The no women allowed, very secretive club in Trinity College Dublin
Theta Omnicron, a 100-strong fraternity, is unknown even to most current students
Zita Psi members in College Park, Trinity College, from the fraternity’s Facebook page, which stopped posting new content in 2015
“I’m a third-year student and I’ve never heard of them.”
“I know something had started up, but I thought it had been banned by the college.”
“Where do these people hang out? We never see them.”
“Do I know what Theta Omicron is? Haven’t a clue.”
“Trinity has a frat? No way.”
These are some of the responses from students at Trinity College Dublin when asked if they had heard of a fraternity called Theta Omicron, which has existed in the college since 2012. The Trinity fraternity is part of an international network called Zeta Psi, and is the only college fraternity in Ireland.
In this country fraternities are almost exclusively associated in the public consciousness with American universities. At their simplest fraternities are invite-only undergraduate male clubs that usually operate autonomously of their universities. Long-established fraternities often own their own premises off campus, known as “frat houses”, where they meet, and some members also reside there.
There are many well-known former fraternity members. They include the current US vice-president Mike Pence; Speaker of the House Paul Ryan; former presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton; actors Jon Hamm, Brad Pitt and Robert Redford; businessman Warren Buffett, and scores of others.
In the US most universities have a number of fraternities operating within them, and for many undergraduates it’s not a question of if they will join a fraternity but which one.
The most notorious element about fraternities is the practice of “hazing”. Hazing is a process where – theoretically – fraternity members test the commitment of potential new entrants. Really it’s an excuse to deliberately goad a person via peer pressure into seeing how much, physically and mentally, they can endure.
There has been on average one death a year from hazing in the US, and sometimes several. This year alone there have been four to date.
Lauck Walton is the current executive director of the Zeta Psi International Headquarters, based in the US. Speaking to The Irish Times by phone, Walton says Trinity students petitioned the organisation for a charter, which is what a new fraternity needs to start its own chapter, and was successful.
Zeta Psi was founded in 1847, and currently has 2,300 undergraduate members, with some 100 of them at Trinity. While Zeta Psi is the name of this particular fraternity, each university where there is a branch (known as a chapter) has an individual distinguishing name, derived from a unique combination of Greek letters. Trinity’s fraternity is Theta Omicron. Joining a fraternity is known as “Greek life”.
When I asked Walton how he would define his particular fraternity, he said, “Zeta Psi is a traditional Greek letter society. It was founded as a place for like-minded students to come together and to talk about the issues of the day. They started debating groups, and they looked to classical Greece for inspiration about democracy. Obviously things change over time, but the mission of Zeta Psi is to develop men of character and intellect.”
Zeta Psi is “much smaller” than most fraternities, says Walton. “We are very selective about where we put our chapters. We are a bit unconventional in that we are prepared to take a leap of faith sometimes, which is how we ended up in Trinity College Dublin.”
When approached by Trinity students to establish a chapter, “we were open to trying to make it work”, he says.
As part of what Walton describes as a “chapter development process” with Trinity students, alumni travelled to Dublin several times for meetings. Walton also visited Dublin.
“For the students in the Theta Omicron chapter, I think they get to see a bigger world and I think for the right student that is pretty attractive,” he says. “There are alumni from the US who do business in Ireland who have helped them [former Trinity members] with connections and prospects. We have some of the Trinity alumni working in the US.”
What about the accusation that an invitation-only society by definition is elitist and non-inclusive?
“I understand the criticism, and when you invite your members you are open to those charges,” he says. “But I think it is up to the guys at each chapter to invite people they like, because this is just a society of friends who are trying to work together to develop themselves intellectually and to understand right from wrong.”
“Alex” is a third-year student at Trinity who has been approached to be a member of Theta Omicron. “There was always a weird kind of mystery around the frat with students,” he says, laughing. “I think it benefits a lot from the secrecy around it.”
When I asked why Alex didn’t want me to use his real name, he said the frat hadn’t been for him. “I’m just as ambitious as the people in the frat. I don’t need to be in it to prove that.”
