The Overseas Series: Henry Roberts

Henry Roberts tells us his tale of the many highs and lows he experienced while studying at Trinity College, Dublin.

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Photo: Henry Roberts

For a long time, I battled against a lingering thought that if you wanted to study abroad, there must be something wrong with you. This idea isn’t one widely spoken of, and it’s quite possible that its origin can be traced to the self-defeating cynicism of my own head. But it’s something I thought a lot about, and something I had trouble getting my head around.

Don’t get me wrong. I was in no way of the opinion that a desire to travel means there’s something wrong with you, that any kind of wanderlust should be diagnosed so that we all go back to our dwellings, safe and con- tent and in the same place. Rather, given that we’re at university for so short a time, it seems mad that we would voluntarily want to leave this ephemeral setting, the supposed “greatest days of our lives,” and go somewhere new, somewhere we don’t know anyone. More importantly, none of my friends seemed to want to study abroad. They had friends, lovers, engagements, commitments, roots in St Andrews. They were happy here and didn’t want to leave. I wanted to try something diff erent and somewhere new. Why didn’t everyone else?

I chose to go to Dublin. Not only am I an ignorant prisoner of English and no other language, I figured being close to home would somehow be a safer option than halfway across the world. I wanted to be a traveller, but a cautious one. I was in the unusual study abroad position of actually being closer to my Lancashire home in Dublin than I would have been in St Andrews. Trinity College, Dublin was the institution of some of my heroes —Wilde, Beckett , 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Aisling Bea — and I wanted to join with those momentous footsteps.

When I arrived, there was only one meeting I had to go to. I had a whole week with nothing to do except discover a whole city, but I wasn’t feeling excited or adventurous at the time. I was anxious. I was given too much freedom. I had a city to explore and a week to fi ll. Wandering around aimlessly can never feel liberating if you’ve always got that nagging feel- ing that there’s somewhere important you’re meant to be.

Be ready for disappointment (but make the most of it). It was only once I got there in September that I was able to pick my classes (something rightly shocking and a common complaint amongst us Erasmus students). And, worst of all, to comply with the degree demands of both Trinity and St Andrews, I could only pick three modules out of a choice of four or five— rather than new wave cinema and Vietnam, I was learning about Irish nationalism and Voltaire.

The most dispiriting moment came in my first seminar for Ireland and the Great War, in a room full of eager Irish students, most of whom were a year older than me and all of whom were indoctrinated in Irish history since infancy. The tutor did his best to put at ease any first-day nerves:

“Is there anybody here who has never done Irish history before?”

Nervously, and with palpable reticence, I raised my hand.

“Ah. Well, you will be at a disadvantage then.”

If starting a new class, in a new university, in a new city, with the added pressure that for the first time your grades actually count towards your degree wasn’t terrifying enough, having the tutor tell you in the first class that you’re already behind was an introduction I did not need.

Location isn’t everything… For those thinking of studying at TrinityCollege, Dublin, this next bit of advice is directed at you. The university is great in many ways, but don’t expect them to give you any substantial help in finding accommodation. They do not provide any for foreign students, and searching for a flat yourself —particularly when you’re not there in person — can be intimidating and dispiriting.

With the help of my father, I managed to find a flat on the city’s north side, walking distance from campus, though even this wasn’t until the tail end of August. I was thrilled to be able to live in the city (most people commute every day and with bus- es stopping just after midnight, this can be a real problem for nights out).However, my metropolitan bachelor pad certainly wasn’t perfect. For all the convenience that comes with a flat in the heart of the city and in walking distance to all the main landmarks, living in the basement below a tattoo removal service, with no natural light, paper-thin walls and the distinct lingering odour of gravy proved difficult at times. Day was hard to distinguish from night with no windows, and friends frequently asked after me, sometimes in code, making sure I wasn’t trapped there against my will.

And, like with any shared living space, you have to contend with neighbours. Thankfully, the couple with the crying baby lived in the basement next to ours, but my first flatmate was a charming gentleman who had a fondness for Doritos and bringing back male prostitutes in the early hours of the morning. My next flatmates after he moved out, a married Christian couple, made for a more stable home environment.

One night, at around 2 am, I left my room to get a glass of water only to realise that as soon as I opened my bedroom door, my feet were unexpectedly but unmistakably damp. That’s strange, I thought in the darkness, I hope this situation doesn’t escalate any further. I switched on the light and saw that the whole flat was flooded with murky, brown-water, with an accompanying smell, coming from an overflowing drain outside. I awoke my flatmate and rang the landlord, frantically trying to explain that a perfect storm of rainwater and faeces was flowing into the flat whilst apologising for making such a late call to a half asleep woman speaking in her second language, all while trying to dry the place and protect my newly polished shoes. When you live in a basement, it doesn’t have to rain to pour.

The message here is that if you’re living in a city, especially outside the context of university accommodation, be prepared for some colourful characters, and inevitable drawbacks, no matter how prime the location may be.

