Monday, February 9, 2015

Keep Talking | The Great Debate 20 years on | Some disorganised thoughts & unreliable reminiscences

I graduated from University College Galway in 1991 with a rather underwhelming degree in Archaeology and English. A number of factors conspired to influence me to return to Galway in 2011 to be part of the twentieth anniversary reunion of the conferring of that degree. There was to be a reception in the Quad, a tour of the campus, and a celebratory dinner. It seemed like a great idea ... right up until I got there. There appeared to be plenty of people there from the 1991 Law and Medicine classes, but only a handful of the Arts graduates ... and I didn't recognise or remember any of them. In the years of my absence, the campus had expanded all along the bank of the River Corrib and was largely unrecognisable to me. The university was so large you needed a bus tour to see it all. The university was so large you could actually drive a bus around it! Unfortunately, it also appeared that many of the building projects had stopped mid-flow in the aftermath of the financial crisis. There were mutterings that certain construction firms had folded or been taken over by NAMA, the Irish government's repository for 'toxic assets'. The steps in front of the library terminated in a crater partially filled with rusting steel and stagnant water. In retrospect, it seemed as eloquent an analogy for Ireland at the time as it was for the state of the university. The reception hosted by the university was a dispiriting affair that chiefly consisted of braying about how brilliant everything was, and moaning about how much money they needed ... and if we could just remember how grateful we were to our Alma Mater and put our hands in our pockets, please. For me, the final straw was when our host proudly announced that the university had finally banned Rag Week. Maybe things had deteriorated in the years since I left, but Rag Week at UCG was hardly the rolling den of bacchanalian iniquity that might be imagined. It wasn't just that it had been banned, it was the gloating pride and triumph of our host. This little pencil pusher had finally won and he was delighted about it. Worse than that, the majority of the returning graduates cheered the news - the Walter Pecks had taken over the world. I endured the bus tour, but my heart was no longer in it. I'd paid in advance for the celebratory dinner, but I really couldn't be bothered. I got off the bus and phoned my brother. We went for a curry and had a much better time. I went back to Belfast and a few days later emailed the graduates office to ask them to stop sending Cois Coiribetheir alumni magazine - I no longer wanted any form of contact with them. The university I attended had vanished, consumed bodily by changing times and now lying bloodied in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger. In the midst of the cheer that went up at the demise of Rag Week I knew that my time there had passed and, like it or not, I had to move on. There could be no return. Water ... bridges ... and all that ...

So ... why then am I going back in February 2015 for yet another 20th anniversary at the same university?

In early 1995 I was back in Galway recovering from sundry adventures - archaeological and otherwise. I was spending my days hanging around the university. I was to be found either in one of the campus cafes or safely squirreled away in my personal retreat, deep in the bowels of the library (see here) - my own Fortress of Solitude. Officially, I was 'working on my Masters' (even though I wasn't a registered student), but I was really just spending days and weeks reading the beautifully bound, obscure, & dusty 19th century volumes that surrounded me. What I wasn't doing was talking. Other than occasional encounters with library staff and a small menagerie of acquaintances still haunting academia, I didn't seem to have anyone to talk to. It's not like I had taken some Trappist vow, but I do clearly recall one occasion when I realised that I'd not spoken for nearly a whole week. In fairness, my general appearance didn't increase my chances of casual conversation. I had chest-length hair and beard. The former being notable for a degree of vast unruliness and the latter being bright ginger with occasional beaded ornaments braided into its hedge-like awfulness. If this was not sufficient to ensure that I was left undisturbed, I topped it off with a buttonless, navy, three-quarter-length tweed coat. The overall aesthetic was reminiscent of the homeless man on the cover of Jethro Tull's 1971 album 'Aqualung'. On the positive side, I was occasionally stopped by kind-hearted strangers and given money to get myself a decent meal, but asked to promise not to spend the money on alcohol.

