Trinity Tales: ‘Front Square was her garden, and the city was her playground’
Annie Gatling, now Colleran, knew Trinity College was for her when she saw Front Gate from the top storey of a Dublin tour bus as a 14-year-old Australian teenager on a trip to see her Irish grandmother.
She returned to study European Studies, as planned where she met her future husband. By the following Autumn she found herself pregnant. Now, 18 years later, that daughter just started studying Medicine in Trinity. This is their story.
I FIRST set eyes on Trinity at the age of 14 on my first ever trip to Dublin. I had spent most of my life until that point in Adelaide, Australia. That summer my brother Thom and I had been dispatched to our grandmother in Fermoy, Co. Cork, to water our Irish roots, reconnect with family and broaden our worldview. Grandma kept us busy with an itinerary of social calls to our extended family interspersed with cultural outings. We pretty much did everything she did – Active Retirement history tours, holy hours of obligation, dances and lots of mass. One such outing was a day trip to Dublin.
And so you shall
We took the bus up from Fermoy to the capital and then took a double-decker bus tour of the city sights. Our tour guide was a salt-of-the-earth Dub, and I was riveted both to what he said and to the amazing, unexpected way that he said it.
As the bus rounded the curve of College Green and Trinity came into view, I strained to see the tantalizing glimpse of student life visible through Front Arch and remarked to Grandma that I would love to study there. Grandma replied without a moment’s pause, ‘And so you shall.’ And that was it, with the grand-matriarchal permission sought and granted, the die was cast.
My plan to study in Trinity remained intact while my family moved to Belgium and then two years later back to Australia. I enrolled in a school in the Brisbane suburb of Ashgrove. I stuck a picture of the Campanile into my school journal and referred to it when my peers queried my post-school plans.
In our peaceful – verging on insular – suburb, I might as well have said I was planning to attend college on the moon. My parents, in their usual spirit of adventure and with their signature non-directive parenting style, did not make any attempt to quell my romantic notion of studying in Trinity. My mother, as a London Irish émigré in Australia, was delighted at the prospect of me returning to my cultural and spiritual home, albeit one of which I knew little.
My summer visits had given me some cultural grounding. I had learned of Blackboard Jungle, the Late Late Show, the RTÉ Guide, the Eurovision. Other than that, I was really stepping out into the unknown and, as it turned out, leaving home forever.
It was akin to a particularly raucous boarding school, but with no hall monitors and a lot more alcohol.
However, untroubled by any second thoughts, I had an eighteenth birthday party which doubled as a send-off and headed off. There would be no popping home for a few days, there would be no Christmas at home for the foreseeable future. It was a fairly drastic move, made unblinkingly with the naïve confidence of a teenager. Travelling from the opposite hemisphere, I was six months out of sync with the Irish school and college year.
My gap half-year was spent working as an au pair, and, when this experience was not to my liking, I moved in with Grandma. There followed more rounds of visiting and more cultural integration, including attending the CBC Mitchelstown debs and Saturday nights out in the Mitchelstown hotspot, The Clon, with my cousins.
Finally, one happy day, the postman brought an offer of a place in Trinity for my first choice course, European Studies. Things continued to go my way when I got a much-coveted place in Trinity Hall. The stage was set for my Trinity Tale to begin. Trinity Hall was all that I had hoped it would be. It was akin to a particularly raucous boarding school, but with no hall monitors and a lot more alcohol.
Living in such close proximity with fellow students meant that within a week we felt that we had always known each other. The ensemble cast included a beleaguered live-in warden who spent his time admonishing bold students, sent to him for punishment by the two pantomime-villain dames who ran the office. There was a team of generally benevolent bumbling security guards and a squad of ‘skips’, older Dublin ladies who cleaned the residence while tutting about the state of the place and questioning how the young people were raised.
Screenings of Friends were a pseudo-religious experience, with packed pews and reverential silence interspersed with loud guffawing as the plotlines dictated
The residents, of which there were fewer than 200 in total, were a mix of mostly Europeans and a younger, giddier contingent of Irish students, away from home for the first time, liberated from the intense and stultifying Leaving Cert cycle and ready to have the craic. It was with this second group that I most identified.
