University Philosophical Society (Trinity College, Dublin)

University Philosophical Society (Trinity College, Dublin)

The University Philosophical Society, commonly known as The Phil, is a student paper-reading and debating society in Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. The society meets every Thursday during term in the Graduates' Memorial Building to discuss a paper, debate a motion or hear an address.

The society

(the Hist) since its construction in 1904. It holds most of its meetings in the GMB's Debating Chamber; meetings with an expected audience above two hundred are held in larger lecture theatres in the college itself.

Like most other Irish collegiate debating societies, the University Philosophical Society is traditionally a paper-reading society, with a meeting consisting of responses to a paper rather than debate on a motion. Unlike those other societies, the Phil still keeps this tradition alive, though it now also organises debates. In addition to debate, the Phil provides facilities for its members such as games and a conversation room, and organises club nights, sporting events, blood drives, and other social events.

The Phil has a number of traditions, like Trinity's other old societies. The lectern at which speakers stand symbolises the paper-reading tradition. Toasts are made to Society, College and The King at each Session's inaugural meeting, and at the end of each session, outgoing Council members drop their keys on the table and vacate their seats for the new Council at the end of the meeting (which always happens at "midnight", regardless of the actual time). When interrupting a speaker during a debate, it is customary to stand up with one hand on your head and the other stretched outwards. Traditionally, the outward hand symbolises the offering or a point while the hand on the head shows that the gesture is a peaceful one. Should the hand be placed at one’s side, it would be considered a challenge, with the hand placed where a gentleman would have kept his sword or pistol. However, the current custom of prohibiting the lethal weapons at society meetings has led to a slackening in the observation of this rule.



In 1843, the "Dublin Philosophical Society" was founded to cater for those Trinity College students too young to join other societies in Dublin. At the time, undergraduates were not allowed to join most College societies. The DPS became the "Dublin University Philosophical Society" in 1845 when it was recognized by the college. The target audience of undergraduates was deterred by the gradual take-over of the DUPS by graduate members of College. In 1853, the "Undergraduate Philosophical Society" was founded, with the Provost of the College as its Senior Patron and protector against the rest of College, a role which the Provost retains to this day. In 1860, the Dublin University Philosophical Society dissolved, and the Undergraduate Philosophical Society changed its name to the "University Philosophical Society", incorporating both societies. This makes the Phil the oldest paper-reading society in the world, and the largest such society in Ireland.


. The Society housed the Bram Stoker archive until the foundation of the Bram Stoker Society in the 1980s.


The Phil suffered with the rest of Trinity College during the First and Second World Wars, though one notable President of the early 1940s was lawyer, Ugandan independence hero and Supreme Court Chief Justice Udo Udoma.The society admitted women in 1968 (after the resignation of the conservative President and Secretary), becoming the first mixed-sex debating society in Trinity College. A merger with the female-only University Elizabethan Society soon followed; this was a spur towards both increased female membership and increased debating in the Phil. Recent years saw the presidency of Niall Lenihan, son of then-Tánaiste Brian Lenihan, remembered as a defender of the Phil's rights of association and free speech during the visit of discredited historian David Irving.


Recently, the Phil's meetings have been divided between policy-driven paper readings, showpiece debates and interviews with luminaries like Al Pacino, Desmond Tutu and John McCain, with the result that the Phil is now a noted source of contributors to the Irish media, whether they be its pool of guests or its organising Council.


At times, The Phil has had outstanding competitive debating record, especially in the domestic Irish Times and international Observer Mace (later John Smith Memorial Mace) competitions. The society first won the Mace (the premier British and Irish university debating competition) in 1997 when the all-Scottish team of Matthew Magee, Librarian, and Alex Massie, Steward, won the title. A second victory was claimed three years later by Fergal Davis and Robert Cuffe, President.

The society runs internal debating competitions: the Eamon O'Coine Memorial Maiden Speaker's Competition, for first-time speakers in college, the satirically-titled Margaret Thatcher Memorial Debating Competition (or "Maggies"), a series of impromptu debates, and the John Pentland Mahaffy Memorial Mace. External competitions include an intervarsity debating competition, the Claire Stewart Trinity IV - Dean Swift Intervarsity - in association with the College Historical Society, and a secondary schools' public speaking competition, the AIB Phil Speaks.

Notable speakers

During its long history, the Society has recorded the presence of many notable guests, including multiple Nobel Prize laureates both before and after their receipt of the Prize, such as William Butler Yeats.


Since the academic year of October 2006 began, the Society has hosted actors David Hasselhoff, Al Pacino, Gabriel Byrne and Joanna Lumley, director Oliver Stone, Fox News presenter Bill O'Reilly, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Nobel laureate and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, investigative journalist Claudia Rosett, Arab-American political organiser and DNC member James Zogby, Canadian author John Ralston Saul, WNA Director-General John Ritch and comedian Tommy Tiernan.

In the 323rd Session, actress Helen Mirren, Modest Mouse and The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and Heather Mills have addressed the Society.


The Phil has been involved in several free speech controversies. Contributors to its debates included Oswald Mosley during his residence in Ireland. In 1988, the Society invited then-Holocaust denier David Irving to speak. A large protest by students, staff, Jewish groups, socialists, and anti-Nazi activists resulted in the meeting being relocated to a hotel conference room and held in the small hours of the morning. The traditional vote of thanks to Mr Irving for his paper was defeated, which is rare in the society's history.

More recently, the invitation to Austrian politician Jörg Haider to address the society in the Graduate Memorial Building (GMB) in late 2002 led to a protest by self-described anti-fascist activists, which continued through the debate, with noise being made outside the chamber and interjections in the society's proceedings within. An invitation to BNP official Tony Wentworth was revoked after threats of physical action by leftist groups.

Another guest to generate controversy was Islamist Anjem Choudary, who hailed the 9/11 terrorists as martyrs. The former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton threatened to withdraw from a Phil debate later that year over this invitation, which was not withdrawn. Mr Bruton is now an Honorary Patron of the Society, and Anjem Choudary has been invited to speak at the Phil's lectern several times.

Notable former presidents and members

*John Pentland Mahaffy
*John Butler Yeats
*Oscar Wilde
*Bram Stoker
*Samuel Beckett
*Ernest Walton
*Mary Robinson
*David Norris

Other notable former council members of recent years include ex-President of the Law Society of Ireland Geraldine Clarke, food critic Tom Doorley, journalists Mary Ellen Synon, Marc Coleman, Paul Gillespie, Sarah Carey, Alex Massie and Matthew Magee, and broadcasters Ruth McAvinia, Ken Early, Ger Gilroy and Colm O'Mongáin.


* [ University Philosophical Society]
* [ Stephen Yeates's telephone]

External links

* [ Trinity Debating Intervarsity]
* [ US Amb Bill Harropp on his visit to the Phil]
* [ Clifford May's syndicated article on his appearance at the Phil]

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