Review of Jackie Uí Chionna’s An Oral History of University College Galway, 1930-1980 by Adrian Grant

Review of Jackie Uí Chionna, An Oral History of University College Galway, 1930-1980: A University in Living Memory (Dublin, 2019).

When I was a Leaving Cert student in Donegal in the first years of the 2000s, NUI Galway seemed like the Mecca of Higher Education in Ireland. Few of us knew of the university’s humble origins and struggle for survival in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What we saw was a modern, successful university in a city with a thriving student culture. In the end I studied at the Magee campus of Ulster University, which shares a strikingly similar history to NUIG, and today aspires towards its success and regional impact. 

I read Jackie Uí Chionna’s An Oral History of University College Galway with an eye on my own alma mater, where I recently conducted a comparatively modest oral history project. What struck me so squarely was the common experiences of third level students in two very different parts of Ireland in the mid-twentieth century. While institutional histories of colleges and universities are common, Uí Chionna’s book clearly demonstrates the congruence of oral history to articulating the lived experience of university life for students, staff, and the wider community. It also illuminates many of the individual and collective stories of commitment and dedication that drove UCG and later NUIG to such a prominent position in the Irish higher education landscape. 

It is quite clear that higher education was largely restricted to the middle and upper classes prior to the educational reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. Uí Chionna expertly weaves together the voices of those from a more privileged background with those who attended on scholarships. Courses and subjects were often chosen on the basis of how costly the fees were (with practical subjects bearing a premium). Many of those who earned scholarships based on their obvious abilities were faced with a financial conundrum. While the scholarships were generally adequate, less well-off families had to weigh the benefits of a subvented education with the loss of an additional adult income for the household. Some students, for instance, were unable to attend their graduations due to the prohibitive £5 fee it incurred. 

Survival is a strong theme that runs through the more than 60 interviews that were conducted for the project. The college itself struggled to survive during its first century, suffering from the effects of peripherality in the main. The Irish language provided a lifeline in many ways, allowing UCG to plough its own furrow and continue to provide an additional higher education choice to Irish school leavers. The arrival of large numbers of American and Polish medical students after the Second World War provided a boost, while also creating excitement in the college and the town. The landladies who rented digs did so mainly to supplement meagre incomes. The staff had their fair share of struggle too. A lack of funding and archaic management structures meant lecturers often had to take matters into their own hands to secure decent work space, funding or facilities for research. 

Casualisation and low pay is very properly recognised as a scourge in modern academia, but its roots run deep within the system. The issue is perhaps finally getting the attention it deserves due to the larger numbers of students in higher education and the consequent additional staff required to teach them. However, we can see from some of the interviews here that junior staff were struggling to survive on the meagre wages paid to them. A trade union for academic staff was formed in the 1970s, although its first strike was a damp squib. They demanded greater communication from management, but nothing much came of the action. A large number of fence-sitting staff headed off to Dublin for the day, which did little to give the strike an image of strength and solidarity. Non-academic staff, on the other hand, took a more radical approach. The largely female administrative staff formed a branch of the ITGWU in 1977 and were forced to go on all-out strike for recognition before they could even begin to negotiate on the pay and conditions issues they felt were unfair. Their victory was significant in that it changed the culture of how non-academic staff were treated and viewed by others within the institution. It also emboldened some of the administrative staff who marched into the common room, a traditionally academic space, to order teas. Another hurdle overcome.

The influence of the church pervaded the culture of the college for many years. From the strong personalities of the clerical college presidents to the influence of Bishop Michael Browne on the Governing Body, the will of the church seems to have permeated much of college life. That is, at least, until that influence began to face challenges from students and staff in the 1970s. College life reflected the conservative social values of Irish society to a large extent until the changes of the 1970s. For example, when the number of female students increased in the early twentieth century, a lady superintendent was appointed to kept an eye on their virtue. The role survived into the 1980s. Changing social attitudes can be tracked through the oral histories relating to different decades. The priest and superintendent-chaperoned social events of the 1930s, for instance, were a very different breed from the toga parties of the 1970s. 

Jackie Uí Chionna expertly weaves an immense amount of material into an engaging and highly enjoyable narrative. She adds context and explanation where necessary but doesn’t overanalyse the voices of the participants. The book will be enjoyed by UCG graduates, staff, and those with a wider connection to the university, but it shouldn’t be limited by this fact. It stands as an excellent example of how a detailed study of everyday life in a particular place can enhance our understanding of broader shifts and currents in history.

Adrian Grant

Ulster University

Adrian Grant is a historian and Lecturer in Policy at Ulster University. He is the author of books and articles on twentieth century Irish history and recently carried out a series of oral history interviews with former staff and students of Magee College, Derry.