In my 60th year... I’m a university misfit

TERESA WEMYSS is undertaking a Creative Writing Masters at UCC. Here she talks about how much college has changed and why she’s returned to third level education
In my 60th year... I’m a university misfit

Teresa Wemyss is back at UCC

FINALLY, in my sixtieth year, some ‘me’ time.

I know, I sound like a new age hippy, but having worked full-time, raised four children, and looked after elderly relatives during my 32 years of wedded bliss, it was finally time for me to achieve my life-long ambition and return to studying in UCC.

I first entered its hallowed halls in October, 1979, when Ireland was still on a high from Pope John Paul’s recent visit. ‘Young people of Ireland, I love you’, he proclaimed to those of us corralled into roped-off sections of Galway racecourse.

Holy Catholic Ireland was at its peak and we were all warned that we would go to hell if we fell into bad habits, like drug-taking or sex-outside- marriage. One of my friends received such dire warnings about the prevalence of illegal substances on campus, that she expected dealers to lounge nonchalantly by the railings, furtively opening their coats to reveal sachets of cocaine, tin-foil twists of heroin and baggies of marijuana. It was with disgust and disappointment that she proclaimed to her mother that after two weeks in college, NOBODY had offered her drugs. Was she simply not cool enough?

Leaving my hometown of Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, was a big step. Most students went to Dublin, as you could get a train direct from Heuston Station to Thomastown.

Buoyed by a spirit of adventure, I chose UCC, as my love affair with Cork began in third class, when the Mercy sisters had brought us here on a school tour.

Browsing the souvenir shelves of Roches Stores on Patrick Street, I bought my Granny a small leprechaun, with ‘Cork’ emblazoned on his pedestal. This stood proudly on her mantelpiece for the rest of her life, a constant reminder of a magical experience. Frequent visits to the choral festival as part of my school choir further cemented my love affair with this wonderful city.

Finding accommodation in 1979 was challenging. There were no websites to browse, I simply had to turn up on Campus and walk unfamiliar roads and streets nearby searching for a place to lay my head.

I went into ‘digs’ for the first year, as my parents thought I would be safe under the beady eye of my landlady, who had converted a garage by removing the roller door and replacing it with a draughty window and glass door. A carpet and two sets of bunkbeds completed the look. At the rear of the garage was a utility room with a sink and a toilet. We did not have access to the family bathroom so all ablutions had to be performed in the cold water at the sink. A sum of £23 a week got us bed, breakfast and evening meals, Monday-Thursday. Four shy first years inhabited the garage and two lucky others had a room in the house.

On the first morning, unfamiliar Munster accents assailed me as I mingled in the Quad, delighted with the anonymity offered by being so far from home amongst so many strangers.

For all of my first year, I suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’, sure that I had been allowed in by mistake, as I wasn’t as clever, well-educated or confident as my classmates. Having only heard French spoken by my secondary school teacher, with no attention to pronunciation, I tried to follow lectures given by fluent and native French speakers. Some classmates had even been to France and tasted baguettes and croissants.

On our first day in Irish class, Professor Ó Tuama set us a grammar test, which was double Dutch to me as I had never heard of the ‘Tuiseal Ginideach’. Floundering academically, I decided to concentrate on the other sides to college life.

I joined Geoffrey Spratt’s choir and, during rehearsals, I could forget my insecurities and get lost in the singing. One performance in City Hall involved the late Charles Lynch on piano, the university orchestra, and our choir. Having cycled in the rain, I had my long, black, velvet skirt in my bag. Getting changed, I realised I had forgotten my shoes, so had to go on stage wearing my bright yellow wellies, complete with blue strips on the sole.

Life-long friends were made over the following four years. Trips to the Gaeltacht in Dingle and summers as an au pair in France helped me to improve my language skills sufficiently to graduate with a B.A. (Hons) and a H. Dip., which was the logical progression in 1980s Ireland where unemployment and emigration were destroying whole communities.

Teresa Wemyss and her family
Teresa Wemyss and her family

I recently took the life-changing decision to give up my permanent, pensionable job which I thought would have to be prised from my cold, dead hands. I had always loved reading and written a few articles for local publications over the years. My real love was always fiction, so with this in mind, I applied to my alma mater and was overjoyed to discover I had been accepted on the Master’s course in Creative Writing.

Living on the east coast meant I could not commute to UCC, so the first night I stayed in a lonely B&B, and had strong misgivings about my life choice. I missed my husband, my family and my dogs and wondered what on earth I was thinking of, taking on a new course at my age.

Next morning, I entered by the main gates and huffed and puffed my way up the hill, being overtaken by teenagers who didn’t have to draw breath. I never remembered this hill being so steep. I stood at the bottom of the steps leading to the café and decided I would take the long way round. Collapsing from a heart attack on my first day would not make a good impression.

Our lecturer told us to meet at the Boole Library at 10am and, standing around clutching a cup of coffee, I eyed everybody who approached. We were taken on a tour of campus and I realised that, though many new buildings have sprung up, at its core, UCC hasn’t changed at all. We were reminded that if we stepped on the grass in the Quad, we would fail our exams, and were pointed towards classrooms in off-campus buildings on Donovan’s Road and Western Road. There would still be lots of walking in the rain from one classroom to the next.

In class, we introduced ourselves. Once again, I felt the old ‘imposter syndrome’ creep up on me.

These twenty-somethings had recently completed degrees in English, Film Studies and other exotic-sounding courses and used terminology I didn’t understand. College communication uses technology.

We each have a student email address and a ‘Canvas’ account where we can access our modules and find out about the syllabus, assignments, announcements and the like. A class WhatsApp group was set up. How did we survive at all back in the ’70s? In class, notes are taken on laptops and tablets and all assignments are emailed to our lecturers.

So, as I try to read my way into the necessary terminology and ignore the voice which repeats ‘You are just not good enough’, my university adventure continues.

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Called Droid, our next story is about a boy who designs a robot at UCC and chaos ensues. It was written by Margaret Gillies, from the MA in Creative Writing Programme at UCC.

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