College Historical Society

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College Historical Society
TypeStudent debating union
Auditor 254th Session
Aine Kennedy [2]
David McConnell (2020)[3][4]

The College Historical Society (CHS) – popularly referred to as The Hist – is a debating society at Trinity College Dublin. It was established within the college in 1770[1][5] and was inspired by the club formed by the philosopher Edmund Burke during his own time in Trinity in 1747.[6][7] It holds the Guinness World Record as the "world's oldest student society".[8][9][10]

The society occupies rooms in the Graduates' Memorial Building at Trinity College. Former members have included a number of notable Irish men and women, from republican revolutionaries Theobald Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet,[11] and Henry Grattan,[12] writers Bram Stoker,[1] Oscar Wilde,[1] and Samuel Beckett,[1] to founding father of the Northern Irish state Edward Carson[13] and first President of Ireland Douglas Hyde,[14] and – in more recent times – Government Ministers like Mary Harney[1] (who was the first female auditor of the society) and Brian Lenihan, and modern Irish authors, such as Sally Rooney[1] and Naoise Dolan.[15]



The first meeting of the College Historical Society took place on Wednesday 21 March 1770 in the Senior Common Room in Trinity College.[16] The society took into its care the minute book of Burke's Club, founded 1747, from which the Hist has since drawn inspiration. Its other precursor was the Historical Club, founded in 1753, of which Henry Grattan was a member. James Reid became the first auditor of the Hist later in 1770. 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. In 1782, Lawrence Parsons was elected as an MP for Dublin University at 24, having served as auditor of the Hist just the previous year.

Restrictions and expulsions[edit]

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.[17] Eight membersA of The Hist were expelled in 1798[18] 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, with the auditor being called before the provost in 1810. In 1812 the provost, Dr Thomas Elrington, objected vehemently to the question ‘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.

Extern Society[edit]

The society continued from 1815 as the Extern Historical Society. Among its members at this time were Isaac Butt, a president of the society[19] who tried unsuccessfully in 1832 to have the society readmitted, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Thomas Davis (a president of the society)[20][21] and John Blake Dillon and many other notables of the nationalist cause. In 1843, under auditor William Connor Magee, future Archbishop of York,[22] the society reformed within the college after a student petition, again on the condition that no subject of current politics was debated. This provision remains in the laws of the society as a nod to the past, but the college authorities have long since ceased to restrict the subjects of the society's debates.[citation needed]

19th century[edit]

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 Dublin 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 1877, Charles O'Connor (judge), the last Master of the Rolls in Ireland, became auditor.[23] In 1864 the society collected money from its members to erect statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith at the Front Gate of the college.

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.

20th and 21st centuries[edit]

Logo of 238th Session of the College Historical Society (2007–2008)

The society continued well through the twentieth century, although the First World War hit it badly, with 136 of its former members killed. Eoin O'Mahony was elected auditor in 1930 and faced impeachment when he raised a toast to Ireland instead of the King. Eoin O'Mahony offered Lord Carson the presidency of the society in 1931, although Carson declined due to ill health, recommending that the position be offered to former gold medallist and future President of Ireland Douglas Hyde, who was elected to the position. The current president is Prof. David McConnell, a former librarian and auditor of the society and a winner of The Irish Times Debating Competition, and now chairman of The Irish Times Trust and one of Europe's foremost geneticists.

Son of W. B. Yeats, Michael Yeats became auditor in 1944, and in that capacity organised the inaugural meeting on 'The small nations'; Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and Jan Masaryk, minister for foreign affairs in the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile in London, were his main speakers. Yeats had further involvement with the society in 1969 when it proposed admitting women members. The proposal passed by a single vote; having supported it, Yeats contended that had he stayed at home on the night of the vote the society would have remained all-male.[24]

Women had been refused membership in the society until 1969. Soon after the change in the rules, the society debated the motion 'That this House reveres the memory of Mrs Pankhurst' 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 eleven 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"[citation needed].

