A golden era and the end of an era for Trinity

indepth1It was exotic and unique – like nowhere else on earth. The decade was a golden era. The Trinity College of the 1960s is praised and eulogised using these words in new volume of photographs by Anne Leonard.

Portrait of an Era: Trinity College Dublin in the 1960s provides a remarkable visual insight into undergraduate life during a decade when Trinity was “small enough to be a college yet large enough to be a university”. Where an erratic Junior Dean ruled over all and where a bizarre collection of student types all knew one another.

Anne Leonard has revisited her undergraduate years before. Two charming compilations of the stories and legends of Dr McDowell already provide a look at the eccentric world of this bygone Trinity. Now in the new book, the faces – and cars, buildings, streets and fashions – of that time are beautifully reproduced.For those who had the great fortune to be there, these photographs must provoke a thousand memories and more.

For recent Trinity students, the snaps are eye-openers. Until now, the stories of those languid days had only been imagined, the mind’s eye picturing a Trinity without those modern fabrications so crudely dumped among the austere older buildings.

What does one see? At the College Races, a punter holding a beer and reading TCD. Women in hats, academic or decorative. Morning dress. That forgotten variety of club neckties, worn with the smallest knot one could manage. Cricket and rowing. Cars that are now called “classic”. People smoking. Porters.

This was a time when Trinity still revelled without shame in its many peculiarities. These added colour, identity and a sense of belonging, and one struggles to see how they could have impeded academic or social life. The vocabulary was distinctive – Leonard lists three pages of Trinity words at the end of the volume. The students’ entire life centred on the college.

A sartorial tradition existed that is now almost obliterated. Other curiosities contributed to a unique culture that had collected elements from many decades, perhaps centuries, and that has since been nearly completely effaced.

The more recent student and graduate will also notice what’s not there. No hectoring neo-moralists with their signs and campaigns. No Students’ Union. No hoodies with haughty intialisms in slab serif. No prefabs, no Long Room Hub, no arts “block”, no paths through the cobbles. No painted lines outside the Dining Hall demarcating where one can and can’t sit. No security guards with extra-large Maglites.

What these students of the 1960s only obliquely apprehended was that everything was about to change, that their golden era was also truly the end of an era. Across the water, the “plate glass” universities were going up. These ideological experiments in stone would soon become models for Trinity’s decision makers. The University of York and its friends would oust the ancient universities as institutions to be admired.

Another change would transform the corpus of undergraduates from a weird mix of a couple of thousand students to a huge monolith of regular Irish people like me. Archbishop McQuaid may have been the bête noire of the Irish Times letters page, but it was under him in 1970 that “The Ban” he inherited from his predecessors was dropped.

Very soon many of the formerly excluded were thanking God for Regina Elizabetha hujus Collegii conditrice at Commons. And, sadly, many of the new students didn’t feel that Trinity’s idiosyncrasies could be theirs.

This didn’t have to be the end of the “golden era”. Every Trinity student is heir to College’s culture. But the revolutionary spirit of the 60s, which only really swept Dublin the following decade, combined with the mindset of the new majority, wouldn’t stand for it. The old life of decades of undergraduates – portrayed in its dying days in Portrait of an Era ­– was swept away.

Anne Leonard MBE, Portrait of an Era: Trinity College Dublin in the 1960s, is available in the Library Shop, €49.50.