In the Letterkenny of the early seventies - indeed the Donegal of that era - the arrival of the then Regional Technical College was akin, according to former lecturer and Head of Department of Law & Humanities, Dermot Cavanagh, to “two worlds colliding.”
This was conservative and conformist rural Ireland and when the radicalised opinions of a young lecturing staff took up positions at the newly established third level institution, the majority of them from outside the county, the eyes of suspicion were cast in their direction with the result that those empowered with secondary school education at the time were, he maintains, initially reluctant to send their students to the college on Letterkenny’s Port Road.
For Dermot himself, who retired from the college in 2008 after having served there for thirty-six years, it represented a move from his native Dublin to what was then a comparitively small market town.
A graduate of University College Dublin, he became part of what he calls a “decentralisation programme” where third level education was concerned.
“When they were setting up the Regional Colleges in the early seventies, none of us were sure if these new fangled things would take off.”
The Vocational Schools provided most of the early students for the new college. “The schools in Raphoe, Letterkenny and Milford and so forth were almost ordered to send students to boost numbers to make it viable.
“But no-one had a clue as to the impact of such a college arriving in Letterkenny,” says Dermot who launched his book ‘From RTC to LYIT’ last night.
With their post graduate qualifications, the newly arrived lecturers possessed the radical ideas of the time. “Their arrival in Letterkenny caused a bit of a commotion. The influx of this young staff, imbued with the ideas and idealogy of the sixties, clashed to an extent with the culture of the time, the culture of an ethos of conservative and Catholic schools. It was like two worlds colliding.”
The reaction of one of those worlds was one of shuddering disapproval. “There was a fair bit of reluctance on the part of the secondary schools to urge their students to go to the RTC.”
Nevertheless around 170 students passed through the doors of the drab building block that was never going to be viewed as an architectural triumph but was indeed destined for great things both infrastructurally and academically.
Business (incorporating art), science and engineering formed the first departments in those initial years but prior to the establishement of the National Council for Education Awards in 1972 there had been little, if any, structure to this new seat of learning. “In the first year of its existence, you almost made it up as you went along,” Dermot recalls.
The emergence of the legal studies programme helped attract an additional influx of students from not just Donegal but around the country. “The law programme was different. Only two colleges had introduced legal studies to their curriculum - Waterford in the south and Letterkenny. The introduction of the department certainly helped where Letterkenny was concerned.”
But the recession of the seventies and eighties had its impact on the college’s development. “The chalk was nearly rationed at that time and in 1977 the college prospectus wasn’t published due to economic reasons.”
Dermot relates how the local business community was approached to provide travel scholarships to enable students from Inishowen and the west and south-west of the county to undertake the journey to third level education in Letterkenny.
The development of the Regional Technical Colleges throughout the country was, he declares, an early attempt at decentralisation - an attempt to set up higher education outside the university regions of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Maynooth. “The fact that all the colleges have survived is an indication that the policy has worked.”
An out-reach programme brought classes to various corners of the county such as Glenties and Donegal Town. “It was a great success even if it was no joke going out on a winter’s night to an outreach class in Ballyshannon or wherever.”
The college in Letterkenny not alone provided jobs directly but also, Dermot points out, helped attract industry to the region. Courtaulds set up in the town in 1974, the company’s management viewing the provision of a third level institution as key in the training of technicians.
“People began to sense that the RTC was proving its worth,” he reflects.
A twenty minute conversation with Dermot Cavanagh offers an illuminating and enlightening insight into those tottering first steps of the infant Regional Technical College in Letterkenny - his book, launched this week forty years on from the establishment of what is now the Institute of Technology, can only serve to add considerably to the syllabus.