Later developments have seen the re-opening of the Resource Library 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.[citation needed] The society also re-developed the 'Conversation Room', which was restored in preparation for the society's 250th celebrations in 2020.[citation needed]

To mark the society's acknowledgement as the world's oldest student society, by Guinness World Records, a successful attempt to break the record for longest debate was made in October 2023, breaking 27 hours.[25][26]

Chamber debating[edit]

The main business of the society is the weekly debates held each Wednesday night during term time.[citation needed] The "Weekly Debate" is the second of the society's weekly meetings.[citation needed]

The motions debated by the society have covered several controversial issues.[citation needed] In 2005, over 500 people attempted to gain access to a debate on abortion which was targeted by Youth Defence protesters and a debate on euthanasia was recorded for a documentary on the pro-euthanasia group Dignitas for the Canadian Discovery Channel.[citation needed]

Politicians such as David Ervine, Jeffrey Donaldson and John Hume have spoken in debates on Northern Ireland.[citation needed] In 2005, the then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell unveiled proposals for reform of the legal profession at a society debate on the matter.[citation needed] The inaugural meeting of the 236th session, in 2006, was addressed by former President of Ireland Mary Robinson.[citation needed]

Competitive debating[edit]

Before the creation of a competitive debating structure, representatives of the society were invited to speak at similar societies internationally. As early as 1932 James Auchmuty and Garrett Gill travelled to Moorhead to speak at Minnesota State University.[27]

Irish President and UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson at the Hist, 2007

The society's best debaters compete nationally and internationally against other societies in competitions, most usually of the British Parliamentary debating style with the notable exception being the Irish Times public-speaking competition. Teams representing the society have won the overall team prize in the Irish Times Debating Competition more than any other institution.[citation needed]

It has also competed internationally, competing at foreign Inter-Varsities and at both the World Universities Debating Championship and European Universities Debating Championships (EUDC) - the society having hosted the former in 1992.[citation needed] As of 2021, the society held the European record for most wins at a single European Championships, a record set following the performance of two speakers in the 2021 championships in Madrid.[28] In the 2023 edition of EUDC, a Hist team reached the grand final and became the first entirely female team from any Irish university to do so in over a decade (with the previous all female team having been a Hist team in 2011).[29]

The society hosts the Trinity Women's Open, the Robert Emmett Invitational Summer Open, and the Dean Swift Intervarsity (Trinity IV), the largest Irish Inter-varsity each year. The society also fosters development and competition within Trinity College, running workshops and internal competitions: including its Rosaleen Mills Maiden Speaker Competition, the Wolfe Tone's's Public Speaking Competition, Mary Harney Women and Gender Minorities Competition, and Henry Grattan's Historical Motion Competition.[citation needed]

It also plays a role in providing Secondary School Level Debating, for which the librarian of the society is primarily responsible. It jointly runs the Leinster Schools' Debating Competition with the Literary and Historical Society and its own Schools' Maces. The Hist Schools' Mace is open to all Leaving Cert cycle students, while the Girls' Mace is open to all female and gender minority Leaving Cert Cycle students.[citation needed]


In September 2020, it was reported that the society had cancelled an invitation for the author and evolutionist Richard Dawkins to address the society. In announcing the cancellation, the then auditor of the society said she had been unaware Richard Dawkins held some controversial opinions, and that the society would be rescinding his invitation as we "value our members comfort above all else".[30][31][32]

Presidents and vice-presidents[edit]

Presidents of the society since 1843[edit]

Term President Hist record Other roles
1843–1851 Rev. Franc Sadleir Provost of Trinity College 1837–51
1852–1854 Rev. Richard MacDonnell Provost of Trinity College 1851–67
1854–1883 Sir Joseph Napier, bt Lord Chancellor 1858–59
1883–1913 Lord Ashbourne Auditor Lord Chancellor 1885–86, 1886–92, 1895–1905
1913–1925 Sir John Ross, bt Lord Chancellor 1921–22
1925–1931 Lord Glenavy Lord Chancellor 1918–21, Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann 1922–28
1931–1949 Douglas Hyde President of Ireland 1937–45
1950–1952 Sir Robert W. Tate Senior Fellow of Trinity College
1952–1983 Frederick Boland Medallist President of the UN General Assembly 1960–61, Chancellor of the University of Dublin 1963–1982
1983–2003 Conor Cruise O'Brien Medallist Minister for Posts and Telegraphs 1973–77
2003–2024 Prof. David John McConnell Auditor, Medallist Senior Fellow of Trinity College
2024– Mary Harney Auditor Tánaiste 1997–2006

Current vice-presidents[edit]

