Reply to the Provost’s Speech TCD Alumni Dinner: November 15/03 Harbour Castle Westin.
Dr. Hegarty, President Payne, Fellow Alumni, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Provost Hegarty: It has been an honour indeed to listen to your marvellous address this evening, depicting the outstanding accomplishments of the Trinity that you are steering so successfully through this changing era. In the 2002-3 issue of Trinity Today, you referred to your campaign manifesto, a year after your election. You said then: “I have had the opportunity to meet many alumni both here and overseas. Their achievements are impressive. They are our ambassadors abroad in so many ways. The extent to which the Trinity Experience has been a positive influence on their lives impresses me.”
Dr. Hegarty, in 2006 it will be exactly 60 years since some of us here tonight entered the hallowed portals of Front Gate. Tempus does tend to fugit and it was a very different Trinity back then. For many of us who had served in the Armed Forces in WW II, it proved a peaceful experience after weary war years. As you know, thousands left Ireland in the late thirties, and early forties, to join the Allied Forces, and some of the best members of the High Commands were Irish. We flocked back in 1946. Perhaps, because we were 4 - 6 years older than the usual entrance age, the next few years at Trinity have been described as special. At last, we could “live it up a little,” resume normal lives, enjoy decent food, wear civilian clothes and move ahead. We could learn again for our futures in those historic surroundings, dating back to Elizabeth I. Despite our wild ways at times, we all graduated, I think, so something must have sunk in apart from the Guinness and the Irish whisky. Yes, the Trinity Experience you describe, was, in those years, a very positive influence.
Briefly, in deference to more important veterans here tonight, I would like to add just a modest personal note in this Remembrance Day week. It may amuse you. When they sprung me from the Royal Corps of Signals in 1946 on medical grounds, they shipped me back to Ireland on a stretcher, with a nurse supplied by my Irish cousin, Matron of Guys Hospital, London. The Irish Sea was so rough that day, that it was I who pushed a very green-looking nurse on the stretcher off the mail boat at Dun Lagohaire, to peals of laughter from my family. I recovered, applied to enter TCD and was assigned Doctor Bedell Stanford as my tutor. Arriving at that interview, clutching 4-year old boarding-school Leaving, Oxford and Cambridge and Northern Universities Entrance Certificates, I was greeted with a stern Stanford query: “And where is your Latin, Miss Fleming?” “My Latin, Sir?” I mumbled something about a severe Latin mistress, who was adept at hitting knuckles with hard rulers, and that I’d opted for art and drama classes instead. The eminent Classics Prof sighed deeply. “Well, you cannot enter this university without Latin. Even as a war veteran? I ventured. He softened slightly, handed me Virgil books 4 and 6, told me to go away, learn them, and return in September for testing. I poured over translations all summer, and arrived for the tests, more petrified than during all the London air raids. Luckily, I passed somehow or other.
As you will know, back in those “ancient” days, ladies were not allowed to enter college after 6p.m. We were required to sign in at the porter’s lodge, and then at the Library for evening study, and reverse the rule when leaving. As Chairman of DUP, I applied to Provost Alton for permission to allow ladies in for evening rehearsals at #6. He told me to approach the members of The Board individually. They all appeared to be over 80 (about my present age now!) and a bit forbidding, save for Sir Robert Tate who had a twinkle in his eye. Yes, the ladies could rehearse, I was told, but I had to be sure that no lady would sit on any gentleman’s knee. A decade or so later, I heard that Players produced Equus - frontal nudity. They’d come a long way! In the late forties, Players did initiate the Ist International Drama Festival at TCD with performances by Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, London, + Cork, Galway and Belfast.
Sometimes, it was hard to exist on “The Grant” given by the British government, and handed out by Bursar Harry Thrift, an apt name. We would splurge for a couple of days after the funds arrived, and “starve” for the rest of the term. There were, of course, some scurrilous rumours spread around the campus, i.e. cars on the roof of the GMB; a dead horse on a third floor; keyholes cemented on Exam Hall doors; a lady discovered up a tree in Botany Bay after 6p.m; a missing Eternal Flame, all completely fictitious, probably stemming from the fertile imaginations of the Engineers or the Boat Club! Not possible in those historic halls. Edna O’Brien’s words about Ireland come to mind: History is everywhere. It seeps into the soul like rain or hail. It’s like no place in the world … Stones. Stones with a destiny…the earth so old and haunted.”
To me, Dublin was a state of mind, a city of ideas and visions, and millions of words argued in pubs by its residents, all with a bottomless thirst for a pint and peerless conversation. How could it be otherwise I thought, in this womb for words from the minds of such as Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, Wilde, Joyce, Shaw, Synge, Yeats, O’Casey and Beckett? And that’s not even mentioning the many famous women and modern authors, research scholars and noted sportsmen. Jimmy Smyth tells me that Beckett played cricket for Trinity in the 30s. To my knowledge, no one has ever counted the number of the pubs successfully in Dublin, because, those assigned to the task, were seeing double by the count’s conclusion. And what of the modern “Celtic Tiger? Indeed a changed city. Perhaps Dublin, like the Book of Kells, is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, renowned for both innovation and scholarship. I’m delighted that my younger son has chosen to work for his doctorate in Physics in the city of his birth. Many alumni here tonight, have been, and are, “your ambassadors abroad” Dr. Hegarty, and have achieved fame in their chosen fields.
The forties were exciting years there, seeing or knowing “living legends” who attended TCD, or who walked the streets of Dublin, far too numerous to detail here tonight. A couple! Brendan Behan, out of jail, and broke between writing plays, hired to spruce up a pub-front off Grafton Street, would spray us with wet paint and oaths from atop a scaffolding. Paddy Kavanah would talk loudly to himself daily, or argue with anyone who would listen, on the top of the #11 bus. American Film Director, John Ford had just discovered Ireland; England’s famous Harold Nicholson came to speak at my naval-veteran husband, Jack White’s inaugural address as president of the Phil. I could go on and on.
Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, a former Provost, who was himself a brilliant conversationalist, remarked once: “The most popular speaker is the one who sits down before he stands up.”
So, in conclusion then, perhaps we, both ancient and more recent graduates, all realize that, with other wars and terrorist actions waging today, new viruses and ecological problems besetting us, we were highly privileged to spend those idyllic years in Dublin at TCD. Dr. Hegarty, we have watched with interest Trinity’s innovative march on into the 21st century on so many scholarly, experimental and humanitarian fronts, ably guided by you, and your excellent faculty. We thank you sincerely.