On one particular day in January, I was passing through the semi-subterranean Students Union section of the university when I was accosted by Justin, a recent archaeology graduate of my general acquaintance. He had a sign-up sheet in his hand and a prosletising look in his eye. He was intent on getting me to commit to speaking for an hour at the upcoming Lit & Deb attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the world's longest debate. The idea was to shatter the previous record by a week and have a full 28 days of 24 hours each with no pause in speech more than five seconds ... and all on the nominal topic that 'this house has all the time in the world'. The motion for debate reflected the fact that the completion was sponsored by Guinness and this line - taken from the Louis Armstrong song - was part of their current advertising campaign. I was having none of it. The Literary & Debating Society - to give it its full title - was filled with all sorts ... but mostly the windier variety of student ... those who saw their futures in law, politics ... sales ... or any other profession that elevated the ability to talk loudly and conjure arguments out of thin air. I disliked them intensely ... but mostly because I envied them. Throughout my undergraduate career I had a tendency to view them as a species of exotic animal - a collection of gilded youths, with easy wit and charm, like an alternate cast of Brideshead Revisited ... but with Irish accents. By contrast, my few experiences as a public speaker amounted to nothing less that occasional announcements given in my capacity as class representative to the Archaeology Society. I was never destined to join the ranks of the great orators of the ages, but even so, my entire repertoire consisted of mumbling that there'd be a lecture or coach tour that weekend and telling people to sign up. Lit & Deb just wasn't for me. I wished Justin well & passed on back to my quiet basement lair.

Time passed and (on February 2nd 1995) when the whole thing kicked off ... I wasn't there and I didn't care. I completely failed to notice that it was going on for the next few days, though there were hints ... even for me a portable podium and gaggle of argumentative undergraduates is hard to miss. Every so often they could be observed changing venue from the 'Smokey's End' of the concourse to one of the classrooms along its length. They weren't going away. Late one evening, around the end of the first week, I was bored and decided to check out what this 'debate-thing' was about. I snuck into the university after dark and found a hardcore bunch secreted away in a classroom ... It was a cacophonous assembly, but still maintaining the rules of discourse and presided over by a chairperson and secretary. I tried to find an unobtrusive corner and settled down to listen. I was both captivated and appalled by what I encountered. I was genuinely captivated by the speed of wit and verbal dexterity of many of the principal participants, by their ability to turn an argument, marshal the facts at their disposal, and wring laughter from obscure facts and phrases. I was also appalled because it was quite clear that the organisers expected a level of participation far in excess of that which I was prepared to give. On the first occasion the opportunity to speak was offered I was conveniently looking in the opposite direction. The next time the offer was made I found that looking down at my feet held much merit. I just wanted for this torment to end - listening to them was great, but the prospect of having to actually speak was too much to bear. I needed to get out!

I remember her still. She was young lady in a wheelchair and she'd elected to speak about how war was 'A Bad Thing' and how nothing good ever came of it. To be honest - then and now - I largely agree with her. I've seen too much of the damage that conflict can bring to individuals and societies to be a jingoistic flag waver for any military organisation ... But to say that 'nothing' positive ever emerged from military research was, in my opinion, incorrect and factually inaccurate. Having observed several contributors from the floor, I knew that the correct protocol was to stand and place a hand on my head and ask to be heard (the gesture is supposed to derive from the legal practice of wearing wigs and the hand being used to keep the horsehair in place when rising to object etc.). Once I was given the floor I really doubt that I spoke particularly eloquently,  but I did point out that the use of penicillin didn't become a commercial viability until it was produced in bulk during the Second World War. I noted that 'cling film' was developed by the U.S. Military for first aid during the Vietnam War. I was obviously warming to my theme/running out of things to say when I pulled in the fact that NASA (during the Cold War ... see what I did there?) invented aluminium foil as part of their effort to get a human to the moon. I should divert here to note that I appear to have picked up some of this information from that most reliable of sources - tales told around Boy Scouts' campfires ... and while I honestly believed it at the time, in doing a little research for this article, I now realise that the last two are ... how can I put it kindly? ... absolute balls! It's two decades late, but I'd like to sincerely half apologise to that young woman - my examples were wrong, but my point still stands. Wartime research for medicine alone has given us blood banks (WWII), wound adhesives (Vietnam), hemostatic bandages (Desert Storm), the combat application tourniquet (Iraq & Afghanistan), and even the concept of Triage (WWI). But I digress ... because I'm not the type of guy who's still obsessing over a minor point two decades later ... honestly. In my faltering, if wildly impassioned, rebuttal I registered the strength of my disagreement by noting that I had never previously spoken in public in this way, but despite this was moved to speak and provide rebuttal. I doubt that any were surprised by this admission. In any event, the debate moved on and the speaker retired. Before a new speaker could be called, the chairperson proposed a round of applause for me in recognition of my maiden speech.

