College Historical Society (Trinity College, Dublin)

College Historical Society (Trinity College, Dublin)

The College Historical Society (commonly known as "The Hist" within College) was founded in Trinity College in 1770 and traces its creation to the historical society founded by the philosopher Edmund Burke in Dublin in 1747. The Hist is the oldest undergraduate student society in the world. It occupies rooms in the Graduates' Memorial Building of Trinity College, Dublin, which it shares with the University Philosophical Society, and the College Theological Society. Its members included many Irish men and women of note, from the republican revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone, the noted author Bram Stoker, to founding father of the Northern Irish state Edward Carson and first President of Ireland Douglas Hyde, in more recent times, two current cabinet members, Mary Harney and Brian Lenihan.



The College Historical Society was founded by Edmund Burke in 1770, with James Reid as its first Auditor, when Burke's Club (founded 1747) merged with the Historical Club (founded 1753). It was a time of great change in Ireland and the Western World, at the height of the Enlightenment and before the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. From its inception it showed itself to be at the forefront of intellectual thought in Ireland, and many of its members later went into politics.

Restrictions and expulsions

Theobald Wolfe Tone, later leader of the United Irishmen, was elected Auditor in 1785, and Thomas Addis Emmet was a member of the committee. The society was briefly expelled from the College in 1794, but readmitted on the condition that "No question of modern politics shall be debated". In 1797 the poet Thomas Moore and the nationalist Robert Emmet were elected as members. Eight members of The Hist were expelled in 1798 in the run-up to the Rebellion, and a motion was later carried condemning the rebellion, against their former Auditor.

Tension between the society and the college flourished in the early nineteenth century. The Auditor was called before the Provost in 1810. In 1812 the provost Dr Thomas Elrington objecting to the motion 'Was Brutus justifiable in putting Julius Caesar to death?'. After a number of members were removed at the request of the College board, the society left the college in 1815.

The Extern Society

The Society continued from 1815 as the Extern Historical Society. Among its members at this time were Isaac Butt, who tried unsuccessfully in 1832 to have the Society readmitted, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon and many other notables of the nationalist cause . In 1843 the Society was refounded within the College after a student petition, again on the condition that no subject of current politics was debated. This regulation remains to this day, however its spirit is often broken by the controversial topics discussed regularly in The Hist.

The 19th century

The Society continued successfully after that with many lively debates, including the motion on June 10, 1857 'That the Reform Bill of Lord Grey was not framed in accordance with the wants of the country', proposed by Isaac Butt and opposed by Edward Gibson. This era was considered by many to be the high point of the Society, with many of its members moving to high political positions. It was common for the Members of Parliament for the University to have served on the Committee of the Hist, such as Edward Gibson and David Plunkett, who were both Auditors, and Edward Carson, who was the Librarian. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, became Auditor in 1872. In 1864 the Society collected money from its members to erect statues outside the College of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith.

The Society moved to the Graduates' Memorial Building (GMB) in 1904, which it shares with the University Philosophical Society. The College Board relaxed its rules, allowing such motions as 'That the Gaelic League is deserving of the support of every Irishman' in 1905 and 1906.

The 20th century

was elected instead. The current President is Dr. David McConnell, a former Librarian and Auditor of the Society, winner of The Irish Times Debating Competition and one of Europe's foremost geneticists.

Women had been refused membership of the society until 1969, when the motion 'That this House reveres the memory of Mrs Pankhurst' was debated with Rosaleen Mills participating (the motion, however, was defeated). The first female Auditor, future Tánaiste Mary Harney, was elected in 1976. Since then the Society has had four female Auditors. The Society's Bicentennial Meeting in 1970 was addressed by US Senator Edward Kennedy at which he called the Society "The greatest of the school of the orators".Recent developments have seen the re-opening of the Resource Library, operated in conjunction with the UPS, which holds over 200 books and is made available as a general study area and library for the use of the members of the Society. The Society has also extensively re-developed the Conversation Room with the addition of better facilities such as wireless Internet access. The Society now also holds regular Debating Workshops which teach the various styles of debating and the basics of writing both a competitive debate and a speech for the Wednesday night debates. The Society remains a force in competitive debating at both a national and international level, having been represented in the Grand Final of The Irish Times Debating Competition in 2006, and winning it in 2007 and 2008. The Society has now won this competition on both the individual and team positions more times than any other debating society in Ireland. The Society also hosted the Worlds' Debating Competition in the 1990s.

