Peter Cunningham, novelist English and economics, University College Dublin, started 1964
I was coming from Waterford so finding somewhere to live was a priority. I remember my mother coming up with me — I was only 17 — and she helped me find accommodation. It may not have been as difficult to find somewhere then as it is now, but it wasn’t easy.
I was in digs for the first year. It was a very genteel set-up in a house in Ballsbridge and it was a bit creepy. In many respects, it was like an old folks’ home. There were retired people and you’d come down for your breakfast at 8 o’clock and there were all these old people sitting there. It was the same with the evening meal.
To a young fellow, it was a bit limiting. There were all these rules about what you could and couldn’t do. But then I found a flat with some guys I know and it was liberating.
Back then, UCD was still in the heart of Dublin, at Earlsfort Terrace. There were models of what they were planning at Belfield, but I’d finished my degree by the time of that move.
I enjoyed college and I loved the social life around it. A lot of it was centred on nearby pubs on Leeson Street. And we spent a lot of time in Iveagh Gardens, which backed on to the college — it was a great place for meeting people and chatting up girls.
We were so lucky in the ’60s, because there was this great musical revolution, and it was an optimistic time. There was a sense that Ireland was changing for the better.
1970s: ‘Something just clicked for me’
Liz O’Donnell, chairwoman of the Road Safety Authority
Law, Trinity College Dublin, started 1977
I came from Limerick to study at Trinity and while accommodation was pretty easy to come by in Dublin back then, the standard was desperate. For a long time, I was living in a basement flat on the South Circular Road. In winter, the ice would be on the inside as well as the outside of the windows.
I was a bit later starting college than most. I had done a year in London working in a bank, so I was a bit more able and independent than some of my peers in college who were still living at home in Dublin. Their parents would drop them in by car every morning.
My late mother used to always say that Trinity was the making of me. It was the first time I’d felt I was in the right place. I had done the Leaving Cert at a very young age — I was 16, going on 17 — and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. After being in the workplace for a while, I realised I needed college and when I got into Trinity, something just clicked for me.
I had to do work on the side in order to pay my way.
We had something like eight or nine hours of college lectures, so there was time to socialise. You’re supposed to spend the rest of the time in the library but few of us did — having a social life in college was as important then as it is now.
1980s: ‘It was lovely water to be swimming in’
Áine Lawlor, RTÉ broadcaster
Arts, Trinity College Dublin, graduated 1982
There weren’t many fellow [Dublin] northsiders there then, or people from lower-middle-class backgrounds, so I felt a bit like a fish out of water — but it was lovely water to be swimming in.
Trinity was like an island within the city. It was very self-contained, a very different place to the rest of the country — and given where Ireland was at the time, that was nice.
We were coming up to the ’83 referendum [that introduced the Eighth Amendment] but Trinity was a place that was much freer for women and that was something I really appreciated at the time.
There was considerable turmoil in Ireland then. You’d be going home after lectures and there would be buses burning around O’Connell Bridge — it was the time of the hunger strikes. We weren’t immune to what was going on with the rapid changes of government or the rising inflation, but Trinity did feel like a respite from it all.
I threw myself into all the societies — like the Hist and the Phil [debating societies] — and I was very involved with the students’ union. I really missed it after I’d left. To reference Evelyn Waugh, I had been in Arcadia.
1990s: ‘A guest lecturer was stunned by the apathy’
John Meagher, journalist
Journalism, Dublin Institute of Technology, started 1993
I had wanted to be a journalist since my middle-teen years and was overjoyed when I got accepted to study at Rathmines, then the pre-eminent college in which to learn the craft. The prospect of living in Dublin excited me. The rural midlands seemed far too dull for a kid with notions.
But finding accommodation was no easy task. I was set to live with a school friend and we spent several days traipsing around the south-city suburbs hoping to secure a flat. It was a dispiriting experience. Every place we’d circled in the Herald’s small ads seemed to be already taken and, if not, we faced stiff competition — the queues to see manky, 1970s-furnished bedsits tended to snake down the street.
When it seemed as though our luck had finally come in, the 50-something landlord — who lived there in the red-brick terraced house — noted that he liked to join his lodgers in the shower on occasion. We made our excuses and left.
We finally found a place, sharing with a trio of overseas students, and within a kilometre of college. It was in Ranelagh in what’s now an exceptionally desirable street — but, 30-odd years ago, it was flatland. My rent was £20 a week.
I never really took to college life: a small class, it felt more like school than what I imagined university to be like. I wasn’t alone. When a well-known journalist gave a guest lecture, he seemed stunned by the apathy in the room.
