The present day College Historical Society traces its origins back to two associations founded in the middle of the 18th century. From these origins, the Society has a long and turbulent history spanning over four centuries. The members and their influence on Irish history have been incredible and the Hist has produced many of Ireland’s greatest patriots, politicians, authors and orators. It would be impossible to fully detail our extensive history, the particular members of repute from their time and the anecdotes that shaped so many memories. However the links on the left break down into various periods with some of the more important details included.
For a fuller description of any particular period would require a consultation of the Records, intact since 1747. Contact the Record Secretary should you require any further information.
‘Language is the Eye of Society, without it we could ill signify our wants for our own relief, and by no means communicate our knowledge, for the amusement or amendment of our fellow creatures, and therefore without it the comforts and delights of life could not be enjoyed, no conveyance of learning, of chastisement, of praise, of solace, scarce virtue be practised, friendship subsist, nor religion ever aught and defended. And as language is the cement of Society so is the perfection thereof perhaps its greatest ornament and not the least of its Blessings. In it Innocence and truth find a defence and reward, and guilt from it, its discovery, conviction and disgrace.’
From the preamble to the Laws of Edmund Burke’s Club, adopted Friday 24 April 1747, Dublin.
The College Historical Society sprang from two associations of a similar character, which were founded in the middle of the eighteenth century: Burke’s Club and the Historical Club. The Club founded by Edmund Burke and a few of his fellow students is the earliest debating society composed of students of the University of which any definite record remains. The minute book of this club, a treasured possession of the College Historical Society, relates that the first meeting took place on Tuesday, April 21st, 1747, in a house in George’s Lane, now South Great George’s Street, the members present being Edmund Burke, Matthew Mohun, William Dennis, Andrew Buck, Richard Shackelton and Richard Ardesoif. Mohun, for his ill-conduct and neglect, was later “formally expell’d the Society for ever“.
The preamble to the Club’s laws stated its intention to provide “fair opportunities of correcting our taste, regulating and enriching our judgement, brightening our wit, and enlarging our knowledge, and of being serviceable to others in the same things.”
The business of the Club was to be “speeching, reading, writing and arguing, in Morality, History, Criticism, Politics and all the useful branches of philosophy”; the first law related to the conduct of members and ordained that “decency and good manners, virtue and religion, must guide their whole behaviour, and no word, gesture or action, contrary thereto, pass uncensored.” Burke, who sat six times as President and twice as Censor, was the moving spirit and was never once absent from the meetings. The last record in the minute book is of the meeting held on Friday, July 10th, 1747.
The Historical Club was instituted on October 24th, 1753. It was founded by Barry Yelverton, afterwards Lord Avonmore, to cultivate historical knowledge, but soon began to hold monthly debates. It met, as had Burke’s Club, outside College, though composed entirely of students. The Society was in the possession of the first volume of minutes of the Historical Club but it was lost during the exile from College in 1815. The last quarter of the eighteenth century was the golden age of Irish eloquence, and among the greatest orators of this period the names of Burke, and Grattan, Flood, Yelverton, Hussey-Burgh and other members of the Historical Club held an honoured place.
The Society soon established itself, furnishing comfortable rooms, awarding medals and collecting “subscriptions for the relief of the poor at this period of distress and misery.” John Hely Hutchinson, the controversial Provost elected in 1774, who opened the University to Roman Catholics, was a good friend to the Society. As the Patriot Party of the Volunteers gathered strength, the Society took an increasing interest in Irish politics. At its first Irish debate, held in January 1779, it rejected the proposal of a Union between Great Britain and Ireland, and in the following months supported the Volunteers and unanimously approved of the secession of America.
A long and imposing list could be given of the members of that time who rose to fame or distinction as statesmen, lawyers, or divines. Issac Corry, who became Chancellor of the Exchequer and fought Grattan in a famous duel, was Secretary in 1772. William Conyham Plunket, afterwards Lord Chancellor and Baron Plunket, was Treasurer in 1782. Standish O’Grady-Lord Chief Baron and Viscount Guillamore-was Auditor in the session 1783-4. (For a while the period of office was one term only.) Wolfe Tone was Auditor in 1785 and a medallist several times. Charles Kendal Bushe was medallist in Oratory in 1784, and the George de la Poer Beresford, who became Bishop of Kilmore in notable circumstances, was Librarian the same year. In 1793, the session in which the Society’s troubles came upon it, the Treasurer was Samuel Kyle, afterwards Provost and Bishop of Dromore, and the Librarian John Jebb, was to become Auditor after the trouble in 1797, and later to be distinguished as Bishop of Limerick. These are but a few of the distinguished names of the time, and the list could easily be made longer.
