was, but nevertheless, there it was.
In our document, we called on the students of UCD to recognize the positive contribution of the SDA to date, and expressed our regrets that we found it impossible to work alongside them any longer. We congratulated everyone for their involvement to date, in presenting motions, and debating them, in modifying them, and in approving them eventually, for inclusion in any future Constitution of the National University of Ireland. Every motion that had eventually been accepted had been placed (“thrown” is probably a better word) into a large box at one side of the rostrum. We called for the formation of a “Collation Committee” with the responsibility to take all these odd bits of paper and to put them together in a decent, readable form, and for copies of the finished work to be made available to the University community.
We called for another Massed Meeting in the Great Hall. Thousands came. Interest and speculation was running high. Many probably came too, to see our efforts flop and fail. But to everyone’s surprise, when the motion was made to establish a Collation Committee, there was a resounding cheer and full acceptance by the student body.
To my horror, I was also elected to serve on the Collation Committee. I protested that my studies were at stake, and that I had been spending too much time with my previous appointment to the Steering Committee, in the first place, and that I needed time to follow my own studies. The students would have none of it, and so I found myself again involved – this time with the Collation Committee.
There were four of us on the Committee. I again have no idea who the other three students were, and I should really enjoy finding them again one day, to be able to reminisce a bit.
We met and we typed out everything that we found in that old box. Every tiny scrap of paper was examined and reproduced carefully, each piece being then re-stored in another box for future study, should anyone be so inclined. I wonder whatever happened to that old box.
Eventually, a document took shape. This was in the days long before the computer had been invented and no one had anything more than a smattering of typing ability. But we worked away at it, and we found what seemed to us, to be a logical sequence of thought, until finally, the Collated Document was completed. The work of the Collation Committee was done.
Another Meeting. Another decision. A new Committee should be formed. This should be called the “Negotiation Committee”, and it would be their job to negotiate, in turn, with the Junior Staff, and then the Senior Staff of UCD, to seek their agreement and compliance with the document, and to request their own input and advice. So said, so done.
I was asked to accept a nomination to the Negotiation Committee, but I absolutely refused at that point. I had done enough. Let others finish the job. I had studies to work on, and my Final Exam was looming…
The Negotiation Committee referred the Collated Document to the Junior Staff, who responded very positively and made a few suggestions of their own. The Document was amended. Then the revised Document was distributed among the Senior Staff of UCD and their advice too, was solicited and obtained.
Dr Garret Fitzgerald
Dr. Garret Fitzgerald
Finally, a member of the Professorial staff, Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, who was a member of D’ail ‘Eireann, the House of Representatives in Ireland, was asked to assist us by presenting the Revised Document in the D’ail, for final ratification and approval. (Subsequently, Mr. Fitzgerald became Taoiseach of Ireland (1977-1987) and in the course of his tenure of office, I had reason to write to him, in 1985, seeking an Irish Passport, when I was attempting to emigrate from Trinidad. I received a most welcoming and generous response from the Taoiseach).
So said, so done. The document was finally approved and as today the Constitution of the National University of Ireland.
I did not remain in Ireland long enough to see the culmination of my effort. By the time that approval was finally given (I don’t know when that was), I had already left Erin’s green shores for the land of Iere, the land of the Humming Bird, Trinidad, my homeland, and I was already ensconced in my duties as a teacher at St. Mary’s College, in Port of Spain, Trinidad.