This week on Hidden Histories, historian and author of the Come Here to Me blog, Donal Fallon talks about some of the wild pranks associated with RAG week down through the years.
Trinity’s famous RAG week
RAG week has a long history of boisterous activity among Irish students, but Trinity College Dublin was particularly infamous in the 1930s, with Gardaí baton charging fancy dressed students who threw fireworks at trams. On campus, it was reported that students acted out several scenes in various costumes as part of their charity event, and that “they presented scenes representing a mock wedding, Gandhi and a goat, Spanish visitors at the senate and Mussolini on a donkey. Several were dressed to represent Herr Hitler’s followers.” They later “made a call to the Mansion House”, where they were addressed by Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne.
The Irish Times reported that a sizable gang of students went to the Shelbourne Hotel in search of fun, but on finding its doors locked to them instead made their way in through a window. Fifty or so students entered the hotel, before leaving as they had entered! In another instance, it was reported that a stolen tram sign was flung into the grounds of the home of the Trinity Provost by a student fleeing from Gardaí.
What of rivalry between different universities and students?
Throughout the 1950s there was a custom of students claiming ‘prizes’ from other universities, making off with whatever they could get their hands on. There was shock in Trinity College in May 1955 when prized possessions of the Phil (Philosophical) and Hist (Historical) societies were removed from the college grounds by Belfast students. The college newspaper, Trinity News, ran an image of three northern students fleeing with an elephants tusks, which belonged to the Phil Society.
In addition to the tusk, the students also stole a print of Theobald Wolfe Tone from the Hist Society, of which he had been an active member of during his time as a student there. A year on from the Dublin raid, the paper ran a front page article that noted “Vengeance Is Ours!” The paper reported that four Trinity students, representing the major societies, had raided the Union Society Building of Queens University without detection. “With cold and efficient ease”, they removed four trophy cups from a display cabinet, before returning to Dublin with their loot. “The booty was on display at the ball last night”, the paper bragged, ending the piece by stating the items would be returned to a visiting Queens team. Perhaps the most celebrated student prank here involved Nelson’s Pillar, or what was left of it. In the aftermath of the 1966 bombing of the Nelson Pillar, students from the NCAD made off with the head of Horatio Nelson, which they ‘liberated’ from a Dublin Corporation lock-up. They even sent a few pounds to the Corporation to pay for any damage done while robbing the head, but it was taken with the purpose of paying off Student Union debt. Nelson’s head ended up in quite a few unusual places, on stage with The Dubliners, on Killiney Beach in a fashion photoshoot, and it was even taken to London, where an antique shop owner by the name of Benny Gray was more than happy to pay the students ‘rent’ on the head. One of the students went on to become a lecturer in the very same college, so sometimes pranks pay off.
Some student pranks could cause serious disruption to College Life?
Trinity News complained in 1965 about some ‘pranks’ on campus in the early 60s that were not exactly funny. “The War Memorial was tarred and feathered, the Old Reading Room was closed to bookworms by means of a very soundly constructed wall, and the score-box in College Park was burned to the ground. “ Monuments were also frequently attacked, including George Salmon, the famous Provost who fiercely resisted the admission of women. Pranks weren't restricted to university students, with younger schoolboys capable of causing a bit of mayhem too:
In 1952, A Dublin schoolboy prank had seen an explosion in the famous GlasnevinTower grab national media attention, and indeed a 15-year-old was dragged through the Children’s Court. On June 6th 1952, an explosion inside the Tower baffled authorities at first. The explosion damaged the windows of the tower, and the Irish Independent reported the following day that a “home-made bomb is thought to have been used.” Three boys were quickly arrested, one of whom was brought before the courts.
In a statement to police the boy said that “about two years ago I learned from other boys at school how to make explosions with potassium chlorinate, charcoal and sulfur.” He was alleged to have told Gardaí he had set off some small trial bombs in the area, and had “purchased the ingredients for the bomb in small quantities in chemists’ shops for only a few pence.” On the afternoon before attempting his bombing at O’Connell’s tomb, the young 15-year-old used an old bicycle frame to pack in the required ingredients. How do Irish students compare to their international counterparts when it comes to pranks? In 2002 it was reported by BBC Scotland that “Police have declared a traffic cone amnesty for students at Scotland's oldest university. Fife Constabulary has told those studying at St Andrews University that they can return any items they have purloined during term time - with no questions asked.” Certainly funnier than four students who arrived in a French Hospital last November with fake Kalashnikov riffles, sparking pandemonium.
You can listen to the entire interview below