When asked about their first day on campus, few Trinity students would fail to mention the impressive and exciting Freshers’ Fair. Joining (too many) societies is a rite of passage into college. Society culture is a defining and much-advertised feature of life in Trinity. The consensus is that involving yourself in societies is a fundamental component of making the most out of your time in college, because it will provide you both with solid friendships and valuables additions to your short résumé.
However, once you have graduated, what is the actual impact of being a society alumnus in the long run? Coming up with a general and precise answer is far from easy, not the least because “society alumni” is not a group as easily defined and tracked down as college alumni as a whole. Furthermore, students associations are sometimes transient organisations.
Indeed, while Trinity College is more than four hundred years old, societies did not appear there overnight and many of them have enjoyed only a short lifespan. As it takes time to invent the tradition and means to sustain an alumni network, only few societies are able to base part of their appeal on the sheer number and prestige of their former members.
Unsurprisingly, the Hist (College Historical Society) and the Phil (University Philosophical Society), because they are the oldest and among the most prestigious societies on campus, are both the most capable and the keener to emphasize who their numerous “notable members” were. Funnily enough, the two societies often choose to celebrate the same personalities, especially Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett.
The life and career of Stoker was quite influenced by his thorough involvement in both societies. He even succeeded in being alternatively the Auditor of the Hist and the President of the Phil. However, the two others were not as high-profile members in their time. In the case of Beckett, most of his biographies do not even mention any specific interest for debating circles during his days as a Trinity student and his later worldwide success as a playwright seems to have little relationship with his time spent in the GMB.
The same cannot be said about DU Players alumni. If you are familiar with the Irish theatrical scene, you may have noticed that many actors, directors, and playwrights emphasize, when they are interviewed, how being a member of DU Players turned out to be instrumental in their professional development. Such is the case, for instance, for Cian O’Brien, artistic director of the Project Art Centre or Pauline Turley, vice chair of the Irish Art Centre in New York.
Being part of the DU Players is so associated with the pursuit of a theatrical career that, last January, when he hosted a reading by his former student Anne Enright, Prof Nicholas Grene remembered his surprise at her not becoming a playwright after so many hours spent in Samuel Beckett Theatre.
To assess the significance of commitment to the societies in the life of Trinity alumni, it is also tempting to turn to the yearbooks published by past and present societies. Yet such publications often highlight events rather than people and only mention committee members rather than emphasizing the actions of ordinary members.
In that respect, the Central Society Committee published an interesting document in 2015 aimed at publicizing the importance of societies for the personal development of every Trinity student. Entitled “Society Alumni Testimonials”, the online, 72-page leaflet reads predictably like a celebration of the absolute necessity of the continuing existence of the CSC, while providing its reader with savoury insights into the society memories of Trinity alumni.
Among others, the then-Minister for Health Leo Varadkar fondly remembers that, once during his Trinity years, his Young Fine Gael group received a “Society of the Year Award”. John Connolly states that being committed to the English-Speaking Union, forerunner of Trinity Literary Society, eased his life as a mature student on campus.
Last but not least, Senator David Norris happily confesses that he was expelled from the Phil and the Hist during his first term in Trinity. Ironically, the societies that respectively condemned him for not paying a fine and being guilty of “academic nudity” – that is to say, showing up without a gown at a meeting – consider him nowadays as one of their most prominent alumni.
Whether they were considerably involved or only tenuously, the famous alumni interviewed by the CSC testify that being a society alumnus is, for many, as important as being a Trinity alumnus, if only because it brightens up and alleviates the challenge of their student years.