By far the greater number of its members were men whose names were no longer on the College books, and many of them were members of Parliament, which met close by in College Green (e.g. Laurence Parsons, afterwards Earl of Rosse, was a member of Parliament during his Auditorship). In consequence the Society had an influence in politics and an independence of spirit, which the College authorities disliked. They were inclined to be hostile to it, but they had to treat it with respect. However in the future the Board would make many attempts to neuter the Society.
Tone was a contemporary in the Society of Thomas Addis Emmett, who helped to establish the Society’s reciprocal membership (still in existence) with the Speculative Society of Edinburgh. In 1794, however, the Society went too far in its independence. It refused to exclude from its meetings a sometime member who had been banned by the Board from the College, and the Board retaliated by expelling the Society from College after its resolution “That no one be admitted to the debates unless he have his name on the College Books,” was defied. This would have excluded over five hundred members, many of whom were MPs and figures of distinction. The Society contrived to meet outside College, in William Street, but by the end of 1794 some members decided to accept the Board’s stringent conditions for readmission, which included as one of the fundamental regulations the stricture that “No question of modern politics shall be debated,” but the spirit of the law was frequently infringed.
The reconstituted Society flourished. In 1795 the enthusiasm of the Trinity students for the patriots led to their losing the privilege of watching the proceedings of the Irish House of Commons from a gallery of their own, because after a speech by Grattan against the recall of the popular Viceroy Lord Fitzwilliam, the students, recalled Lord Edward Walsh, “rose as one man shouting and cheering with the boisterous tumult of a public meeting… We were pushed out in a heap without the slightest ceremony, and were never again suffered to enter as privileged persons.” In 1797 two members who subsequently distinguished themselves joined the Society, Thomas Moore and Robert Emmet, and the two became firm friends.
In 1798, Lord Clare, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Vice Chancellor of the University, held a General Visitation, during which it was discovered that there were four committees of the United Irishmen and some Orange Societies within College. Emmet was a secretary of one of the United Irishmen committees. Emmet did not appear before the Visitors and so was expelled as contumacious. Moore at first refused to take the oath at the Visitation, and was marked down for expulsion, but so many other students refused it that even Lord Clare had to give way and modify the oath. Moore and the rest then swore and escaped expulsion. Emmet’s patriotism led him to the gallows. Moore’s resulted in sentimental ballads in London drawing-rooms. Nineteen students (eight of them members of the CHS) were expelled in total.
The years which followed were turbulent ones for the Society, and relations with the Board deteriorated. There were many disorderly meetings. During the 1809-10 Session a debate on universal toleration led to the Auditor being summoned before the Provost, and questioned “as to certain inflammatory expressions said to have been used“.
In 1812 the Provost, Dr Thomas Elrington, objected to some of the subjects chosen for debate, including universal suffrage and capital punishment. He even objected to the motion ‘Was Brutus justifiable in putting Julius Caesar to death?’ on the grounds that “to admit a defence to be made for assassination must be injurious to morality“.
The Board imposed more restrictive regulations in 1813, and many experienced members were excluded from the Society. Meetings became even less orderly, and the following year the Provost intervened in a Society dispute to strike two participants of the list of members. The Society protested against ever increasing Board severity, and eventually in 1815 came to the conclusion that the Board was determined to extinguish it. In a dramatic final debate on February 15th, 1815, a committee of seven was established, “for the purpose of resigning for the present into the custody of the Provost and the Board the rooms hitherto appropriated to the use of the Historical Society, the late regulations of the Board being in the opinion of the Society inconsistent with the successful prosecution of the objects for which it was instituted…” and then the Society adjourned sine die.
Provost Elrington’s notebook for December 10th, 1815, reads: “An application having been made by some of the students for the re-institution of the Historical Society, it was refused“. One of Elrington’s pupils, Lord Cloncurry, later wrote of him as “a learned man, but stupid and blockish, and thoroughly imbued with the narrowest views of his class and profession. It was he who accomplished the suppression of the Historical Society, then obnoxious to all who dreaded progression, as a nursery of genius and patriotism, and as opening a common field whereon the rising generation of Irishmen were learning mutual respect of each other..”.
After 1815 the Society held its meetings outside College, and continued as a vigorous debating society. Among its members during this period were Isaac Butt, an outstanding orator, who in 1832 attempted unsuccessfully to have the Society readmitted to College, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, novelist and poet, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon. Early in 1841 Davis and Dillon were among several members of the Society who joined O’Connell’s Repeal Association, and later helped largely to form the Young Ireland society. Dillon’s address to the Society as an ex-President in November 1841 was entitled ‘Patriotism’.The Nation newspaper was founded in 1842 by Davis, Dillon and Gavin Duffy. In 1843 Davis was elected an Honorary Member of the Society.