Wednesday Night Debates

As it was two hundred and thirty eight years ago, the main thrust of the society continues to be the weekly debates held each Wednesday Night during term time.

The wide ranging and varied motions give students an opportunity to debate with experts on the specific motion chosen. The motion is usually based on an important issue taking place in current affairs.

The format of the debate continues to be that of British Parliamentary debating, with the proposition and opposition speaking alternatively. The proceedings are controlled by a guest chairperson. At the end of the debate, the audience have an opportunity to decide which side has made the most persuasive argument.

The Society has seen many figures in recent years with the Northern Ireland debate figuring prominently as one of the consistent highlights of each session. Prominent politicians such as David Ervine, Jeffrey Donaldson and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume have spoken at this debate. It is often typical for a Government Minister to address The Hist on a contentious topic. In 2005 the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell T.D. unveiled proposals for reform of the legal profession at a Hist debate on the matter. The Society continues to address issues with implications. In the 236th Session of the Society, over 500 people attempted to gain access to the Abortion Debate which was targeted by Youth Defence protesters and the Euthanasia Debate was recorded for an upcoming documentary on the pro-Euthanasia group Dignitas for the Canadian Discovery Channel. The Inaugural Meeting of the 236th Session was addressed by Dr. Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Chancellor of the University of Dublin. The Society has also been addressed by every Taoiseach and President of the State.

In the past year alone, guests have included Northern Irish First Minister Rev. Ian Paisley, democratically-elected Prime Minister in exile of Burma Sein Win, famed author Sir John Mortimer, Oscar nominee James Cromwell and former British Prime Minister Sir John Major, among others, and always coupled with a full schedule of debates.

Recordings of events and speakers are available from the website.

Notable Guests


*Sir Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister
*Senator Edward Kennedy
*Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, former French President
*Clement Atlee, former British Prime Minister
*Sir John Major, former British Prime Minister
*FW De Klerk, former President of South Africa, Nobel Laureate
*Bob Geldof, organiser of Live Aid and Live 8
*Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach of Ireland
*Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, former United Nations High Comissioner for Human Rights
*Charles Haughey, former Taoiseach
*Liam Cosgrave, former Taoiseach
*John Hume, former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Nobel Laureate
*Rev.Ian Paisley, former First Minister of Northern Ireland
*Dr Garret Fitzgerald, former Taoiseach
*Albert Reynolds, former Taoiseach
* [Shirin Ebadi] , Human Rights Lawyer, Nobel Laureate
*Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights activist
*Dr Sein Win, Prime Minister in Exile of Burma
*Lord Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats
*Laurent Fabius, former French Prime Minister


*Sir John Mortimer, author of "Rumpole of the Bailey"
*Joseph Heller, author of "Catch 22"
*John Banville, Booker Prize winner and author of "The Sea"
*Oscar Wilde, Playwright, novelist
*Paul Howard, Author of Ross O'Caroll-Kelly series

"Comedians, Musicians and Actors"

*Jeremy Irons, Academy Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, Tony Award, Golden Globe Winner
*Ben Kingsley, Academy Award, BAFTA Award, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award Winner
*Ralph Fiennes, Tony Award, NYFCC Award, BAFTA Award Winner
*James Cromwell, Academy Award Nominee
*Ardal O'Hanlon
*Joshua Jackson
*Tommy Tiernan
*Dermot Morgan
*Dara Ó Briain
*Damien Rice
*Neil Hannon
*Jarlath Regan

Presidents and Vice-Presidents

Presidents of the Society since 1843-

*The Rev. Franc Sadleir, D.D., Provost of Trinity College 1843-1852
*The Rev. Richard MacDonnell, D.D., Provost of Trinity College 1852-1854
*The Right Hon. Sir Joseph Napier, LL.D., Lord Chancellor 1854-1883
*The Right Hon. Lord Ashbourne, LL.D., Lord Chancellor 1883-1913
*The Right Hon. Sir John Ross, Lord Chancellor 1913-1925
*The Right Hon. Lord Glenavy, LL.D., Lord Chancellor, Chairman of the Senate of the Irish Free State, Vice-Chancellor of the University 1925-1931
*His Excellency Douglas Hyde, LL.D., Litt.D., President of Ireland 1931-1949
*Sir Robert W. Tate, M.A., Litt.D., S.F.T.C.D. 1950-1953
*Frederick Boland, LL.D., Irish Representative at the UN, President of the UN General Assembly, Chancellor of the University, Medallist 1953-1983
*Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, B.A., Ph.D., Litt.D., M.R.I.A., T.D., Medallist 1983-2003
*Prof. David John McConnell, B.A., Ph.D., F.T.C.D., M.R.I.A., F.Z.S.I. ex-Auditor, Medallist 2003-

