Trinity v. UCD

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 20th Century Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Volume 23

Since the middle of the nineteenth century there have been two universities in Dublin—Trinity College and the Catholic (later, from 1908, National) University—and so it is not surprising that a rivalry developed between them.

In Dublin on 11 November 1919 the first anniversary of the Armistice was widely commemorated. Trinity students gathered outside the gates of the college at eleven that morning. They removed their hats and stood for two minutes’ silence, as did most of the people who were in the vicinity at the time. The sombre mood was broken when National University students appeared at College Green, marching in four-deep formation, singing The Soldier’s Song. The Trinity men replied with God Save the King. According to the Cork Examiner, ‘cheering and counter cheering was indulged in’. The National University students then marched up Dame Street.
The Trinity students subsequently proceeded to Earlsfort Terrace, site of the National University, where they

‘… were met by a crowd of National students, who had rushed out from lectures, augmented by their confrères who had already arrived outside the building. They charged the Trinity men. Sticks, bricks and missiles of various descriptions were freely thrown, while bundles of barbed wire and blocks of wood were also hurled, and a number of both sides received minor injuries.’

The Trinity students retreated, regrouping outside the Shelbourne Hotel. The report continues: ‘the National Students, now numbering about 300, followed. About midway in Grafton Street the order “charge” was given by one of the Trinity men. A riotous scene ensued, when fists, sticks, stones, and all classes of missiles were used again.’
The Trinity students ran back to the safety of their college, closing the great wooden doors behind them. The fracas was not over, however. Their assailants gathered around the entrance.

‘Several motor bicycles, which were at the entrance, were taken into the street by the National students. These were subsequently replaced at the request of one of the Trinity men, who pointed out that bikes didn’t enter into the game.’

The police then arrived and the crowds dispersed. That evening, National students returned, parading outside Trinity, ‘cheering and jeering’, though the Trinity students did not respond to this rabble-rousing.
Large crowds gathered around Trinity on Armistice Day for the next two years, hoping for a repeat of the 1919 running battle, though none occurred. During those years the city was gripped by the violence of the War of Independence, and Armistice Day was a less celebrated occasion than it had been in 1919, before the IRA campaign against the British had really begun in the capital. The cessation of hostilities between republicans and crown forces meant that 1922 had the potential for more boisterous antics between the two universities. In 1922, Trinity students rushed onto College Green, formed a cordon across the street and stopped traffic. They held a two-minute silence and sang God save the King before returning to the campus. No trouble was reported.

Armistice Day in the 1920s
Through the 1920s, Armistice Day was a popular event. The British Legion reported that 500,000 poppies were sold in the city in 1924. It was also contentious, however, and violence often broke out between republicans, veterans and the police. In 1925 trouble once again occurred between the two groups of students. Following religious services in remembrance of the war dead, thousands gathered at the Earlsfort Terrace corner of St Stephen’s Green. The press reported that smoke bombs were thrown into the crowd. A large group of National University students were gathered inside the railings of their campus, and some ex-servicemen, believing that the students

‘… were guilty of the outrage, picked up stones and threw them. The latter threw them back with equal energy. There was a regular helter skelter towards the University. Matters looked ugly, but the tact of the police prevented any serious battle with stones.’

Later, a crowd of about 200 young men, including a contingent of National University students, arrived at Trinity. They burned a Union Jack outside, hurled a smoke bomb and attempted to rush the gates. Gardaí, assisted by some Trinity students, succeeded in repelling the charge. It later emerged that a man died during the scuffles: a 25-year-old ex-serviceman named Charles Oats. Some eyewitnesses reported that they saw him being struck, though the coroner’s report stated that he died of heart disease.

VE Day, 8 May 1945
The close of the Second World War was another occasion for conflict. The Allies proclaimed 8 May 1945 ‘Victory in Europe Day’, as they had just defeated Nazi Germany. In celebration, Trinity students took to the roof of their university and unfurled several flags, including the Union Jack, the French tricolour and the flag of the USSR. Crowds gathered in College Green below to witness the scene. The students sang the British national anthem and Rule Britannia before disappearing from the parapet, taking their flags with them. Later, the flags reappeared on a flag-pole. This time the Irish tricolour accompanied them. It was flown below all the other flags before an attempt was made to burn it.

Students hoist the Union Jack—and the Red Flag of the USSR—over the front entrance to Trinity College on VE Day, 8 May 1945. (Irish Independent)

Students hoist the Union Jack—and the Red Flag of the USSR—over the front entrance to Trinity College on VE Day, 8 May 1945. (Irish Independent)

‘In the meantime,’ according to the Cork Examiner, ‘a number of police had taken up duty at the entrance to the college, and when a body of students from UCD appeared an attempt was made to rush the building. Some of the National students did succeed in getting inside the main gate but were ejected.’ A Union Jack was then burnt on College Green, an action often attributed to a future taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey.

At a protest on Middle Abbey Street that evening, a man describing himself as ‘a student of the National University’ addressed the crowd. He said that the objection was not to the hoisting of the Union Jack, because ‘all knew the outlook of these people’. Rather, they disapproved of the tricolour being flown at the bottom of the flag-pole. (Curiously, this report makes no mention of the burning of the tricolour, referenced in most other reports.) They then made their way to College Green, led by a student carried on the shoulders of his companions, wrapped in the tricolour. More attempts were made to force entry into the campus, only to be rebuffed by Gardaí. Cheers erupted when two men appeared on the roof in Trinity with a tricolour. Unable to hoist it on the flag-pole, they draped it over the parapet for a few minutes before descending with it. Gardaí baton-charged the crowd to disperse them. One protestor appealed to his comrades to go home, as ‘there is no sense in getting yourselves and the Guards beaten up just to please these brats in Trinity’.

The next day, about 100 UCD students entered Trinity by the Lincoln Place gate, marched through the campus singing Step Together and exited through the main gate. The Irish Independent reported that several squibs were exploded, but other than that the demonstration passed off peacefully. Trinity student representatives wrote to the press to condemn the actions of those who burned the tricolour on the roof of the university. The provost, Ernest Henry Alton, visited the taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, and dissociated the college from the actions of a few individuals. He assured the taoiseach that disciplinary action was being taken against those involved.

In 1947 Trinity began receiving state assistance, and in 1970 the Catholic hierarchy lifted its ban on Catholic students attending the university. These developments rejuvenated the college and helped complete Trinity’s integration into Irish society. As a result, the college rivalry became far less fractious. During the 1970s and 1980s eggs and insults were exchanged at colours rugby matches, though this paled in comparison to running battles and flag-burnings.

Fergus O’Farrell is a postgraduate history student at University College Dublin.


Further reading

R. English & G. Walker (eds), Unionism in modern Ireland (Basingstoke, 1996).
J. Horne (ed.), Our war: Ireland and the Great War (Dublin, 2008).

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