But I fell hard for Dublin and spent hours each day wandering its streets. That love still burns bright. I didn’t have much money then, but I tended to favour buying albums on cassette than food. I learned a lot about life; the journalism knowledge would come later.
2000s: ‘Politics wasn’t part of the picture for me’
Holly Cairns, Social Democrats TD
Health studies, Waterford College of Further Education, started 2009
I’m acutely aware of how difficult it is to find student accommodation today, but when I first went to college here — I’d spent a year in college in Liverpool first, and then came back — it seemed easy to find somewhere to live.
Back then, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I mean, we had done a quiz in school to try to help us work out what kinds of careers might suit us, and the answer that I got was baggage handler at the airport. All my friends were getting professions like midwife, barrister, social worker.
But I felt that pressure to study something and I found myself doing a health studies course. It was all about anatomy and physiology, and what really interested me was the area of disability.
I think a lot of students who come straight from school aren’t fully sure how they see their life going. Politics wasn’t part of the picture at all for me back then, and a lot of people I knew in Waterford would probably be surprised by the direction my career has taken.
A few years after my degree, I went to UCC to do a master’s in plant science. I was working in the family vegetable-seed business at the time and it was all so different. I really put my head down then and studied.
2010s: ‘The commute stifled the social side’
Zainab Boladale, RTÉ presenter
Journalism, DCU, started 2014
There’s so much talk about the difficulty in acquiring student accommodation today and while it wasn’t easy to find somewhere eight years ago, by a long shot it wasn’t nearly as difficult as it is now. I know people who are dropping out of college now because they can’t find an affordable place to stay.
There was a lot of stress around money and working out how I was going to be able to afford to live in Dublin. Coming from Clare, commuting wasn’t really possible or desirable. In the end, I found somewhere in Clondalkin — which is about a 90-minute journey from DCU. It did stifle the social aspect of college a little bit. If there were events in the evening, I would stay at college until they happened and get the last bus home.
I went to college at 17 and, to be honest, I felt in over my head for pretty much the whole of first year. I would have had very little experience of a big city and there were times when Dublin felt overwhelming. But by the time I’d started second year, I had settled.
I came into college through the DCU Access system — which is for people who come from lower-income backgrounds — and they gave us a week before college actually started to adjust to the third-level system. And in that time, I met a lot of friends, many of whom would have been the first person from their family to go to college.
2020s: ‘Accommodation is the largest barrier to pursuing third-level education. It’s simple: no key, no degree’
Political science, University College Dublin, started 2021
Coming from rural Limerick, it had always been my dream to study in Dublin, and I was elated when I got the course I wanted — political science at UCD.
But that excitement soon gave way to a huge amount of stress. Where would I live? It looked like I had two choices: either pay sky-high rent in Dublin or commute from Limerick every day.
The time spent scrolling Daft.ie, joining random renting Facebook groups and cold-calling or emailing landlords was woeful. The hopelessness of it left a sick feeling in the stomach. I now realise that accommodation is the largest barrier to pursuing third-level education in Ireland. It’s very simple: no key, no degree.
I was fortunate enough to find a room on campus due to a waiting list that I had joined the year before. Although it’s incredibly expensive, I had worked all summer, saving for such an opportunity, along with support from my parents. Many of my friends weren’t as lucky and could not attend college. That said, it wasn’t all plain sailing — I spent five months without heating, despite constant complaints.
After the limitations of the pandemic, it was amazing to be able to be in a room with fellow students. In the space of a handful of months, I went from only being able to meet my grandparents through a window to sitting in a lecture hall beside hundreds of people I had never met before. The lectures have been great and I love the academic side of things. And there’s a constant stream of new faces.
But the financial aspect still bothers me. Dublin is extortionate. As a student, I could not earn a full-time wage, yet I worked a part-time job for all of my first year. There were weeks where I needed to work upwards of 30 hours in addition to my academic study to afford to pay rent, eat food and fund some sort of a social life in this new bubble.
It’s a cycle most students find themselves in and it’s unsustainable.
There are just over 5,000 rooms on campus at UCD, while over 30,000 people study there. This reflects both the strength of Ireland’s academic pool yet the paradox of accessibility of pursuing third-level education, with rooms on campus at UCD ranging from €180.96 to €314.79 a week.
This ingrained conflict has happened before, especially if we look to the consequences of the 2008 banking crisis, causing mass youth emigration. I believe it is politically induced adversity.
The question of moving, working or studying abroad hangs in the midst of conversations when speaking with friends, but we all hope for change and to be able to stay in Ireland.
Interviews by John Meagher
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/education/going-to-college/how-the-college-experience-has-changed-from-the-1960s-to-today-41975470.html How the college experience has changed — from the 1960s to today