Memories of my undergraduate years

University of Dublin, Trinity College, 1958 — 1962

I finished secondary school (The King’s Hospital, then in Blackhall Place, Dublin) in June 1958. I had already gained my Trinity entrance by sitting the Matriculation exam in January of that year. The Matriculation exams were an alternative to the Leaving Certificate, and were held in January, May, and October of each year. These exams were abolished when the Leaving Certificate ‘points’ system was introduced—sometime in the 1990s.

So, I started in TCD in October of that year, 1958, along with several others from my secondary school. The student population at that time was about 2500, 70% male and the rest female. (Student numbers are now in the region of 19,000). Trinity at that time was very much a Protestant university, for the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin at the time, John Charles McQuaid, said in one of his pastoral letters: ‘We forbid, under pain of mortal sin, Catholic youths to frequent that College and to expose themselves to non-sectarian influences’. The real growth in student numbers began in the 1970s, when free second-level education and student grants were introduced, but very much responsible was the removal of the Catholic episcopal ban, which happened at the start of that decade.

Although I finished in chemistry, I did physics and maths as well in the two Freshman years, and physics in the Junior Sophister year, but chemistry only in the final (Senior Sophister) year.

In the Junior Freshman year, Professor Wesley Cocker lectured on organic chemistry at 9 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the large theatre in the Chemistry Department. Every topic on the course was demonstrated; the long lecture bench would be laid out beforehand and the Professor would start at one end and do the various demonstrations as appropriate, and at the end of the hour he would have reached the far end. Thank you, Professor Cocker, for those great teaching sessions. Sadly, this approach died out when the Professor retired in 1978, at the age of 70.

However, he ‘came back’ six months later, to continue his research and he could be found in his laboratory most days. He continued to publish the results of his research but had to finally give up at about the age of 95, when he had to move into a nursing home. He died in 2007, just short of his 99th birthday. His colleagues reckoned he must have been the oldest organic chemist in existence!

I can recall an incident in one chemistry lecture (in our second year I think): a hen had been brought into the lecture, bagged up in a sack. At some stage during the lecture, the bird was released, and it strutted around the front of the theatre, clucking appropriately. I think the lecturer tried to ignore it, but the students couldn’t, and I imagine we didn’t learn much in that particular session. I cannot remember who the perpetrator of that prank was, but I do recall that we all gave 6 pence (or maybe it was a shilling) for the purchase of the bird.

We never knew what a famous man Ernest Walton was; he was just ‘Prof. Walton’ to us”

The physics lecturers were Professor Walton, and Drs Gregg, Delaney, and Elliott. We never knew what a famous man Ernest Walton was; he was just ‘Prof. Walton’ to us. At that time there was no modern physics component on the Leaving Certificate course, and we had no knowledge that he, as a student under Ernest Rutherford and along with John Cockcroft had, in 1932, ‘split the atom’. He was a really good lecturer and made everything crystal clear and his sketches on the blackboard were very explanatory. Prof. Walton’s son Philip was in my own year and his daughter Marion was, I think, two years ahead —both doing physics of course! Philip ended up as Professor of Physics in Galway University.

Present-day physics students may sometimes wonder about the large numbers painted on the backs of the seats in the lecture theatre of the old physics building. At the time, all students were allotted a particular seat for the year. Near the start of each lecture, one of the technicians would make a note of which seat numbers were visible—which meant of course that their normal occupants were absent. I don’t know what action, if any, was taken about frequent absentees. I seldom missed any of my lectures.

On display mounted at the front of that theatre was a very large induction coil; we presumed that it was the one that Walton had used to generate the very high voltages needed to split the atom. I don’t know when or why it was removed, but it’s not there now.

My fundamental aim in going to TCD was to get a degree in science so that I could become a science teacher. I had had a wonderful science teacher called Paddy Burrell, when I was in secondary school and it was he who inspired me for my career—which I never regretted. After graduation I had three interviews for teaching jobs, followed by three offers. I took the post in Mountjoy School, Dublin, a boys’ boarding school. I was paid £400 for that first year but it did include very good board and accommodation. I remember the headmaster at the time giving out cheques for 33 pounds, six shillings and eight pence to each of the staff, on the 25th day of every month. I stayed teaching (physics and chemistry) in that school for 36 years, although the school did change to Mount Temple Comprehensive ten years later.

