The Beginning of the Irish Student Movement

Our country has long held the title of ‘the land of saints and scholars’, a tribute to its legacy as a bastion of religious thought and to its enduring status as a place where academia thrives. It is not without difficulty that this moniker has been held, with both elements having come under threat countless times, requiring much defence.

Over the years, there had been many attempts to organise this body of willing would-be activists into a cohesive force, such organisations as the Irish Students Association would be formed and dissolved, but it was not until the 19th of June 1959 that colleges from the country would meet in Dublin for the inaugural meeting of the Union of Students in Ireland. Gathered in the Graduates Memorial building in Trinity College, delegates from University College Dublin, Queen’s University, University College Cork, London’s National Union of Students, the Scottish Union of Students, the Dublin branch of the European Youth Campaign and Trinity itself began to discuss what would become the first USI constitution.

Also present were observers from Bolton Street College of Technology and Stranmillis Training College, both of which would later become members.

The Union formed around the principles of defending student rights in Ireland, as well as furthering the ability of Irish students to both travel and be represented abroad.

Early work in the union saw President John Hamilton Russell and Vice President Noel Igoe travelling to a number of international conferences, particularly that of the International Union of Students, cementing the union’s place as the main representative body for Irish students. The ties with the international movement would prove to bring USI into the spotlight, as a delegation of students from Prague to Ireland would prove to be the first instance of residents from behind the Iron Curtain being permitted visas to our country.

This involvement with international affairs would prove to be troublesome for the fledgling union, as allegations of communism would soon emerge. Standing in opposition to both his local union and the national union, President Tierney of UCD referred to USI as ‘a terribly dangerous organisation’ in his correspondence with the Taoiseach’s office.

Allegations of this sort were to be one of the reasons for the government to deny USI’s request for official recognition for quite some time. Despite this, the union continued its work, and by 1962 it was heavily involved in finding employment abroad for students who were facing crisis in the economic climate of the time.

1966 saw the entry of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth into the organisation, pushing the number of students represented by the organisation towards 20,000. With such large numbers behind it, USI began to press the issues of grants and scholarships, though the government would delay giving formal response. Speaking on the issue, then President Gordon Colleary would state: “ [We] may test the sincerity of the government… the union, the colleges and the students are ready to respond.” In the following months fees would rise in colleges such as Bolton Street and the union would be true to its word with protests and walkouts to mark their dissatisfaction.

While waiting for the government’s long promised report on higher education, matters on the international stage would once again come to affect USI. Following the barring of Polish students from entering the country, the union released the statement that “USI condemns the arbitrary exclusion by the relevant authorities of students and other people of goodwill who wish the visit Ireland”. While this statement and subsequent demands for the lifting of this ban would further provoke accusations of communism within the organisation, it would also prove USI’s dedication to the protection of the rights and equal status of students in Ireland and beyond.

On the occurrence of its 11th Annual Congress in 1969, USI would make a crucial decision in augmenting its policy so it would become more closely involved with national affairs. Having previously stood on a singular platform, motions passed at this congress would see the union seek to improve its involvement with other trade unions, who had supported it previously, so that it may prove to be an even greater united force to fight for change.

As the decade which saw such change within the organisation drew to a close, the first member of staff was to be appointed to allow for better management of the union’s increasing workload. With a movement away from its earlier prime concerns such as travel, USI readied itself for expansion as an organisation and greater involvement with the issue of civil rights, especially in light of the growing conflict in the North.