In Focus
Feb 4, 2017

A Relic of Times Past, the Legacy of Cunningham House

Once the most modern and lively section of Trinity Hall, Cunningham House now stands as a reminder of times gone by.

Aislinn McCannContributing Writer
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Thibaut Loiez for The University Times

Amid the student housing crisis in Dublin, Trinity is currently looking for ways to expand its student accommodation. One proposed measure is demolishing Cunningham House, the oldest building in Trinity Hall, and replacing it with a larger, more modern complex. Built in the 1970s, Cunningham House is seen by many as a relic of the past and few would be overly sad at the thought of bidding it farewell. Some realise, however, that saying goodbye to Cunningham would also mean saying goodbye to an important part of the history of Trinity Hall.

Prior to the construction of Cunningham in the early 1970s, life in Trinity Hall had remained largely unchanged since its opening in 1908. Made up of what is today Oldham House, Purser House (the Warden’s residence) and Greenan House, Trinity Hall was an exclusively female residence capable of accommodating 115 students. While the rest of Dublin was rapidly modernising, caught up in the throes of the swinging sixties, Trinity Hall remained a bubble of tradition and formality. Successive female wardens came and went, yet none of them took any great steps to update the Halls way of life. By the late 1960s, the young women living in Halls were still required to attend a formal meal every evening at which formal dress was compulsory and grace was said in Latin. The wardens also continued to act as “chaperones” to the female residents. The girls were required to apply for late leave if they wished to stay out after 11pm, and had to report to the warden upon their return. Overnight guests were, of course, completely forbidden. As early as 1960 many girls coming from the country to study at Trinity were choosing not to live in Halls, feeling that the outdated and austere way of life there would limit their freedom.

Cunningham was the envy of the main house Trinity Hall residents. Single rooms and large kitchens meant Cunningham was good for socialising

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The opening of Cunningham House in 1973 revolutionised life in Halls, bringing with it some much needed modernity. Cunningham was a state-of-the-art apartment block, made up of self-contained flats. Each flat had its own kitchen shared between 10 to 14 students, meaning residents could now cook for themselves, bringing an end to the days of compulsory formal dinners. The opening of Cunningham was accompanied by the development of new sports facilities and a student bar in Halls. The bar later closed due to students preferring to socialise in their shared kitchens, much like the Halls we know today. Speaking to The University Times Richard McConnell, a Cunningham resident in 1998, says: “Cunningham was the envy of the main house Trinity Hall residents. Single rooms and large kitchens meant Cunningham was good for socialising. When we all cooked together it was in Cunningham. It seemed closer to independent living than the shared rooms and security guarded main house. It was modern, too – or so it seemed in 1998.”

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Cunningham was that 60 of its 100 rooms were reserved for male students, making Halls co-educational for the first time. This radical measure was an important step towards female equality in Trinity. Even as late as the 1960s, female students reported feeling that they were just tolerated in Trinity rather than accepted and the notion that female students were “a danger to men” had not yet totally disappeared. By making Cunningham co-educational, Trinity’s female students were finally being treated as equal to their male counterparts. No longer were the girls banished to live together in Rathmines while the boys lived on campus, rather they were now an integrated part of Trinity life. The Irish Times hailed the decision to make Cunningham House co-educational as “the final step in the fight for female equality in Trinity”.

While there is no doubt that Cunningham brought Halls into the 20th century, not all of the old traditions disappeared and some argued that Halls was in need of further modernisation. Apartments in Cunningham were strictly single-sex, a practice which exists in Halls to this day. However, in the early days of Cunningham, the single-sex regulations were much more strictly enforced. Male residents were not allowed in girls’ rooms after midnight and the female apartments were quite literally policed by security guards who would listen at doors for male voices and remove any boys that they found. Unsurprisingly, such restrictions frustrated Cunningham residents, who felt that this policing of sexuality was wildly outdated. This led to Cunningham becoming the scene of a mass student protest in 1984 when the residents demanded an end to the ban on overnight guests. Although the protest was unsuccessful in the immediate sense, it did gain press attention and was in important influencing factor in the eventual decision to permit overnight guests in Halls in 1989.

Something which many Halls residents are unaware of is that fact that Cunningham house is named after Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham, the first warden of Trinity Hall. Speaking to The University Times, current warden, Brendan Tangney, believes that Cunningham is one of only two buildings in Trinity named after a woman, the other being Oldham House. Miss Cunningham, or “Cun” as she was affectionately known in Halls, was employed in 1908 to keep a watch over the unmarried female students, thereby protecting the College from scandal. Without a doubt, Miss Cunningham took this aspect of her role very seriously, and Tangney states that she ruled over Halls with an iron fist.

However, Cunningham’s work also went far beyond the supervisory role required of her by the College. Having studied modern languages at Cambridge, Cun was a strong advocate for women’s education. Under her supervision, Trinity Hall became more than simply a residence, but an academic hub which placed a focus on learning. An avid reader, it was Cunningham who established a library in Oldham house, a tradition that still exists to this day. Cunningham was particularly interested in Irish literature and in 1940 her friends the Yeats sisters donated a set of Cuala Press first editions to the library in Halls. She also hosted regular dinner parties, inviting important and distinguished guests to speak with the residents. Writing in 2012, Provost Patrick Prendergast applauded the work of Cunningham, claiming: “The success of Halls in its early days was almost entirely due to her dedication to the cause of women’s education, and to her personal vision of a student residence conducive to personal growth and academic success.”