TCD didn’t, and doesn’t, confer BSc degrees. All science degrees come under the heading of BA (Bachelor of Arts). Because of that, all scientists had to take an exam (known as ‘Littlego’) in a couple of Arts subjects—sometime during their Senior Freshman year. There was a large choice of subjects, and we had to take two of them at the time. Most scientists chose logic, as it is essentially a science (i.e. that of reasoning). Another popular choice was geography, which was one I chose. Having got that hurdle out of the way, we could then concentrate on whichever science we would finish in—in my case, chemistry. Littlego was abolished sometime in the ‘sixties.

There were two females in our final-year chemistry class (of about 20 or so), Susan Rawlings and Mary Carson. Mary always got a ‘one’ in the various exams. She ended up with a first-class degree, stayed on to do a PhD (which of course she gained), then became a member of staff for the rest of her academic career. (She lectured my daughter when she was an undergraduate.) I kept in contact with Mary over the years, and when she retired, she became very much involved in the Trinity second-hand book sales. Sadly, Mary passed away a few years ago.

To be registered as a secondary teacher, you had to have a ‘H.Dip’ (Higher Diploma of  Education). This involved another year,part time, in College. Three of us on the staff of Mountjoy School cycled into TCDC for our ‘Dip’ lectures, from 4 to 6 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. When the ‘Dip’ was acquired, we could then be put on the secondary teachers’ payroll.

The only library at the time was the ‘Old Library’. In it, of course, was the Book of Kells”

The only library at the time was the ‘Old Library’. In it, of course, was the Book of Kells. If we wanted to have a look at it, we just went in the main door of the library, up the stairs, and there it was, on display in the Long Room. The Reading Room (dating from 1937) was adjacent to the Library. To get a book, one had to go to the catalogues room, just inside the door of the Reading Room, consult whichever one of the fifty or so catalogues that was relevant, fill up an ‘accessions slip’, leave it at the library desk, and the book became available sometime later. That reading room was well used for it was the only one.

Two of the societies that I joined were the Philosophical Society (in short, the ‘Phil’) — essentially to make use of the comfortable lounge on the ground floor of the GMB, and the Choral Society. The latter gave two or three concerts each year, at the end of each term. I got to know many of the major choral works such as Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, and the Beethoven masses. The conductor during my time was Joe Groocock; he was a joy to work under and always made rehearsals enjoyable and well as being constructive.

Then there was the DUESA (Dublin University Experimental Science Association) and the Werner Chemical Society. All chemistry undergraduates were sort of coerced into joining the latter, for it was said that you had a greater chance of a good degree if you were a member of it (!), but I now find that hard to believe.

I recall the incident when one morning in Trinity term a bicycle had appeared on the pinnacle at the top of the Campanile. Hearsay had it that some members of the Mountaineering Club were responsible. It remained there for some time until the Fire Brigade was called to remove it. On another occasion a bra was found to be hanging from the finial at the top of the Campanile, but I have no memories of how it came there or what happened to it.

I usually picked up a copy of Trinity News, for it was a great source of what was happening (as it still is). There was another free publication, I think it was called University Times?

Stanley Birch was one of my school classmates who also started in TCD in October 1958. (He was the other one who did the Matriculation exam in January of that year and got TCD entrance at the time.) Stanley was always interested in explosives and during our second year, he decided to try (illegally of course) to synthesise picric acid (2,4,6-trinitrophenol), which is an explosive compound. At the time, one could go to the chemical stores and request any chemical you wanted — within reason I imagine. Picric acid is also a bright yellow dye. I remember that he did produce the compound, but the yellow tell-tale signs left on the bench afterwards gave the game away. We did hear that Professor Cocker was looking for the miscreant, but I don’t think Stanley was ever identified.

Stanley finished in physics and remained in College to do a master’s degree. Afterwards he went to the USA to work for NASA. When we met on several occasions afterwards, he would never say exactly what his job involved.

All women had to be off campus by 7.00 p.m. (as far as I remember) and there were reports of the Junior Dean at the time (the late Dr R. B. McDowell, who was quite a ‘character’) patrolling the grounds in the evenings to make sure that there were no females lurking about. 

I am well retired by now, but I am still in and out of College every so often, particularly to use the libraries—to which the alumni have access for the rest of their time. It’s a great asset and I imagine that many retirees make use of it. The Buttery provides the occasional cup of coffee or snack and I still creep into the ‘Phil’ on occasions when the body demands a sit down for a while! I am very satisfied with my life’s work, but without that TCD degree, it couldn’t have happened.