1843 also saw the foundation within College of an Intern College Historical Society, at the request of many students. Several members of the Extern Society, led by William Connor Magee, later Archbishop of York, brought about the uniting of the two Societies, and in May 1843 they held their first joint meeting in College, with the Provost in the Chair. MacDonnell (in the ‘Life of Archbishop Magee’ ) writes of it: “The meeting was crowded…It was a long series of oratorical triumphs. From that day the success of the Society was complete.”
The remainder of the nineteenth century was a good time for the Society. It was a period of stability enlivened by the occasional riotous meeting or clash with the Board. In 1846 reciprocal honorary membership with the Oxford and Cambridge Union Societies was confirmed. In 1852 the Board helped the Society out of financial difficulties with a grant of Â£20. One of the outstanding debates of this time took place on June 10 th, 1857, on the motion “That the Reform Bill of Lord Grey was not framed in accordance with the wants of the country.”
Isaac Butt spoke in the affirmative, and was opposed by David Plunket (afterwards Lord Rathmore) and Edward Gibson (afterwards Lord Ashbourne), and the motion was carried. Among the new members this Session were W.E.H. Lecky and J.P. Mahaffy, to be joined the following Session by Anthony Traill (afterwards Provost) and Gerald Fitzgibbon.
The buoyant mood of the Society at this time can be gauged by the tone of Plunket’s Auditorial Address for the 1859-60 Session:
“There is, indeed, but one responsibility I know I can incur on entering our guild, it is to be patriotic Irishmen. This Society is now in its ninetieth year. Called into being at first at the moment when the spirit of an awakening freedom and a new-born nationality began to breathe upon this land, it has watched that freedom’s progress – tenderly nursed that nationality. For ninety years it has sent forth the best and greatest Irishmen…If you are cold to patriotism, I have no wish that you should become one of us…”
In 1864, when the movement began for the erection of statues to the memory of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith, which resulted in Foley’s two masterpieces which still stand to either side of the entrance gate to College, the Society collected subscriptions from its members and donated Â£30. The centenary Session of 1869-70 was celebrated with a banquet in the Dining Hall, at which Isaac Butt in his speech referred to the Society’s existence outside the walls between 1815 and 1843. Bram Stoker was Secretary in 1870, and Auditor two years later. (“Dracula” is said to have been written at this time in Botany Bay.)
The Society’s second century had a stormy first decade. The Auditor for 1873-74, Cecil Robert Roche, chose ‘Federalism’ as the subject for his Opening Address, and the Board’s refusal to allow the meeting led to his resignation. Oscar Wilde and Edward Carson joined the Society during the Session. The Inaugural Meeting of the following year, 1874-75, was perhaps the most tumultuous in the Society’s history. The trouble arose out of the students’ hostility to one of the speakers, Mr Miller, QC., a parliamentary candidate for the University. Contemporary accounts give graphic glimpses of the evening:
“The undergraduate element was conspicuous, collarless, stick-bearing, uproarious, and spilling for a fight…There was a wild scene of tumult, uproar and riot, which raged for two hours long…Whistles and bugles added to the din, while on allsides were heard the sharp cracks of the explosive fireworks known as Ashanter bombs. The undergraduates yelled, screamed, roared, brayed. The seats were broken in the body of the hall…the meeting was adjourned.”
Further disturbances during the next Session’s Inaugural led to stricter security regulations, and the meetings became more orderly.
In 1883, Douglas Hyde, the father of the Gaelic movement and future President of Ireland, was gold medallist in History in 1885, and silver medallist in Oratory and Gold medallist in Composition in 1886. The Society debated most of the burning issues of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and also began to press for fuller recognition of its own unique status in College.
The centenary of Burke’s death was commemorated in 1897 with a banquet in the Dining Hall, at which Lecky delivered a memorable speech, in which he said: “We claim him as the founder of our Historical Society, and it is certainly here that he first practised the art of debating, of which he became so great a master.”
The first decade of the twentieth century was a lively and important one for the Society, although several outstanding men associated with it died during the period: John Kells Imgram, Lecky, Lucius Gwynn, Provost Salmon and Lord Justice Fitzgibbon, to be followed in the next decade by Lord Ashbourne, Mahaffy, Lord Rathmore and Chief Baron Palles.
