As the #LeadershipRace approaches, the hacks are slithering out of the CSC incubation chambers and preparing to infest the campus with shiny t-shirts, hollow promises and glossy leaflets with an average handout-to-bin lifespan of about five seconds. Still though, the bracing winds of change are set to blow through Mandela House. Reforms are afoot (and I’m not talking about the regrettable name-change – The Leadership Race? What were they thinking?). The word on the cobbles is that the position of communications officer is to be separated from the role of editor of UT for next year’s elections. The rumoured reasons for this decision are not ones which this writer approves of. But at any rate, the role of the comms sabbat was hardly the one most crying out for reform. The position which, to my mind, is most in need of tinkering with is that of the Ents officer. There is a moral problem with Ents as it currently operates, and this problem has to do with Ireland’s “drinking culture”. Yes, this ground has been well trod by scores of broadsheet columnists peddling their well-rehearsed shock to the middlebrow masses. But the fact that Ireland’s alcohol condition has become a cliché is more an indictment of Irish society than of the lack of imagination of the news media’s opinion mongers.
The first day that I moved in to Trinity Halls, myself and the rest of the freshers crammed into the gym where the warden, Brendan Tangney, was to treat us to a welcoming lecture. Tangney spent much of the lecture warning us to “be reasonable” when consuming alcohol – “it’s not that I expect you not to get drunk” he said wryly, to general laughter. The warden was followed by a Garda sergeant who warned us not to get smart with the cops when they bring us home drunk. Then that year’s JCR and SU Ents officers, James Doyle and Dave Whelan, took the stage. They began to outline the feast of club nights that awaited us for whole week ahead. The students grew more and more excited and the involuntary whoops of joy rose to a hysteric chorus when Dave Whelan roared at the crowd “are you ready to party?” (In the interests of journalistic probity I should point out that he didn’t utter these exact words, but he said something fairly similar). The crowd went wild. Brendan Tangney probably wished that he’d included complimentary nappies in the welcome goodie bags.
That night we tanked up on Karpackie and Tesco Value Vodka before piling into specially commissioned JCR buses. Warden Tangney stood at the top of the bus queue reminding us to leave our cans and naggins behind and advising us to “be reasonable”. We went off to some club then, full of high spirits and high hopes. I don’t remember where we went exactly – the Palace maybe, or DTwo. One sweatbox is like another. This was our induction into college life. And so things continued for the following year. I won’t deny that I, along with thousands of others, had some good times on the beer, and I won’t deny that alcohol also did, as it still does, seem a prerequisite for having fun. But I saw ugliness as well. Ugliness in myself, and ugliness in others. We laughed it off. We were drunk. Consequences could not spill over the strict border between the night out and the morning after.
“Then that year’s JCR and SU Ents officers, James Doyle and Dave Whelan, took the stage. They began to outline the feast of club nights that awaited us for whole week ahead. The students grew more and more excited and the involuntary whoops of joy rose to a hysteric chorus when Dave Whelan roared at the crowd “are you ready to party?” The crowd went wild. Brendan Tangney probably wished that he’d included complimentary nappies in the welcome goodie bags.”
Except, of course, they did. The entrenched nature of alcohol as a social problem has long been illustrated by the figures. According to an HSE study, 88 deaths a month are directly attributable to alcohol. One in four deaths of young men aged 15-39 in Ireland are alcohol related. Alcohol is a textbook eternality. While the cost to the consumer is cheap – a woman can reach her low risk weekly drinking limit for ¤6.30, a man for under a tenner – the cost to society is enormous. The HSE reckons it to be ¤3.7billion a year in health, crime, public order and other ancillary costs. This, of course, cannot describe the incalculable human cost. Death, broken homes, abuse, and depression – our own SU president, Tom Lenihan, has spoken of the link between his mental health problems and alcohol abuse.
It should be clear, then, that alcohol is a social problem in Ireland, particularly so for young people. This can’t be helped by having a full time SU officer whose primary role is to organise club nights. I do not think that this problem would be solved by ending Ents club nights altogether. In fact, Ents probably organises relatively safer experiences for Trinity students. As Sean Reynolds, the current Ents officer pointed out to me, Ents does not, unlike midweek clubs, organise or advertise discount drink deals. But it’s unlikely that this makes a huge difference. With the “pre-drinking culture”, as Warden Tangney referred to it on the warning posters inside every Halls residential house, most alcohol is consumed before people even reach the clubs.
So ending Ents club nights would be a mere drop of diluted Prazsky in a vast ocean of Tesco’s finest own brand spirits. In practical terms, it would have no effect. But the worry is moral, not practical. In the light of Ireland’s drinking problem, having the organisation of club nights as a major function of the Student’s Union seems, at best, irresponsible.
There is a morally admirable side to Ents however. Every year, a certain proportion of Ents revenue is ringfenced and donated to a number of organisations such as the student hardship fund and cancer soc. So far, almost ¤10,000 has been allocated for this purpose and Reynolds aims to raise €40,000 by the end of the year. Meeting this target includes raising a record-breaking €20,000 during rag week. This would seem to provide a moral counterweight to the problems raised above. Reynolds has also broken new ground for Ents officers by organising two gigs on campus during Michaelmas term – Le Galaxie in Players’ Theatre and James Vincent McMorrow in the chapel. Reynolds intends to hold three more campus concerts this term in the dining hall, chapel and players’ theatre. Could on campus gigs combined with more events such as the Surf Sail Salmon weekend held yearly in Sligo supply an alternative to the usual diet of club nights, while also raise funds for worthy causes? Entertainment, the brief of the Ents officer, is, after all, a term which has a wider range of referents than just jerking sloppily to house music in the Button Factory. So maybe the moral worry surrounding Ents can be resolved with a changed focus on what kind of entertainment is actually provided. But there are also practical concerns. Is it the best use of SU money to organise club nights when there is an almost anxiety-inducing range of choices available to students who want to head out? According to Reynolds, most of the Ents organised nights sell well, many sell out. Not all of them do however. I spoke to one man who paid into an Ents club night in the Button Factory only to find the staff cleaning up and getting ready to go home – the night had been cancelled due to lack of demand. When I spoke to Reynolds he claimed that this night was exceptional – the weather was awful, and the event was held in the week after reading week when many students have exams and essay deadlines. Without carrying out some sort of audit of Ents club night attendance, I can’t know for sure how well-attended most nights are. However, having already accrued a surplus of ¤10,000 since the start of the year (not including that money ringfenced for fundraising), it seems likely that the Ents nights are sufficiently popular to justify themselves – according to the impartial arbitration of market forces at least.
It might also be argued that it is unnecessary to have a role for a full-time Ents officer – most colleges don’t have one. Only DIT and Trinity have Ents officers in full-time sabbatical positions though UCD has a full-time staff member who performs the same functions. It seems repugnant however, to argue that someone’s job be scrapped merely because it does not exist in other organisations. It is unnecessary too when the position is financially viable – Ents usually brings in a surplus.
The solution, I think, is to reform the position of Ents officer by broadening the functions and duties of the job. There is no reason why entertainment should be confined to within the sweaty walls of a nightclub. Reynolds has made some steps in this direction through holding on-campus concerts. His plans to develop a codified financial policy and an explicit obligation to raise funds should also be applauded. But the kinds of entertainment on offer should be broadened to provide an alternative to the dispiriting excesses of Irish drinking culture. Humans have devised countless different ways of entertaining themselves. All that’s required is a little imagination.