Front Square and the Membership Battleground

Breaking down exactly what's happening this week, and what societies do to prepare for it.

Tom MyattEditor-at-Large
Laura Finnegan for The University Times

As the morning mist rises, the war-weary warriors prepare for battle. Cold, determined and probably hungover, they know the fight of their lives is ahead of them. They prepare. They wait. They attack. This, my friends, is the annual college society marketplace, the “Freshers’ Fair”, where students freely browse their extracurricular betterment opportunities for the forthcoming year. Society members, hacks and general busybodies prey on innocent students, convincing you to pay the membership fee for one of Trinity’s 119 societies and 50 sports clubs. Everything you could possibly want is there, whether it be knitting, politicking, or breakdancing. Front Square gives you an opportunity to get involved and to meet the people who do it all.

The number of people you’ll meet will amaze you. They will be friendly, and trying to sell you membership to their society or club, but there’s a much finer science to their selling strategies than might be apparent at first. The persuaders try a number of approaches, some which work fantastically and some which produce the entirely wrong result. I once saw a man attack an unsuspecting woman with a water cannon in the face before trying to persuade her to join one of the water sports societies. Needless to say, she did not oblige. Another strategy is reminiscent of Jehovah’s Witnesses at your door, where society hacks pretend they don’t notice that you’re not interested. One must always be forceful in your rejection. Others will talk to you about something unrelated, while they lay on the charm heavily, before dropping the m-bomb: membership. I once was talking to a girl about Argentina, only for her then to say that’s where she first learned to be a photographer and that I should join the photography society. Not quite my cup of tea. To these people, the technique is what it’s all about. Tread with caution.

Those who only get up at 7am will be doomed to the area by the buttery.


Above all though, spare at least a small bit of sympathy for them. The work is long and fraught with sleep-depraved peril. Those volunteering have to be up early, not just “Father Ted catching the milkman” time, but at such an ungodly hour so as to beat the other societies in getting the best places. If you want to get the most sign-ups, you have to be at the front or on the main path. Those who only get up at 7am will be doomed to the area by the Buttery. The senior committee members also have to worry about membership cards, goodie bags and other paraphernalia, the planning for which begins months in advance. Then, after a long day of selling and persuading, they probably have to work more: organising a pub crawl perhaps, or catching up with friends they haven’t seen since May. Five hours of sleep later and we’re all up early for the same thing again.

If you’re in first year, you’ll doubtless sign up to a million societies. We all did it. Some you will never do anything with again, like the Psychology Society and Horse Racing in my case. Some things you’ll try once and decide it’s not for you, but others you’ll love so much that it will define the rest of your time in Trinity. Some of these groups seem extremely tight-knit, but don’t let this intimidate you. Just remember that, despite the clichés and not-so-gentle persuasion, they’re just trying to get as many people as possible to enjoy what their group has to offer.

The world of societies is a civilisation of its own. There’s inter-society gossip, extended networks of committee leaders and a spooky cartel called the Central Societies Committee (CSC) that regulates everything. Some societies improve, some get shut down, and every now again we unearth the odd bit of gossip.

Charlie Collins, Vice-President of An Cumann Gaelach, explained to us that Freshers’ Week is the most important few days of the society calendar. This is where a society is made or broken for the rest of the year. If a society falls short of its membership ambitions, there will be less money for events and less activity on campus. Their planning begins in April, weeks even before the summer, and the entire break sees the committee rushing to make sure Freshers’ Week will be flawless.

Many societies start planning for the calamities of this great week surprisingly early on. Committees are usually elected in March and April, with many societies beginning their planning as soon as the new committee is elected. Psych Soc, for example, begins their preparations “once the new committee are elected in April.” According to their Chair, Katie Browne: “Ideas and plans are discussed based on the success of events held the previous year”. Biosoc work similarly, according to their Chair, Bearach Reynolds, who tells us: “Planning for freshers week starts before the Summer. Sponsors are contacted, cards and tshirts designed and the year ahead gets planned.”

Trinity Ladies Hockey starts their preparation about a month beforehand according to club captain, Clare Stead: “Typically we kickstart the process by working on our flyers- our PRO puts the design together and we make sure there’s plenty of time to get them printed. Around the same time we start putting together a schedule of volunteers to man the stall and plan any social events we want to run during the week.”

Many of the smaller societies are under less pressure to start so early, and they tend to already have a fixed devotee base. Keri Kaufman, Chair of Knitting Society told us that, for them, planning doesn’t need to be done until a couple of weeks before the big days. With smaller, niche societies, where there are no societies directly competing with you, the people who are interested in participating will find them. This makes a prolonged and exhausting recruitment campaign less necessary. If you want to join a society that reflects your specific interests it’s best to find the CSC guide and go out and find them in front square.

The number of members each society will sign up will vary dramatically, depending on their focus and the effort they go to during the week. The CSC classifies Trinity societies into small, medium and large societies and, while these distinctions don’t really come into play until the annual Society of the Year awards, there are obvious differences in the way these differently sized societies market themselves.