The set-up in Halls at the time consisted of shared and single bedrooms, shared kitchens and two large social spaces – a television room and the common room. I didn’t spend much time in the television room. It was usually reasonably full and yet horribly quiet, with any talking met with aggressive shushing. Screenings of Friends were a pseudo-religious experience, with packed pews and reverential silence interspersed with loud guffawing as the plotlines dictated. The common room, on the other hand, was a rolling relay of a house party.
The common room was the place to gather, share bottles of cheap vodka, nasty wine and even nastier cider. If you were not sure about the wisdom of yet another night out, and were thinking about potentially having an early night in, a stroll through the common room would disabuse you of this notion. You would realize that an epic night was kicking off, that everyone was going out and that if you didn’t, death by FOMO might arise. The term FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) had not yet been coined, and yet the feeling was very much real.
He asked me to type a constitutional law essay for him, as he had left it too late to get it typed by the Students’ Union typing service.
It was in this hedonistic bubble that I met my soulmate, future husband and father to my five children. I often wonder at the fact that the boyfriend I chose then as a nineteen-year-old, heedless Fresher still suits me now as a fairly socially responsible 41-year-old. It is probably because what I liked about him then, I still do now: his ability to strike up and hold a conversation with anybody – regardless of race, creed, age or gender – his boundless energy, his spontaneity, his infectious good humour. He asked me to type a constitutional law essay for him, as he had left it too late to get it typed by the Students’ Union typing service.
How quaint it seems today, the notion of handwriting an essay, submitting it to a typing pool, having no laptop and no IT skills, and yet this was the process du jour and indeed deus ex machina that brought us together. With a pace akin to a cheesy Disney movie, the protagonist (me) and the love interest (JH) moved from cordial, nodding acquaintance to full-blown, besotted devotion.
We socialized in the rolling maul of Halls nights out and in between hung out constantly, disrupted by the requirement to attend classes from time to time. The year sped towards its conclusion, there were impromptu picnics in the lush grass of Halls and St Stephen’s Green, there was the Trinity Ball, there were exams and then there was the summer.
I felt that I was being looked at, whispered about, discussed. As my bump became more noticeable, I became a walking billboard for what happens if you’re not careful
My family had moved to Galway during the course of my first year and, as luck would have it, were living within five minutes of his family. Summer involved working during the day and hanging out every evening. We were as carefree as we would ever be, because before the autumn rolled around, our extended kidulthood was over and I was pregnant.
My second year in Trinity could not have been more different to my first. I went back to college with an imperceptible bump. I had told some close friends about the pregnancy, which proved to be a mistake as this news travelled quickly and extensively through the college grapevine. It was strange and uncomfortable to become a subject of gossip, of scandal and of widespread speculation. I felt that I was being looked at, whispered about, discussed. As my bump became more noticeable, I became a walking billboard for what happens if you’re not careful. It is only when you begin to feel different that you become aware of just how homogenous the student body is.
It was an isolating experience. I fell out with my main group of friends. I discovered that my wider group of friends were largely drinking buddies, a category of friend I clearly had no use for at this point. I took this opportunity to apply myself slightly harder to my studies and stayed in college until the week our baby was due, despite not being able to tuck myself into the stingily proportioned desk seats in the Ed Burke lecture theatre. I had our daughter during the Patrick’s Day break after Hilary Term and returned to college after the two-week break, leaving our tiny girl in the experienced hands of my mother while I got through the six weeks of Trinity Term and the Second Year exams.
Third Year came. I returned to Trinity after the summer with our nine- month-old baby girl in tow. I got a place for her in the Trinity on-campus crèche and secured accommodation nearby thanks to the help of the then Students’ Union Welfare Officer. I had been due to go on Erasmus for Third Year.
It is a compulsory component of the European Studies course, but I received a reprieve from this as I really couldn’t fathom moving abroad with a baby and breaking up our little family of three. From being in a small class of thirty-five European Studies students, I went to being a class of one, though I was joined by a second classmate who hated her time in Paris and was allowed to return home and complete the year in Trinity.
