College Historical Society

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College Historical Society
Founded 1770
Home Page
President Prof. David McConnell

Officers of the College Historical Society, 246th Session[1]

Auditor Julia McCarthy
Treasurer Luke Daly-Ronayne
Correspondence Secretary Annabel O'Rourke
Record Secretary Ronan Mac Giolla Rua
Censor Ines Niarchos
Librarian Andrew Blennerhassett
Debates Convenor Stephen Barr
Events Convenor Olly Donnelly
Senior Member of Committee Lorna Staines

The College Historical Society (CHS) – popularly referred to as The Hist – is one of the two debating societies at Trinity College, Dublin. It was established within the college in 1770 and can be traced back to the club formed by the philosopher Edmund Burke in Dublin in 1747.[2][3][4] It is often cited as the oldest surviving undergraduate student society in the world.

The society occupies rooms in the Graduates' Memorial Building at Trinity College. Prominent members have included many Irish men and women of note, from the republican revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone and the author Bram Stoker, to founding father of the Northern Irish state Edward Carson and first President of Ireland Douglas Hyde, and in more recent times Government Ministers Mary Harney and Brian Lenihan.



The first meeting of the College Historical Society took place on Wednesday, 21 March 1770,.[5] 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 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 the University of Dublin 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. 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 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.

The Extern Society[edit]

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 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 Hist as a nod to the past, but the college authorities have long since ceased to restrict the subjects of the society's debates.

The 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 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 of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith at the Front Gate of 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.

The 20th and 21st centuries[edit]

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. Interestingly, 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.

Women had been refused membership of 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 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"[citation needed].

Recent developments have seen the re-opening of the Resource Library, operated in conjunction with the Phil, 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.

Chamber debating[edit]

The main business of the society is the weekly debates held each Wednesday Night during term time. Chamber debating, including the debates (known as Public Business Meetings) with invited guest speakers for which the Society is best known, tends to be less formalised (even if more formal) than competitive debates, and the manner of delivery is closer to public speaking, with audience engagement far more important.

The Weekly Debate is the second of the Society's weekly meeting, with the Private Business Meeting being the first. In this, the internal business of the society is conducted by the General Committee with an Ordinary Member chairing: motions internal to the Society may be put to the House and debated, questions asked to the Committee and Officers, and Fines contested and administered. The Minutes read at both this and the Public Business Meeting are usually comedic, with the Record Secretary making a speech that has little, if any, relation to the previous week's meeting.

The Meeting then moves to Public Business, where an invited guest, usually someone of expertise or involvement in the matter being debates, chairs the debate in which both student and guest speakers from the Proposition or Opposition bench take the floor. During speeches, Points of Information may be offered from the floor or opposing bench. Shorter, impromptu Floor Speeches may also be given if there is interest from the student audience. At the debate's conclusion, the motion is put to the House followed by a speech from the Chair who usually offers their thoughts on how the debate proceeded. Students and guests then proceed to a reception where discussion of the matter is usually continued.

The motions are varied and wide-ranging, giving students an opportunity to debate with experts on the specific motion chosen, usually based on an important issue taking place in current affairs. The Society addresses controversial issues. 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.

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 Inaugural Meeting of the 236th Session was addressed by Dr. Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chancellor of the University of Dublin. The Society has the distinction of having been addressed by every Taoiseach and President of the Ireland

Competitive debating[edit]

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 prestigious Irish Times public-speaking competition. The Society regularly fields one of the most successful teams in Ireland having been represented in the Grand Final of The Irish Times Debating Competition in 2006, and winning it in three consecutive years, in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and has now won this competition on both the individual and team positions more times than any other debating society in Ireland. It is also a force internationally, competing regularly at foreign Inter-Varsities and at both the World Universities Debating Championship and European Universities Debating Championships (the Society having hosted the former in 1992).

The Society jointly hosts the Kingsmill Moore Invitational, the Robert Emmett Invitational and Dean Swift Intervarsity (Trinity IV), the largest and most prestigious Irish Inter-varsity, with the University Philosophical Society. The Society also fosters development and competition within itself, running frequent workshops and internal competitions: most notably its Maiden Speaker Competition and the Wolfe Tones's Public Speaking Competition.

It also plays a prominent role in providing Secondary School Level Debating, jointly running the esteemed Leinster Schools' Debating Competition with the Literary and Historical Society and its own Schools' Mace.

Notable speakers[edit]

Sir John Major speaking at the Inaugural Meeting of the 238th Session

The Society has a long history of hosting international figures, intellectuals and personalities.

Political figures and public intellectuals[edit]

Personalities from the arts[edit]

Governance of the Society[edit]

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

The Society is headed by a President, usually a senior academic of the College and respected public figure, who ceremonially presides over the Society such at its Inaugural meeting but is uninvolved in the day-to-day running of the society. Several Vice-Presidents, usually distinguished Honorary Members of the Society, also serve the Society in a largely ceremonial position. The Standing Committee of the Society consists of the President of the Society, Auditor, Treasurer, and the Record Secretary, along with six nominees of the President and two of the Auditor. It meets once yearly and serves to counsel the Auditor and General Committee.

The vast majority of the society's operation and management is conducted by the General Committee made up of the President; ex-Auditor; the Officers of the session (Auditor, Treasurer, Correspondence Secretary, Record Secretary, Censor, Librarian and the Debates Convenor), ex-officio and eight other Members of the Society (with the positions of Deputy Correspondence Secretary and the Senior Member of Committee directly elected from these. The Roles of these Officers are as follow: The Auditor leads the Committee, is responsible for the final accounts of the society and delivers an address at the Societies annual Inaugural Meeting on a subject of their choosing. The Treasurer oversees the society's expenditure and income, membership subscriptions, fines and the Billiards rooms. The Correspondence Secretary organises the Society's Wednesday night debates, inviting guest speakers and selecting members to give speeches. The Record Secretary is charged with the keeping of the Society's Records, Laws and Membership lists and correspondence with the Society's Honorary Members. The Censor publicises the Society's activities to its Members and College, organising the writing and publication of the Society's annual magazine, the HistOracle. The Librarian manages the Society's library and rooms and runs its schools competitions.

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 convening the Trinity IV (comprising the Trinity Women's Open and Dean Swift IV) with the University Philosophical Society. The Convenor is appointed by the new Committee of the society following each annual election. The position was added in the 234th Session, having existed previously for two years off committee.

Presidents and Vice-Presidents[edit]

Presidents of the Society since 1843[edit]

1843–1851 Rev. Franc Sadleir, Provost of Trinity College 1937–51
1852–1854 Rev. Richard MacDonnell, Provost of Trinity College 1851–67
1854–1883 Sir Joseph Napier, Lord Chancellor 1858–59
1883–1913 Lord Ashbourne, ex-Auditor, Lord Chancellor 1885–86, 1886–92, 1895–1905
1913–1925 Sir John Ross, 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 1963–1982
1983–2003 Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien, Medallist, Minister 1973–77
Incumbent Prof. David John McConnell, ex-Auditor, Medallist, Senior Fellow of Trinity College

Current Vice-Presidents[edit]

  • Stephen G. Harris, B.A.
  • Mary Robinson, M.A., LL.d., H.F.T.C.D., S.C., Chancellor of the University of Dublin, former President of Ireland,
  • Professor Gary H. Holbrook, B.A., M.A., Professor Emeritus The Metropolitan State University Denver, Colorado.
  • Micheal J. Cameron, M.A., ex-Auditor, Medallist
  • Shane Ross, M.A., T.D., ex-Record Secretary,
  • Senator David Norris, M.A., Senator for the University of Dublin.
  • Mary Henry, M.D., former Senator for Dublin University.
  • Eric Lowry, M.A., ex-Auditor
  • The Hon. Mr. Justice Declan N. O. Budd, M.A., LL.B., ex-Record Secretary, Justice of the High Court
  • David O’Sullivan, M.A., ex-Auditor, Medallist, Auditor General of the European Union
  • Dr Patrick Geoghegan, M.A., F.T.C.D., F.R.H.S.
  • Professor Ivana Bacik, LL.B., LL.M., F.T.C.D., Senator for the University of Dublin
  • The Hon. Mr. Justice Michael Hanna, ex-Auditor
  • Dr Sean Barret, F.T.C.D, Senator for the University of Dublin
  • Professor David Ford, ex-Auditor, M.A., B.D., PhD., D.D., S.T.M.[7]
  • Mary Harney, 1976–77, Leader of the Progressive Democrats 1993-2006, Tánaiste 1997-2006 and Cabinet Minister 1997-2011

Notable Auditors[edit]

Other notable members[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Martin Cullen speech
  3. ^ Bertie Ahern speech
  4. ^ Burke Statue
  5. ^ The Hist Page, CSC
  6. ^
  7. ^ [1],