Alex explains how he was approached. “You have to be asked by someone who is already in the frat. Initially, it was a chat. The tone of it was, ‘Would you be interested in joining?’ Then you meet with more senior members, and they outline everything: what you have to do to get in, and why it will be good for you.
“You’re having a chat with them, but it’s really an audition. The tone of it is, you’ve been approached because it’s considered by the people already in it that you would be a good frat member.”
Alex says the existing frat members “kept hammering home the fact that the frat was international, and that you’d have all these contacts in the US. I heard stories of people getting J1s for free, and that loads of former members were in all these famous companies, and could help you get jobs if you were thinking of going into those fields. Most frat members seem to come from the business and economics faculties. Oh, and they said they were big on charitable work too.”
Next came the “rush” phase. This is a four-week period where potential members get to know current members. “There’s a wiggly handshake and all, like the Masons.”
Alex was one of about 30 potential new members that year, and there were an existing hundred or so active members on campus. “You have to do tasks that are team bonding.”
“Having a black tie meal in McDonald’s. You had to have a picture of yourself with a fox. Things like that. But it’s definitely not hazing like it is in some American frats. They told us at the beginning that our process is more like team-building; nobody is going to make you drink a pint of vodka or do things you don’t want to do.”
Those who are deemed suitable during the “rush” period then enter a two-week “pledge” phase. The selection process takes up a considerable portion of the student week, and those who make it to the frat agree to spend a large chunk of time with other frat members.
After the “pledge” period those deemed to be suitable members receive a “bid” email telling them they will be initiated into the fraternity.
The “pledge” period is when hazing is at its most virulent in most fraternities. Fraternities in the US and elsewhere formally forbid hazing. But rules are ultimately useless if a group of young adults who are meeting in private decide to ignore them, as happened in February this year in the US.
Pledge Tim Piazza, a student at Pennsylvania State University, died two days after falling down a stairs in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at an initiation ceremony. (Pennsylvania State has 50 other fraternities.) He had been pressurised to drink more than 18 drinks in a period of less than 90 minutes; vodka, beer and wine, in a challenge known as “the Gauntlet”. His spleen was ruptured, and half his skull had to be removed to relieve pressure on his brain before he died in hospital.
Hazing is banned in Zeta Psi, the fraternity of which Trinity’s Theta Omicron is a chapter. “When chapters fall into hazing they are closed. It is non-negotiable,” says Lauck Walton. “Over the years we have had several incidences of hazing. Hazing is insidious; it seems to creep back. We try to push it down and push it down and keep it out, but it’s amazingly resilient as a practice.”
What is hazing as Walton defines it?
“Anything that someone needs to do to be part of a group that is done against their will,” he says. “There is hazing in Ireland: I am sure there is, because it is fairly universal. My guess is that there are stunts sports teams do that’s hazing.”
He gives an example. “Hey, rookie, to be on the team you need to put this dress on, or you need to drink this, or eat something that isn’t very nice, or get yelled at. All of those are hazing. We don’t want any of it.”
Student Benn Ó hÓgáin, chair of Trinity’s Central Societies Committee (CSC), emails me a statement about Zeta Psi. “The Dublin University CSC is aware of the existence of a group calling itself Zeta Psi and its being of the nature of an American fraternity organisation. The organisation has neither approached the CSC for recognition nor has the CSC granted it recognition.”
Walton confirms that the Theta Omicron fraternity has “no affiliation with Trinity whatsoever”.
“Maybe there will be a time when the university reaches out to us, but I don’t foresee it any time soon.”
The Irish Times asks Walton, both by phone and in several emails, to put us in touch with former or current members of Trinity’s Theta Omicron. He promises to try, but points out that members sign up to join a fraternity, not to talk to the media. No interviewee is forthcoming.
The Zeta Psi Dublin chapter has a website and a public Facebook page. Content on the Facebook page appears to stop being posted in 2015, but a number of people are tagged in photographs on the page. Using Google and LinkedIn, I send a number of emails to former Trinity students tagged in these Facebook images, some of whom mention their fraternity membership in their biographies. None responds to requests for interviews.