In 1902 the Graduates’ Memorial Building, intended to provide ‘Union’ facilities for students, was opened. The Society had for many years been making representations to be granted rooms in the new building. When it was opened, a petition signed by thirty-eight distinguished former members, including archbishops, judges and members of parliament, was presented to the Board, requesting that the special position of the Society be safeguarded in the new building. The Society was later, and is still, entrusted with the running of the building jointly with the University Philosophical Society.
At this time the Board began to relax its control of discussion in the Society, and among the issues of the day to be debated were “That the Gaelic League is deserving of the support of every Irishman” (carried in 1905 and 1906). Members included Oliver St John Gogarty and T.S.C Dagg, who wrote the authoritative history of the Society until 1920.
In his Inaugural address as Auditor, Dagg urged the authorities to consult with the students and said that “despite the fact that these (students) may not be in a position to regard College life through the lengthy telescope of half a century, their opinion on the subject might be of some value.”
In 1909 the Society contributed Â£5 to the cost of erecting the Wolfe Tone Memorial. The next decade was overshadowed by the 1914-18 War, in which over 700 of the Society’s members and past members fought, 136 being killed. During the war years, the Society therefore had very few active members, and after the 1915-16 Session, as Mr Justice T.C Kingsmill-Moore recalled, “for two-and-a-half years did little more than keep alive.” Kingsmill-Moore himself, who served in the Royal Flying Corps, was largely responsible as Record Secretary (1915-18) and Auditor (1918-20) for preserving continuity.
During the Easter Rising of 1916, the College was not attacked, but was garrisoned first by staff and members of the Officers’ Training Corps, and later by regular troops. The following term Kingsmill-Moore wrote in TCD Magazine, “Whatever the party in power, we believe that they will regard our College as one of Ireland’s greatest possessions.”
In June 1920 the Society celebrated its one-hundredth-and-fiftieth anniversary with a debate against its corresponding Societies, the Edinburgh Speculative and the Oxford, Cambridge and Durham Unions, and a banquet the following night.
The Honorary Member Mr Justice Budd wrote:
“The early twenties were a flourishing time for the CHS. Although the membership was much smaller than now, the Society had a wealth of first class speakers and the standard of debate was high…Revolutionary ideas were freely advocated and were not any the less effective in the absence of demonstration to support them.”
Among members prominent at this time were F.H Boland (later President of the United Nations General Assembly, President of the Society, and Chancellor of the University), W.D.L. Greer and Mark Wilson (later Chief Justice of the West African Court of Appeal).
The late twenties and early thirties were one of the most lively and controversial eras in the Society’s history, culminating in the 1930-31 Auditorship of Eoin O’Mahony. W.B Stanford, C.B McKenna, Terence de Vere White, Garret Gill, Gerard Sweetman and Owen Sheehy Skeffington all played active parts. The latter was the chief champion of O’Mahony when he faced impeachments lasting several months, arising out of his substituting the toast of ‘Ireland’ for the traditional ‘The King’ at the dinner following his Inaugural Meeting.
Douglas Hyde was elected President of the Society in 1931 and the later thirties saw R.B McDowell, James Auchmuty and Conor Cruise O’Brien pass through the Society, which was at this period, according to Dr O’Brien, “an institution of almost preternatural decorum – at least during public business… However distasteful their opinions, or – much worse – however boring their style, speakers were heard patiently, with at least apparent respect.”
The Society continued decorously during the war years, and the post-war influx of mature ex-servicemen added to its decorum and stability. Sir James Kilfedder was one of the members of the time and went on to the House of Lords. There tended to be as much emphasis on the ‘club’ aspect of the Society as on its debating. An interesting feature of the late forties and fifties was the participation of a large number of African students, and the election of an African Auditor.
When in 1957 the College societies’ levy was introduced, out of which societies were supported on condition that their membership subscription was no greater than five shillings, an era of expansion for the society began, and membership climbed steadily. The sixties was a decade of success in all fields. In competitive debates the Society had a record unequalled in the British Isles; the attendance at debates and private business increased, and closed-circuit television was needed to relay Inaugurals; more services were provided for members; and there was a constant stream of distinguished guests to address the Society.
The final Session before the Bicentenary was one of the liveliest in the Society’s history, and during it many years of agitation culminated in the admission of women students to full membership of the Society. On January 22, 1969, Miss Rosaleen Mills rose before a packed house and television cameras to propose the motion ‘That this House reveres the memory of Mrs Pankhurst’, and thus became the first woman to address the Society.
