Deputy In-Depth Editor
Reeling in the Years has tainted Irish perspectives on modern life. Montages of U2 hits blaring over Belfast bombings, Italia 90 and Mary McAleese with a full head of hair are far more attractive sights than the Six One News. When pitted against electrifying archival cocktails, real-time seems tedious.
This spawns clichéd denouncements of contemporary activism as apathetic, especially in the case of student protests. Our marches will never match the excitement of Paris in ‘68 spliced to Beatles tracks. In comparison, modern students will always seem lazy. However, contrary to popular opinion, the last five years have seen startling increases in Irish student activism, particularly from Trinity College. Granted our protests are sporadic. Even worse, memorable instances show us as the subjects of the anguish of others. However, as of late, we have ceased to be the antagonists and finally seized the initiative to demand change. Our recent rise now ranks second only to the TCD student of the 80s, arguably the most potent of period for academics putting words into practice.
Rejoice! Stand proud briefly. Though we still fail to match the scale, fixed ideologies and audacity of the 80s, mobilisation and sufficient education can right that wrong if we prove ourselves willing to commit. Why have we seen such apathy among students for so long? Maybe our purported indifference is part of the widespread disillusionment felt towards political change that fails to manifest itself as instantly visible, or in a manner that can significantly affect society. Ireland seldom passes radical legislations. Rather, we create gradual stepping-stones, decelerating before reaching an ideal outcome. Since the 1980s co-operative national development programs have subdued dissenting organisations from making extreme demands through the threat of withdrawing state funding. This strategy chokes radical pressure and produces miniscule alterations and public indifference. Compromise becomes synonymous with change and the act of protest becomes a lost cause. But we can point fingers ad infinitum, or actually take action with greater conviction and less fear. The budget cuts are hell-bent on hitting students hard up the wazoo. The time is right to up the ante of expressing grievances and show that the Trinity student is not as complacent as popular opinion often proclaims. Not all hope is lost. We’re Not Leaving is gaining significant recognition and this can only increase. We can prove the naysayers wrong, and better still, determine our own future.
After news broke of the German’s surrender, fifty students jubilantly climbed atop Regent House, brandishing Allied flags. The Irish tricolour flew noticeably lower than the Union Jack, Stars and Stripes and le tricolour of France.
Trinity’s history of student protest has certainly come round in our favour since 1945. In March 1731, a series of young Trinity academics came under fire from a Dublin Catholic mob due to College’s proud self-labelling as Anglophiles. This symbolic attack on King George II and his loyal subjects was a brutal expression of anger at the threat of executing a new set of Penal Laws. The ‘Papists’ fell upon several students and the Provost, Richard Baldwin, as they exited the campus. Chased from College Green through the streets to St. Patrick’s Church, it culminated with a number of young gentlemen and Baldwin escaping with heavy wounds inflicted. Though the Penal Code restricting Catholics from studying in College was repealed in 1793, this was not the end of the protesting student’s involvement in the Anglo-Irish question. However, it did mark a shift in terms of Trinity’s position.
When Lord Lieutenant Archibald Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton, entered Dublin on 12th March 1858 his presence provoked an assembly of students on College Green, gathered to air their disgust. The protesters encountered Montgomerie’s entourage of honourable lords and high-ranking British military men parading about outside and the sight led to the students flinging oranges in the direction of police, there to keep the event as diplomatic as possible.
One wayward missile struck the bellicose Colonel Thomas Browne. Infuriated by this infraction of his person, he bellowed ‘God Save the Queen’ and accompanied by seven constables, reigned down hard upon the unarmed students. Major riots ensued, peaking on the 13th with 3,000 locals causing chaos on the Green. Browne and the other assailants were ostracised and tried for assault but won the case on 12th April. The most infamous conflict, and one of our less proud moments, was V-E Day, 7th May 1945. After news broke of the German’s surrender, fifty students jubilantly climbed atop Regent House, brandishing Allied flags. The Irish tricolour flew noticeably lower than the Union Jack, Stars and Stripes and le tricolour of France. Given Ireland’s ambiguity in the war, the order made sense, but such facts could not dissuade locals from bellowing furiously at this unnationalistic troupe.
