Delving into Trinity’s Societal Past
As college resumes and society memberships are culled, Jane Purdom looks into some of the largest societies and how they contribute to the living history of the college
“Considering this source in isolation, it is easy to imagine societies having an even more influential role on the student experience than they do today – acting as powerful driving forces of innovation and progress that integrated the student body into one radical movement”
When it comes to the role of societies in Trinity, there are few that would argue that the pooled activities of these societies have ultimately shaped the actions, involvements and general psyche of the present student body. But as we look back on the collective history of these pivotal organisations, one may come to understand how they emerged as dominant groups in the college today. Indeed, the history of some of the societies are quite fascinating, with scandals and legends that still contribute to the heritage and character of these societies today. The Hist’s 1815 exit from the college is only one of many such occurrences that comes to mind – when the society actually left the university, due to many of its members being expelled.
These expulsions came about due to the Hist’s hosting of a debate discussing if Brutus was justifiable in putting Julius Caesar to death. The society was only reformed within Trinity in 1843, after a sizable student petition and an agreement that the society would no longer discuss political affairs. Looking at past societies in this way, through such fascinating snippets of history, does in some way enable us to engage with Trinity’s societal past and the college as a whole. However, perhaps the only way to truly immerse ourselves in this history requires a closer, more thorough examination of the past by placing ourselves in Trinity 50 years ago.
The logical place to begin researching this time in Trinity’s history was found in “Trinity Tales: Trinity College Dublin in the Seventies”, a collection of essay-style memoirs. These pieces painted a vibrant and exciting decade of change and development for both societies and the college as a whole. Considering this source in isolation, it is easy to imagine societies having an even more influential role on the student experience than they do today – acting as powerful driving forces of innovation and progress that integrated the student body into one radical movement.
However, Roy Foster’s review of this collection points out that while this is true to some extent, the actual idea of trying to paint an accurate picture of societal life in Trinity 50 years ago is fundamentally flawed – those that disengaged, or had negative experiences, simply would not come forward. We are therefore left with a romanticized version of events that we must attempt to detangle from reality.
“According to the current society and its past members, [QSoc] was initially viewed as a novelty by the general student body – it was defined by its obscurity and simply did not receive the mainstream support that it does today”
As social reforms and revolutions were so prevalent amongst students in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, my research took me back to the foundation of what we now know as QSoc. A brief examination of this society’s history offers impressive credentials – being Ireland’s oldest LGBTQ+ organisation is a prime example. It is only with a closer and more personal look at the story of Qsoc can we truly understand what the foundation of this society meant for the Trinity student 50 years ago. Indeed, this is perhaps a prime example of the differences in actuality and romanticizing past events. According to the current society and its past members, the society was initially viewed as a novelty by the general student body – it was defined by its obscurity and simply did not receive the mainstream support that it does today.
When we consider this in context of the social and political norms of the time, it is not surprising. However, it is only when we take steps like this that we truly begin to paint a picture of what societal life was like for students of the college 50 years ago – when we separate concrete facts from the mood and experiences of individuals at the time. A brief look at the Trinity News archives is an accurate route to engage with the reality of the times. Articles from the early 1970s hotly debate values now taken as a given by the wider student body: gender equality, human rights advocacy & the ratio of Catholics to Protestants in the college. Comparing these articles with those of today’s – where we are challenging the definitions of gender as society perceives them, the passionate calls to repeal the 8th amendment highlighted how much times have changed.
“It is perhaps this enthusiasm and love of involvement that appears so continuous can be considered in understanding the society’s consistent emergence as a pivotal contributor to societal life here at Trinity”
Of course the history of one of College’s oldest societies, the University Philosophical Society (or the Phil as it is most commonly known), must be considered when researching the societal past of Trinity. An examination of the minutes of meetings from 50 years back offers a valuable insight into what involvement in the society meant for a student. These records indicate a more formalised time – notice was taken when committee members were late for meetings, and fining for minor offenses was seldom, but not as unheard of as it is today.
However, from studying these snapshots of the society’s history, noticing how they were so diligently kept, the passion of members back then mirrored that of students today. It is perhaps this enthusiasm and love of involvement that appears so continuous can be considered in understanding the society’s consistent emergence as a pivotal contributor to societal life here at Trinity. These records really captured the interests and values of students at the time, in a way that looking at secondary sources simply cannot do.
“The Astronomy and Space Society, the Karting Society, the Speech and Language Pathology Society and most recently the One World Society are a few to appear on the list of disbanded organisations”
Considering the contextual and actual history of existing societies is a fascinating challenge that offers a more genuine and in depth answer to what societal life was actually like in the college fifty years ago. Another valuable way of painting a picture of this, and that is also commonly overlooked, involves looking at societies that cease to exist. In order to research this chapter of Trinity’s past, research involved sourcing a list of disbanded societies from within the university and then attempting to find articles from these organisation’s times that may offer information regarding their role within Trinity, and how they ceased to be.
This task proved challenging as information was limited and scattered. Anecdotal information from current students leads certain stories come to mind but this only leads to more questions about possible societies that didn’t make it to the anecdotal hall of fame. The list of no longer existent societies is varied and certainly doesn’t offer any indication of the criteria for a lasting organisation. The Astronomy and Space Society, the Karting Society, the Speech and Language Pathology Society, and most recently the One World Society are a few to appear on the list of disbanded organisations.
My research – which involved everything from skimming old articles from the relevant period, to looking at the actual records kept by the Phil – definitely enabled me to understand that the past societal life of Trinity was much more complex than initially presumed. From a closer examination, looking at records and examining the facts on a more contextual level, I was able to see how often the actual reality of what a society was for students differs from what is often presumed.
My research into the Phil enabled me to understand the stark differences in culture and society, differences that simply cannot be observed at surface level analysis. Furthermore, the meticulous records kept enabled me to understand just how much involvement in this society meant to students in the past – appearing to hugely shape their experiences of university. My research of QSoc mirrored similar findings, highlighting the value that the society had in pioneering social movements of the time.
This journey into the history of Trinity led me to wonder how our own societies would be perceived 50 years from now. Would technology and the volume of information that it enables us to keep lead to more accurate and better representations? Or, is the mood and understanding of a college and its student organisations simply too complex to capture fully?