Authors John and Trish Kerr on UL campus
Wednesday, 15 November 2023

'Life has treated us very well, and much of our success we attribute to UL'

There were celebrations today as a group of University of Limerick’s pioneering first graduates returned to campus for the launch of a new book documenting the University’s social history.

John and Trish Kerr and Brendan and Anne Lillis were welcomed back to their alma mater this Tuesday to mark the release of University of Limerick: An Oral History, 1972 – 2002.

Written by alumnus and Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences lecturer Dr Martin Walsh, the book tells the story of UL from the days of campaigns for a university for Limerick in the 1960s, the foundation of the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE) in 1972 and the granting of university status in 1989.

It was compiled as a key project of UL 50, a year-long programme of events throughout 2022 and 2023 that marked the mark the institution’s 50th anniversary.

John and Trish Kerr, who met as Business Studies students in 1972, were among the alumni to share their UL memories with Dr Walsh for the book.

Trish recalled the “exciting” prospect of being a UL student.

“Initially, I was mesmerised by the ‘craic’ in the Administrative Systems room, with all of us entertained by the speed and chimes of the all-new Olivetti Golf Ball typewriters. But later, I was captured by the breadth and scope of exciting modules … always believing that I was one of a small group benefitting from a very exclusive window of education.”

It was at the first Student Council elections, in which John was voted vice president, that Trish noticed her future-husband; it was John, however, who made the first move. He recalls being “alerted by a mutual friend that a dating challenge was in the library and could be recognised easily by the said party reading, of all things, the Farmer’s Journal – upside-down!”

John and Trish enjoyed the “endless fun, activities and sense of place” on campus and were among the first students to avail of UL’s Cooperative Education programme.

After graduating in 1976, the couple married and relocated to Canada. They went on to welcome three children and later spent several years in The Bahamas, before moving home to Ireland to set up their respective businesses which they continue to own and manage to this day.

“Life has treated us very well, and much of our success we attribute to NIHE/UL,” explained John.

“We married as the first couple from UL who dated from year one, our girls arrived, and, following the Bahamian experience and further studies, I also established my own business back here in Ireland which, thankfully, continues to thrive 31 years later.”

The Kerrs, who live Clonakilty, West Cork, still retain strong links to UL, not least since their three daughters (and two of their spouses) also count themselves as alumni!

The nostalgia also runs deep for Brendan and Anne Lillis, two of UL’s very first graduates, who qualified as PE teachers from the National College of Physical Education (NCPE).

The couple had a unique entry into college life in 1971. Due to a delay in construction on campus, both Anne and Brendan spent their early days as UL students dotted around several locations – from Sion Hill in Dublin to Strawberry Hill in London.

“Some of the parents were very upset when the girls were sent to London, but we enjoyed it,” recalled Anne, who said the experience provided an opportunity for the group of 36 female and 12 male students to gel.

Brendan, who took up his studies in Strawberry Hill after securing a government scholarship, said of the unusual set of circumstances: “The reason we didn’t get to Limerick was, there was a major strike at Sisk. So, we were all due to start in September 1972 in the NCPE, but we didn’t get to campus until Christmas of 1973.”

For Anne and Brendan, who were just friends during college, the delay in reaching campus didn’t dull their experience, particularly once the male and female student cohorts were amalgamated. And as well as spending time socialising and partaking in sport and outdoor pursuits, they relished their unique educational experience.

“The whole challenge of being the first PE graduate teachers to be educated in the country invigorated a lot of us, and we saw ourselves as starting on a new path, particularly in the fact that most teachers up to this point had been through three years of university and one year of postgrad – whereas, we were embarking on a four-year concurrent degree with education included,” explained Brendan, a keen student activist who served as NCPE’s first Students’ Union President.

Although Brendan and Anne didn’t hit it off romantically until after graduation (incidentally, at the wedding of two former UL classmates), their first meeting was certainly memorable!

“His sister was also in our class, and she was with me in Sion Hill and he came out to see her. He came into the Common Room – and a male had never graced the door of a common room. I thought he was a bit arrogant, but there you go!” joked Anne.

Having graduated in 1975, both Brendan and Anne pursued careers in teaching and went on to move back to Brendan’s home county of Monaghan, where they raised their three children. Now happily retired, the couple are still heavily involved in sport and enjoy maintaining their connection with UL.

“We have kept in contact with a lot of people, and when we get back together, it’s nearly as if we have always been there,” said Anne.

Author Martin Walsh said: “As an alumnus of University of Limerick, I am delighted to be involved with the Oral History Project attached to the Department of History, and to have had the opportunity to write the social history of the University for UL50.

 “The book begins by telling the story of the concerted efforts of the people of the Midwest region to bring a university to Limerick in the 1960s. Whilst not successful, it did pave the way for the opening of NIHE in 1972.

“At the same time, the National College of Physical Education, later Thomond College of Education, opened adjacent to the new Institute. A momentous moment occurred in 1989 with the granting of University Status for NIHE – the first since the foundation of the state in 1922. In 1991, Thomond merged with University Limerick. Since then, the University has gone from strength to strength.

“The publication uses the oral history testimonies gathered at the University since 2008 to bring to light the many humorous events that have occurred on campus over the past 50 years. It also highlights the many challenges faced by staff and students as they sought to challenge conventional attitudes to third-level education in Ireland.”

Martin believes that it is that sense of “community and pioneering spirit” at University of Limerick that has made it the success that it is today.

The book is currently available at O’Mahony’s Bookshop Limerick, Kenny’s Bookshop Galway, and online at the Priced at €40, it will make an excellent Christmas present for anyone with an interest in or an association with University of Limerick.