Catholic University News and Times was originally written for a history of the Literary and Historical Society at University College Dublin. The book’s version is substantially different from this one. The L&H is the university’s debating society. Two Irish political parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are referred to in the essay. Fianna Fail is a party vaguely comparable to the Democratic Party in America. Fine Gael has roots in the Irish fascist organization, The Blueshirts, and is vaguely comparable to the Republican Party. Fianna Fail is normally in power in Ireland, and Fine Gael is normally in outraged opposition. The L&H was usually under the control of young Fine Gael supporters when Joe Ambrose was at UCD. (The Literary and Historical Society 1955-2005, edited by Frank Callanan; A&A Farmar, Dublin)
Catholic University News and Times
My generation was not a happy one or one much interested in happiness. Our contemporaries include Michael Jackson and Osama Bin Laden.
It is a sticky hot afternoon in Marrakesh and I am sitting in a very dodgy internet cafe. Outside on the street they're selling DVDs of the hostage beheadings in Iraq.
A deadline from Dublin lingers in the air. Today I must finish the thing for the L&H book that judges have agreed to write for and all the law guys I knew at UCD are involved with. Very unnatural for me to reverse into that late Seventies UCD universe - it was long ago and so very much has happened since then.
I withdraw from the Islamic melee on the streets and place myself in the canteen in UCD on a wet and windy November Friday mid-afternoon back in lost time. The previous Saturday night a boy was stabbed to death by a gang called the Black Catholics at a punk gig in this selfsame canteen. Now the boy is just tabloid history. The food is all steamy and there is a smell of cabbage in the air while a whiff of cordite pervades and paralyses everything we are all doing. I am in the company of the Attorney General. At this moment in time the Attorney General is about twenty years old, dressed in his regulation Law Dept. pinstripe, and I am dressed like an asshole. He is advising me on my meeting later that afternoon with Prof. Kevin B. Nowlan. He is also advising me that we should go eat in the staff section of the canteen because you get bigger portions there and you also get a chance to hang out with important members of staff who will help you with your career. This is why he has ended up as Attorney General while I’ve ended up in an internet café in Marrakesh.
Our spaghetti bolognaise and chicken curry went down well that abysmal afternoon.(The AG took the European option while I displayed a taste for the spicier side of life). I agreed that I would see him later that same evening at the L&H, where I was due to share a platform with David Irving, the fellow travelling historian who'd proven to his own satisfaction that Hitler knew little or nothing about the Holocaust. Frank Callanan, then Auditor of the L&H, evidently had trouble getting anyone of stature to join Mr. Irving on stage. I enjoyed no debating status but at least I could bellow a bit and I was sure to show up. Frank was having a difficult enough year as L&H Auditor, and my next meeting - at the Student's Union offices - involved an attempt to vanquish some of his foes.
I proceeded from The Canteen With Blood On It's Hands to the Student's Union. My writ ran large at the Union so I'd arranged to meet there with a variety of interested parties (feminists, PLO supporters, Trotskyist types, Gays Against Imperialism, chaps who'd yet to discover how to wash under their oxters, etc.) who were determined to shut down and wipe out forever a vaguely rancid Student magazine - Catholic University News and Times - which seemed determined to besmirch the reputations of almost everybody that I knew.
A sort of bimonthly libertarian rag mag festooned with bare breasted wenches and a wide array of bilious attacks on the left, left-liberals, and civil society in general, Catholic University News and Time was the work of well-connected Fine Gael legal guys, the smarter sort of Fianna Fail hacks, and a variety of disguntled rejects from the various senior College societies.
Each issue of the magazine awarded the soubriquet of Asshole of The Month to some grey eminence of College student life. Though publicly deploring this, I secretly thought it was fun - very punk-era - and, equally secretly, I hoped that they would one day bestow the garland on me. My time had now come, my hour to shine in the sun. I was the new Asshole of The Month. They weren't willing to give me the title outright, but I got to share it with Pat Healy - whom the nice old Theosophist tea-lady in the Kilkenny Design Centre restaurant was always confusing me with. Some of my legal buddies, when they'd analysed my Asshole article in the canteen, advised me that I had a solid case for libel, should I wish to pursue it.