I once cared for the cat (Milly) of a couple of friends (Nick & Laura). Having been raised in Australia, Milly had never been outside in her life. We took her in while said friends were securing accommodation beyond living with his mother-in-law (who disapproved of felines). Milly the cat was terrified of going outside and resisted it at all opportunities and coaxing. One day I found her watching our own cat - the wonderful Norman - in the back yard making fantastic sport of torturing and killing an immense rat. He was having great fun tossing the bloodied corpse into the air and mercilessly batting it about. She sat inside, completely calm and impassive, her little eyes fixed on the spectacle in the garden. I think something inside her snapped that day, as from that point on we could hardly keep her inside. She was generally to be found lounging in the garden or on patrol across her newly acquired territory, seemingly making up for lost time. So it was for me. In that moment of applause and minor adulation I realised that I really enjoyed speaking to an audience ... and I absolutely adored the applause. As anyone who has heard me speak in the years since can attest, I never became good at it ... but I do really enjoy it!

From that night on, I became a fixture at the debate. Multiple cups of coffee and endless cans of coke were consumed in attempts to stay awake and stay active. I took my turn at the podium to speak and had my arguments harshly rebutted by excellent debaters. I spoke about the things than interested me and found friends and allies among the crowd. One evening, when no one else was willing to, I took to the podium and spoke ... and spoke ... and then spoke some more. In all (if memory serves), I lasted 8 hours and 20 minutes. After all these years I can no longer remember what I spoke about, but it probably was quite similar to the general madness I go on with to this day. I do have clear memories of mercilessly haranguing a group of Opus Dei types about the wonders of Neo Paganism and, on a different occasion, giving one individual in a Nirvana T-shirt grief about how talentless Kurt Cobain was ... all in the interests of 'keeping the debate going', you understand. People who have met me and worked alongside me in the years since are not particularly surprised to learn that particular fact. All the same, my personal record was beaten by Aidan B in his military surplus greatcoat, who added about 20 minutes. I'm sure he spoke about many things through those lonely hours at the podium, but I only have memories of an excruciatingly detailed account of the electoral peaks and troughs of the Progressive Democrats political party in his native Limerick. Nights bled into days and the days crept by ... and we all kept talking. Indeed, 'Keep Talking' became the unofficial motto of the debate as any lapse in excess of five seconds could bring the entire record breaking attempt to a shuddering halt. Indeed, the only person to faint at the podium (Dave, the maths post grad, if I recall correctly) fell to the ground muttering 'keep talking, keep talking'. As the recumbent figure was dragged away for resuscitation another speaker was quickly deputised, and the debate trundled on. The other unofficial motto of the time was 'this is a debate, not a conversation' and was used liberally to reign in speakers and audience members who neglected the rules and format of the event.

The story, as I remember it, was that John, the Auditor (chairperson) of the Society, wanted to retake the record. It had previously been set by UCG, only to be taken away by The University of South Carolina just before the Guinness Book of Records went to print ... South Carolina got the mention in print and UCG were left to languish. At that point the record was 21 days - some 504 hours. Discussions with the staff at Guinness revealed that they weren't particularly interested in seeing the record broken by a mere hour or two - they wanted something a bit more spectacular! I've no idea whether it was particularly well thought through or just said as a throwaway line, but John upped the ante and said 'how about an extra week?' ... And that's how the goal was set. 28 days ... a full 672 hours ... the month of February!!! That's what how long we talked.  When the SC record was broken John turned up early one morning in Smokey Joe's with a litre or two of orange juice and a couple of magnums of champagne, but the debate went on ... and on ...

A week later the whole talking shop moved to the Kirwan lecture theater (named for the Irish scientist Richard Kirwan, best remembered as one of the last high-profile supporters of the theory of phlogiston) for the final showdown. The final arguments were made that we did indeed have all the time in the world - I was honoured to be one of those chosen to talk on the motion ... Even if it was against it! The motion was passed and a much needed silence was held. I doubt that there was anyone who was not relieved that the debate had come to an end and that we could get on with our lives. In that final day (or maybe two) of debate, I brought along my camera (Canon EOS 100) and shot two rolls of Ilford HP5 Plus. Other than a couple of shots taken when the South Carolina record was bettered, I think they're the only photos of the event - which is a shame, as I've never been a particularly gifted photographer. That said, they're largely all we have of a visual record of that time & I'm still pretty proud of them - Those from the Smokey Joe's end of the concourse are a record of tired, tired people who know that the end is in sight ... they just have to 'keep talking', while those from the Kirwan theater capture weary minds in fatigued bodies, jubilant at their achievement, euphoric at seeing this endeavour through to the end, but not yet comfortable or apprehending of the absence of this structure in their lives.

