Trinity College has a proud history of student-led activism, counting among our alumni campaigners such as Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and David Norris. While the yearly marches of the USI have become a familiar perhaps routine sight to present day students, Trinity has seen many contentious issues played out across the pages of radical student publications. The landscape and doggedness of student politics and activism in the early 1980s seems almost alien to that of today; theirs was a time of international condemnation of apartheid, outreach to Dublin’s inner city, the negotiation of sectarian divisions and the fight for the most basic of what we now term LGBT rights.
The spectre of political instability both North and South along with a massively inflated currency and dredges of young people leaving the island made the decade one of the bleakest in recent memory. It is not surprising then that the writings and publications left behind by the students of that era are forceful and unflinching in both their determination and sincerity that a better society was possible. Almost entirely run by students, these specialist magazines were produced with grants from the then TCD Publications Committee, and were sometimes additionally funded by advertising.
Securing ad money must have been difficult at times, though, no more so than for Vortex Magazine, with one issue from 1980 — the same year in which magazine contributor David Norris lost his case for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the Supreme Court — focusing on homosexuality in Ireland. In between adverts placed by the National Gay Federation and the Campus Alliance Against Moral Prejudice (C.A.M.P.) is a lengthy summation of the history of the gay movement from Norris entitled “Homosexuals are Revolting” along with something more social; recommendations for those straight bars which drew a gay crowd. The “overwhelmingly gay” Bartley-Dunne’s received glowing praise along with the now bulldozed Rice’s while Davy Byrne’s seems to have fallen out of favour as it was derided for being the “home of the macho-man and the type of woman who’s never heard of Women’s Liberation”. The playfulness of the magazine is noticeable in comparison to gay publications of just a few years later, as it came out just before the HIV/AIDS crisis hit Ireland.
1981 was a year scarred by the deaths of 48 young people in the Stardust fire. Strumpet Magazine’s winter edition tried to make sense of the tragedy which had occurred that Valentine’s Day morning, and asked that even though “the truth will out…will the guilty be prosecuted?” Though the current verdict of the investigation into the tragedy states that the cause of the blaze may never be known, the magazine dissects the proceedings of the 120 day long tribunal with an incredible amount of detail for a student publication at the time. Painting an extremely unflattering picture of local businessmen, local politicians and the emergency services at the time, the investigative piece ends with a demand that those guilty in the disaster “must be subject to the same justice that a young person in Coolock would be if they broke the law”.
This edition of Strumpet is only one in a volume which covered Dublin life and history in a way that truly integrated Trinity student life with the city around the college. Strumpet challenged the rise of developers and speculators, laid out welfare rights and highlighted how young people were coping with an all too familiar period of recession. The magazine looked at even the most benign of topics through a distinctly leftist lens, with the subheading on one piece about puppeteering observing that after opposing the pulling of strings in high places, “here we take a look at the artistic pulling of strings in low places”. Among its production team Strumpet lists Joe Duffy and Alex White, both of whom spent time as president of the Students Union in Trinity and were later active in the USI – with Duffy later serving as president of the organisation.
Duffy’s name also appears on a magazine partially funded by the Publications Committee alongside the Eastern Health Board entitled “Who’s Right? A Magazine Produced by Young People from the City Centre, Dublin 1”. The publication is a unique project which allowed young people from Gardiner Street Flats, Jude’s Gardens, Liberty House and Mary’s Mansions to put their views and opinions to six figures of authority in their community. The lord mayor, Fergus O’Brien, in his interview encourages the boys to take the initiative to improve their area, telling them that “to have a go at the corpo to build this or develop that is a good thing”. The late Tony Gregory in his capacity as local councillor speaks about how educational and employment policy were out of his hands and foreshadows the deal he would go on to make with Charles Haughey by discussing how politicians can use leverage to get things they feel their constituents have a right to, in this case housing.
The Troubles also found their way into student publications, in the case of a special edition of INSIGHT Magazine as a direct consequence of the shooting dead of 21-year-old Anthony Harker in Armagh, allegedly by the Ulster Defence Regiment.
Harker was described as “a friend of many of [those] in TCD’ through association at marches in support of the H-Block prisoners, and the publication condemns what it perceives to be an avoidance of the issue among student representatives. “That group of Trinity College students who have put forward a motion to the USI national congress that the situation in the 6 counties should not be discussed at this year’s AGM will have to take their share of responsibility for the continuation of this violence,” reads the magazine under the blazing headline “Who are the killers?”
Other shootings by British security forces and loyalist paramilitary groups are detailed including the killing of 15-year-old Danny Barret, with the provocative magazine concluding with a statement that “the cases presented represent only about one third of the innocents killed by the RUC, UDR, British Army”. Hand drawn fadas adorn the pages of Irish language magazine Spike, with one particular cover from 1982 proclaiming support for “Irish political prisoners in English jails”, referring directly to the Guilford Four and Birmingham Six who were imprisoned at that time. The editorial is a call to action for students to take up the issue of prison reform and justifying its focus on prisons: “Léiríonn an iris seo droch-aiste an scéil do na priosúnaigh i Sasana agus mínítear inti an chúis ghearáin ata acu.”
These publications provide a snapshot into the politics of the time and the volatile nature of the country, giving young people a platform to put forth what they considered to be essential steps to solve the country’s problems. The forthright nature of the magazines might surprise today’s students, but the sincerity and determination of the writers makes for engaging and important reading.
Pictured: Joe Duffy addresses students at a protest at the GPO (Student Movement Research Project, Irish Social Change Archive, DCU).