The girl with the green coat, and so on….

Week III

It is not a general practice anymore to have a paying student living in your house. But in earlier years a live-in student was generally seen as a blessing. He or she paid a modest sum for a bed and three meals a day, the parents of the young prodigy were delighted that he or she was safe in a ‘good home’, and it was handy pocket money for the lady of the house who looked after them. It was a common practice all over the town but for a time was concentrated in the areas of Salthill, College Road, Canal Road, Fr Griffin Road and Newcastle.

Under the protection of a motherly landlady, it must have been a relief for some parents to know that their daughter was reasonably safe. They could be further reassured knowing that the guardian of the girl’s morals, the same well intended Mary ‘Ma’ O’Driscoll (to whom I referred last week ), would also be on the lookout for any slip.

But it was often a struggle. Jo Burke, who came to UCG in the 1930s recalls one of her male friends paying her, and other female students in the same digs, a visit. He had christened the house ‘The Vestal Virgins.* His friends would ask: ‘Where are you going tonight?’ ‘I’m going to visit the Vestal Virgins,’ he used to say. ‘We had a lovely landlady,’ Jo remembers, ‘and every night at half past 10 she’d knock at the door, ‘Ladies your supper is ready.’ What she was really saying was: ‘Boys get out, time to go.’

Maureen Langan-Egan, who had been a student herself, kept students on occasion in the 1960s. She was well aware that Ma O’Driscoll, the lady superintendent at the college, was particularly keen that students of opposite sexes did not occupy the same house. ‘I remember I had a student, a lady student, staying with me at one stage, and somebody asked me would I take this lad for a while, he was the son of a friend. Mrs O’Driscoll checked it out. She said: ‘Maureen Egan - you should know better than that!’

‘A second trousers’

Joe McGrath, who studied engineering in the 1940s, recalls there was no shortage of people willing to take in students. ‘When I went to Galway first I was in digs in Canal Road, and then afterwards we were out in Taylor’s Hill. We were paying about 20s a week, all found. And they (landladies ) were glad to get it. A lot of people involved were depending on the students year in, year out.’

Prof Seán Tobin remembers his landlady in St Mary’s Road with affection. ‘A really lovely woman, very maternal woman entirely, and sure she had a hard time with us. It seemed to rain incessantly in those days, and you’d come in dripping wet. She had a kitchen with a great big range, with an enormous copper cylinder over it, perfect for drying our wet overcoats, and if you were fortunate enough to have a second pair of trousers, the wet ones were thrown up over that.’

We might smile today at the luxury of a second pair of trousers. But girls were similarly curtailed in their dress as were the boys in the hungry 1940s. Sometimes girls would turn turn up in their first year in their convent uniforms. Dr Sheila Mulloy recalls that even ‘a good winter coat’ was in short supply for many students. ‘Some of the boys hadn’t overcoats. And the girls would have the same coat for the whole four years.’ Some girls would be known by everyone by their dress code: ‘The girl with the green coat’, and so on.

By the 1970s the number of female students began to rise steadily, but in the previous four decades women had represented approximately one-third of the entire student population. Prof Seán Tobin recalls the surprise among his fellow male students when a girl joined the honours maths class: ‘In my third year a girl turned up in honours maths class. She was a nice girl. I never knew her name, because she was known all the time as ‘Honours Maths’. ‘Do you know who was out with Honours Maths last night?’ This sort of thing.’

Honours Maths

Finding the location for honours maths among the labyrinth of scattered buildings proved elusive for 30 new students in the autumn term of 1951. Even before any student took an examination, such an odyssey had the effect of a Darwinian natural selection that may have been cunningly planned all along.

Tony Bromell recalls that about 30 honours maths students gathered in frustration as they tried to find the whereabouts of Professor Michael Power. Tony says they resembled a flock of sheep wandering around for a week, asking where the professor was. People suggested they tried here or tried there, but no Professor was to be found.

At last someone suggested Professor Power was in a small room at the back of the engineering department. They trooped through the engineers who were delighted to see lost students among them, and greeted them with catcalls and cheers. Professor Power opened his door and looked at the new students in silence.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Honours mathematics,’ someone said.

‘How many are you?’

‘About 30.’

He stood back so the students could see into his room. ‘How many chairs do I have?’

‘Six chairs,’ someone said.

‘No. Five chairs.’ Mac (his dog ) has his own chair.

With that Prof Power closed the door.

Puzzled, the students walked away. Only six (four boys, one girl and a nun ), returned the next day do the course. One person had to stand as Mac slept on his chair. At Christmas time the girl left, and at Easter the nun left. ‘There was only four of us left at the end of the year. We all got honours. Three of us got first class honours, and one a second class honour.’

The stories recounted in Jackie Uí Chionna’s An Oral History of University College Galway, 1930 - 1980 ** include tales of lady superintendents, who supervised the moral well-being of female students, digs and landladies, eccentric professors and their dogs. There are stories of bright scholarship students with only a single change of clothes, and very little else; of American GIs coming to study medicine in the 1950s, who created havoc among the female students with their cool jiving at Seapoint, and their flash smiles at the mothers. Landladies adored them. There were Irish Army cadets, nuns and brothers, and there are stories of generations of ordinary students, from every background, who came to Galway for a good education - and to have some fun in the process.

NOTES: *The Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome were chosen from the families of the elite for their beauty and status. They were responsible for keeping the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta alight. They enjoyed many privileges, including the best seats at the public games, and at Christian martyrdoms. In return they were obliged to remain virgins for 30 years. If, however, they received a lover, the price was not only a public flogging, but burial alive. UCG students must have been intrigued.

** Published by Four Courts Press Ltd, on sale €25.


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