Cunningham’s dedication to women’s education extended beyond the walls of Halls. She regularly attended and chaired debates in the Elizabethan Society, Trinity’s debating society for women, which existed before the Hist accepted female members. She was also Vice-President of DU Players, and encouraged women to involve themselves in all aspects of college life.

Something of a revolutionary, she had a keen interest in politics and was known to allow the residents of Halls to listen to political broadcasts on her wireless during the second World War. Unusually for a member of Trinity Staff at that time, Miss Cunningham was a nationalist and was rumoured to have involvement with Sinn Féin. Her liberal attitude towards the 1916 Easter Rising saw her clash with then-Provost John Pentland Mahaffy, causing a rumour that he was considering asking for her resignation. Fortunately for the residents of Halls, he did not. She continued in her role as Warden until 1940 when she retired to her native Donegal. Without a doubt the Trinity Hall we know today continues to be influenced by the foundations Cunningham laid. Her work in establishing a student residence in Rathmines and in devoting herself to women’s education makes her a figure for all Hall residents, particularly those in Cunningham, to be proud of.

Cunningham has earned itself the nickname “Slummingham” and its residents are often on the receiving end of pity or derision from other Halls residents

Following the expansion and redevelopment of Trinity Hall in 2004, which saw the construction of Houses 80 to 91, Cunningham became the oldest residential quarters in Halls and its revolutionary days of the 1970s and 80s were long forgotten. With facilities and decor that hark back to the 1970s, even Tangney acknowledges that “it is not the most beautiful building in the world”. It is for this reason that Cunningham has earned itself the nickname “Slummingham” and its residents are often on the receiving end of pity or derision from other Halls residents.

Kate Fahy, a current member of the Trinity Hall welfare team, recalls seeing disappointment on the faces of new Cunningham residents when showing them to their less-than-modern accommodation in September. “A lot of students were unaware that Cunningham wasn’t as modern as the rest of Halls. They were a bit shocked when they arrived”, she says. Tangney too, speaks of residents’ faces dropping when he welcomed them to their new home for the year. Cunningham residents share a kitchen and two bathrooms between 14, unlike residents in the modern complex who share a kitchen between six and many of whom have ensuite bathrooms. First-year student and former Cunningham resident, Aishwayra Alasiam, admitted to being glad when she was offered alternative accommodation in the main complex after Christmas. “I didn’t really enjoy my stay in Cunningham”, she says. “The facilities are pretty bad, from the toilet to the heating system in the rooms.” Cunningham also houses only 68 students in comparison to the main complex, which sleeps around 900. In the midst of an accommodation crisis in Dublin, with an extreme lack of affordable housing for students, one has to consider whether the construction of a larger, more modern accommodation complex is not becoming a necessity for Trinity students.

Tangney does, however, point out that the facilities in Cunningham are far superior to those available in a lot of rented accommodation in Dublin, as well to those in international halls of residence where dormitory-style rooms are common. Former Cunningham resident Britta Thiemt also raises the point that the rooms in Cunningham are more reasonably priced than rooms in the main complex. “What was attractive to me about Cunningham from the get-go was simply that it was a lot cheaper than a single room in the rest of Halls”, she says. “I appreciated that there was a “lower-value” option for people like me who weren’t able to pay for a single, en suite room in the rest of Halls. I know that it’s very common in UK university accommodation to have different standards and respective rates for rooms, and I would be sad if this were to stop in Trinity altogether.” Even though Cunningham is outdated, it does offer students a more affordable accommodation option. One must question whether building a larger and more modern complex is worth the increase in prices it will inevitably bring, given that this may put prospective students off staying in Halls, or even studying in Trinity.

There often seems to be a stronger bond among the Cunningham boys than some of the groups in the smaller apartments around Halls

Former residents are also quick to point out that a real sense of community exists among Cunningham residents, more so perhaps than in the other houses in Hall. Speaking to The University Times, Assistant Warden to Cunningham House, Kevin Sullivan, described it as “a unique little corner of Halls” and remarked that “there often seems to be a stronger bond among the Cunningham boys than some of the groups in the smaller apartments around Halls”. Former resident Grace Simpson agrees, saying, “Cunningham is where I made firm friends, since we all bonded over our slightly rubbish living quarters. There was a strange sense of pride in being from ‘Slummingham.’ It made you interesting to the other Halls residents, who always asked how we could cope.”

There are other unlikely perks to living in the oldest part of Halls. Speaking to The University Times, former resident Sarah White observed that Cunningham’s more dated interior isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Although Cunningham wasn’t as modern as the other apartments it definitely had a more homely feel. It was less clinical looking and there was a real sense of community in it”, she says. Simpson claims that because Cunningham is slightly removed from the main Halls complex, the wardens rarely ventured down there, meaning the residents were able to make noise undetected. Tangney also claims that because of the larger apartment sizes it is more easy to socialise in Cunningham.

While some former residents have fonder memories of Cunningham than others, there is one thing that they can all agree on: they will be sad to see it go. Cunningham represents a huge part of the history of Trinity Hall and continues to house a community of students which is totally unique. In many ways, Cunningham, and the woman it is named after, are what has helped Halls become the residence it is today. One thing is for certain: it won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

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