“Down With This Sort Of Thing” and “Careful Now”
I had heard rumblings and rumors about some sort of student protest for a couple of weeks, but I had paid little heed to it since I knew little of Irish student politics. On a Monday morning at the beginning of one of my lectures, a group of students went up to the hall’s podium and, with the lecturer’s permission, began a short speech. They outlined the Irish government’s plans to raise student registration fees and cut education grants, and so on. To show that the student body is a significant voting bloc they announced there would be a march on the upcoming Wednesday. The Student Union leaders there pushed quite hard for every student to go out and protest, as, and these are their words, “Even if you aren’t affected, someone sitting near you will be.”
Then things got interesting with the appearance of an opposing voice. A single student went up to the podium to speak and this student voiced concerns that the Student Union was bullying people for their own political gain and in accordance to their own private agenda. He argued that, “If you wish to show your appreciation for the education you are receiving, then attend your classes on Wednesday.” As he walked to his seat, a student nearby said in a very loud and firm voice that he was “probably just a rich prick looking out for himself and can afford the increase.” I almost laughed for the immaturity of the room for its collective “Ooooohhhhh” at the confrontation. The opposing student responded with, “That’s just the kind of mindless rhetoric the Student Union engages in instead of an intelligent debate.” The debate there was settled by one more student who spoke at the podium to announce that they were having a film showing that evening at seven o’clock, followed by a visit to the pub. Laughter ensued.
When Wednesday finally rolled around I had decided, in light of my ignorance of the situation, that it would not be appropriate for me to participate in something that I didn’t fully understand, nor was I sure if I even agreed with it or not, but that it would not be wrong for me to follow at the side, to observe as an impartial bystander. I didn’t have any classes in the afternoon that I had to deal with, so I was completely open to go watch and take pictures.
The Trinity College students met at their front square at noon and after twenty or thirty minutes of rabble-rousing they lined up at the front gates to begin their march. I guesstimated there to be about 500 to 700 students all lined up? Since there was no way I could get through that crowd and get in front at that point, I left through the side gate nearby so I could get around to the front of the march. As I exited, students marched through the streets along Trinity’s south side. Two guys went past on these metal stilts that were curved, and with their bodies being painted they were quite reminiscent of the creatures in Avatar; their yelling and screaming weird noises certainly helped that comparison. Since there wasn’t much room on the sidewalks, I didn’t have much choice but to join the other students in the road and go with the flow.
I must admit that I was more than a bit confused at this point, since it was shocking that so many students could have gone through Trinity’s front gate, which is just wide enough for a car to get through, and come around to this point this quickly. I also noticed that many of the students around me had silly masks and costumes on as well. Oh well, I thought, and continued on with them. They marched to the Government Buildings near Merrion Square, where outside the gates there were already protesters for home-birth and a few other causes, though in few numbers. The students yelled and stomped and chanted, eventually sitting down in the middle of the street and blocking traffic, much to the disdain of the police force. All in all I counted maybe a hundred or so students at the gates. It was then I realized I had made an error and apparently got caught up in another college’s protest. Whoops. I hurried off to go find “my” protesters.
I followed straggling students, made visible by their bright yellow t-shirts “for unity” and walked up O’Connell Street and past the Spire of Dublin. It didn’t take long for me to start following the sounds of the gathering collective ahead of me. When I reached what I felt like was a collecting point, or I just couldn’t get any closer because of all the people, I pulled myself up on top of a fence to get a view of the hordes of people around me. What I saw was hard to believe even with my own eyes and limited viewpoint. If you have never seen a huge protest before, let me tell you it is a spectacle to behold.
Let me paint for you a picture of a sea of people, dressed mostly in yellow, all mobbed together for their collective cause. Signs with every sort of slogan you can image were raised above their heads, ranging from the serious (“Education, Not Emigration”), the humorous (this post’s title is a famous Father Ted reference, look it up on YouTube), to the outright angry which I’ll refrain from quoting here so as not to cause offence. One group of young men in black suits carried a coffin with “Education” written on the sides and top. I saw secondary/high school kids marching alongside middle-aged adults, holding signs together. There were students from as far away as Galway and Cork, and in great numbers. I stood on my fence, leaned up against a pole and snapped shot after shot as thousands marched past me.
Even after an hour or so I saw no end to the multitudes streaming past my stakeout, and so I decided I wouldn’t see much else to warrant my staying there any longer, so I packed up and went back to my flat to call it a day. Later that evening I heard that things got out of control in a few places and the riot squads were called in to quell the small group of rioters. It came to light a day or two after that a couple of very left-wing extremist groups took control over the then peaceful protest to use it for its own political means. So it goes in Ireland.
Exactly one week later while I was in London visiting friends who were studying there, I came out of the Westminster tube station to see Westminster Abbey when I saw a row of police vehicles blocking the road. I thought that maybe the Queen or some other royalty was coming through, since they block the roads for that. Turning the corner, I saw tons of protesters in the streets. Seeing as how they were in the area where there are always anti-war protesters on strike and things like that, I assumed they were a larger gathering of the same people. But as I got closer, it was no such thing! Sure enough, it was England’s big student protest for all the same things. I laughed at my chance encounter and went off to go do something else since there was no way I was getting through the massive throng of people in front of the Abbey. Ironically, it would turn out that the stereotypically “proper” English were in fact a lot more rowdy than their supposedly “unruly” Irish counterparts, and there were a number of police scuffles, including a student that dropped a fire extinguisher from a rooftop at police. So much for English civility.
Epilogue: I wrote this about a week before the Irish government asked for a bailout from the EU and the IMF. By the end of January, if not sooner, there’ll be a change of government, and the budget cuts that are being made will probably only be made deeper. The effects of this student protest, which claimed 25,000-40,000 supporters, which at the time had a big effect on the system, may be significantly lost in light of these big changes. Only time will tell how this will turn out, but it certainly makes for an interesting time to be living in the middle of it all.