Book review: The Bold Collegian

That a mathematician and sportsman would consider it important that engineering students be lectured on poetry says a lot about Trevor West. 

Book review: The Bold Collegian

Trevor West

Lilliput Press, €25

This Renaissance man (1938-2012) enlisted his great friend and colleague, the poet and academic, Brendan Kennelly, to expose the budding engineers at Trinity College Dublin to the beauty of poetry.

(Kennelly referred to his polymath friend as the “professor of sums”.)

West was brought up in Midleton, Co Cork, and educated at Midleton College (where he served as chairman of the board for 24 years). He was associate professor of mathematics at TCD.

This book, essentially a hagiography, was spearheaded by his widow, Maura Lee and edited by journalist and author, Mary Leland.

With an introduction by former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and contributions from the likes of writer Ulick O’Connor; Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross; former president of UCC, Dr Michael Mortell; former Senator, Sean Barrett; and West’s playwright nephew, Michael West, a clear picture emerges from the pages that are interspersed with photographs.

West comes across as a ball of energy, exuding enthusiasm for life and comfortable with everyone from former UVF leader Gusty Spence, to impoverished undergraduates whom he helped out.

He was an academic, a senator, author of a book on Horace Plunkett and his role in the co-operative movement, and a passionate sportsman.

As a senator, he supported Mary Robinson’s work in liberalising Ireland’s formerly restrictive laws on the availability of contraception.

As former administrative officer of DUCAC (Dublin University Central Athletic Club), Cathy Doyle writes, West “wasn’t the academic in an ivory tower, he was very much in touch with the student body. He had a determined streak, and like a good politician was good at smoothing ruffled feathers and very good at getting his message across, both written and verbal.

“Trevor was at best described as a conservative radical but not a radical conservative. As a radical, he was not afraid to challenge or push the boat out and accepted that change was needed.

“However, as a conservative, he saw the point of tradition and the importance of the institution as linking the past with the present.”

West (a southern Protestant) has done the State some service. He played a below-the-radar role in achieving peace in Northern Ireland.

Ulick O’Connor’s Sunday Independent obituary, which draws attention to West’s diplomatic efforts, is republished in the book.

O’Connor writes that West’s “work in Northern Ireland is virtually unknown.

But Trevor West had a significant effect in bringing members of the Northern Ireland Protestant community forward in relation to the political divide. One connection he had with Belfast was particularly useful.

Though Trevor grew up in Midleton, Co Cork (his father had been a headmaster of Midleton College), an uncle who was resident in Belfast controlled much of the tram system there.

“Trevor had spent many of his boyhood summers travelling free throughout Belfast like a young deer let loose on a fertile pitch.

This may have given him an understanding of the Northern temperament that was to prove invaluable in the part he would play later in bringing the two communities together.”

West, who wore his learning lightly, was not without professorial eccentricities. Michael West writes fondly about his uncle’s rooms at Trinity.

“Packed full of people on a sunny day was one thing, but a single gas fire and bare floorboards in winter was quite another.

Trevor’s fridge was the granite sill outside the kitchenette window, which kept a small carton of milk just above souring point for several days.

The only solids he ate were served on Commons at 6pm, supplemented by Tessie Finn’s coffee cake, which he brought up each week from Cork wrapped in silver foil.”

Home comforts for a man appreciative of the simple things in life despite scaling the heights of various sectors in Irish society.

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