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Sunday 6 March 2005

Fifty years of fun, frolics and heckles

I CAN still remember the pure terror. I was 18 and about to give my maiden speech to the UCD Literary and Historical Society. In one of the dozens of affectionate (Vincent Browne's bilious offering is the exception) and often hilarious (top bouquet to Harry Crawley's priceless account of the early Sixties) essays in a celebration of L&H's last 50 years, Patricia Hourican described its Earlsfort Terrace venue: "The very size of the old physics theatre with its tiered stalls, tightly pressed, created an atmosphere of vaudeville; it was theatre, but more - it was the colosseum. If they couldn't applaud, the people wanted blood!" 

The L&H was in my genes. During my childhood, my father, an ex-auditor - and from 1947 a vice-president - was a frequent guest and would disappear afterwards with the raffish elements to basement bedsits or distant sheebeens. I remember him one Sunday morning arriving home accompanied by his cousin Brian Lenihan, another friend to the L&H, both having been out on the tiles until breakfast time. 

I had been only 14 when my brother Owen became auditor, and with Godfrey Agbim sensationally defeated the best of Ireland and the United Kingdom to win the Observer Mace debating competition. 

On Saturday nights I was sometimes allowed to lurk at the back, marvelling at such performers as Maeve Binchy (I still remember her rendition of The Purple People-Eater) and Ricky Johnson, now His Honour the grave Mr Justice Richard Johnson of the Special Criminal Court, who could get the audience to sing nonsense in three-part harmony. 

By the time I was 16, a school drop-out theoretically cramming for the Matriculation (the alternative entry route to the NUI in those happy pre-points days), I was a regular groupie, and even before I became an undergraduate, I acquired the status of being the girlfriend of the hugely controversial Patrick Cosgrave (later auditor and - with the brilliant and funny Anthony Clare - winner of the Observer Mace). 

IN A conformist age (Catholics banned from attending Trinity, no meat in the canteen on Fridays), the irreverent, effervescent, anti-clerical L&H was viewed by Authority with deep suspicion. 

With Ireland in a dull phase, young reporters were dispatched to us on a Saturday night to find a story, and the Sunday Independent caused us much trouble by reporting in my time for example that we had passed a pro-communist motion (not really) and had insulted Lenihan, then Minister for Justice, by booing him lustily because he kept his hands in his pockets while speaking (he'd laughed). At one stage, we were banned and held an election in a car in Earlsfort Terrace. 

An occasional pursuit was censuring the dodgy machine politicians of the Students' Representative Council (SRC), though the limited effect of our disapproval was explained by Gerry Collins (later Minister for Foreign Affairs, God help us), then an elderly student retaking his exams as he learned his political trade: "Ye have the intellectuals," he reminded an L&H critic, "but we have the masses - and there's more of us." 

I was frantic to be on the committee, and, though a doughty political operator, I couldn't get there without making at least one speech. Having postponed the ordeal until the last minute, I had to address the winds of change in Africa. What I said had been written by Patrick, and during my panicky rehearsals I had kept referring not to "Nkrumah's Ghana" but to "Nkramah's Guma". While I got it right on the night, the sentiments of the speech, which - having then little interest in politics I didn't understand at all - inspired Moore McDowell (now UCD Professor of Economics) to heckle vigorously: not having the remotest idea what I or he were talking about, I tried to react with disdain. 

But I got on to the committee bench, and for a year, wearing a different evening dress every week (a glamorous predecessor, our own Emer O'Kelly, had left us high standards to live up to), had a wonderful vantage point from which to survey the packed, baying audience, with prime hecklers like Colm de Barra, Tony Cahill and Henry Kelly waiting to breach any weak spot in a speaker's defence. 

My favourite heckle is related in my brother's essay, recalling a visit in the late Sixties as a guest-speaker. The US ambassador's question re Vietnam, "How are we to release ourselves from this terrible imbroglio?", won a helpful reply from the audience: "Send Johnson to Dallas." 

It was magic. Pure magic. 

To buy 'The Literary and Historical Society 1955-2005' (ed. Frank Callanan) and/or 'The Centenary History of the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin 1855-1955' (ed. James Meenan; new introduction by Charles Lysaght), both €35, phone (01) 7163100 or email auditor@literaryandhistorical.com. The former is also available in major bookshops.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards