What makes a Phil President?

Societies Editor Georgina Francis sits down with Phil President Conn McCarrick to speak about his experience in the Phil and as a Trinity student

Photo by Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

Sitting down to meet the President of the University Philosophical Society (The Phil) Conn McCarrick, my assumption was that I was about to meet a busy man who would be checking his watch with one foot out the door, ready to run to the next of his many meetings. I was pleasantly surprised by the calm and personable man I met instead, leaning comfortably back into his chair, never once appearing frazzled, stressed, or in a rush.

The Phil is one of the biggest, and more well known societies on campus. With most first years signing up to be members, it’s fair to say a large amount of students carry a Phil card in their pocket. Founded in 1683, it has been a staple on campus since then, except in 1731 when the Phil was suspended from Trinity for shooting the Provost. Holding weekly debates on a Thursday on interesting, topical, and, at times, controversial topics, the Phil is currently led by Law student Conn McCarrick.

McCarrick boasts an impressive background, having been involved with Players, Law Soc, the SU and being the Secretary of the Society for International Affairs (SOFIA) and the Law School Convenor. Despite his impressive CV, McCarrick was like any other first year on his first day of Freshers’ Week. He recalled “being really scared going in and seeing all the society stands”. Luckily for McCarrick, he had previous experience in debating from his secondary school and knew people in the Phil. When pushed on the question of why choose the Phil over the Hist, he provided the diplomatic answer of “obviously we are similar societies with similar goals but I think I had more in common with the people and there were more events that suited me”.

In McCarrick’s second year he ran for MC in the Phil where he worked on the public relations team. Last year, in his third year at college, he was Treasurer of the Phil before he decided to run for President. Responding to how he found the election process he laughed, saying: “It was actually fine because I was uncontested.” To many, a role as prestigious as Phil President may seem like a huge undertaking and this is something McCarrick is acutely aware of. “I do sometimes feel the history of the society weighing down on me.”

A key aspect of his role is cultivating ideas and speakers for generations to come. McCarrick admitted that he emailed five or six hundred potential speakers over the summer but only heard back from ten per cent, of which not all came to speak. He pointed out that some speakers take years to encourage, and some of the work he does now may only benefit the Phil in five years time or longer. It was interesting to note he appeared incredibly humbled by the experience of being Phil President. He claimed it was his biggest achievement at Trinity and is honoured by the faith and trust the committee have placed in him.

McCarrick seemed keen to dispel the stereotype of the Phil. An example he provided was that “there’s probably a perception that the Phil is left wing, very liberal but there are people on the committee who don’t agree with that at all”. For someone from a south County Dublin background where there is a tendency to stay within the safety lines of their terrain, McCarrick seems to embrace the unknown and the different. He even stated one of his reasons for picking Trinity was to try take a different route from that of his peers. He appeared keen to forge his own path, an aim for his personal life which seems to have translated into his leadership approach, saying he would “welcome disagreement or dissenting views…we are a debating society at the end of the day.”

This year is a little easier, in a sense, for McCarrick who has taken a year out to be Phil President. His focus is clearly set on the committee as he says the break has allowed him to “facilitate all the people in the committee”. Considering the large number of people he is leading, he has enjoyed being able to support them through their individual projects. Even so, he seemed excited to return to normal student life, citing his eagerness to return to classes and start working on his dissertation and internships, and expressing his hopes for a first. He will not be taking on a role in the Phil in an official capacity but will be an honorary council member there to aid the transition of the new council and to advise the new President, though he says: “I’ll also give them space to move the committee in their own direction.”

Meanwhile, McCarrick will be working on his dissertation next year. He aims to focus on sexuality and gender in law in Ireland, an area he feels is underdeveloped. This, he hopes, will open up a career in the United Nations. On the topic of his dream speaker at the Phil, he was surprisingly non-committal but did mention Barack Obama, Meryl Streep, and Emma Watson. His favourite speaker thus far was Pierre Krähenbühl, the Commissioner General for Palestinian refugees. “He was really able to bring the audience on side, sometimes you think people are going through the motions coming to the Phil, doing it for, not even the paycheque but the benefit of the platform and the press but he seemed genuinely interested, and he was very emotive. There were people in tears.”

Despite his calm and collected exterior, he admitted that finding the balancing of academic life and society life can be really tough. McCarrick made the interesting point that “it will be a big issue for committee people in the future when there’s Christmas exams and semeristisation through Trinity Education Project (TEP), I think it will affect society culture a lot.” He thought being able to cram the majority of his workload and revision into the last few weeks meant he was able to fully immerse himself in society life. Now, with Christmas exams, he envisions societies having to change their calendar in terms of when they have important speakers and hold events.

His advice to students aspiring to be in his position was clear: your degree always comes first. Primarily start by going to all your classes and “make a goal. Stick to it. Don’t get distracted. Don’t go for coffees all the time.” The latter probably being the crux of the issue for many students! He claims that he finds being so busy has actually made him more productive, knowing he has a certain amount of time to complete a task makes him more focused. McCarrick pointed out that despite there being 16,000 students at Trinity only two to three hundred are actively involved. He views this as being an added bonus for the future as employers “may not equate it to your grades but they’ll definitely see it as a compliment to your grades.”

Conn McCarrick is undoubtedly ambitious, with a calm but driven force having, over a period of nearly four years, amassed experience in a variety of societies and having led one of Trinity’s most famous and popular ones. He presents the Phil in a light that may surprise or contrast with people’s perceptions, and he seemed to hope this would invite others to become more involved. Noting his passion when speaking about Pierre Krähenbühl, and Irish laws on sexuality and gender, it will be interesting to see where the next few years take him.

Georgina Francis

Georgina Francis is a former Managing Editor, Life Editor and Assistant Life Editor of Trinity News.