The hallowed halls

As the summer surges onward, Grainne Sexton looks back on the highs and lows of a year spent living in Trinity Hall

Before I made the move to Dublin, and prior to even considering a future uproot from the security of life in rural Cork, I had heard of Trinity Hall.

Friends of friends went there, coming home at weekends to recount the antics enjoyed at pre-drinks, the late-night Dominos eaten in a communal kitchen and the luxury of living in one’s own self-contained apartment with a flock of fellow students. Someone described it as an idyll. Others said Halls defined first year as the best nine months of their lives thus far. Many mentioned the tears they had shed when the move-out day finally rolled around. Needless to say, before even picking up a Trinity prospectus, my vision of what life would be like in Halls was thoroughly utopian.

Despite not knowing many heading to college in the capital, I foresaw my future flatmates. We’d sit around the kitchen table after a day of lectures, drinking tea and engaging in conversations, catalysed by an interesting argument in someone’s tutorial.

Perhaps we’d swap clothes and help each other with make-up and go out together once a week. Despite my lack of culinary finesse, I became convinced I’d develop both an aptitude for cooking and a desire to produce homemade dinners on the daily.

Simultaneous with this daydream was the flicker of excitement felt every time I imagined the double-decker buses snaking from Dartry Road into town during JCR club nights. In my mind, Halls was an enigmatic amalgamation of domestic bliss and hyper-social situations. Living independently for the first time would equip me with a multitude of practical skills and, in concurrence was the belief that my circle of friends would expand to encompass a new network of people who’d be willing to spend hours discussing the niche interests that bored those at home.

And, indeed, Halls was great. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it exceeded great – my time living on Dartry Road was exhilarating, transformative, and wonderful. Most young people spend adolescence clamouring to get their voices heard, anxious to make a mark, to become clearly defined and to carve out a place in the world that is uniquely theirs. Halls is an ideal place to do so.

From the moment I was handed a key-card in September, Trinity Hall provided an environment that allowed me to stand apart from the collective elements my identity has previously been built upon. No one knew where I came from. The secondary school I attended was entirely insignificant, as were my Leaving Cert results. Initially such an opportunity for self-reinvention was immensely gratifying. Living with flatmates who were equally excited by medieval literature or early European history allowed me to reveal my nerdy passion for the arts with gusto, unafraid of social rejection.

Away from the constraints of a family routine I could buy whatever my budget desired in the weekly supermarket shop, stay up as late as I wanted and exploit the freedom to remain in bed all day if I duly wished. The tiny details that are interwoven to distinguish each individual – what one eats, how to dress, sleeping habits, course of study and so on – gained a new prominence as I began to navigate an environment in which such minute elements formed the foundation of my character.

However, the gratification quickly wore off and was surprisingly replaced with a sharp sense of isolation. Although fleeting in nature, the loneliness of life away from home proved startling – something which I had stupidly failed to consider would ever flare up. As said, my vision of Halls was entirely idealistic, based on the highlight reel of other people’s anecdotes.

I had assumed that coming from a loud, colourful and close-knit family would be adequate preparation for the initial shock of being shunted into an apartment with five strangers. Conveniently, I also forgot that friction and power struggles are integral to every human relationship. Isolation and upset were just as much a part of my life in Halls as they are every other aspect. For six girls – each of whom had never lived independently for more than a few weeks at a time – the domesticity of Halls was a challenge and a triumph.

There were arguments over the washing up, sighs as rotten food was discovered in the refrigerator, exasperation as the bins spilt over and no one appeared willing to take them out. In a whirling cloud of hormones and homesickness, there were screaming matches and hugs and a lot of passive aggression.

For me, the social tension that existed in Halls brought a deep desire for home and the comfort of unconditional familial support. No matter how I had imagined it in my head, Trinity Hall was not home and, indeed, it never captured the sense of calm that pervades my specific home.

However, it was a fantastic substitute. The arguments, the sniping back and forth, and the exhaustion that accompanies constant social interaction were just background noise. A constellation of brighter moments, loaded with memory and meaning, have succeeded in drowning out all of the above. Constant cups of tea in the kitchen, chatting ‘til the small hours, coming together to defrost the fridge, learning to cry in front of complete strangers, drunken walks to the Luas, the shrill ring of the bell as a neighbour called round, the solidarity of study sessions in the canteen – each ensured that Halls became the place I had longed for it to be. Not exactly home but an environment in which each occupant could forge their own path, removing the repression of secondary school and coming to be valued for the independent life they led in this little haven.

As the summer flows on, Halls has faded into a scattering of hazy recollections. Despite the nostalgia that tinges many of my memories, I remain certain of the distinct lessons that this past year taught me. I learnt the value of empathy, of sharing, and of fearlessly opening up to others. I realised just how often a bathroom should be cleaned and what it really takes to vacuum a carpet. Simultaneously came the understanding that idylls exist only in the imagination. Most significantly perhaps, I returned home from Halls with a far greater, surer, and much more clearly defined sense of self.