I do track down one former Trinity student who was a Theta Omicron member during 2013-2015. “James”, whose identity is known to The Irish Times, agrees to answer questions via email.
An undergraduate fraternity member is known as an “active” and a graduate member, such as James, is known as an “elder”.
“I was approached in the second term of my second year by a friend who had already been initiated. I was told I would be a good fit, and was invited along to the first rush event. The group had rented out the basement of a local bar and all the members were told to invite one or two guys that might be a good fit. I had also heard whispers around the college of the group’s existence and wanted to see what the hype was.”
Why did he want to join a fraternity?
“Initially, I Googled Zeta Psi and American fraternities, and thought it would be interesting to see what fraternities are like, but had no intention of joining anything that would resemble the fraternities in the US. However, after two or three informal rush events I realised I was very similar to the current members.
“They were all quite driven and had their own views; they all held high-profile positions in college societies, and I knew it would be beneficial to have these guys as mentors.
“Zeta Psi is unique in that it only exists in elite universities. It was the first fraternity to have a chapter in all Ivy League colleges, first to move into Canada, the UK and Ireland. I knew I would be joining a wider network.”
How do you think the fraternity is perceived by other students on campus?
“Badly, and rightfully so. However, when all you have to base your opinion on is the news coming out in the US about fraternities it’s not going to look great. Those who are passionately against the fraternity have no idea just how ingrained it is into the college community already.”
He names several prominent campus sports clubs and societies that are currently run by fraternity members.
“As a chapter we have run many charity events under the banner of something else. If you were to ask a student in Trinity “what do you think of the frat”? the answer would hugely differ to “what do you think of person X, Y and Z in the frat?”
Do former members help identify new members?
“Yes, usually if a member has a younger sibling they will be brought in and can recommend friends etc. When it comes to deciding who makes it past the rush stage, our elders will join the actives in a large venue and begin selecting who is a good fit and who isn’t using profiles built up by the actives. Sometimes we have people ask members to put them forward too, so this comes from elders too.”
Once a member leaves college, what role do they continue to play in their college chapter?
“They become elders. In recent times, we have been donating money towards charity projects run by the actives, and we act as career advisers. We share our notes and experiences in college and just generally look out for the younger guys.
“Sometimes we will step in when we think the group is deviating from its true purpose, and often if we notice an active going down a bad path when it comes to drinking or studying we’ll step in with some support.”
What did the initiation ceremony consist of?
Like Walton, James was similarly circumspect on this question. “I won’t give away too much here,” is his cryptic answer.
Did he experience any hazing?
“Yes, somewhat. Mental more so than physical.”
James describes hazing as “a test of a potential member’s commitment, character and endurance. In my year our initiation was 25 hours long.”
Long-established fraternities in the US often have their own houses to meet and live in, which they own. Trinity does not yet have one, but has what James describes as “de facto fraternity houses”.
“We usually have three or four [rental] houses filled with just members.”
James says that the Student Union at Trinity “unknowingly hosted and live streamed their Trinity Ball line-up announcement from our largest house in Sussex Terrace last year”.
What have been the benefits of membership of the fraternity for James?
“A huge network spanning the US, Canada, UK and Ireland, and knowing you have high-profile members of the college community to look out for you. Every year we had, and continue to have, a leadership event, alternating between Oxford and Dublin.
“[Zeta Psi’s] International Headquarters travel over to Europe with some high-profile American and Canadian elders. They give a three-day programme of leadership, education, job skills – and a fair bit of partying. All expenses paid, thank God.
“Every year a convention is held in the US, and all chapters are invited for a four-day banquet and leadership training programme. The last memorable one was all expenses paid to Las Vegas.”
How does James define Trinity’s fraternity?
“In all honesty, it’s more similar to an Oxford dining club. We actually have a chapter in Oxford too. At the end of the day it is a group of close friends. We all have our lives and friends outside of the fraternity too. Most of our members’ closest friends wouldn’t know they are members.
“Ireland can be quite begrudging to those who want to succeed and do well. The fraternity is different in that everyone wants each individual to succeed. They really care; they go out of their way to help. I think that’s the main benefit for me.”