The University of Galway, or University College Galway as it was then known, has played an important role in my life both as student and as a university teacher. The 1960s were an exciting time to be a student and I took an active part in student life, serving as President of UCG Students’ Union and also as Auditor of the Literary and Debating Society in 1964-65, having served as Auditor of the Arts Society the year before. There was a warm atmosphere between the students of the college, with many of us getting to know each other across the different disciplines through our interactions in the different societies and clubs.
Coming together, we shared what we had learned and developed lasting friendships which have stayed with me in the decades since. One of these was with Professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, who has provided me with valuable advice over the course of the Machnamh 100 series of seminars, which I have recently completed as President of Ireland, examining the seminal events of a century ago.
During my time as a student, I was actively involved in the student publications produced on campus. I first served as editor of Criterion, the arts magazine, in 1964. I remember publishing two short stories – the first was called ‘Refuse’ in 1963, with the second entitled ‘An auction, a bike, a young man and a young woman’.
I then edited Unity, the University’s student newspaper, in 1965-66, alongside others; Richard H. O’Toole as deputy editor, who later became editor when Unity was briefly banned. Together with my fellow contributors, we spent many hours gathering information, honing our writing skills, and causing a little trouble for those that deserved it. I remember conducting an interview with the President of the University during which, college rules didn’t apply, as by then I had made myself assistant editor and handed over to O’Toole.
As I have said in the past, I have spent my whole life learning from people – listening to people, often very broken people, and people with extraordinary stories, not necessarily stories of success. It is the job of the journalist to provide a voice to people who find themselves in difficult circumstances. As the late Mary Raftery said, “the most important thing you can do is to give a voice to people who have been silenced.”
Today we see a growing realm of the unaccountable, of those who seek to control and exploit without any democratic mandate. We see this across media, technology, large corporations, and those who prevent the essential action necessary to protect our planet and all forms of life within it from the devastating effects of climate change.
This is the message which I would give to those working in our student newspapers in our universities today: Stay curious, learn to gather and share information, and challenge the wrongs which you see. And while you are doing it, care for your fellow students, make lasting friendships, and enjoy every bit of your time.