I had scant wish to pursue it - I regard the laws of libel as an attack on freedom of speech - but I was politically active. My political comrades were telling me that the merest legal punt would shut down this reprehensible News and Times and get the guys behind it into lots of personal trouble. These were people who wanted to do well in the law or in the media. My own magazine was Trotskyist-leaning and none of the people who went to the printers or paid our bills were easy to trace or even to put a definite name to. The men behind the News and Times - who so proudly appended their real names to it's masthead - often came from very decent homes in Dublin 4 within spitting distance of the Belfield campus. If they came from outside Dublin, they came from outposts of civilization where the Fine Gael flame fluttered vigorously in a stiff breeze. It was felt by my crowd that they would fold the moment their various fathers - stalwarts of Irish bourgeois society – saw solicitor’s letters, became aware of Asshole of the Month awards, read about sand being put in the Vaseline, and glanced at the breasts, bottoms and pubic hair which festooned their kids’ publications.
That year I was in charge of the History Society and, very briefly, the Golden Boy of the History Dept. Using my good offices there I’d arranged to discuss my putative libel with Kevin B, a deservedly popular professor, stalwart of the Irish Georgian Society, in demand socialite, and general good egg. In a previous incarnation he’d been a practicing barrister.
I made my way to Leeson Street, where I had an appointment with Kevin B. in his house. I was ushered into a home Chekovian charm and comfort. After pleasantries, I pulled the fetid magazine out of my satchel. Nowlan has been around the track a few times and, no doubt, he was neither upset nor surprised by the tawdry nature of its contents. I was still country boy enough to be embarrassed on his behalf. It didn’t take him long to confirm that I had a case but he kindly suggested that I should pause for thought. “This is a terrible … offensive … item!” he tut tutted, “but you should bear in mind that this sort of thing is part of the cut and thrust of college life”.
I walked back to the campus, stopping off at my Belmont Avenue flat to sup with a panther. As I marched past RTE I decided that I didn’t want to become a good cause just then. I didn’t much feel like throwing myself into the politico-legal meat grinder. The News and Times lived on, for a while at least.
By the time I reached the Chaplain’s Office for pre-debate drinks, the Fine Gael princesses were arrayed in all their buxom fecundity. David Irving was holding court, being entertained by an unusually nervous L & H Committee. He told me that he couldn’t get published in America because all the paperback houses were controlled by “the Jews”.
Half an hour later, like socialists about to face a fascist firing squad, we made our way down onto the Theatre M platform. The usual rabble, Hogarthian in their ugliness, poverty and state of inebriation, awaited us. We were a motley crew. Longhaired bearded Auditor Callanan looked like the bass player from some progressive rock group - albeit a bassist decked out in a dickey bow and about to accept an Album of The Year award from Rolling Stone. Some looked like they'd never grow old while others looked like they'd never been young.
The L&H was at something of a crossroads in 1977 and its relevance was being strongly challenged. The Seventies, as everybody knows, was a relatively left-wing time and, in keeping with that spirit, the left-dominated U.C.D. Student's Union was something of a force on campus. The L&H was deemed to represent another and opposing world. It was a debating society peopled principally by supporters of the two mainstream parties of government, redundant Civil War leftovers as far as us Lefties were concerned. Its menfolk tended to be shorthaired or besuited in an era of long hair, denim, and black leather. Some of its women tended to be portly humourless matrons of the Failed Nun variety at a time when the left attracted the occasional Blondie-style party girl nymphet.
I don't have a clue what I said during our debate that long ago David Irving evening. Mr. Irving tells me that he recalls the event vividly and that he could provide me with a copy of his speech if I wanted it. I went home alone that evening.
Eventually, when they took a gentle - but technically false - sideswipe at the Arab Society, we managed to shut down that pesky, vexatious, News and Times. We all made our way out into the real world, for better or for worse, as if to the manor born. Some are mathematicians, some are carpenter's wives. One or two were dead within a year or two. The country and the city moved on. A Rogue Era in Irish history was still ahead of us and the Celtic Tiger was inconceivable.
The old saw which decrees that the real education you get at university is not necessarily the one you pick up in libraries or lecture theatres is true. The L&H was part of that sentimental education for me because I got to look at, listen to, and befriend young people who were not of my type or outwardly to my liking. Some of them got to know folks such as me. It is because of my socialising on the fringes of that body - not because of my multiple other college lives - that I know today a substantial chunk of Ireland's Twenty First Century power elite. Like the Irish Attorney General. To know such people - to have known them when they were young - is to be informed about the shape and nature of the society from which one stems and with which one - reluctantly - maintains a discourse.
Across the street from the internet café they’ve sprayed an elaborate comic book graffiti which declares, in a speech bubble, “Osama Hip Hop”. We are surely in the twenty first century now.