Belfield Begins


With the Belfield campus reaching a forty year milestone amid a wave of further expansion of buildings and facilities, Quinton O’Reilly examines the early years of UCD’s familiar home.

CHANGE IS A major factor for us around this time of year. For many students starting university, change will be all adapting from second to third-level education. For others, it could be moving away from home and experiencing life away from their family, or simply breaking away from a routine of lie-ins and late nights to something a little more (or less) disciplined.

While these changes tend to be individual, one aspect of UCD that has been changing since its inception has been the campus itself. One need only look at current projects like the new extension for the Sports Centre and Student Centre, and the redevelopment of the Science building, to see physical embodiments of this.

A fresh-faced view of campus, circa 1970
A fresh-faced view of campus, circa 1970

Such developments have been ongoing since the plans for Belfield were laid by then UCD President, Dr Michael Tierney, in the 1950s. His aim was to unite all the different facilities on one campus, instead of being dotted across Dublin. Medicine students were based in Earlsfort Terrace, now home of the National Concert Hall, while Engineering students were based in Merrion Street in what are today known as Government Buildings.

To achieve his vision, various plots of land around Belfield were purchased throughout the 1950s before work commenced on its first building, the Science block, in 1962. It took a further 44 years for Dr Tierney’s dream to be fully realised, when Medicine students moved from Earlsfort Terrace to the Health Sciences building in 2006.

While the university is over 150 years old, the campus itself was only opened in 1964 upon completion of the Science Building. The move began during a fraught time in the world, with massive social and political change like the Cold War, Martin Luther King’s iconic speech, and the rise of the Beatles. Ireland in the 1960s was no different in experiencing its own changes – so what was it like to experience such change?

One person who has witnessed the move in its entirety is Paddy O’Flynn. Having worked in UCD since 1959, he is potentially the longest-serving staff member in UCD – but when the move was in its opening stages, he was a junior lecturer in Chemical Engineering, then based in Merrion Street.

O’Flynn wistfully recalls the ceremony for the turning of the first sod for the Science building by then-Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, saying he “can remember him out there with a shovel, and he looked like he was going to dig the whole site”, before joking that the ceremony’s main attraction was the free alcohol given to those who attended.

After the opening of the Science Building, the next facilities to follow were Commerce in 1969, and Law and Arts in 1970. However, problems emerged between the university and its students, who opposed moving to Belfield before the completion of the James Joyce library. O’Flynn speculates whether the protests, which closed the university for a week, came from students’ genuine concern or simply opportunism by those who wanted to emulate the activism then so prevalent around the world.

Another person heavily involved with such protests and action was Conall Ó Móráin, a broadcaster and entrepreneur who currently co-presents Today FM’s Sunday Business Show. Back in 1977, Ó Móráin was President of the Students’ Union and faced many issues and campaigns during his term.

One such campaign was trying to improve the facilities in the James Joyce Library, mainly extending the opening hours as well as increasing the quantity of books on offer for students. “Ultimately you’re there to learn, and it was a ludicrous situation where you couldn’t get books and there were long queues come exam time… there were no space in the apartments or student accommodation, so where were you meant to study if you were in digs?”

To counteract any emulation of student activism or dissent on the campus, the design of Belfield’s first buildings, mainly the Newman and Tierney buildings, was done to prevent groups of students causing problems for the university. The Tierney building was designed without ground floor windows or areas for students to congregate, eliminating the threat of a break-in or occupation. Ó Móráin recalls having to organise mass meetings in Theatre L of the Newman building, because “if you stood on a table in the Arts Block, no-one could see you; it’s fantastically designed to make sure you cannot hold mass meetings.”

Of a student population of ten thousand during the 1970s and despite the dispersed student population, Ó Móráin felt that the student body responded with interest to campaigns.
“We’d go down and address them and they actually listened… we took to the streets with – out of ten thousand, I guess we’d get 1,500 to 2,000 people – but people took it far more seriously [back then].”

Ó Móráin and O’Flynn agree that due to the smaller numbers in its earlier days, the university offered a more intimate experience than its present form. Ó Móráin recalls having known around two thousand students in the university personally – a factor, he claims, which got him elected into the Students’ Union. O’Flynn has a somewhat different view, believing that the campus’s overpopulated feel works to its advantage, similar to the university’s pre-Belfield days when “you couldn’t go from point A to B or look at a notice-board without bumping into someone”.

Comparing the current generation’s protests with those of its predecessors, O’Flynn believes 1960s idealism to be a key variable. “Some people just see the decade as a decade of sex and rock and roll, but that was just one aspect of it… they [the students] were concerned about changing the world. It was a strange time but it wasn’t just in UCD or Irish history, it happened all over.”

The campus has undergone significant evolution since its beginnings, and looks set to change even further if the plans for the Gateway project are to be realised. What changes Belfield will experience in the next forty years are really anyone’s guess.

Belfield by Numbers: The Early Years

1933: The purchase by UCD of Belfield House, with its 44-acre site along the Stillorgan Road (now part of the N11), marks the beginning of an enduring relationship between the University and the area. The site is originally earmarked for playing fields and sports facilities
1947: The appointment of Dr Michael Tierney as UCD President signals the beginning of firm plans to relocate the University from its city centre location to a new suburban site
1947-1961: Further land acquisitions by UCD see the original Belfield site greatly expanded. In 1962, the sod is turned on Belfield’s Science Block, with construction commencing in earnest
1964: Science moves in to its new accommodation
1969: UCD’s ‘Gentle Revolution’: student discontent over the proposed move of further faculties from the Earlsfort Terrace campus to Belfield results in protests and sit-ins. Their grievances are eventually resolved, and in September that year, the Newman Building opens its doors to the University’s Commerce students
1970: Both Law and Arts follow suit and make the move south to Belfield
1973: The James Joyce Library opens, completing the first phase of development on the Belfield Campus