(adapted for Village Magazine, September 2012)
‘I am sure you’ll all soon be living in Regency houses after successful careers at the bar’, were some of the saccharine words that greeted our first day at the King’s Inns as the Under-Treasurer welcomed us to our new lives as fledgling barristers.
Before long we had been ushered into groups, and what followed was the excruciation of a ‘describe yourself in sixty seconds’ discussion with a partner who would then give a presentation on the essence of who you were.
The first week came straight out of the ‘Getting to know one another in Business School’ manual as students were subjected to such questions as ‘who would be your ideal dinner party guest?’ Fortunately, the nauseating artificiality of these exchanges did not deter the formation of normal relations, and even friendships, as individuals bonded through that vital human ingredient that has always been the bane of totalitarian regimes; satire.
The student body consisted of one hundred and ninety students, sub-divided into twelve groups of sixteen, and the ‘group’ formed the basic social unit of which a student became part. The ultimately chimerical threat of failure haunted any student who did not abide by the mandatory ninety per cent attendance, ensuring low absenteeism.
The Dean, a lady of unfailingly sour countenance, justified this compulsion by analogy with the medical profession. It would, apparently, be unfair on future clients for discrete areas of the law to be unknown to practitioners if they had missed out on classes. But this ignored the fact that students often turned up in a condition where learning was out of the question; either because they promptly fell asleep, or had rip-roaring hangovers, or were in the grip of a cabin-fever induced dementia. I know because I attended in all three states. Moreover, a medical student’s knowledge is tested by examination (as was the King’s Inns student – intensively) not by attendance. With the best will in the world, a person of low intellect may not remember what was said in class while the smart student may consult a textbook.
The real reason for the mandatory attendance seemed to stem from the need for the full compliment of any group to be available for the ‘Ring-Ring a Rosy’ business school games and group work.
The ‘War on Absenteeism’ led to one of the defining moments of the year; an attempt to introduce a biometric roll-call. Students were to be asked for a finger print sample to confirm their presence in class. Progressively, the distinction between student and ordinary criminal was blurred as the authorities sought to prevent the dastardly students from creating androids in their own image or enlisting suitable doppelgangers. Fortunately, the scheme was abandoned as even the unusually docile students of the King’s Inns began to rumble with discontent.
Compulsory attendance extended to dining, by far the most archaic aspect of the King’s Inn’s education; a vestige of a time when there was no formal education and students were treated to the wisdom of their elders while they ate. Students still dine in capes which give the festivities the appearance of a wizard convention. They then gather at tables to await the entry of the Benchers, members of the judiciary and grizzled barristers. The students bow before these luminaries in a show of feudal deference.
The food, which had apparently improved immeasurably, was of the distinctly canteen variety, limp and unimaginative; melt in your mouth carrots and mystery meat. The old rational of the benefit of interaction between students and practitioners is lost as, except on rare occasions, practising barristers are kept well away from the hoi poloi and given superior food as a mark of their elevated status.
The modern hybrid is a glorified piss-up where students are provided with wine that would make a salad wince. The only educational aspect of these evenings is derived from learning how to cope with quantities of cheap plonk, the euphemistically named Chilean Punta Negra (black point). Twice a year, so-called ‘grand’ night takes place where each student is given a whole bottle as opposed to the customary half. The consumption of so much cheap booz at an early hour has predictable results with many students roaring drunk by nine o’clock. On both grand nights students suffered broken bones (two broken ankles on the last occasion) there were also stories of prominent members of the judiciary being harangued by students who had fallen under the spell of the wicked brew. For anyone with a weakness for alcohol, dining provided an atmosphere not exactly conducive to sobriety.
Retribution for a lack of decorum could be swift. On one night the Chief Justice took exception to the insufficiency of the students’ bowing and the ‘privilege’ of going to the toilet was withdrawn. It should be emphasised that in the Honourable Society of the King’s Inns going to the toilet at dining is a privilege sought by way of permission from the Bench. In most walks of life, such a decree would give rise to a riot but owing to a general omerta and deference to authority no such response could be expected from the sheepish students of the King’s Inns, eager themselves to ascend to the cherished heights of the profession.
Probably the most nauseating moment of the year came after the triumph of the King’s Inns Hurling team in a competition involving about three other colleges with miniscule student numbers (while the King’s Inns team also contained practising barristers). The team were feted like astronauts. Members of the judiciary became weak kneed at the sight of these fine young men who had, apparently, single-handedly changed the prevailing perception of the institution (in the deluded estimation of the President of the High Court). These brave young men were now firmly established in the pantheon of Gaelic heroes. No longer would the institution be associated with West-Brit cricketers or pansy debaters.
The denouement came at one of the final dining nights in a rally where Nuremburg met Croke Park. The team, heroes to a man, were presented with awards with each member accorded a stirring accolade. The whole ceremony seemed to go on for hours. Leaving the hall was prohibited, so vast quantities of the Punta Negra were consumed as most people, bemused by the spectacle, sought some escape from the tedium. But the hum of speeches continued as each substitute who had turned up at every training session to bash the head off some malnourished gombeen from Newcastle West Post-Leaving Cert Institute, was accorded his due. Unsurprisingly, before long most of us had reached ‘black point’.