University of Limerick’s first pioneering graduates return to campus for UL50 book launch

It’s back to school for UL’s first graduates as University of Limerick: An Oral History, 1972-2002 launches.

Celebrations commenced on campus this week as University of Limerick’s first ever graduates returned to campus grounds for the launch of a book documenting the University’s social history.

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

Written by Dr Martin Walsh, alumnus and Faculty of Arts, and Humanities and Social Sciences lecturer, the book documents the history of UL. The story begins in the 1960s with the campaign for a university for Limerick, to the foundation of the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE) in 1972, and the granting of university status in 1989.

The book was compiled as a key project in UL50, a programme that celebrates the institutions fiftieth anniversary, running from 2022 through 2023.

Trish and John 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 remembers 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,” Trish recalls. “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 that Trish first noticed her husband. However, it was John that made the first move.

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

The pair relocated to Canada upon graduation and marriage, where they welcomed three children before moving to the Bahamas. The family moved back to Ireland to allow John and Trish set up their respective businesses, which they continue to own and manage today.

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

“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, hailing from Clonakilty, West Cork, still maintain strong links to UL, not least since their three daughters (and their spouses) are also alumni of the university. 

Brendan and Anne Lillis also reflect nostalgically on their university days, both of whom went on to become qualified PE teachers from the National College of Physical Education (NCPE).

The couple had a unique experience as students in the early days of UL, when the campus was still being constructed in 1971. Both students were living in various 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,” remembers Anne, who said the experience provided an opportunity for the group of 36 female and 12 male students to bond.

Brendan, who took up his studies in Strawberry Hill after securing a government scholarship, recounts: “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.”

Anne and Brendan were just friends throughout college, and said the delay in reaching campus did not dull their experience, especially once the female and male student cohorts were amalgamated. As well as socialising and savoring the extra curricular pursuits UL has to offer, the couple also relish their 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.

Brendan and Anne didn’t hit it off romantically until after graduation (incidentally, at the wedding of two former UL classmates).

Both Anne and Brendan graduated in 1975 and went on to pursue teaching, having moved to Brendan’s home town of Monaghan, where they raised their three children. Now happily retired, the couple are still heavily involbed in sports and enjoy maintaining their connections at 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.

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