For most Trinity students, the annual December tradition of going for Commons involves a three-course meal in the Dining Hall and a night that evolves into little more than routine Christmas merrymaking.
But for new members of Dublin University Boat Club (DUBC), known as “novices”, Commons has a different meaning: in the last decade, novices have often faced a night of excessive drinking, commands to strip to their underwear, and whipping with bamboo sticks.
Though the specifics of the night vary from year to year, details provided by six current or former members of the boat club, including four who experienced the hazing first hand, paint a picture of an annual ritual that is designed to humiliate.
They spoke to The University Times on the condition of anonymity due to the culture of secrecy and intimidation associated with the night. Their accounts have been independently corroborated by emails and messages that have been obtained by The University Times.
Novices are advised of the Commons tradition a number of weeks in advance, and told that the evening, which includes the three-course meal and a reception in an “undisclosed location”, costs €50.
“Having survived this long, it is with great pleasure that I invite you all to become a true part of DUBC by attending the Clubs Christmas Commons”, one email from 2017 said.
Novices are instructed to arrive sober at the steps of the Dining Hall around 6pm. “This is not like other previous Boat Club events”, the email warned. “Anyone found to arrive in any state of inebriation will be refused entry.”
Though attendance is not strictly mandatory for novices, they are not considered “true” members until they have experienced Commons. It is only after attending Commons that novices are told they are eligible to purchase the boat club tie (€25), bow-tie (€25) and scarf (€40).
And those who miss the night are described as “uncommonsed” and are pursued the following year.
Over the course of the past decade, including in the past two years, several former members cited the hazing as a reason for leaving the club.
Christmas Commons 2017
Having survived this long it is with great pleasure that I invite all of you to become a true part of DUBC by attending the Clubs Christmas Commons.
Christmas Commons is a full three-course Christmas dinner in the Dining Hall, followed by a receiption with flowing drink and much merriment. Dress code for Dinner and Reception is strictly Black Tie.
Commons will be taking place this year on Monday 4th December, from 6 o’clock on wards, and I’ll be in contact with further details closer to the event
Novices must also bring various items to Commons. In 2017, novices were told in an email from the club’s then-secretary, Lucas Prodohl, that they should bring “one toilet roll, a packet of biscuits and a leap card with a minimum of 7 euro on it”.
One member told The University Times that the toilet roll and packet of biscuits were then given to senior members for the committee’s own use but were not used on the evening.
Most accounts indicate that the dinner itself is typically innocuous, but one member told The University Times that, in 2017, members put unidentified substances in the drinks of novices, which the novices were then told to drink.
Attendees are also told to sign a contract, which states that they will keep the night’s assignments secret. “Their attitude is: sign it or get out of here”, according to one account. And novices are told that the event is “very special” in part “because there is so much secrecy behind it”.
Following the dinner, attendees take a group photo on the steps of the Dining Hall. Photos posted on Facebook by the club in successive years, including the photo of the most recent Commons in December 2018, show senior committee members standing with canes and bamboo sticks.
Next, novices are told to assemble in Botany Bay. In 2018, novices were militaristically lined up in the pouring rain, where they downed alcohol while more senior members of the club paced in front of them, bellowing in their faces and rattling the fences of the tennis courts with the canes and bamboo sticks.
This episode was witnessed by a resident of Botany Bay and a reporter from The University Times.
To demonstrate that they had finished their drink, the novices were told to place their can, upside-down, on their heads.
DUBC Christmas Commons 2017
This coming Monday 4th December please gather at the Dining hall steps at 5:45pm. If late you will be refused entry.
This is not like other previous Boat Club events. You are not permitted to predrink before this. Anyone found to arrive in any state of inebriation will be refused entry regardless of payment.
For the evening all you will each need one toilet roll, a pack of biscuits and a leap card with a minimum of 7 euro on it.
It is expected that all members have a certain knowledge of our club, its constitution, and its history so I advise you all to learn these by Monday.
At no point during the dinner will you bring attention to the Boat Club, those who do so will be asked to leave. As is tradition, you will be expected to stand during Grace(before and after the dinner as well as when the Fellows process).
If anyone has any allergies or any food requirements, then please let me know. Following the dinner, we will take a Club photograph.
If there is anyone I have left out from this email then please let me know. Excuses will not be permitted on the night.
Please feel free to ask any questions however I would suggest against it. I wish you all the best and a Merry Christmas.
Botany Bay is also where the whipping with bamboo sticks often begins, according to several of the accounts. On multiple occasions, it has also been the starting point for a sprint, which sees novices – some told to strip to their underwear – run around Dublin city centre until they are told to stop and consume cans of beer. The last person to finish their can of beer is told to drop and do press-ups.
According to one account, the whipping on the run was so severe in one year that it resulted in lasting bruises and welts.
In all of the accounts, the “undisclosed location” is either a house owned by someone connected to the committee or an apartment rented out specifically for the night. In 2017 and 2018, this required a journey by Luas.
In both years, this journey involved chanting by members of the club on the way to their destination, in a spectacle that left some feeling distinctly embarrassed. The chanting, according to two separate people who were present, pushed other passengers to move away from the group. “People were looking at us as if we were kind of insane”, one of those people said.
In 2017, attendees were told to roam the nearby housing estate in their underwear for an extended period of time. They were also ordered to do push-ups, while other novices had their shoelaces tied to other participants.
“At one point, I’m like: ‘these guys are dictators’”, one novice said.
All of the accounts involve novices being told to crawl into the residence, where they enter a dark, tunnel-like maze. In 2017, a further twist was added, with participants told to spread their legs before embarking on the course.
In 2017 and 2018, novices were shouted at and hit with pillows as they navigated the maze, while those who attended in earlier years describe being kicked.
