Sunday 13 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'When you get bad news, kill the messenger'

The newspaper that exposed two cases of wretched carry-on at TCD is now under threat of closure, writes Gene Kerrigan

The current scandal at Trinity College Dublin has pretty much everything. It's got kinky antics! It's got violence! Humiliation! And vomit!

It's got bullying, "bugging", and bamboo sticks (for inflicting pain on willing victims)!

Yes, it sounds like a typical evening around at Boris Johnson's gaff.

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But, no, it happened in the centre of Dublin city, in recent weeks, at our beloved TCD.

It's one of those 'you-won't-believe-what-happened-next' stories. And it's got a cliffhanger ending.

Let us first pause to genuflect in the general direction of TCD's eminent position in our society.

For a start, no fewer than four of our Cabinet members attended Trinity: Leo Varadkar, Paschal Donohoe, Josepha Madigan and Shane Ross. Plus, the Attorney General, Seamus Woulfe.

That means five of the 16 people who steer the ship of State came from (and at a crucial stage were moulded by the values of) one school. Not to mention one class. And (apart from Josepha) one gender.

Cosy, what?

The ranks of the professions are likewise heavy with graduates of TCD. If your local health centre is under-resourced or even closed down, it may for all we know have been rendered thus as a consequence of a TCD-trained economist advising the Government on austerity policies.

These days, people in Dublin are having their houses knocked down, their gardens stolen, their sports grounds ploughed up. Because the transport people are deciding where to route their nice shiny new Metro. It might well be, I don't know, that one or more of the experts advising them was moulded by TCD.

If you're getting advice on your mental state from a psychiatrist, how are you to know whether that person has a view of humanity inculcated in "Ireland's Premier University" (that's what it boasts on its website, which is a bit of an Arthur Daley thing to say, if you ask me).

In short, TCD's values are transmitted at various levels into the wider society.

Most students are avid to learn, or at least to get a qualification that will kick-start a career. They take pride in acquiring the knowledge necessary to do something useful - and perhaps lucrative. They get this from learned, dedicated people who spent decades adding to their own skills and expertise.

A university is where a society stows the knowledge gained from the past, to be passed on to the future.

I could go on until Christmas with this idealistic stuff, and it's all true - despite the efforts of some to reduce education to being a mere tool of business.

But universities are also places of privilege, where some choose to interpret their opportunities as a reflection of personal superiority.

Class supremacy is alive and well and encouraged in this society - from the Government down.

We all celebrate Christmas in our own way. In December, the Dublin University Boat Club, at TCD, celebrates by "going for Commons". I imagined this to be a sit-down dinner, all scholars together, at a long table in a big room with a high ceiling - yes, a bit like Harry, Hermione and all the gang at Hogwarts.

Last January, The University Times, the TCD newspaper sponsored by the Students' Union, blew away any such delusions.

Over a period of months, its reporters gathered information from students who had been through the boat club's "going for Commons" ritual.

It involves "excessive drinking, commands to strip to their underwear, and whipping with bamboo sticks".

The emphasis is on humiliation. Run through a housing estate in your underwear, consume unidentified substances, drop onto all fours and do push-ups on command. Vomit sometimes abounds.

Pretty unimaginative stuff, to be frank, and some of the emails used to organise this, and obtained by the newspaper, do not brim over with intelligence, wit or literacy.

You might think there was some sadomasochism involved (Is that a bamboo stick, or are you just pleased to see me?), but I doubt these lads could spell it. Sounds more like bullying.

Well done, The University Times, for persuading courageous students to talk about their experiences.

This kind of thing is embarrassing for TCD. To a young person of vulnerable demeanour, eager for acceptance, it could be very damaging.

Fast forward a few weeks, to February 27.

Around 6pm, under the Campanile, the bell tower at the centre of TCD, some people gathered. They call themselves the Knights of the Campanile. I kid you not.

This outfit was founded in 1926, mimicking similar nonsense in Oxford and Cambridge.

Now, in my experience, any bunch of chaps calling themselves "Knights" of this or that are invariably on the gobsh**e side of things.

The Knights are male-only. They recruit only by invitation. You humble yourself, while these people of limited imagination order you about.

Again, eager for acceptance, apparently seeing the fellowship of these odd people as somehow desirable, invitees debase themselves on instructions.

Some day, as senior Knights, they may in turn get to shove others about.

There are around 1,200 of these eejit Knights in TCD.

That evening, The University Times reporters saw some Knights gathering, and followed them to an accommodation building.

From outside, they could hear shouting. They got in by following a student who entered the building. In a corridor, they heard shouting from an apartment. They made notes of what they heard.

They also recorded what they were hearing. Most journalists would do this, for two reasons: 1) Accuracy of quotes; 2) if you end up on a witness stand, being accused by a barrister of making it all up, you've got evidence.

The inductees were taunted and jeered. The notes say they were told to "bend over", "get in the shower" and to whisper insults in each other's ears. "Open your f**king mouth", "Why aren't you on your knees?"

They were told to eat butter. Groaning, gagging and retching sounds were heard. "HIV is going on your toast tomorrow."

This isn't high jinks or having craic. You know what it is, so do I, so do the TCD authorities.

A Knight confiscated the recorder. The University Times was accused of "bugging" a student's accommodation. A Knight allegedly called the editor of the paper, Eleanor O'Mahony, a "stupid b**ch".

The authorities are investigating the "ritual". And the alleged "bugging".

You won't believe what happened next.

A ferocious assault was launched on The University Times. A petition for a vote got the necessary 500 signatures; in a few weeks, the student body will vote on whether to defund the paper.

On the grounds that a student's privacy was breached in his dwelling. Regardless of the fact that the shouting could be heard outside the building, and that the detailed instructions were audible in the corridor.

The NUJ ethics council considered that the paper's work was "beyond reproach and consistent with the highest professional standards of public interest, investigative journalism".

One set of values leads diligent journalists to reveal sordid behaviour that debases both those giving and those taking abuse, behaviour that could have serious long-term consequences for individuals and for the college.

Another set of values seeks to implicate the entire student body in an attempt to kill the newspaper.

And there's your cliffhanger: which set of values will TCD endorse?

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