Sunday 21 January 2018

Review: Education: Upstart, Friends, Foes And Founding A University by Ed Walsh

The Collins Press, €27.99

National politics is rough enough but academic politics is in a different class altogether. It used to be said they were vicious because the stakes were so small. But when the endgame is developing a successful university from a crumbling old house on the banks of the Shannon to one of the most attractive campuses in Europe, then it's worth a prolonged war.

And what a succession of battles and skirmishes it has been, with enemies everywhere trying to stifle the growth of what is now the University of Limerick.

Its founding director -- who changed his title to the more grand-sounding president as soon as he could -- was Ed Walsh, well-known scourge of trade unionists, wasters and layabouts and still one of the most controversial figures in Ireland today.

Walsh has many fine qualities but modesty is not one of them as his compelling autobiography confirms. It's a wonderfully written, bitchy, score-settling tale of an upstart who knew he was regarded as "that pain-in-the arse".

He was born in 1939, the son of a successful butcher who had strong Republican sympathies. His parents were certainly untypical of their class and time.

They both played tennis, made sure the young Ed learnt classical music and arranged private elocution lessons for him. Instead of playing rugby at the Christian Brothers College in Cork, his mother persuaded the school to let him play golf instead.

He graduated with a science degree from UCC and left, like so many of his generation, for America where he obtained his doctorate at the age of 24.

After nine years in America the family returned to Ireland -- by this time he had married Stephanie, the daughter of Fine Gael TD Stephen Barrett. His first attempt to get a job in the groves of Irish academe failed when he met the "cultural bigots" in UCG.

He was one of the few people in Ireland with a doctorate in electron physics but could not give a lecture in the subject 'as Gaeilge'.

He then, fortunately for himself and for Limerick, applied for the post of director of the proposed institute of higher education in that city. His first encounter with the educational movers and shakers of the day was not particularly auspicious. The secretary of the Department of Education, Seán Mac Gearailt, put down the Irish Press, which he appeared to have been reading, as he drank a cup of tea near the fire. "He looked me up and down, twice. As he slowly stood to greet me, we both concluded, I believe, that we had little in common."

Nor had he much in common with the gold fainne-wearing minister Pádraig Faulkner -- indicating that he was able and willing to speak the Irish language -- who told him his budget for 1970 was £5,000. Considering Walsh's salary was £4,000 a year, "this did not leave much to get started with".

But start he did and he kept a diary of progress and setbacks which, skilfully edited by Kieran Fagan, makes for fascinating reading.

There are a few heroes, such as Chuck Feeney, the multi-millionaire who transformed the research landscape in Irish higher education; John Hunt who donated his collection of art and antiquities to Limerick; Loretta Glucksman; Paul Quigley of Shannon Development; department officials such as Noel Lindsay, Sean O'Connor and Oliver Cussen; HEA chairman Don Thornhill; the female ministers Gemma Hussey, Niamh Bhreathnach and Mary O'Rourke among others.

But they are vastly outnumbered by the foes. Included are Dick Burke, minister and later EEC commissioner, described as "the Athlone drama festival ham actor"; the cabinet higher education sub-committee trio of Garret FitzGerald, Justin Keating and Conor Cruise O'Brien, who were guilty of "vandalism" on the sector; his own Fianna Fáil-appointed chairman Jack Daly, with whom he engaged in "hand-to-hand hostilities".

And what of the intellectual Jeremiah Newman, who used to phone late at night, clearly in his cups, bemoaning the loneliness of being a bishop? The list goes on and on, but the real villains in the piece were from UCC, which was given a key role in Limerick's early days. They are variously accused of launching a "ruthless and damaging attack"; of "humiliating" Limerick, and of being "determined to show no mercy".

The long war left bitter memories. Some years after hostilities were officially over I attended a debate on university education in UCC. If Walsh expected to be welcomed back to his old alma mater as the prodigal son, he was mistaken.

Although not referred to in the book, the UCC response is worth recording. The UCC representative, whom I won't name but who is no friend of Walsh's, began by quoting from King Lear "how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child".


John Walshe, former Education Editor of the Irish Independent, is now special adviser to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn

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