As of 2019, the list of vice-presidents included:[33]


A.^ Robert Emmett, Thomas Flynn, John Penefather Lamphier, Michael Farrall, Edward Barry, Thomas Bennett, Bernard Killen, and Patrick Fitzgerald. See various, 1892, pp. 85-88.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Geoghegan, Patrick (16 February 2020). "'The Hist': 250 years of self-indulgent theatrics and transformative debate". The Irish Times. Retrieved 19 February 2020.
  2. ^ "Committee for the 254th Session". 10 April 2023.
  3. ^ "Professor David McConnell - Pro Chancellor". Archived from the original on 15 April 2016.
  4. ^ "David McConnell: Not the final word: Trinity's renowned Hist marks 250 years of momentous debate". independent. 4 March 2020. Retrieved 4 May 2021.
  5. ^ various 1892, p. 85,126-127.
  6. ^ Ahern, Bertie (22 October 2008). "Speech to the Trinity College Historical Society". Archived from the original on 6 January 2009. Retrieved 19 February 2020 – via Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ various 1892, p. 253.
  8. ^ Omorodion, Sylvia (18 September 2023). "Trinity's Hist recognised by Guinness World Records as oldest student society". The Irish Independent. Mediahuis. Retrieved 19 September 2023.
  9. ^ "The Hist declared world's oldest student society". Trinity College Dublin. 18 September 2023. Retrieved 19 September 2023.
  10. ^ Wilson, James (18 September 2023). "Guiness Book of World Records: Trinity officially has oldest student society". Newstalk. Retrieved 19 September 2023.
  11. ^ Geoghegan, Patrick. "Robert Emmet: Trinity Monday Discourse" (PDF). TCD. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  12. ^ Frazer, William. "The Medallists of Ireland and Their Work". Jstor. JSTOR 25506432.
  13. ^ Deeny, Donnell. "Historical Society launches Hist250 celebrations". TCD.
  14. ^ Robinson, Mary. "Douglas Hyde (1860-1949). The Trinity Connection. Quatercentenary Discourse: Pavilion, College Park, Trinity College Dublin". Jstor. JSTOR 23046511.
  15. ^ The Hist. "Naoise Dolan Speaks Against Impeaching Tom Lenihan at the Hist". YouTube. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  16. ^ "The Hist Page". 27 February 2012. Archived from the original on 27 February 2012. Retrieved 4 September 2019 – via Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ various 1892, p. 254.
  18. ^ various 1892, p. 85-88.
  19. ^ "Life Story of Isaac Butt - His Early Career - Political Opponent of O'Connell". The Monitor and New Era. London. 27 December 1913. p. 6. Retrieved 3 September 2019 – via
  20. ^ Davis, Thomas Osborne (June 1840). "Address to the Historical Society, Thomas Osborne Davis". Retrieved 19 February 2020 – via
  21. ^ Potter 2017, p. 27.
  22. ^ various 1892, p. 127,253.
  23. ^ Ball, F. Elrington (2005). The Judges in Ireland, 1221–1921. Clark, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd.. ISBN 1584774282. p. 383
  24. ^ "Dictionary of Irish Biography - Cambridge University Press". Retrieved 13 February 2020.
  25. ^ The Ray Darcy Show. 23 October 2010. RTÉ Radio 1.
  26. ^ Goes, Sáoirse (31 October 2023). "Hist Wins Second Guinness World Record After Marathon Debate".
  27. ^ "Trinity College to Debate here". Moorhead Daily News. Moorhead, Minnesota. 29 October 1932. Retrieved 3 September 2019 – via
  28. ^ Gleeson, Colin (11 August 2021). "Trinity students see 'immense work' pay off at European debating competition". The Irish Times.
  29. ^ "Trinity debaters reach European Championship Final for third consecutive year". 12 September 2023.
  30. ^ "Scientist Richard Dawkins ditched: are university students stifling free speech?". Irish Independent. 3 October 2020.
  31. ^ "The Hist Has Allowed Itself to be Bullied Into Turning on Free Speech". The University Times. 4 October 2020.
  32. ^ Quinn, David (4 October 2020). "University cancel culture leaves no room for debate". The Sunday Times.
  33. ^ "President - Vice Presidents". 2019. Archived from the original on 25 February 2019. Retrieved 3 September 2019.


External links[edit]