The College Historical Society, more commonly known as the Hist, is not only known as the world’s oldest debating society but also as one of the principal hotbeds of rhetoric, discourse and thought at Trinity. This is evident from the society’s history and the individuals it produced, from Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmett, and Thomas Davis to Edward Carson and Douglas Hyde. This year, from March 2-6 the Hist will host both aspiring student debaters and world-renowned speakers to celebrate 250 years since its founding in a program known as Hist250.
The Society itself was born from what was known as Burke’s Club, which was founded by Edmund Burke in 1747 as a way of facilitating improvement in speaking, writing, and debating. After many of its members went on to become esteemed and influential lawyers, judges, and Members of Parliament, Trinity College voted to allow the club to become an official society and on March 21, 1770 the Historical Society met for the first time. Its path wasn’t entirely smooth, however, and in fact soon after its official establishment the society was expelled from the university on account of becoming too politically radical.
“Tensions between the College and the Society grew out of the Hist producing not just excellent thinkers, but people who were really involved in pushing political progress on both sides,” Auditor and Trinity student Luke Fehily explained. After being banned from congregating on campus, the members of the Hist continued their tradition by meeting at members’ private residences until they were readmitted to the college in 1843. Since then, the Hist has produced some of the most well-known Trinity alumni and continues to attract intensely passionate and curious individuals.
For Fehily, who hails from a small village in Cork, it’s precisely these types of people who allow the society to continue to maintain the integrity of its traditions in an increasingly modern setting. “I found that the Hist has concentrated people who have really interesting thoughts and who are really passionate about their subjects,” he said. “Over the course of my first year I could feel myself becoming a better version of myself from interacting with Hist people.”
The Hist has already had a busy year, from hosting debates every Wednesday night to bringing in renowned speakers such as Margaret Atwood and even working to re-establish relationships with corresponding societies across the UK. “A lot of this year has been in terms of reviving things that fell by the wayside, so we could use the overall year as a springboard for the next 250 years of the society,” Fehily said.
This March, in the 250th session of the Hist, Trinity students will collaborate with alumni and members of the Hist community to celebrate the society through Hist250. Though the program will last five days, the events have been in the works for years. A formal sub-committee composed of both students and senior officers of the Hist Honorary Member network was established three years ago, but the planning really began in earnest this year, Fehily said. “Because the Hist attracts a wide variety of people, we have a very engaged alumni network,” he said. “I know the 250th session has been on the minds of our honorary members and we’ve put together an excellent program.”
The week will open with an address by President Michael D. Higgins and will be followed by a series of debates and panels, where experts will speak on topics such as the future of Ireland, the future of common law post-Brexit, and the European Project: rule of law, transatlantic relations and economic development. “We’re very conscious that we don’t just want to celebrate the society’s history – we’re also celebrating the society’s future,” Fehily said. “ For debate, that’s where the value is, and I think that’s really reflected in the program.”
The debates have deliberately been planned so that the focus broadens as the week progresses, moving from Ireland on Tuesday to the European Union on Wednesday and global issues on Thursday. While the majority of speakers throughout the week will be people of extraordinary intellect and merit, such as Romano Prodi, Tony Barber and Sir Paul Collier, the Hist wanted to ensure that Trinity students also had an opportunity to speak. “The Tuesday debate has students in the most formal role because students can have a very clear say on the matter,” Fehily said. “Trinity students know what their vision for Ireland is.”
The week also features a segment devoted entirely to student debate through the finals of the Edmund Burke International Debate (InterDebate) on Monday night, where students from Trinity as well as teams from Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, and the French Debating Association will speak on pre-prepared motions. This will be followed by three days of debates and panel discussions by experts in a variety of fields and will conclude on Friday with the launch of the Hist250 Exhibition and Prof. Patrick Geoghegan’s history of the society, titled The College Historical Society of Trinity College Dublin, in the Long Room. For Fehily, though, one of the most exciting parts of the night will be the unveiling of Hist portraits in the Hist Conversation Room. The portraits, all by Mick O’Dea, include Dr Mary Harney, Dr Frederick Boland, Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, Dr Owen Sheehy Skeffington, and Dr Jaja Wachuku. “The Hist had a staggering array of very successful people, but those people aren’t really recognized in the university even though they’re probably some of the most influential and important people to come out of Trinity,” said Fehily.
A volunteer information session for Hist250 will be held next week for all who are interested in working at Hist250 and is open to all, regardless of past involvement with the Hist. As the week draws closer, Fehily hopes the Trinity community will be able to respect and appreciate the achievements of the Hist over the past two and a half centuries. “The Hist is as much now as it ever was a network of people who, regardless of their political affiliations or orientations, are determined to make the world better and engage in civil society,” he said. “It’s about how we can use debate and discourse and engagement to really see what we can learn about the future.