Current Vice-Presidents

*Professor R.B. McDowell, Professor Emeritus
*John N. Ross, former solicitor and Senator for Dublin University
*Stephen G. Harris
*William Arthur Watts, former Provost
*Mary Robinson, former Senator and President of Ireland
*Professor Gary H. Holbrook
*Michael J. Cameron, Former Auditor
*Shane Ross, Senator for Dublin University
*David Norris, Senator for Dublin University
*Senator Mary Henry
*Eric Lowry, former Auditor
*The Hon. Justice Declan N. O. Budd, Justice of the High Court
*David O'Sullivan, European Community Director General for Trade
*Sir Brian Williamson, former Auditor
*Mary Harney, Leader of the Progressive Democrats 1993-2006 and Cabinet Minister since 1997

Notable Auditors

*Theobald Wolfe Tone, 1785-86, Leader of the Society of the United Irishmen
*Echlin Molyneaux, 1821-27
*Isaac Butt, 1832-33, Leader of the Nationalist Party 1874-1880
*Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, 1838-39
*Edward Gibson, 1858-59, later Lord Ashbourne, Lord Chancellor of Ireland
*Bram Stoker, 1872-73, author of "Dracula"
*James Kilfedder, 1950-51, Leader of the Ulster Popular Unionist Party 1980-1995
*Mary Harney, 1976-77, Leader of the Progressive Democrats 1993-2006, Tánaiste 1997-2006 and Cabinet Minister since 1997

Other notable members

*Thomas Addis Emmet, United Irishman
*Samuel Beckett, Playwright Nobel Laureate
*Thomas Moore, Poet
*Robert Emmet, Revolutionary
*Thomas Davis, Politician and poet
*John Blake Dillon, Irish Patriot
*John Pentland Mahaffy, Classicist
*William Edward Hartpole Lecky, MP and historian
*Edward Carson, Leader of the Unionist Party 1910-1921
*Douglas Hyde, Poet and the first President of Ireland 1938-1945
*Brian Lenihan, Jnr, Former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and current Minister for Finance (Ireland)

Committee structure

The Committee of the College Historical Society consists of 15 individuals: seven Officers (Auditor, Treasurer, Correspondence Secretary, Record Secretary, Censor, Librarian and the Debates Convenor) and eight other Members of Committee (including a Deputy Correspondence Secretary and the Senior Member of Committee which were created in the 238th Session). All but one of these positions is directly elected: the Debates Convenor, whose role is to encourage and develop competitive debating within the society with specific responsibility for co-hosting the Trinity IV (comprising the Kingsmill-Moore Invitational and Dean Swift IV) with the University Philosophical Society. The Convenor is appointed by the Auditor with the approval of the Committee following each annual election. The position was added in the 234th Session. It existed previously for two years off committee.

It is the only role on Committee that does not require direct democratic election by the members of the society. It is also the only position that is not filled at commencement of the Session - meaning that a candidate who has lost an election for another position may be appointed Debates Convenor.

Traditionally, Members of Committee were assigned as deputies to Officers based on the order of their election. Under this system, MC VI was pro-Librarian, MC V was pro-Censor and so on. In the 238th Session under Auditor Tim Smyth, this system was changed with MC's assigned to an Officer following the first Committee Meeting of the Session.

There also exists a number of standing committees which are under the direction of respective Officers. The Clerks Committee (established in the 236th Session) is appointed to assist the Correspondence Secretary with the logistics of organising the weekly debates. Debates Committee is under the direction of the Debates Convenor and organises the weekly Debating Workshops and seminars held by The Hist, as well as a number of other initiatives such as the Coca-Cola Schools' Mace, and the National Maidens competition ( No longer always hosted by the Hist, for geographical convenience it is rotated with a number of NUI constituent universities and the University of Limerick). The Censor also has responsibility for a sub-committee, the Records & Libraries Committee. Two other sub-committees, the Electoral Sub-Committee and the Officers' Conduct Report Sub-Committee are formed when an election is required and before the Annual General Meeting, respectively.


* [ Official Site of The Hist]

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