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26 September 2015

What students really need to know about starting out at university

'Drugs? I'd rather have had a night at the debating society'

Glory days: for many students university life has been a life-defining experience

There were no drugs, almost no sex and only occasional rock 'n' roll in the early Sixties at University College, Dublin. And we were too poor to afford much alcohol.

In those days, apart from a handful of county scholarships, there was no financial help with fees except for those students who - like me - had a father who was a UCD academic. I say father because women had to resign from public service jobs on marriage.

So, as a fellow-student and I listened sympathetically to Jackie from Belfast telling us about the oppression of Catholics in Northern Ireland, our mouths dropped open with incredulity when we discovered that she had her fees paid and a maintenance grant from the wicked British Government to study in Dublin.

The most prosperous parents dished out generous pocket-money, but many of us worked in the holidays (I was a cack-handed hairdresser's assistant and an inefficient waitress in Dublin, and a moderately competent typist in London and in Baltimore).

My boyfriend, whom I married at 21, was one of the many who worked all summer canning beans in Kent. We were a repressed and cowed generation. Living at home, or in hostels, or overcrowded digs policed with nosey landladies, sex was rarely an option.

And, of course, there was no access to contraceptives.

Most of us who occasionally left the state could summon up the nerve to smuggle the odd banned book, but it would have taken exceptional courage to brave a customs officer with a stash of contraband condoms.

In any case, the girls - and many of the boys - were so terrified of the social consequences of extra-marital pregnancy that virginity was preferable to risk.

In theory, UCD was non-denominational: in practice, it was Catholic. These were the days when the Archbishop of Dublin would excommunicate anyone going to Trinity College without his express permission.

As the popular verse went:

Young men may loot, perjure and shoot

And even have carnal knowledge

But however depraved, their souls will be saved

If they don't go to Trinity College.

Michael Tierney, the president of UCD, deeply disapproved of any contact with Trinity students, so some of us made a point of finding friends there.

They privately sneered at bit at us (UCD was known as "The Tech"), and we privately ridiculed them as Oxford and Cambridge rejects, but the competitive debaters and the historians mixed freely and organised joint events.

Although its facilities were infinitely superior, my intimates and I were never envious of Trinity. We had spent enough time there to think they didn't have half as much fun as we did.

Our history department, in particular, was stuffed with brilliant eccentrics, ideas were discussed freely, the quality of debate in the societies was stunning and the hecklers as merciless as they were hilarious.

I still treasure the happy memories of that overcrowded building in Earlsfort Terrace and the life-long friendships I made there.

I spent a few years in Cambridge afterwards and found it very dull by comparison.

I don't begrudge Oxbridge students drugs, debauchery and anything else they enjoyed, but I'd always have settled for a defiant, raucous, irreverent Saturday night at the UCD Literary and Historical Debating Society."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards