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Student campaigner

The Interview
claire tighe

Campus campaigning

College life is not just about lectures and late nights, it’s about making a difference

Anna-Marie Flynn

ONE year ago this week, the Class of 2007 was waiting with bated breath.  Uniforms were mislaid, books burned and graduations were all but over. As the last 24 hours passed before the publication of Leaving Certificate results, the stress of a day that was destined to leave a permanent marker under halcyon or heartbreak in the boxes of memory dramatically intensified for the 50,000-strong national class.
News broke that Claremorris-born Trinity College Dublin (TCD) provost, Dr John Hegarty, was heading up a planned lobbying campaign demanding that third level fees be re-introduced.
At the helm of the Irish Universities’ Association (IUA), Dr Hegarty prepared a submission to government seeking the introduction of either tuition fees or a loan system to make up for a shortfall in government funding for undergraduate courses. He claimed €120 million was needed to keep TCD afloat.
On the student side, a resolved stance was taken and a constructive crusade drafted. The responsibility lay at the foot of Mayo student, Claire Tighe, Communications Officer and Deputy President of the TCD Students’ Union, to stand firm against her county counterpart.
Within minutes of the rumblings, the then newly-elected Students’ Union officer was entrenched in the real meaning of the word ‘campaign’. Forced to defer the natural settling-in period in her new campus office, she tediously went about ringing every media contact in the country; from television stations to local newspapers, in taking on the representation of the student body not just in Trinity, but on every college campus in Ireland. 
Far from recoiling from the challenge, she cites that very debacle as one of the highlights of her year as Deputy President of Ireland’s leading University. The first person to be elected to the office from outside the Pale in 17 years, Claire meets congratulations with modesty.
“Obviously we were vehemently opposed to fees and we fought it tooth and nail. I think the real winning thing that came from that episode is from then on people saw the TCD Union as a point of contact for students with opinions. It all comes back to the fact that, as Communications Officer, the visibility of the union is in your hands.”
Nonchalance aside, it was nothing if not a baptism of fire for the north Mayo native which spelled the commencement of what was to be, in her own words, the most ‘valuable, invigorating and interesting’ 12 months of her college life.
On paper, Claire Tighe, hailing from Carrentrila, outside Ballina, ticks all the student boxes: excellent Leaving Certificate; very successful degree; fluent Irish speaker; editor of student newspaper The University Record; Irish editor of the radio station TFM; involvement in scores of extra-curricular clubs and societies - all topped off with a choc-a-block social diary.
In person, Claire is as far removed from the stereotypical student as you’ll get. As she steps down from her year in office, there is no evidence of the apathetic cynicism associated with college-goers. If anything, she is something of a country cailín at heart, who loves nothing better than to take a wander around the áit dúchais of both her parents, Martin and Ann, in Ballycastle, or a trek up the Reek. That is not a romanticised version of Claire Tighe. It’s simply just the way she is.
Her speech is peppered with phrases like ‘jeekers’, a refreshing change from the Omigod-type student colloquialisms, and the many mandatory punctuations with the word ‘like’, that have been laid bare by Ross O’Carroll Kelly.
But then stereotypes, like rules, are made to be broken. Addressing the ‘Trinners typecast’, Claire admits she had her own reservations before enrolling in the 400-year-old hallowed halls of the University of Dublin.
“I was very lucky in that before I went to college, I was in contact with someone who was in Trinity at that time,” she says. “Throughout our publicity campaigns, I was always very aware of the preconception, as it existed to me when I was in secondary school. I remember being concerned that the atmosphere might be quite stiff there, it had such a haughty reputation,” she concedes. “It’s changing now, but it’s like this - you might meet people that are slightly arrogant in every walk of life.”
What she refers to as the ‘parochial’ element helps.
“The classes are not massive and there is this local feeling despite the fact that there are 15,000 people attending Trinity.”
Like all students, she admits that sometimes lectures proved gruelling. But in times of waning concentration, The University Record was always at hand. Fate would ordain that the paper which served as a useful accessory in idling away the odd history module was to become a conduit between Claire and her success at election time.
After accidentally ending up in an editorial meeting in first year, the Arts student, initially toying with the idea of a future in journalism, found herself completely enveloped by the world of newspaper production.
From contributor to news editor, and a lot of late nights after that, on her election as Deputy President, she automatically earned the reins of editor of The Record.
“The more I got involved in the paper, the more I wanted to have more influence over it. I felt as news editor, I worked really closely with the editor and really enjoyed involvement at that level, and having an influence over what was printed and what wasn’t.”
Her fortuitous involvement led to a heightened profile whereby she brought a refreshed campaigning type of journalistic edge and a sense of teamwork to the operation.
“We established a production team. In distributing the work, responsibility and the glory, it was more a team of co-editors. Obviously there were times when a call had to be made but I entrusted a lot of responsibility to others and, in doing so, people wanted to be more involved.”
She sums up her editorship simply: “It was a real crash course in management and the workplace and how to improve things and how to create good relations if possible.”
While editing, the London-born student who returned to her parents’ home county when she was just eight years old, opted to join Trinity’s Scéim Cónaithe, an Irish-speaking campus village.
Earning her fáinne óir, an achievement she attributes to the tireless work of the teachers in Lisaniska National School who invested  ‘so much time with that initial intensive schooling’, she went on to become TFM’s first Irish Editor.
“As part of the housing scheme, you have to agree to promote Irish on campus. I was involved in the radio at that stage but noticed the Irish slots were increasingly difficult to fill. I decided to take it on, temporarily, but with a vague awareness that I would be doing it for the rest of the year, but it was an experience I wouldn’t change for any money now.”
So with plenty of practice in all things political – from canvassing to promotion and an adept knack for the cúpla focail, all the while maintaining a level of professionalism - is the world of politics a-calling for Ms Tighe?
It’s a question that is well-founded, considering just one quick internet search of the term ‘Students Union’ throws up a definition that deems students’ organisations a ‘training ground for aspiring politicians’.
She agrees that the SU is ‘very often’ a ‘platform for people to go into politics’ but insists the perceived glamour would not tease her into a life in Leinster House.
“Being a TD is a hugely serious commitment. It’s not like representing people is a barrel of laughs, it’s tough work. I think on that large a scale, the commitment would definitely put me off.”
While she reflects that successes and achievements relating to personal cases would be ‘hugely rewarding’ she says, that overall, ‘you would have to have sterling patience and drive and do Trojan work’ in order to deliver to the masses. “So to answer your question, no I can’t see me going down that route at the moment,” she laughs.
And while we might not see Claire Tighe following in the footsteps of Mayo daughters Beverley Flynn or Lucinda Creighton just yet, there’s no telling what the future might hold. “Like life, I think in college in particular, you might have a vague idea about where your interests lie but very often it’s the people you stumble across along the way that determine what direction you actually take. If you do get involved in something, be it a career or a campaign, and if it matters enough to you, you should try and make a difference rather than just give out about it,” she smiles.
Journalist or future Teachta Dála – for Claire Tighe, it’s a case of watch this space.