Many of the accounts also suggest that the night is willfully disorientating. One email sent by Prodohl about what the night entails says: “Please feel free to ask any questions however I would suggest against it.”
Commons thank you
Firstly Id like to give a big thanks to all those who made it out on Monday night, I hope you enjoyed the evening’s entertainment and certainly won’t be a Commons to soon forget.
Just a few quick things.
As I’m sure you all understand, Commons only works if people have no idea what it is about and what to expect. It is a very special event in DUBC and largely because there is so much secrecy behind it.
For that reason, if everyone could make sure to keep Monday night’s activities away from the public eyes and social media it would be very much appreciated. This includes people in other universities as well as your own (those who have not yet done Commons this year can will able to the joys of it next year if we all keep quite).
To that end, any photos or videos not should end up on any form of social media or be in any way published or shown to those who have not attended.
Finally, you are now all eligible to purchase the boat club tie, bow tie and scarf. These can be brought from us for 25 euro for each of the ties, and 40 euro for the scarf. Please get in touch if you want to buy them. The next Boat Club black-tie event will be sometime around February (Trial VIII’S).
Kind regards and welcome to DUBC,
“I remember being confused for the whole night”, one of the novices said.
Sherry is also a key part of the rituals in all of the accounts. In one year, large bottles of sherry were duct-taped to the hands of novices, and they were not permitted to enter the maze until they had downed it. In another year, novices were pitted against one another in a contest to down the bottle quickest.
In 2017, novices were forced to eat butter and to consume an unidentified brown powdery substance, according to a person who was coerced into doing so.
“You really don’t have an option at that point. There was lots of peer pressure”, one member said.
According to several accounts, the novices then engage in more mundane drinking games with the more senior members. In one year, this also involved wrestling games.
Those present then typically proceed to a nightclub, though in one account participants were too drunk to leave a building that was left trashed and covered in vomit by the end of the night.
After the event, attendees are implored to keep the night’s activities secret. “Commons”, one email stated, “only works if people have no idea what it is about and what to expect”.
“To that end, any photos or videos not [sic] should end up on any form of social media or be in any way published or shown to those who have not attended.”
In an email statement to The University Times, the captain of the boat club, William Doyle, denied that novice rowers were coerced into either stripping to their underwear or consuming alcohol or unidentified substances at the December 2018 Commons event.
He also denied that novices were whipped with bamboo sticks, even after The University Times asserted that it had obtained group chats that provide clear evidence that whipping occurred during the 2018 event, and despite the fact that members of his committee were pictured standing alongside him holding canes and bamboo sticks at the event.
“Any indication or insinuation that any of these things happened at this year’s Christmas Commons Dinner is false”, he said in the email.
He also denied the specific allegation that bottles of sherry were duct-taped to the hands of novices, but did not address a follow-up question about whether they were provided with bottles of sherry.
Doyle did not address statements about the practice of running around Dublin, or suggestions that novices are coerced into signing secrecy contracts, consuming butter, and crawling through a maze.
He said, however: “We are very pleased to part-take [sic] in the festive celebrations at the Dining Hall so excellently prepared by the TCD catering staff. It never fails to fuel our annual Yuletide Michaelmas races, so enthusiastically enjoyed by our oarspeople.”
Doyle declined to respond to follow-up questions about the activities in Botany Bay or on the Luas and declined to explain what the purpose of the night was.
He also did not address any year of Commons other than 2018.
Speaking to The University Times on the condition of anonymity, a well-placed member of the club who has attended numerous Commons events confirmed that, in the past, many members had quit as a result of the hazing they had experienced on the night. “The tradition was pretty bad a few years ago. No point in denying it”, he said.
He also confirmed that members were asked to sign contracts in 2018, but said that this aspect was “part of the act” and “just builds tension about what the night could hold”.
He stressed, however, that the event had become more tame in recent years, and that it was now more about ratifying a sense of belonging among members.
“We try to ensure that as many people have a challenging but enjoyable night as possible. Obviously there are things we could do better but it in its current form Commons is no more than a weird night out.”
He called the most recent Commons in December 2018 a “fairly benign night”, and countered claims that novices were forced to drink. Sherry, he said “was gifted to the rowers after the event at a party”.
Five other members of the boat club who were approached for comment responded with the same image of a committee member, that of Mark Connolly, the current honorary secretary of the club.
Though they may not be aware of the specifics of the activities, there are members of both Trinity Sport and Dublin University Central Athletic Club’s (DUCAC) Executive Committee that are aware that hazing of some form occurs within the boat club, according to a person with direct knowledge of discussions within both groups. This person also spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to reveal the content of private conversations.
However, those members who take issue with hazing feel that, because of the profound culture of secrecy surrounding these activities and the fact that no-one has come forward, they have no way of tackling it. “Nobody complains about it to Trinity Sport, and nobody is willing to talk about it when they are asked”, the person said.
It is also the case, this person said, that some members do not see hazing as an issue.
Speaking at the DUCAC AGM in October, Michelle Tanner, the head of Trinity Sport, reminded those present of Trinity’s dignity and respect policy.
“We do expect you as club members to be ambassadors for Trinity Sport and display good behaviour at all times”, Tanner said. “But for any reason if any of you notice anything – any unsavoury behaviour, initiations or hazings that are often associated with sport, please bring it to our attention.”
In an email statement to The University Times, the College Press Officer, Caoimhe Ní Lochlainn, said that “Trinity takes matters such as these very seriously and absolutely condemns such practices”.
“We will be fully investigating the alleged incidents and would ask anybody who might have information that could help us with this inquiry to come forward. The information will be treated in absolute confidence and individuals will be supported fully in this process. Student counselling and other student supports will be made available for students affected by these reported incidents.”