The Kirwan lecture theatre was shut up for the night, and the hardcore of participants (colloquially known as 'hacks') retreated to The Skeffington Arms Hotel (itself colloquially known as 'The Skeff') for alcohol, lots and lots of alcohol! I still remember all the young, ecstatic but exhausted, faces looking shell-shocked that this mammoth task had been undertaken and completed. In the background, I remember a bearded, rotund, middle-aged, American gentleman (Jim R) who had come to Galway as a tourist in the first week or so of the debate, liked what he saw and stayed ... he gave up the entirety of his holiday plans to spend days on end hanging out, listening to and participating in the debate. He spent that night, filled with joy and drink, unsuccessfully hitting on most of the single guys. The following night was to be a formal Lit & Deb ball in the Great Southern Hotel (it's now known as Hotel Meyrick, taking its name from the fact that Eyre Square was once known as Meyrick Square), designed to act as the ultimate closing ceremony to the debate. Even still, for several weeks afterwards so many of us haunted the concourse area of the university and Smokey Joe's cafe in search of conversation, debate, and those friendships forged through arguing about Cadbury's Creme Eggs at 2am. The reflexes conditioned into us over those 28 days were harder to shake off than some realised. Many people reported seeing individuals placing hands on heads and standing to make a point in regular cafe discussions, leading to impassioned cries of 'this is a conversation, not a debate!'.

As these things go, time moved on and so did we. Until the advent of Facebook, I'd only really kept in contact with one of the friends I made during this time. Since Aidan set up the anniversary Facebook page and started tracking down the participants, I've become aware of the breadth of our dispersal ... some have followed their destinies and gone into law, others into public service, there are university lecturers, carers, techies and a whole host of other career and lifestyle choices amongst our number. There's even a recovering archaeologist! Some have gravitated to Dublin, the UK, into Europe, North America, Australia, or in my case to the twilight world of Northern Ireland. Just to prove that every probability curve has a far end, there's also one of the old brigade who appears to have remained solidly embedded in 1995, like a ginger Han Solo forever embedded in Lit & Deb Carbonite - still turning up to Thursday night debates in the university.

The 1996 Guinness Book of Records was out in late 1995 - in plenty of time for the Christmas market & there we were under the little heading 'Debating':
"Students and staff of University College Galway, together with special guest lecturers, debated the motion that ‘This House Has All the Time in the World’ for exactly 28 days from 2 Feb to 2 March 1995 at Galway, Republic of Ireland."
For whatever reason, the publishers didn't decide to include the record in the following year's Book, nor (I believe) in any year since. I remember one individual claiming that the disappearance of our record was solely the fault of singer/drummer Phil Collins, purely on the basis that he is the fountainhead of all evil and malevolence. While the argument is lacking in certain vital aspects, I am inclined to agree with the general thrust - Collins is not to be trusted! I've attempted to find out whether anyone else has ever tried or managed to take the record. I've been told of a rumour that a University in Iran ... or maybe Iraq ... managed it, but I can't find any hard evidence. I tried emailing the Guinness Book of Records directly, but they've not yet found the time to reply & various searches on their website have proven fruitless. All other things being equal, I think the record may still stand - and that's something to take a little pride in!

I'm not above a little nervousness at the prospect of meeting so many people that I've not seen or spoken to, for the most part, in 18 years. I wonder at the wisdom of reunions and occasionally feel that one's halcyon days shouldn't receive too much retrospective scrutiny lest the mental edifices crumble to the touch. Nonetheless, I'm willing to believe in the value of bonds forged in dysphoric circumstances & I'm going to be there. For better or worse, the reunion kicks off in the College Bar at 19:30 on Friday 27th February. If you were part of that brilliant, if utterly insane, endeavour two decades ago, I hope you'll come along and share your own disorganised thoughts and unreliable memories.

