What extinct societies are hiding in Trinity’s past?

Many societies become engulfed in the rich history of the college but can be explored within the old manuscripts of Trinity

Today, there are over a hundred societies in Trinity, and the number grows with every passing year. Undoubtedly, the Phil and the Hist are the oldest ones that spring to mind, but there have been many other societies whose names are wholly unrecognisable. While some lasted the test of time, far more have been forgotten as they disbanded over the years.

“The ink scrawls on the browned paper of old calendars hold tales of a wildly different time.”

The history of campus life is incredibly rich, as Trinity has been in existence for over three hundred years, and is home to one of the oldest student societies in the world. Yet, to learn about its past is more difficult than expected, as the facts remain solely in the paper manuscripts of the college and the archives of its student publications. Through the Long Room and into the Old Library, the ink scrawls on the browned paper of old calendars hold tales of a wildly different time. The headlines narrate tales that include everything from a band of witchcraft in Botany Bay with voices and drum beats at midnight, to the Hist having security escort women off the premises for trying to attend one of their debates. These remnants of the past are evidence of the vibrant history and ever-shifting attitudes within College.

Many societies and student publications disappeared as quickly as they existed with little memory of their names. This includes the Gramophone Society which held Friday dances in 1910, to the World Nuclear Disarmament Society in 1962 which staged protests and talks on campus. There was also an Anti-apartheid Society and a Refugee Society amongst sports clubs such as the Motorcycle and Light Car Club. The Anarchist Society existed in the early 2000s but disbanded as they agreed it was against their ideals to have such a formal structure.

“There was also a TCD Dining Club which left manuscripts of foreign menus and endeavoured to experience the food of different cultures and tastes.”

On the other hand, several societies were lost due to being rendered obsolete over the years. One such society was the Co-op Society, which was established by students in the hopes of providing more affordable supplies and food. This eventually stemmed into becoming a buffet and the group set up a store that was recognised by Board. It existed over many years providing cheaper food for students. The DU Oriental Language Society also dwindled and eventually disappeared. There was also a TCD Dining Club, occasionally called the East Africa Dining Club, which left manuscripts of foreign menus and endeavoured to experience the food of different cultures and tastes.

One large society in the past was the Fabian Society. They existed to provide a forum for socialist principles and to spread knowledge and understanding of socialism. The society and its members wished to improve the status of students and to introduce a more democratic note to College life. The Fabian Society was also a British organisation founded in London in the late 1880s attracting members such as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. The Trinity society had its opening meeting in 1948 and held events such as discussion groups, where topics ranged from Eastern European democracies to whether College is democratic. However, they ran into controversy a year after they were set up when a resolution of protest that was passed by the society was published in the Irish Democrat, without telling the Registrar of Board. The President claimed responsibility and they had to schedule meetings with the Provost in Regent House. They eventually dissolved after membership dwindled and attempts to revive it were unsuccessful.

The Neophyte Debating Society was another large society within College. They existed alongside the Phil and the Hist to encourage debating among the junior members of the College and to get students to also take part in senior debates. They held their opening meeting in 1918 and their first debate was on whether to allow the admission of women to Parliament. It was considered one of the most significant societies in College, and there was a medal ceremony at the end of each term. In 1921, they declared that they wanted to accept members of the Elizabethan Society to their circle too. However, in 1937, the Registrar’s Office wrote that College Board decreed that the society was banned from using any room or hall in College, and that they would hereby refuse to include any of their events in the College calendar. Eventually, the ban was lifted and they were allowed to petition their revival, yet no attempt was successful.

“Eventually, as the need for a separate society for women was nearly obsolete, the Liz merged into the Phil in the 1980s.”

Alongside the Hist and the Phil, the Elizabethan Society – usually shortened to the Liz – conducted discussions and readings. It existed from early times when women were still being fined and escorted out of the university by security for trying to attend the other men-only debates. The society was set up circa 1900 as a paper reading society when women were first allowed attend Trinity. They owned four rooms in the College including a sitting room, a table tennis room, and a writing room. Over the years they hosted distinguished visitors and held regular garden parties. They set up a debating committee and held intellectual debates alongside other societies. The society held speeches on topics such as the prejudice against women in College, feminism, and female students earning respect through their knowledge rather than femininity.

The Phil allowed the Liz to attend debates and participate in the 1950s. However, the Hist maintained male membership only. Eventually, as the need for a separate society for women became obsolete, the Liz merged with the Phil in the 1980s.

Another prominent group were the DU Mission groups such as the Mission to Belfast, Chota Nagpur, and Fuh Kien which was later named Mission to the Far East. These were classed as societies within College records, although they were more akin to religious organisations or groups. They were established in the late 1880s after being inspired by similar missions in Oxford and Cambridge. These missions were organised with the aim of spreading Christianity to populations across the globe. Several individuals were murdered whilst on a mission in 1895, but the missions continued on with an increase in the number of participants. Anglican churches were set up and a Fuzhou foreign language school was founded.

Overall, it’s evident that the nature of society life within Trinity is fluid and can evolve greatly with the passing of time. Gently flicking through the aged manuscripts gives a flavour of what life used to be like for students and reawakens forgotten memories. Who knows what Trinity will be like a century from now? Whether the Hist and the Phil will spiral into further controversy, will DUGES finally become FemSoc, or will LawSoc committee be overthrown…you can count on it being stored within the delicate pages of the Old Library books.

Maeve Breathnach

Maeve Breathnach is the current Assistant Societies Editor of Life. She is a Junior Fresh English Literature and Maths student.