With over 15,000 students taking part in the recent USI protest, Amy Gargan looks back to the late ‘60s and the origins of UCD’s protest tradition.
IN the 1960s, Ireland was a country caught in the crossfire between remaining in its traditional ways or pursuing a new modern, radical image. It was a time when a national desire for change and progression had never been greater. Yet the struggling politics of the 1960s hindered any chance of real progress. The Catholic Church still held a vicelike grip over Irish governmental affairs, maintained order over Irish daily life, and controversially, still retained control over the primary and secondary education systems.
However, across the globe there were tensions brewing among university students. From America and Paris, to UCD on Earlsfort Terrace, students were beginning to speak out. Throughout the 1960s, student protests were starting to gain international coverage, with an anti-capitalist ideology growing amongst campuses, and an anti-war movement beginning to form.
In the United States, American students began their campaign of opposition against Vietnam, while the civil rights and feminist movements began to build up support. In UCD, this call for action was no different, with tensions culminating in a series of protests during 1968 and 1969 which arguably changed the face of the university, becoming known as the ‘gentle revolution’.
“Any of the staff in the subsequent years longed for 68/69 because there was so much energy and excitement,” says journalist Kevin Myers, a UCD student during the late 60s and one of the leading voices during the gentle revolution. “We broke everything we could.”
“We broke everything we could”
In 1968, a group of UCD students formed the Students for Democratic Action, or SDA, a group with radical reform in mind. From their inception, they held mass meetings and protests, in clear opposition to the college authorities. Historian Felix Larkin, who was a first year student at the time, recalls these mass gatherings of students:
“Classes were suspended and all of that for periods during the sit-ins,” he remembers. “The Great Hall… it was packed with students, but you could wander in and out or wander around.” The number of students that took part in these ‘teach-ins’ were low in comparison to the student population of the time, yet large enough to attract the university’s attention.
What seemed to push the UCD students to the near anarchic-like protests that threatened the university in the years of 1968 and 1969 was the move to Belfield. Earlsfort Terrace, which had been the home of UCD since its establishment, was no longer equipped to deal with the 10,000 students that attended a university originally built for 4,000. Between the five main buildings of the campus, the overcrowding, and poor conditions meant that a move was necessary; UCD was only going to get bigger.
“We had great grievances over conditions in the university,” says Myers. “You have no idea how terrible the university was. It was vastly overcrowded, the library didn’t function, no common rooms, nowhere to go.”
Yet it was the belief of the SDA that the move to Belfield was being organised in an undemocratic way. The science courses had already moved to the campus in 1964, however a price rise in the science restaurant had led to a minor sit-in in protest. The SDA feared the new Arts block would not be completed before the Arts courses were to move in 1969. The Church was completed before the library, and students were outraged. The relationship between the staff and students was non-existent in the eyes of the SDA. They saw no system by which university students could have a voice regarding university matters, especially their concerns about the move.
Tensions were mounting throughout the student body. In November 1968, 2,500 students occupied the Great Hall in Earlsfort over the college authority’s inability to allow a teach-in. In early December, 5,000 marched to Dáil Éireann with complaints over the third level grant system. There was obvious discontent amongst the students, whether they were actively involved in the SDA and their movement, or whether they had their own beliefs and opinions on the state of the UCD governing body.
“The library didn’t function, no common rooms, nowhere to go”
The peak of the SDA protests occurred in 1969. Kevin Myers remembers, “We occupied the academic block… and paralysed the university. The university essentially closed down. They didn’t know what to do about it.” The protests in question occurred during February and March. On 25 February, the SDA held a teach-in protest about the move to Belfield and the news that the library still was not fully functional. Academic staff were in attendance, but it was merely to voice their opposition to the protests. After this meeting, the members of the SDA decided there and then to occupy the administrative block for 48 hours and demand university reform.