My photos of the last day or so of the Debate can be found on Photobucket

Lit N'Deb record breaker 1995 20th anniversary Facebook Page
Breaking Records by Dr David Healy (UCG Annual 2002)
Were You Part Of The Great 28-Day Debate? by Mary Cosgrove (

Literary and Debating Society of NUI Galway Facebook Page

Note: For anyone wondering at the appearance of a personal memoir in an otherwise purely archaeology-fixated blog, I'm willing to debate the point citing self excavation of memory as essentially an archaeological endeavor, with all the same time-related degradation that more conventional artefacts suffer from, along with the related processes of selective survival and recording ... try me! ... I reckon we could get an hour or two out of it at least!

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Addendum [March 3rd 2015]
After a bit of light persuasion, I've been able to convince someone who wishes only to be identified as 'someone who was there at the time' to commit a few memories to posterity. Should anyone else feel similarly drawn to add to our collective memory store, they will have a warm reception here, so please get in touch!

I remember hearing about that marathon speech you [Chapple] gave! It became a kind of record-to-beat within the record-breaker itself. One thing you may have forgotten is that people found it easy to remember who you were because you were always wearing that zany, stripey-multicoloured scarf that was literally longer than you were tall.

That small room on the concourse in which we did the debate "after hours" was room 203.

I have a memory of at least two crises that the debate underwent:

1. On the first night, 2 Feb 1995, after the proceedings had moved to that small room, sometime after midnight a window was smashed on the concourse, we reckon by someone trying to get into the debate. That's sheer pulling power: the thing had barely started and already people were going into withdrawal. I spoke to Vinnie Deane from outside through this jagged porthole, and - ever the tactical politician - he was concerned that UCG's Malvolio-esque security crew would shut the whole event down on its maiden night. I had to act as an impromptu bouncer and ask some surrounding people to move on. (There was a suspect: a weed-head whose name you might even recognise after all these years).

2.  At some point in the middle of the night during one of the weekends the whole debate nearly collapsed. The story I heard was that just three people were left in room 203 - and all were dying of exhaustion and couldn't keep going. There was Ollie Moody, Eoin McGillery and one other (possibly Catherine Johnston). In order to be quorate for a Guinness-recognised debate you apparently needed to have at least two participants: a minute-taker and a chairman, at least one of whom has to stay talking without so much as a five-second interruption. So while McGillery chaired and the other person orated, Moody dashed out into a darkened, deserted university to seek urgent help. Deep in the bowels of the science labs he found some PhD candidate hanging about waiting for an experiment to finish and so Shanghaied the guy down to room 203 and got him to speak on something, anything ... while at least one of the others got some vital shuteye and the blood-flow of students started to trickle in again once the sun came up. (Ask Oliver Moody when you meet him: I'm sure it's him I heard this story from.)

Other snippets:

Tuesday, 7 Feb: Oliver Moody, indefatigable as ever, took the podium with an exhausted look on his face and declared: "Women are shite." He was there for a while, I think, defending this particular theory. If you've spent hours and hours debating already, this was hardly the time to pick a fight on that scale. I was reminded of scenes from two Paul Newman films: Cool Hand Luke, where he's beaten bloody in a boxing match and is still swinging listlessly while on his knees, and The Hustler, in which he's played ten exhausting hours of pool into the small hours of the night and now has to begin all over again against a freshened-up Jackie Gleason. Ollie Moody deserves a kind of secular canonisation for his efforts at that debate. (Good thing there are no women in the conclave.)

There was a girl named Anne-Marie [Something] who had an English accent so prim I would mercilessly heckle her. She was also a bit diminutive. When someone asked her if she really was dating a Dutch guy who was 6 foot five and she said yes, someone explained that the Dutch have to be that height to stay above the water level.

Love - in crumbling inverted commas - blossomed here and there. One night Vinny Deane took a break from room 203 and made his move on some girl who later returned to the room looking incriminatingly tousled. After a while the subject turned to what we'd all like to have inscribed on our headstones, and when this girl's turn came, someone cut her off with: "Here lays Vinnie Deane."

We discussed poetry. A guy who wrote poems got involved in a deep discussion with some girl giving him a point of information. When he asked her if she wrote poetry and she replied No, someone in the audience barked: "And why not?"

We had a procedural motion that Jarlath Ryan get in touch with his masculine side.

A heated debate engulfed PMT one night over planning permission for some horrible development in Phoenix Park. Ronan McSweeney stepped in: "Mr Chairman, I think I can see a compromise. One wants a casino, the other wants a racecouse. I propose a rodeo."

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