English actor, comedian, writer, presenter, narrator, and director Stephen Fry was welcomed by DU Law Society on Thursday evening as the first recipient of The Trinity Praeses Elit Award in 2021. The award was established by former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and is awarded by Trinity’s Law Society to those who have advanced discourse in their line of work, and who have been a source of inspiration for young people everywhere.
Fry, with that mellow and famous Harry Potter narrating voice of his, gave a zestful response to his deserved introduction: “Well, I would like to thank you very much for thinking of me! It’s very charming to be given awards of any kind, and of course we all have immense pride and eagerness so we naturally hope that we deserve them.”
“It’s like… when we ask an athlete how they won a competition and they want to tell you it’s not talent or luck that gave them the skill; it was the hours they put in and the work they did. So, when one wins an award I hope it’s not because my face has popped up on the screen from time to time,” Fry said.
Throughout his career, Fry has been an advocate for mental health and has spoken candidly about his experience with bipolar disorder. He is also an active promoter of LGBT+ rights in the UK and around the world. “Mental health and gay activism were things that would have been inconceivable to be praised for when I was young. They were things you mostly hid – in the course of my life we have been lucky enough to overcome some of the stigma and embarrassment and shame that clouded such issues.” He is a man bold and fearless in personal views, but absolutely never short of his humorous spirit.
Fry’s re-imagining of the Greek myths is something that has greatly shaped his career in recent years, and being a student of Classics I felt some pride as the discussion arose. An aspect of ancient civilisation that he feels has been lost in modern culture is the gathering around the hearth (a symbol of home and family life). “As you sit around this hearth you talk and share views of the world – children ask why, why does it make that noise in the sky when it rains sometimes? You build up these stories for the causes of things around you, and we’ve always had this sense of the hearth; it bonds and it unites us.” The Latin for hearth is folcis in which the word focus derives from; and we have taken it as a metaphor for any kind of concentrated united energy – something which Fry feels is lost on our society.
In light of the evening’s audience of students, Law Society Auditor Jonathon Boylan asked what he thinks it is about friendships you make in university that seem so lasting, to which Fry gladly responded: “There’s something about sharing those experiences of being free – you are free in your mind during those conversations you have in people’s rooms with the coffee and the wine flowing until three in the morning” – which now seems but a distant memory of the pre-pandemic past. He expressed that college gives the student an opportunity for reinventing themselves. “You can be unembarrassed about being excited by literature and poetry and words and ideas, which at school sometimes people can think you’re a swat but here you can sit down and argue about something quite intellectual and deep; it’s rewarding and exciting.”
Fry studied at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he read for a degree in English literature. He recalled a seminar he had in his first week of college, where a girl sat next to him and they just got on “like a house on fire”. Naturally, that was Emma Thompson and it was she who introduced him to Hugh Laurie. Talent wise, not a bad year for Cambridge’s graduating class. “We were able to play – when you play as a child it’s fun and like a lion club you don’t really harm, but when you’re a bit older you play and scratch. It’s halfway to war and real life.” Looking a bit sympathetic, Fry referred to our now social Zoom life as “a bit of a horror”.
Throughout the hour, Fry made it clear to us his loving admiration for his idol – Oscar Wilde. Being on a first name basis with the poet, he referred to him like a brother. “It’s always a delight to have anything to do with TCD because, of course, my hero, Oscar, is one of your great alumni and it always makes me feel closer to him and his memory.” In 1997, Fry played the role of the poet in the film Wilde; a powerful performance which saw him nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor. “Getting to play the role of Oscar was an obvious highlight. He was someone who had formed my mind and outlook on life from quite an early age – it was a huge responsibility.”
Tennyson wrote: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” whereas Stephen Fry said: “‘Tis better to have tried and failed, than never have tried at all.” I must say, I was in awe of this man speaking from my screen, and felt simply inspired – this is the exact feeling that a recipient of The Trinity Praeses Elit Award should radiate.