According to Ludivine Rebet, President of the Phil, the society signs up thousands of members a year. This number is impressive when you consider that a member only needs to sign up once in their four years. The Phil’s legacy obviously comes into play here, with many people having heard of the society before they come to Trinity, but the society also markets itself with their lineup of celebrity guests, free food and the fact that joining in first year gives you membership for all four years of your time in Trinity.

Some societies have grown impressively larger in recent years by moving beyond their initial brief. For example DU History broke its own records last year with an extremely successful Freshers’ Week campaign that placed them as one of Trinity’s most active societies, signing up 600 members on a one-year membership. By hosting unique events that interest students beyond those that just study history and by marketing their Freshers’ Week publication they’ve successfully become one of the most talked-about societies in recent years. Law Soc, similarly, have moved beyond targeting just Law students, explaining to anyone who will listen about their always impressive events lineup, their celebrity guests and their goody bags , the contents of which which usually means newly signed-up members make their money back, and more, instantly.

The number of members a society aims for is relative. Working at the Society for International Affairs stand in its first year of operation, we were exceptionally happy to get 200 sign-ups. Don’t let these figures alter your perceptions though: while big societies can offer more and higher-profile events, smaller ones have a much warmer community feel to them. Smaller societies that are associated with courses pull in members somewhat automatically, with those who study those subjects likely to seek them out.

When it comes to its pitch, each society must find what makes it unique – why you should part your money with them and not the others. In the case of the largest societies, like the Hist, signing up is pushed as something that just has to be done in order to fully grasp the Trinity experience. With smaller societies they often have a monopoly on a certain interest or automatically attract people from a certain course.

Dale O’Faoilléacháin, PRO of the Clinical Therapies society, told me : “Our main selling points are that we offer both social and academic support to the therapy students in TCD to include Radiation therapy, Physiotherapy, Occupational therapy and Speech and Language. Since we are all on placements at different times throughout the year it’s nice to have a society that you can always turn to when you’re available.” The society is brand new this year, and while its main focus is to “represent the students of the 4 courses”, they express that they’d love to see members from outside the therapies join up. Biosoc, similarly primarily cater for students in Medicine and Health Science courses while Psych Soc members are predominantly students of psychology, while Katie told us that “many members have said that the small and intimate society better enables them to form lasting friendships.”

Meanwhile, Cumman Gaelach have a monopoly on Irish language and culture and adapts its pitch accordingly. Irish-speaking students are appealed to on the grounds of the society being a means to enjoying the company of fellow speakers, while international students are made aware that it is the only place in Trinity to engage with and learn about traditional Irish culture. Trinity VDP, our large charitable society, gives free membership and has a wealth of good works that it engages in. Again, they occupy a monopoly on this interest, and last year was able to gain 2000 new members. Just as importantly, the chair of the society, Martha Shackleton, speaking to The University Times summed up her advice as: “Being a large, free society known for the buzz and being generally sound helps matters!”

When it comes to its pitch, each society must find what makes it unique – why you should part with your money

One of the biggest incentives to join is, of course, the contents of the goodie bags which can often be worth more than the membership fee. The secret to assembling these bags is getting sponsors to donate them. SOFIA talks to embassies to get freebies from pens coloured in the German tricolour to lapel badges of the State of Israel. You can usually find pens, crisps, vouchers and the likes, yet many societies are claiming “secrets” are abound this week. The Phil has managed to disclose that it will be giving not one but two bags to each enlistee, the Students’ Union will continue its annual pizza runs, and Knitting Soc will have Innocent smoothies. Shackleton added that, while there won’t be a goodie bag from VDP, “I did hear some whisperings about some pizza being donated?!”

Speaking to The University Times, Kean Kavanagh, Auditor of Law Soc revealed that there would be “five Euro Spar vouchers and our membership cards give you deals on the IFI cinema, Spar in Nassau and College Green, coffee, Wagamamas, Covet dress rental”, an impressive haul that would mean a new member would get their money back, and more. It is these details that can make all the difference in a your decision to join a society that might not directly appeal to your interests.

Ultimately a lot of it comes down to visibility, having a large number of proactive members in front square gives out an excellent image and projecting feeling that signing up is something that needs to be done. Societies that have highly-motivated and personable society members who ventured out from the stands with clipboards, bringing people to their table often reap the rewards.

For a fresher the week can be annoying, persistent, exhausting and overwhelming at times. For those involved in the societies, it’s that times a hundred. Given there are well over a hundred societies doing this, you can see that freshers week is huge business. But these are people who have found something they love, and are looking to share it with you. Do talk to them, do sign up to so many societies that you regret it later, and do go to events. You may end up with a bag of useless flyers but you might find the odd cup noodle in there too. This is your best chance to have a great year and a great time in college. Make sure you make the most of it!

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