Trinity’s defunct societies

Robert Gibbons takes a look at some of the societies that have disappeared over the years, revealing how our student ancestors may have lived

It is easy to passively believe that year in, year out, student-run clubs and societies merely exist, pushed by their own inertia to continually hold events and meetings. And yet, a quick look at the history of student societies in Trinity shows that they are not as static or stable as it seems. Societies come and go as popularity and necessity dictate, so looking back at its turbulent past reveals something of what Trinity was in times gone by, and how that influences us now.

The type of societies which are most reflective of student attitudes are those centred around political movements and debating. Take, for example, the Fabian Society, a debating society based upon the ideology of Fabianism, which hopes to advance the message of democratic socialism. It was founded in 1948, and through the 1950s and 1960s, it was as popular in the College as the Phil and the Hist are today. Although, as socialism became less and less popular, so too did the Fabians, which caused the society to eventually be dissolved.

That said, the Fabian Society is not the most notorious or influential of the now lost debating societies. That title belongs to the Elizabethan Society, or as it is usually known, the Eliz. Founded in 1904, the creation of the Eliz was a response to the fact that women were not allowed to join the traditional debating societies in the college. Over the next 77 years, it became one of the most successful societies on campus, attracting guests such as Ninette de Valois, the founder of the Royal Ballet. Throughout the 1960s, there was talk of a merger with the Phil, after they admitted their first female members in 1967, although this was ultimately rejected by the Eliz. In 1981, however, they finally agreed to merge, and the Eliz dissolved into the Phil, although they are still paid homage to through the Honorary Presidentship of the Eliz given to the highest-ranking female member of the Phil and the annual Women’s Open held with the Hist.

“The creation of the Eliz was a response to the fact that women were not allowed to join the traditional debating societies in the college”

There are also the societies which centred around specific political movements that either succeed or slow down to a halt. This is epitomised by the Society for World Nuclear Disarmament. They held expert talks throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but eventually fizzled out as concern over the issue died down.

With all of that in mind, these societies really only tell us that gender equality, socialism and nuclear war were all concerns within Trinity when they were also concerns for the wider world. The real intrigue lies in leisure. When unprompted by politics, what did students choose to do? This is quite a difficult question to answer because, while larger societies like the Eliz and the Fabians kept fairly clear records, smaller societies seem to have few records outside of old Trinity News reports, partly because the Central Societies Committee was only formed in 1969. This allows us to only get a glimpse at what these societies were, but oftentimes that is enough.

A particularly prolific society in the first half of the twentieth century was the Gramophone Society. Evidence of the group can be found as early as 1910, where they held dances on Friday nights, but the majority of their activities centred around music preservation and appreciation. They were greatly supported by Dr. Brian Boydell, who is known for his progressive approach to the music syllabus in Trinity. The society was, by all accounts, one of the larger and more popular societies by the mid-twentieth century, holding events to aid the funding of the National Concert Hall and borrowing rare records from the French Embassy for their events. Student reports from the 1970s claim that the society boasted an impressive vinyl collection which they blasted from the top of House 5 at their leisure. They eventually died out, though it is unclear why. Perhaps they were eclipsed by the Music Society, which was founded in 1962 to promote instrumental performance and modern composition. The Gramophone Society always placed a larger emphasis on older orchestral music over all other genres, though they did often collaborate with other (now lost) societies at the time, such as the Jazz Appreciation Society and the Folk Song Society.

When it comes to sporting clubs and societies, however, the trajectory is much less direct, often coming into and out of fashion fairly constantly over the years. The Gymnastics Club is a prime example of this. In the beginning of the 1960s, the Gymnastics Club was struggling due to a lack of funding and so they partnered with the Boxing Club in 1962 in order to pool their resources. By 1966, however, they had split from the Boxing Club and performed as a part of the festivities surrounding Trinity Week. Their performance consisted of a gymnastics display followed by traditional Swedish folk dancing. This is because the Gymnastics Club were able to be independent largely thanks to the patronage of Nils-Eric Eckblad, the Swedish Ambassador to Ireland at the time.

“It gained the nickname “Pills Soc”, being known for its outrageous nights out, at which a number of people would come dressed in all manner of angling or snorkelling apparel”

Similar instability can be seen within the Gaelic Football and Hurling Clubs. The Hurling Club was first founded in 1878, but due to low membership numbers it slowly became the Hockey Club. It re-emerged again in 1893 but wasn’t recognised properly by DU Central Athletic Club until 1936. The Gaelic Football Club had similar issues. Reservations for pitches and requests to DUCAC show evidence of its existence throughout the first half of the twentieth century, but it was not fully recognised until 1954. Since then, however, both societies have remained popular, still running to this day.

Nowadays, societies in Trinity remain in flux, coming and going like the first buds of spring. Eight years ago, a society was founded whose name is still infamous in the annals of Trinity: Fish Soc. It was founded under the pretence of supporting and promoting fishing among students. It lasted three years and students at the time confirm that within its limited lifespan it gained the nickname “Pills Soc”, being known for its outrageous nights out, at which a number of people would come dressed in all manner of angling or snorkelling apparel. They burned hot and bright, but because they did not  submit the correct documentation to the CSC, they lost their funding and disappeared.

Looking back on the passions of the students who came before us and the lasting impact they have had upon the character of the College grants a fresh perspective on the things we often take for granted. Trinity is no better or worse than the people who go there and the way in which they interact with the world. It is the same now as it was then, whether it be through striving for gender equality, music preservation, performing Swedish folk dances or fishing.

Robert Gibbons

Robert Gibbons is the current Societies Editor for Trinity News.