This was arguably the most explosive move by the SDA with regard to their protests. Teach-ins and meetings continued during the weeks following, with lecture boycotts and more gatherings planned. There was confusion surrounding the protests, however, from the students who were not involved, but rather caught up in the protests. “It was impossible not be affected,” stays Larkin. “Obviously, classes were suspended and all of that for periods during the sit-ins. And the Great Hall, which is now the National Concert Hall, there were sit-ins there. And it was fascinating, you know; that was 24/7.”
This outbreak of student protests in UCD was not a solitary event. As a largely liberal part of the population, third-level students are generally seen as more radical and political driven than the social norm. In 1968, UCD students were very much influenced by their university counterparts in America and Paris. “There was the wider world scene which inspired the gentle revolution,” Larkin says. “Student activism was fashionable.”
In May 1968, students in universities across France began occupation protests, largely against capitalism and the traditionalism that they did not agree with. It had begun in Paris, with tensions between staff and students eventually reaching the point of the closure of the Paris University at Nanterre. Protests and occupations against the treatment of students and the controlling nature of the university authorities followed during the next few weeks.
“The church was completed before the library”
The protesters benefited from sympathy during the strikes, with onlookers believing the government’s harsh treatment of the students was uncalled for. “It was a great student movement around the world. Every major capital in every country and every major city had student uprisings,” says Myers. “We’d seen the stuff in France in 1968, and America had begun its own insurrection in American universities, largely because of Vietnam, but also local issues”.
Similarly, the protests in American universities regarding race issues and the Vietnam War also influenced the students of UCD. Although the war had no major impact on Irish students, and there was a lack of racial divide in Irish universities, there was strong similarity between how the students believed they were being treated as lesser within their own country. There was a similar demand for a more socialist and left-wing branch of politics that was lacking from both countries who were historically strongly conservative.
“Every single student demonstration around the world had both its local variant and its international variant, and international variant was universally anti-capitalist and pro-socialist”, recalls Myers. On top of this, there was a distinct fear for the loss of identity, leading to the demand for an attack of capitalism, whether physical or political. “I must say I was made quite uneasy by the demagoguery and not that it was violent, but with potential for violence. You could feel the pent up frustration. And you know there was a reason for it,” says Larkin.
The ‘gentle revolution’ of the end of the 1960s was a momentous occasion for both the student population of Ireland, but also for the faculty and staff across the major institutes. They were able to highlight once and for all what Irish students wanted out of their university education. The creation of student/staff committees and the formation of the first students’ union in the country allowed greater student input in to university matters.
“I think a lot of the protest was a function of the fact that there was no channel in which anybody could protest or make a point.” Larkin says. “So by just even putting an institutional framework in place, I think you addressed the most fundamental point.”
Although the revolution did not change UCD overnight, it set in place groundwork to allow the University to communicate with its growing population and finally understand the unique needs that it previously didn’t beforehand.
“You could feel the pent up frustration. And you know there was a reason for it”
“I think the bigger impact was created by a change in general perception and general culture and the university administration realised that it couldn’t continue… with this sort of culture and authoritarianism which had prevailed,” Myers concludes.
Now in the 21st century, and almost fifty years down the road, the UCD of today has benefited from what is known as the ‘gentle revolution’. A Students’ Union was established whose voice now exists alongside that of the governing body. Student issues and demands no longer need intensive campaigns and protests to be taken seriously. Yet, there still remains a cycle of protest.
The march to Dáil Éireann in 1968 over the grant scheme strikes a chord with the recent USI protest, which also attracted thousands of Irish students. Demands for lowering of fees mirrors what the students of the ‘60s wanted; a university that was inclusive for everyone, no matter social status or income. However, student demands are being listened to today, and student voices are becoming louder. The calls for political change do not only rest with the wealthy elites. The challenge of rising fees, the marriage referendum and the current Repeal movement have all been supported and driven by students.
There is a growing understanding among society that the student voice is an important one. As the next generation, it must be listened to. The ‘gentle revolution’ of 68/69 was a key part of setting this in motion.