The Kate Kennedy Procession marched through town last Saturday; complete with men dressed in drag and ponies on parade. This procession is the crown jewel of the Kate Kennedy Club, the infamous all-male organization at the University of St Andrews. The prominent club is also one of the most secretive and exclusive societies in town, spawning several rumours.
Leopold Thun Hoenstein, this year’s Marshal of the Procession, sees the event as a fundamental part of the club’s purpose. The springtime celebration dates back to the 15th century, and honours Katherine Kennedy, the niece of Bishop Kennedy, founder of St Salvator’s College. The festival was a celebration of youth and vitality, but eventually fell into disrepute with the university and was banned. James Doak and Donald Kennedy, a descendent of Bishop Kennedy, reinstated the Kate Kennedy Club in its current form in 1926, with the aim to revive the Kate Kennedy Procession.
The Kate Kennedy Club is about more than just the pageantry of the procession. The Saint sat down with a few members of the club to cut through the mystery. After spending over an hour with the members, discussing their views on the club, it is easy to understand its appeal. The six members present; Christopher Murphy, David M Borowsky, William Dawson, Digby Don, Jamie Perriam, and Casey Larsen, all spoke at length on what attracted them to the club in the first place, and what it means to be a member.
Both Perriam and Larsen are first years and part of the newest batch of freshly minted Kate Kennedy boys. A large part of the application process, they say, is learning about the history of the town and the university. The process itself consists of two separate interviews. The first one is more casual, whereas the second one is in front of the whole club and more standoffish, according to Murphy. After this, the current members make the decision on who gets to go past the velvet rope and wear the club tie.
While the details of the admission criteria or how the final decision is reached are not something they want to discuss, they do say that they look for evidence of a commitment to charitable work, as well as knowledge of the history of the university and the town. Each year only nine men are admitted, and the membership of the club can never exceed sixty. They argue that this is for a functional reason, rather than to be elitist.
Regardless of what the members said, an internet survey conducted by The Saint indicated that their image is not charitable. Out of the 100 students who answered the question ‘How do you mainly perceive the Kate Kennedy Club?’, 48 percent answered ‘as a student group that is an elitist and traditionalist organisation’, and only 26 percent answered ‘as a student group that is mainly focused on charitable work and maintaining traditions’. While this is a relatively small part of the student body, it still indicates how others perceive the club.
Murphy recalls this stigma from back when he first joined the club. He says that when he met new people after becoming a member they would often be surprised.
“I would meet new people, and hopefully come across reasonably well to them,” Murphy said. “Then they’d be phenomenally surprised when I told them I was in the Kate Kennedy Club and they said well, you are a nice guy, this doesn’t correlate.”
Riddled throughout our correspondence and interviews is the constant reminder that there are still certain things that Kate Kennedy will not speak of in public. The one thing that they are seemingly most upfront about is the fact that they keep secrets. The inner workings of the Club, what happens at committee meetings and the constitution of the club are all kept on the down low. Speaking to Murphy about the choice to keep so many things private, he doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it.
“You can think what you like of it, as can anyone else,” Murphy said. “I know that there is nothing to hide, and I’m quite happy with that.”
This emphasis on exclusivity and secrecy no doubt helps inspire the stories that surround the club. A frequently circulated story is the idea that applicants have to disclose their bank statements before admission. Others relate to their supposedly outlandish initiation practices.
The members are well aware of the rumours, but are quick to dispel them. Several members testified to at first being hesitant about even joining the club after hearing some of them, but were won over as they got more involved.
“Being a member now, none of that is true, at all, but you hear a lot,” Borowsky said.
The mood gets distinctly muted when we discuss the club’s disaffiliation from the University. Murphy, Dawson and Borowsky were all members back in 2009 when Principal Richardson took the decision to distance herself and the University from the club.
They agree that the decision, especially the e-mail, came as a complete shock to them. According to the club, there was little forewarning, only a short meeting between the principal and the president at the time. Richardson told The Saint that she had given the Kate Kennedy Club six weeks to respond to her request about changing the admission policies before she acted.
The e-mail that was addressed to the members of the St Andrews community outlined clearly the new stance towards the Club. Richardson wrote, “As Principal, I do not believe that a university can endorse a student club – even a club like the KK which is renowned for its charitable activities – from which so many of our students are excluded at birth.”
Murphy had been away on a military training exercise and the first he saw of it was on the cover of the newspapers in a service station. Dawson, who had been the Marshal of the Procession that year, was also just arriving back when the news broke.
“As the person responsible for organizing the procession I sort of wondered what on earth that would mean, and it did mean sort of a ten days of frantically running around trying to work out what the ramifications were,” Dawson said.
This was not the first time that the Club and its all-male membership policy attracted problems. Back in 2002, the University temporarily distanced itself from the Club, as a result of a student petition handed over to the principal by the Student Association President at the time. The controversy surrounding the club and the procession dates back even further than that. The spring rite was already controversial back in the 15th century when the university first condemned it. The procession and the club were completely banned in 1881, after the drunken students failed to come to the aid of two ships that collided in St Andrews Bay.
The members of the Kate Kennedy Club disagree with what they see as the targeting of the procession, which they say has been the most effected by the decision. The procession is a collaborative effort between the Club, the Kate Kennedy Procession Committee and the Kate Kennedy Trust. Besides the club, the other two organizations consist of both men and women.
“So therefore to discriminate primarily against the procession is a frustration because actually, the procession technically isn’t organized by the club,” Murphy said.
Thun-Hoenstein said some of the difficulties that the new stance has created have largely a symbolic significance, such as the denial of the club to ring the bells in St Salvator’s chapel when the character of Kate Kennedy appears. The legend goes that the church bells would ring to mark the original Kate’s arrival.
“As you might know, one of the bells is cast with the name Kate Kennedy, and this denial hurts us even more in this case,” Thun-Hoenstein said.
The club was always private, so to call it a disaffiliation is a bit of a misnomer. The decision has therefore not had much of an effect on the day-to-day workings of the organization. Borwosky describes the relationship now as primarily commercial, when it was before more amiable as well as commercial.
Not everyone saw the relationship the same way. Richardson shares in an e-mail interview that several female students complained about the position the club had with the university, showing letters from the Kate Kennedy Club written on university letterhead and with College Gate as a return address.
“The students saw this as university sponsorship of the club and felt it suggested that the university valued its male students more and hoped that as female principal I might change that,” Richardson said. “I believe that the official endorsement of any club or society which excludes people because of their gender is completely at odds with the values of a forward looking university like St Andrews.”
The Kate Kennedy Club is unapologetic about the all-male membership, and unwavering in their commitment to keeping it that way. Murphy said that one of the things that attracted him to the club was the prospect of the all-male camaraderie. He argues that this camaraderie is one of the reasons that the club works so well.
It doesn’t look like the Club and the University will see eye-to-eye anytime soon, since the Club is unlikely to revise their membership policies and our principal’s steadfast commitment to not condoning what she clearly sees as a discriminatory policy