Just as the Campanile itself is one of Trinity’s most recognisable landmarks, the corresponding “Campanile Curse” has become one of Trinity’s most talked about legends. The most basic version of this curse, passed about in warnings from friends and within the tour groups clumped about Front Square, goes something like this: walk under the Campanile during your time as a Trinity student, and you will fail that year’s exams.
“… because I hear so many ominous warnings from other students not to walk under it, the urge to distance myself from the Campanile is ingrained in my subconscious.”
To many students, healthy distrust towards the Campanile is common sense. “The fear of the Campanile is almost enough to convince you to walk across the lawns,” says European Studies student Aoibh Quinn, and, if it came down to it, many students would doubtless say the same. Even when a student holds no genuine belief that the Campanile somehow has the power to determine one’s exam results, the association between the tower and its curse is often enough to ingrain avoidance. “I don’t consider myself a superstitious person so I don’t have any particular fear of the Campanile Curse,” says history student Beatriz Nakpil. “That being said, because I hear so many ominous warnings from other students not to walk under it, the urge to distance myself from the Campanile is ingrained in my subconscious.”
Though the current Campanile was completed in 1853, it is only the latest in a long line of buildings occupying the location. Where the oldest sections of Trinity now stand, was originally the Priory of All Hallows, an influential and prosperous medieval monastery. Founded in 1166 to the east of the walled city, the monastery was dissolved in 1538 and its buildings demolished to make way for Trinity’s establishment in 1592. The stretch of Front Square between the Campanile and the Exam Hall is supposedly the former location of the monastery’s graveyard. The Campanile itself marks the centre of the priory. This leads many to assume that any Campanile Curse is the consequence of disturbing the monks’ final resting place – their vengeance apparently best served by forcing unlucky students to take supplementals.
The concept of having a college curse is hardly unique to Trinity. Many otherwise vastly different universities are joined by a common appreciation for myths and superstitions, especially when these myths and superstitions surround such universal concepts as examinations. It’s perhaps no surprise that other universities with similarly long histories to Trinity have developed their fair share of legends.
According to Michelle Vesser, a third year student at the University of Edinburgh, “There’s a superstition that if you go to the castle in your first year, you never graduate.” Edinburgh university was established just 10 years before Trinity, with Edinburgh Castle dating back to the twelfth century. Exactly why visiting the medieval castle will spell doom for first year students is unclear, but the rules of the curse apply to such a specific circumstance that students can comply without issue. “You’re allowed to go to the castle after first year, it’s just that one year,” Michelle elaborated. “It doesn’t take a lot of effort to avoid, because it’s a big castle that costs £20 to get in, and you can just go in second year. I guess it’s kind of like “easy mode” for the uni superstition thing.”
Dino Mendoza, a student at St. Andrews University, recalls two campus legends similar to Trinity’s Campanile Curse. “The first one is a cobblestone outside St. Salvator’s Chapel that we aren’t supposed to step on,” he said. The second is an annual tradition known as “May Dip”, “where we just all run into the beach at like five in the morning on May 1 each year.” Both stepping on the cursed cobblestone and failing to take part in the May Dip will cause the student in question to fail their exams, a consequence that most of the students Dino knows take fairly seriously. He noted that the “May Dip is the one that really sticks, cause it’s during revision week, so I don’t think anyone wants to risk it.”
Kathleen Wang, a student at Oxford’s Pembroke College, couldn’t recall any bringers of bad luck on campus, though her friends insisted that “Oxford is inherently cursed.” Many individual colleges, however, have their own superstitions. For example, Kathleen says, “We have a good luck bust in our college. If you rub its beard it’s good luck.” Neither Kathleen nor her friends could recall off the top of their heads who the good luck bust depicted – a figure in Pembroke College history, she assumed. Whatever importance he might have had to Pembroke in life, the subject of the bust (or at least his facial hair) has continued to serve an important function in the college, independent of his history.
“…indulging in hedonistic delights in Library Square over the bodies of dead monks on the night of the Trinity Ball” should seem more offensive to any unrestful spirits than “the rather innocent act of strolling where an altar once stood.”
