Getting the Guests: How do the Hist and Phil do it?

Kate Byrne sits down with the leaders of the Hist and the Phil to ask how they have achieved their star-studded list of guest visitors

Over the years, both the College Historical Society (The Hist) and the University Philosophical Society (The Phil), have been known for their array of impressive guest speakers. From American senator Bernie Sanders to Irish influencer Keelin Moncreiff, both societies have been busy over the past year compiling and hosting speakers that appeal to a broad range of interests. It’s only natural to wonder about the behind-the-scenes processes of securing and hosting such high-status individuals. That’s why I sat down with Áine Kennedy, auditor of the Hist, and Jack Palmer, President of the Phil, to get the inside scoop on how exactly the process works.

There are a variety of reasons an individual can be invited to either society. Sometimes, guests get directly involved in the heart of these societies: the debates. “Probably the one that a lot of people will remember for this year is our event with Leo Varadkar and László,” noted Áine It’s not always about doing a Q&A and address.” The former Taosieach, who was a keynote speaker discussing the importance of student debate, was met by Trinity College Student Union President Láslzó Molnárfi, who gave an address sporting a “Fine Gael Out, Fianna Fail Out, Greens Out” t-shirt. Such events are symbols of the Hist’s commitment to fostering public discourse, which is the very essence of what the society stands for.

Other times, guests are invited to receive an award from the respective society. For Jack, anyone who has “done well in their respective fields” is worthy of an Honorary Patronage (Hon Pat) from the Phil. He noted that at the start of the year, he “deliberately” invited people that would be “somewhat interesting with the crowds”, while others may not have been “fun household names, but people who are super interesting to listen to, and our members could learn a lot from”.

One of these lesser-known figures includes Munroe Bergdorf, who particularly left her mark on Jack. The Phil President described her level of public speaking as “by far the best” that he had seen during his time in the role. “That was the kind of address you’d expect out of, not just a politician, but a president or prime minister.” Bergdorf, who was the first transgender model in the UK for L’Oreal, was described by Palmer as a better public speaker than “Bernie Sanders, who is a politician”.

This feeling is shared by the Hist, with Áine mentioning that, “sometimes the most coolest, or most interesting speaker events can often be actually people that maybe don’t have the same name recognition.” She added that “it’s sort of a shame, the sense that sometimes you don’t want to invite a guest and then put them into an empty room.” She cited Lea Ypi as one of the most interesting guests of the year, who documented the experience of communist to post-communist Albania in her book Free.

“When it comes to pleasing the crowd, these societies have hit the nail on the head”

Áine noted that some people have a “cult following” which can be “quite funny”. She said that in the case of Rory Stewart’s visit to the Hist, some people were fan-girling, while others “hadn’t heard of him”. Stewart, known for his podcast ‘The Rest is Politics’, drew a crowd of  “probably 90% men. It was really interesting, the audience.” She added that it was “really unfortunate” that the visit of Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand had to be a closed event due to “privacy concerns and security concerns, given that she was a ‘dream guest’” of Áine’s and likely would have garnered a large turnout of students.

It is perhaps the actual securing of these guests that has most of us curious, given their high status and busy schedules. Jack from the Phil acknowledged that “they’re such busy people that actually finding a date is hard.” He added that “we don’t pay them,” so “if they get a gig that comes up, they’ll prioritise that.” While sometimes someone has “a connection” to the guest, the societies have reached out themselves to invite guests. In the case of Bernie Sanders, Jack contacted the American Embassy after seeing he was visiting Ireland. He described the process as something that “can be chaotic”. He discussed emailing Dr. O’Meara-Sanders, wife and adviser to Bernie Sanders, while “on a zoom call with my girlfriend” on Valentine’s Day. He looks back on this moment fondly, saying “the fact that it all came together, I was like, okay, that was a lot of work on that one I’ve got that one Hon Pat in my year that was just huge”.

Áine shared this star-struck feeling when dealing with potential guests, saying that “normally you’re dealing with a diary manager or a personal assistant,” but actor Hugh Grant, who intends to visit the Hist in the future, was emailing Áine himself. He wrote in one of his emails that he was “very flattered” by Áine when talking about this, Áine simply smiled and said: “Hugh Grant is flattered by me.” She described this as a “drop your phone moment”.

Being my nosy self, I of course wanted to hear some gossip about the guests that the societies have hosted over the years, but neither person had a bad word to say about anybody. Áine said that “I kind of wish I had some goss to give,” but “they’ve all been really lovely.” She added that “often we bring guests for dinner, and like, I’ve never had a bad or awkward dinner at all.” Jack echoed this, saying that he got “really lucky with all the celebrities this year”. He was pleasantly surprised by actor Simon Pegg, who stayed at a dinner with members of the Phil until quite late. “We got a few courses, but then were also ordering coffees at the end, [he] stayed chatting, drinking the coffee for ages.”

“I guess it’s safe to say there’s no short answer to how the Hist and the Phil pull it off year after year”

Neither Áine nor Jack had a clear-cut outline of how they secure their guests. What is clear is the sense of fulfilment, pride, and satisfaction that comes from securing such extraordinary people, whether it was a personal hero or a crowd-pleasing celebrity. While as a student body, we may remember high-profile guests such as Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, or Martin Scorsese, it’s evident that a big name does not necessarily equal a big impact on the hearts and minds of these societies’ members. This is a reflection of these societies’ commitments to give voice to as many people as possible, platforming various issues, and, of course, fostering discourse.

Both societies encourage you to suggest who you would like to see them host in the future. The Hist encourages you to fill out the form at the link in their Instagram Bio, (@tcdhist), while The Phil asks you to email [email protected] with any suggestions.

Kate Byrne

Kate Byrne is the Deputy Comment Editor at Trinity News and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying History and Political Science.