We think of the 1970s as being 'modern': men had walked on the moon, Vietnam had been defoliated, Haight-Ashbury had exposed us to the existence of homosexuality and pot. I came to Dublin from school in England at the end of 1973 to enrol in Trinity College as a scion of a branch of a family of horse-riding protestants from King’s County as my Great Uncle Hardress insisted on calling Offaly to the day he died. There was no room in the halls of residence in Dartry and so I was assigned to digs by Trinity’s accommodation office, and arrived with my suitcase fresh off the boat from Liverpool to a tiny three-bed terraced house in “Sandymount” that turned out to be in far less salubrious Irishtown. The genteel widow Mrs B. only took in protestant gentlemen from Trinity College, two at a time.
My first shock was that my assigned bedroom was filled with catholic paraphernalia, including an Infant of Prague on the mantle piece beside a framed prayer to St Francis and a life-sized head-and-shoulders portrait of Pope Pius X at the foot of the bed – I was to be watched while I slept. The arrangement was 7 nights a week B&B with 3 meals on Sunday for £6.50 – cash in advance - which was a good deal even in those days. The only negotiable item was how the egg was to be cooked and I opted for hard-boiled as safest. A friend of mine wasn’t given the choice but faced a wobbly poached egg every day at 8 o’clock in the morning. She choked this down somehow rather than giving offense to her landlady, until a desperate hangover coincided with a letter from her mother and she hooshed the egg into the envelope and rushed from the house to catch the bus to college. The bus arrived immediately, so she disposed of the evidence in the bin attached to the Nassau St bus-stop. Thereafter she contrived to have some sort of receptacle at every breakfast and the Nassau St bin gradually filled with food.
A month after arriving I fell in love with a girl from the Other University whose accommodation was far more crowded with icons than mine – at least I had my own room, while she was billeted in a hostel run by nuns on Stephen’s Green where, for a similar rent, she was sharing a dorm room with 5 other girls. We spent a lot of time together and inevitably she met Mrs B when she came to collect me for walks on the beach, along the canal or out to the end of Ringsend pier; as I met her nuns when I collected her for walks along the canal, up to Mountjoy Square or out to Belfield.
I thought we all got along famously, and when I went home at Christmas, I presented Mrs B with a potted hyacinth because I knew she didn’t do chocolates. So one drizzly Sunday afternoon in the Spring, it seemed natural that the girlfriend and I should hang out in the sitting room of The Digs and do some home-work and read some books: it was free-in, it was warm and it was dry. After a while we heard Mrs B come in from Mass and I suggested that, if my beloved hung on for half an hour, she might get invited to a tea that was (we had compared notes) much better than what she’d get at the hostel. But the appointed time for this meal came and went and we reckoned that we’d probably pushed our luck, so the beloved pushed off out into the rain after we arranged where and when we’d meet that evening (no mobile phones, indeed hardly any phones at all in those days).
An instant after the front door closed, Mrs B came into the sitting room to announce “Your tea’s on the table and I’ll thank you not to bring your lady-friend here on a Sunday”. It was my first inkling – I was very fresh-faced in those days – that Catholics could be strict Calvinists. And within two days I had found another place to live – on Lansdowne Road of all places – for the same rent but with no meals and sharing a room.