Trinity v UCD: rivalry between sons of gentry and thrifty shopkeepers will rage on for a while yet
Published 22/09/2016 | 02:30
For a moment, just a brief moment, it appeared that the final barrier between the offspring of the blue stockings of the minor ascendency and the thrifty shopkeepers, between privilege and trade, had finally crumbled after almost five centuries.
In the latest Times Higher Education 'world university rankings' it seemed that the Catholic university founded by Cardinal Newman was about to eclipse the Protestant Elizabethan splendour of its Dublin competitor.
But in a "hold it there" moment, it now appears that Trinity College Dublin "submitted and wrongly signed-off" on incorrect data and has now been excluded from the rankings until the mess is sorted out.
Just when we thought that Ireland's so-called 'free education system' had finally ironed out the differences that once existed between the two best-known Dublin universities, along comes a controversy that points out the contrasting vista seen by those hurrying across the cobbled squares of 'Trinners' and those toiling in the angular modernity of Belfield.
Maybe it is even refreshing to believe that such differences are not entirely dead in our globalised world.
Although they were both venerable institutions and, at the time separated only by the length of Grafton Street and the grassy expanse of St Stephen's Green, 'Victory in Europe Day', May 8, 1945, symbolised the chasm that existed in the hearts and minds of the students of Trinity College Dublin in College Green and University College Dublin in Earlsfort Terrace.
A group of about 50 students from Trinity raised a Union flag on the college facade in celebration of an Allied victory and as a group of Tricolour-waving UCD students, among them Charlie Haughey, tried to storm the walls of the college to tear it down. A Tricolour was set on fire and in the ensuing melee windows in Dublin's fashionable Jammets restaurant were smashed a number of people arrested.
It wasn't so much the events themselves as the symbolism that counted.
TCD, bastion of unionism, alma mater of Edward Carson, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker was a place where education was an indulgence. Behind the iron railings and the ominous fortified entrance, it had become the Victorian bastion of Protestant power.
On the other hand UCD, a Catholic university for a Catholic people, alma mater of James Joyce, John A Costelloe and Ulick O'Connor, was considered education as a means to attaining privilege and power, or holding on to what had been wrested from the empire so identifiable with its rival university.
The writer JP Donleavy, who arrived in Dublin in 1946, his education to be paid by the US government under the GI Bill described the ambience. "We walked in an aura of glamour to which was added the behavioural license of being at Trinity, in itself and at the time, a distinct status of some elegance in Dublin city."
It was that influx of foreigners and the fact that students lived in cold, draughty rooms on the quadrangles, and could order goods on 'tick' from the merchants of Grafton Street, that gave it a British feeling, one reinforced by the ancient libraries, academic rivalries and ceremonial nonsense that many thought more important than education.
Cardinal Newman became the first Rector of UCD, founded in 1854, and in the years that followed it took in the Jesuit and Christian Brothers-educated young men who would take such an active part in 1916 and the War of Independence. It would educate many of the leaders of the new state, its judges and office holders.
In Dublin for much of the 20th century there was an educational and business apartheid. Graduates of Trinity and UCD went to work in different banks, stockbroking firms, solicitor's offices, hospitals and schools, depending on the religious ethos of the owners.
This chasm between the two colleges was reinforced with an official embargo by the Irish hierarchy on Catholics attending Trinity, which lasted from 1871 until 1970, articulated by the stern admonishments of Dublin's long-serving Catholic Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid.
It has to be said that 'the ban' was a little like the church's teaching on contraception even in an era before a la carte Catholicism came into vogue.
Did it end with free education in 1970?
Listen to the voices - David McWilliams, Hugo MacNeill, Paul McGuinness and then contrast them with Feargal Quinn, Brian O'Driscoll, Maeve Binchy. Does it tell you something? Maybe not. Joe Duffy and Sharon Ni Bheolain went to Trinity after all and Adrian Hardiman and Kevin Myers to UCD - so maybe the whole argument about class, religion and status has evaporated in recent years.
But there is no denying that there remains a difference, even if it is only in our own folk memory and the rivalry that always exists between two neighbouring tribes.
Like many another, I never achieved the academic qualifications to attend either institution. The nearest I got were nights in the Belfield Bar with a raffish crowd of engineering students and the dance that followed, or seeing the dawn come up over the Campanile after a night of debauchery at the Trinity Ball.
I do remember one academic lamenting UCD's move from Earlsfort Terrace to Belfield, saying that it had broken an important "axis of learning" at either end of Grafton Street. Some of the neighbouring publicans regretted the "axis of drinking" that was also lost.
It would seem now that ratings and league tables have replaced social status and religion as reasons for choosing a university - which makes the present at least as scary as the past.