Take walks. One of the added benefits of walking in Dublin is that you frequently find yourself walking past landmarks of historical significance that are easy to miss if you’re looking at your shoes. I was walking aimlessly up past a street of Georgian houses and saw that I was also strolling past the former home of Bram Stoker. On another day, I noticed a blue plaque adorning the side of a house just up the road from Trinity campus, only to realise on closer inspection that it was in fact the childhood home of Oscar Wilde. (A tourist shop sporting a paper cut-out of the witty quote-sayer and playwright just a few yards back should have made me realise I was in Oscar territory.)

A popular tourist spot is St Stephen’s Green, and it’s easy to see why. Not only is it very beautiful and in the heart of the city, but it’s also the location of great historical scenes. During the 1916 Easter Rising, the park was on lockdown, a strategic point for the rebels, and the site of much conflict and bloodshed. Now, St Stephen’s is a busy public garden, punctuated with benches, bridges and information points about the Rising. The park really offers an informative read. I always feel a walk in the park is improved when you know more about military strategy going out than you did going in. The whole chronology of the Rising is interesting, and if you ever find yourself in Dublin I advise you to go and see for yourself. My favourite little tidbit was that, during the intensive lockdown of the park in 1916, there was a twice-daily ceasefire between the rebels and the British so that the gatekeeper could come in safely and feed the ducks.

Comedy is tragedy plus time. A funny thing happened one afternoon during a rehearsal for Punk Rock, the play I acted in. I played a boy called Chadwick, a shy nervous type, one who gets teased by his classmates for his social-awkwardness. In one scene, towards the middle of the play, this “teasing” evolves into flat-out bully- ing. Bennett , my tormenter, tackles my throat with his arm, puts a lighter to my face, and barrages me with a string of profanity-laden insults too extreme for me to share here.

This particular afternoon, we were rehearsing in an empty classroom. After that particularly strong tirade of aggression and saliva was thrown at me, a secretary from the neighbouring office walked in, telling us that those kinds of words were not acceptable for a university building and that  we should continue our “discussion” outside, mistaking our rehearsal for a genuine tiff . She left and we laughed at the mishap, before I realised that this woman was clearly hearing the sounds of my distress and, rather than coming to my aid, instructed my “bully” to take me outside, as my beating was proving to be a distraction from her emails.

Keep things in perspective. The Ha’Penny Bridge is the most famous bridge in Dublin. It’s also narrow and unsurprisingly very busy, so usually I avoided it and walked across another point along the river. On one afternoon, coming from a coffee shop and on my way to a Punk Rock rehearsal, I opted to indulge in this literal walk on history, when I noticed something strange. A man was climbing over the side of the bridge. He looked homeless, and was clearly intoxicated in some form, and was arguing with a woman who stood watching, (presumably his wife) also in a disheve-led state. It was hard to gauge exactly what he was saying, but it was clear that they were in the midst of a serious spat and he was threatening to jump. This was alarming enough to see, but worst of all was the swarm of people walking past acting like nothing out of the ordinary was happening and not doing anything.

Nervous that he would actually jump into the murky waters of the Liffey, a stranger and I pulled him down, and he and the women were taken indoors nearby to calm down. I was shaken, and rather upset. My leg was trembling, but there wasn’t much more to do, and I was late for rehearsals.

Whenever I thought the city or the university was being unfair on me, I tried to remember that it could always be worse. Life can be irreversibly cruel for some.

Classes progressed. Unlike in St Andrews, I got to choose my own essay titles. After a bit of persuasion and heavy groveling, I finally got my World War I professor to allow me to write an essay on Irish war poetry and what we as historians can learn from it. He wasn’t much impressed when I eventually came back with my conclusion: not much.

I also can now bitt erly admit that, despite my initial fears, the module on Irish history turned out to be my favourite. Make the most of the disappointments. And don’t complain too much about them; you may end up eating your words.

Despite an overwhelmingly lonely start, after a month or so I truly felt like I belonged, and it was because my new friends made it clear that I was welcome. Dublin for me was much more about the shared moments on buses and in the corners of dark pubs than it was about the Abbey Theatre and O’Connell Street, let alone Irish war poetry or Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique.

Take walks. Work hard for classes, especially those you don’t like initially. Join societies. Do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do, but more importantly, do the things you would normally do.

I joined the theatre society, as I had in St Andrews, and met like-minded people and consequently made friends for life. Remember, no matter how hard things get, you’re in an advantageous position and things could always be worse. But remember also that it’s okay to feel sad, alone, frightened, angry, remorseful, bitter, lonely. Time alone is not only permitted, it’s crucial. Remember that things can always be funny, and when something’s funny, it belongs to you.

A trick I like is to think whenever something sad or embarrassing happens, that this, if construed the right way (and perhaps altered or exaggerated ever so slightly), could make a good story. Better still, it could make a funny story.

Humans live to tell stories: it binds us together, and gives our embarrassing moments, or better still our failures, a purpose.

Hold onto old comforts, but do something new and make new comforts. And even in the worst moments, remember that this isn’t forever and, if you tell it the right way, you might have a good story in the end.

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