With universities as old as Trinity, it can also become unclear when and how campus myths actually came into being. Despite the lasting idea around campus that the Campanile definitely causes some form of curse, for instance, there seems to be little historical consensus about what the curse actually does. Though many think merely walking underneath the Campanile will be enough to doom one’s self to fail exams, others insist that the Campanile bells need to be ringing as one walks underneath for the curse to take effect. According to Joseph O’Gorman of Authenticity Tours, Trinity’s official tour provider, the curse used to apply only at certain points during the year; walking under the Campanile only incurred a risk “whilst a student was on the way to sit final examinations.”
Speaking to Trinity News, O’Gorman additionally questions any historical link between All Hallows and the origins of the Campanile Curse: “The fact that the path through Library Square is called “Scholars’ Walk” seems to mitigate against any link between the tower and failure.” Besides, even if Trinity students were to get the idea that the monks of All Hallows could somehow curse their exam performance, there seems to be more obvious examples of student behavior that might attract the monks’ ire. For example, he says, “indulging in hedonistic delights in Library Square over the bodies of dead monks on the night of the Trinity Ball” should seem more offensive to any unrestful spirits than “the rather innocent act of strolling where an altar once stood.”
“Though the marriage of Campanile curse and examinations may therefore be newer than most students would assume, fear of finals, and the need to rationalize this through myth and superstition, have been a longstanding Trinity tradition.”
This may be corroborated in part by the fact that previous versions of the curse fail to include any association at all with exams. Elvi, a second year student, relayed a version of the curse she had heard from her brother: “If you walk under it you’ll either fail your exams that year, or you (or your girlfriend) will get pregnant by the end of the year.” Her brother, in turn, described this variation as one apparently popular when their mother attended Trinity in the 1980s. This is not the only variation of the curse that differs to the one we hear today. According to O’Gorman, at various times in history, the bell tolling whilst one walked underneath the Campanile, “indicated that the student was not a virgin, then to indicate that the student was a virgin, then to indicate that the student was homosexual,” with the exact specifications changing as a reflection of whatever was acceptable, or unacceptable, at that time. In other words, the Campanile Curse has been less a steadfast College superstition stretching back to All Hallows, and more a constantly changing reflection of changing social norms.
The archives of this newspaper supports this. Out of all the Trinity News articles from the 1950s and 60s that reference the Campanile, none refer to it as a feature of campus to be avoided. On the contrary, students seemed to use it consistently as a place of recreation. A Trinity Ball round-up in the June 1959 edition of Trinity News refers to a “beer-garden under the Campanile” having been featured at that year’s event. A profile of one student published in the November 1960 edition refers to its subject “writing essays in locker-rooms, poems in W.C.s and French compositions under the Campanile” – all in all a circumstance that seems to make the student more instead of less likely to pass his exams. The May 1970 edition, in a piece looking ahead to the attractions to be found at that year’s Trinity Ball, highlights “the fortune teller who will be under the Campanile, which is a good place to find out your fortune” as an attraction not-to-miss. With Trinity Ball situated in such close proximity to exams, it seems unlikely many students today would welcome the opportunity to have their fortune read beneath it, lest they want to predict supplementals in their near future. But if passing beneath the Campanile was thought to merely run the risk of the bell tolling at the wrong time, and others having the excuse to laugh at your perceived sexual inexperience, avoiding it becomes far less important.
This isn’t to say that Trinity until recently was free of the superstitions surrounding exams that many other universities seem to share. O’Gorman relayed that, historically, having the misfortune to be seated beneath the portrait of Queen Elizabeth in the Examination Hall “was sure to bring failure, as the beady-eyed founder of the College would be able to fathom just how little the ill-starred student actually knew.” As the College population grew, and exam locations shifted elsewhere, to the Sports Centre or the RDS, for a large percentage of students, perhaps the “locus of the idea shifted to another area associated with the examinations: the Campanile and its tolling bell.” Though the marriage of the Campanile Curse and examinations may therefore be newer than most students would assume, fear of finals, and the need to rationalize this through myth and superstition, have been a longstanding Trinity tradition.