DCU, restless as ever, is redefining what a university can be, and showing people the world in a different way.
In the august of 1984 I was offered a place in Communications Studies at DCU or NIHE as it was then known. My parents, worried that the course itself and the upstart university as a whole lacked any sort of credibility, persuaded me to visit the campus in advance on a sort of recce. By way of orientation, I was introduced to a lecturer in psychology who sat on the floor of his office looking up at me perched self-consciously on his desk. The message was clear. We were a long way from Carrickmacross. Things were done differently here. For a start you had to think for yourself. My first thought was that the lecturer was a bit of a tool although in hindsight I’m pretty sure that’s what he wanted me to think.
College is about nothing if not reinvention. It’s obviously a chance to make a clean break, to escape the claustrophobia of home, one’s immutable role in school, and your own inhibitions. Amongst a new and diverse bunch of people, you can be whoever you want to be. It was clear to me, even as a fresher, that universities, especially new-ish ones not hidebound by tradition or reputation, could be whatever they wanted to be too. DCU, without the resources or prestige of the established institutions, was then and is now, by inclination, ingenious and dynamic and radical in terms of what it offered students. It probably reinvented the concept of third-level education in Ireland.
The communications course I signed up for, for instance, was the first of its kind in the country, attracting all sorts of miscreants and creative geniuses to Glasnevin. While dissecting John Ford westerns on a Monday morning might not have been everybody’s idea of useful time management, it kick-started a lively debate that generally lasted the whole week. As the sole flag-bearers for the Arts, we saw it as our job to provide light and colour in what was then a predominantly science-focussed sort of place. It is no coincidence that contemporary Irish comedy has its roots in DCU. Touching on psychology, sociology, linguistics, statistics, economics, advertising and cultural studies, we were encouraged to think critically and to question everything we thought we knew. There was no going back.
In first year, I stood for the presidency of the Student Union as a joke candidate. This was my first foray into comedy, satirizing the highly-strung student politics of the time, complete with a manifesto, posters and silly speeches. Around that time, along with a few fellow-travellers, notably Barry Murphy and Kevin Gildea, I joined the DCU debating society. Using and abusing that forum, we tried out our early comedy routines, experiencing for the first time the exhilaration of making a live audience laugh. Six months after we left the college, in the absence of any career prospects, given the mother of all recessions that prevailed at the time, we set up a small club in the International Bar. We called it the Comedy Cellar and it soon became the spiritual home of Irish comedy as well as the launch-pad for legions of Irish comics, many of whom have gone on to become household names at home and abroad.
Making people laugh, as socially responsible as that may be, is clearly not a huge part of DCU’s Shaping the Future initiative. But reducing chronic disease is. And water research. And conflict resolution. Although I’m not a sentimentalist or a cheerleader in relation to the college, I am gobsmacked by the ambition and scale of the current project. Once again, DCU, restless as ever, is redefining what a university can be, and showing people the world in a different way.