We shared our lectures, as before, with BESS, History, Politics and language students. I figured out life as a student parent – maximizing my time while she was in the crèche, having cosy nights in, rambling days wandering round the city and negotiating alternate nights out with her papa.
My circle had shrunk considerably, and now that I no longer could party as my main hobby I felt I needed to make new friends and have more purpose and direction in my life. I decided to join the Students’ Union, initially as a class rep for my class of two, and then the next year I joined the Executive Committee as Women’s Officer.
I moved in with my baby girl to cosy, ramshackle rooms in Front Square. Front Square was her garden, and the city was her playground
Having benefitted from the support and advice of the Welfare Officer, it seemed like a logical step to run for election for the position during Fourth Year. Final Year was great in many ways. I felt that academically something clicked for me, and I knew how to research, structure and write an essay without much sweat. Our thoughts turned to life after college. I applied for lots of steady, sensible jobs in the ‘milk round’ as a safety net, but my sights were set on the Students’ Union. I had a campaign team made up of pals from Halls and Law students roped in by my boyfriend and campaign manager.
Running for Students’ Union election is a proxy for the real thing. It was a three-week whirlwind of putting up posters, handing out manifestos, making lecture addresses, speaking at hustings, meeting, greeting, culminating in a high-drama count night.I was duly elected, and so, after the small matter of finishing my final year, I moved in with my baby girl to cosy, ramshackle rooms in Front Square. Front Square was her garden, and the city was her playground. She often attended protests and always attended executive meetings, doodling quietly on flip- charts with highlighters as animated discussions and heated debates took place.
I enjoyed my time in House 6, the Students’ Union Headquarters. The role of Welfare Officer suited me. My days were a busy mix of organizing health campaigns, representing students’ views and interests on college committees and also meeting with individual students to provide advice and support. It was a lot of responsibility, but I appreciated the autonomy and the opportunity to be involved in the fabric of the college, part of the decision-making bodies and part of the great tradition of TCDSU leaders and change-makers. Trinity is a village within the city, and I was a very entrenched villager. At one point I realized that I hadn’t stepped off campus for nearly two weeks and really hadn’t missed the outside world!
My year as Welfare Officer was in full swing when the College calendar moved on to SU election time again. I felt that I still had unfinished business with student politics and threw my hat into the ring for SU President. I was delighted to get elected for a second sabbatical term and this time to have a broader remit and arguably even more responsibility.
My sabbatical team included two girls who would become my closest college friends, and we worked hard but also had a lot of fun doing it. We ran the Union by consensus and through a common desire to do our best for our students. I find it hard to recount this period without sounding sentimental or like a LinkedIn profile.
But these two extra Trinity years in my Tale cemented both my love for the college and the education it offered me. Over the years, I have drawn on the memory bank of experiences to galvanize me for new challenges. There is little that I have faced in the intervening years that is more daunting than fielding hostile questions at hustings, addressing several thousand students on a rally or even voicing dissent at College board meetings.
Through a combination of happenstance and years of strong hinting, our firstborn, our college baby, has returned to Trinity, to her playground, to study medicine. And so my Trinity Tale continues vicariously.
The year went all too quickly, and before I knew it I was shopping for suits and readying myself for the corporate world. After living on-campus for two years, the thought of living any distance from town was an anathema to us, so we moved to Temple Bar and walked to work and school through campus on a daily basis. It was, and still is, a touchstone for me, a place to go to step away from life for a few minutes, revisit old memories and escape from new pressures.
Nine years ago, my college sweetheart and I formalized our relation- ship by marrying in the college chapel. And now, through a combination of happenstance and years of strong hinting, our firstborn, our college baby, has returned to Trinity, to her playground, to study medicine. And so my Trinity Tale continues vicariously, and I can content myself with hearing about what has changed and what, thankfully, remains the same.
Trinity Tales is edited by Sorcha Pollak and Katie Dickson and was published by Lilliput Press in September 2021. You can order your copy here – https://www.lilliputpress.ie/product/trinity–tales–trinity-college-dublin-in-the-2000s