When a group of UCD students learned of this display, they rushed down Grafton Street and arrived to the spectacle of one “tired and emotional” Trinity student seizing the Irish flag to set it aflame. This gesture caused tumultuous uproar. Two UCD students, Charles Haughey and Seamus Sorahan obtained a Union Jack and burned it in retaliation. To exasperate matters further, swastika flags began cropping up on the street. Ardent nationalists became restless and the celebration escalated into a fully-fledged riot. With men rushing headlong into the campus, the good-humoured act of bravado ended in shameful disaster. Catholic and nationalist gangs swarmed the city, throwing bricks through the windows of the American and British embassies. Thankfully, the catastrophe signified an end to protests against Trinity, but was not the final time swastikas appeared on campus. Nor would this be the last of the Haughey-Trinity saga.
Thereafter, Trinity activism took a three-decade sabbatical. The international student protests of 1968 skipped southern Ireland, with the only comparable incidents coming from Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights Movement. Rebirth however came in the form of the notorious Marxists, Revolutionary Struggle.
Led by Michael Youlton, R.S. surfaced in Trinity circa 1975, under the influence of the Italian Red Brigade and proceeded to gain a terroristic reputation. Their in-depth Marxist analysis of the Troubles became a key publication known as The Ripening of Time between 1976 and 1980. At the same time, outside polemics, they also emerged as some of the leading radical activists of Dublin. In 1977, they earned their extreme leftist reputation after disrupting an early meeting for the now defunct Wargamers Association of Trinity College, whose guest speaker for the evening was US military attaché, Colonel Beeres. Later, in 1979, they subverted the anti-nuclear and environmental movements as devices to hit out at the State. 1980 witnessed the group’s constructive participation in setting up the Dublin Resource Centre at 6 Crow Street. In 1981, their members entered the McDonald’s on O’Connell Street to trash the interior during an anti-tax demonstration. Eventually, Revolutionary Struggle came under pressure following their reputed participation in the shooting of the Confederation of British Industry’s director Geoffrey Armstrong thrice in his legs during a lecture at the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. This act of solidarity with the H-Block internees signalled the beginning of their decline which eventually came in 1985, following internal disagreements regarding the armed struggle between Sinn Fein and the IRA. The parting saw members enter both the Provisional IRA and policy-making. Despite this climax, R.S. set the stage for the late 1980’s new-leftist movements.
During 1989, in the Arts Block, the Socialist Society sparked the first major pro-abortion debates. These students courted controversy by disclosing details on seeking the
procedure abroad in the Student Guidebooks. This led to a court case with the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children prosecuting sixteen students, giving the abortion debate national exposure.
The protests during the latter half of the decade saw disciplined and tactical approaches in direct action. Attempts to storm the Dáil and occupying the Department of Education during the threat of rising student fees became commonplace. On College grounds, the potential increase of fees inspired a three-week occupation of the East Chapel in 1989. This would culminate in victory as the scheme was frozen and later abandoned in 1996.
Also during 1989, in the Arts Block, the Socialist Society sparked the first major pro-abortion debates. These students courted controversy by disclosing details on seeking the procedure abroad in the Student Guidebooks. This led to a court case with the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children prosecuting sixteen students, giving the abortion debate national exposure. Off-campus, students opportunistically used any official event involving Haughey as a platform for anti-austerity protests. When the Taoiseach was in UCD opening new accommodation blocks, 150 TCD students disrupted the occasion, resulting in his swift departure. Later, as he attended the opening for a new wing in the National Gallery, 200 students occupied the lobby, causing major delays to his arrival.
In 1989, the Phil invited notorious military historian and Holocaust denier David Irving to deliver a speech. Students blockaded several entrances and Irving was smuggled onto the grounds, where he remained trapped until dawn. Later, a small group of students reacted to this by celebrating Hitler’s birthday on campus, which a group of young socialists quickly stymied. As a result, Irving received an unofficial ban, later reinforced when the Hist tried inviting him again in 2002. The furore resulted in his cancellation and the second wave of our major student activism effectively commenced. This has gained momentum since 2008, when 50 students picketed Batt O’Keefe’s launch of a college PhD programme and later when 40,000 Dublin students marched on Merrion Square against a rise in tuition fees.
Afterwards, in November 2011, 20,000 students flooded Dublin to raise awareness on youth emigration, receiving international exposure and paving the way for our latest set of fierce young activists. This new wave signifies that the Trinity student protest is no longer isolated, as was the case in the past. At last, we have achieved national solidarity. The next step is to utilize this as the invaluable political tool that it is.