The Society’s Bicentenary saw a series of prestigious meetings, including the Bicentenary Address by Senator Edward Kennedy who described the CHS as the “greatest school of the orators“. An exhibition entitled ‘Art and Oratory’ in the National Gallery of Ireland and national and intervarsity debates were held in a week of celebrations, culminating in a grand banquet in the Dining Hall.
The Society continued to expand and by the 1990′s was attracting over 1000 members annually. This was in conjunction with the large increase in the number of students attending the College and the full admittance of women.
There was also an expansion into competitive debating among other universities. The CHS holds an unequalled record in the prestigious Irish Times debating competition with many team and individual victories. It also was regularly represented in the late rounds of the Observer Mace winning it for the second time in 1989. Intervarsity debates were regularly attended in Ireland and the United Kingdom and in the Annual World Debating Championships. This competition was hosted in Trinity as part of the Society’s contribution to the Quatercentenary of the College in 1992. This also left the Society with a large debt that took several years to clear. The Students Union took over the Snooker rooms for a period on condition of covering the liability. With the aid of generous Honorary Members and sponsors it was carried. While it did not affect the operating position of the Society, the burden of interest payments was an ever present worry to the particular Session.
The Hist continued to make a large contribution to Irish society and during this time the Schools Debating competiton was begun and operated on a national basis with the assistance of debating societies in other universities. Due to the increased membership the Maiden Speakers competition was inaugurated to cater for many of the new students who had never debated before. In terms of the exchange of ideas and arguments, the Society was never healthier. A glance back through the Annual Reports reveals an array of topics that were dividing Irish society at the time. The members discussed diverse themes such as Northern Ireland, the role of Church and State and the major social issues of divorce, contraception and abortion.
A glance at members of the time reveals a stunning array of talent with many continuing to prominent roles in society. Mary Harney was elected the first female Auditor and went on to become leader of the PD’s and TÃ¡naiste. David O’Sullivan was to become Auditor General of the EU and Brian Lenihan a TD. Many others are leading in their respective fields whether it be academia, the professions or in business. The Society continued to attract the leading voices of the time, with politicians of all hues entering the debates. Vice-Presidents of the time included E.T.S Walton, Nobel Laureate and Mary Robinson, future President of Ireland. Conor Cruise O’Brien, ex-TD, intellectual and journalist was elected President in 1983.
In 1997, the Society celebrated the 250th Anniversary of the founding of Edmund Burke’s Club with a series of events including an international debate featuring Valery Giscard d’Estaing, former French President. A book was also published, edited by the Honorary Members, Declan Budd and Ross Hinds, chronicling the Society’s turbulent history and views of past members. It offers an insight into the uniqueness of the Society that has evolved little in its organisation but adapted much to its surroundings.
The Society has maintained its prominent position in the College and has grown in its services and membership. Towards the end of the 90′s the Board began making overtures about appropriating the top two stories of the GMB to create a Graduate Centre. With the Society in heavy debt, it was in a difficult position. The delicate handling of the issue by several Auditors (with the expert help of many Honorary Members) ensured that College took no drastic action, and so it retained the Snooker Halls and dilapidated Workrooms for several years as protracted negotiations began.
The fire in the GMB in 2000 was a shock for a Society that had become complacent in its privileged position. The complete refurbishment of the building was achieved but this was with the loss of several of the relics of the Society including the statues of Burke and Goldsmith (stolen) and many documents and paintings. However fire damage was limited to the library, as many of the more precious volumes belonging to the Society had been relocated to storage facilities in the Old Library of College.
A final Rooms’ Agreement was signed with College in 2004 guaranteeing the Society’s position in the building. From this, a computer and resource room were developed. The upheaval of the fire caused a complete appraisal of the Society’s position and the Committees since have devoted much effort to providing new facilities and events including workshops, seminars, interviews and lectures. With over 90 societies in the College and 50 clubs, the Hist continues to attract the brightest and best. Debates of national and international importance are still its mainstay and the calibre of guests is a reflection on the Society’s position.
In 2003 Professor David John McConnell, ex-Auditor, Medallist was elected President. That year also saw the creation of a new, appointed officership of Debates Convenor to run the new Intervarsity and oversee the field of competitive debating, internal and external. The Intervarsity of the CHS, run with the UPS has established a worldwide reputation with over 60 teams competing in 2004, some travelling from as far away as Singapore, continental Europe and the USA.
As the oldest debating society in the world, the Hist is under constant pressure to continually adapt yet to retain its traditions. Each new Session brings unheralded challenges and glorious opportunities but still the central task of the Society will always remain in the words of Burke’s Club, “speeching, reading, writing and arguing, in Morality, History, Criticism, Politics and all the useful branches of philosophy”.