Romantic opportunities for students of Trinity College were quite limited in the years before the First World War. The effects of this deficiency may have been greater than one would suspect. Female students had been admitted to the college and there were indeed three hundred on the rolls, but they were corralled in a remote quarter and had to be outside the college gates by 6pm. A young man would have to have been pretty quick on his feet to waylay a female student at the gates and get a productive line of conversation going before her tram came.
Eda Sagarra, in her recent biography of Kevin O’Shiel, tells us that Trinity students had to resort to the music halls to enjoy what she calls “a virtual female reality”. Apparently student digs were decorated with postcard pictures of stars such as Ellen Terry, Gladys Cooper and Naughty Marie Lloyd.
Unlike many students O’Shiel, who was from Omagh, had some useful social contacts in Dublin. These came via his two doctor uncles and his father’s legal contacts in the city. If students lying on their beds in their suburban digs were induced to delirium contemplating Gladys Cooper’s wonderful pre-Raphaelite hair or Marie Lloyd’s frills, what they really wanted was an invitation to one of the exclusive private dances held in large houses in Rathmines and Rathgar.
O’Shiel, through his family connections, was invited to some. A great favourite was the Highfield Road house of JW Hanrahan, Clerk of the Crown and Justice of the Peace for County Fermanagh. He had several daughters, “bright and clever girls” according to O’Shiel. The dress code on these occasions was non-negotiable and involved no small expense. Full tails and white gloves were required and indeed some mothers inspected the young men’s gloves at the front door. One of the purposes of the gloves – perhaps their main purpose ‑ was to prevent any skin to skin contact with the young ladies. In our more relaxed age the pleasures of these dances might seem almost as virtual as those of the music hall. On the other hand a gloved hand could still squeeze a gloved hand, a breakthrough which possibly made the long walk back to digs in Phibsborough or Cabra worth it.
O’Shiel went on to join Sinn Féin and played a leading role in building the new state, which he served until his retirement in 1963. Of course, it is a bit of a stretch to link his productive life with his more rounded experience (talking to girls) in college. Whatever the explanation, he had no truck with the more politically negative activities common among the student body.
One such indeed took place with the tacit approval of the college authorities. As Sagara tells us, relations between Trinity College and the city were strained, a fact which became very evident on St Patrick’s Day. When the Lord Mayor’s carriage would pass the front gate on that day, it was invariably attacked by students who gathered there for that purpose, their youthful energies finding an outlet in attacking elected luminaries of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
In his unpublished memoirs O’Shiel records that this annual unprovoked attack enraged the citizens of the metropolis, who frequently attacked the college in response, charging at the gate and breaking windows. He describes one occasion when an “enraged mob … headed by the famous Jim Larkin, burst through the iron gates, knocking students over wholesale”.
Is it possible that the simple measure of a regular Saturday night dance might have promoted civic harmony and allowed Big Jim to concentrate on organising the working classes of the city?
Kevin O’Shiel, Tyrone Nationalist and Irish State-Builder, Eda Sagarra, Irish Academic Press