Society Spotlight: DU History

Grace Fannon talks to the Auditor of DU History, Shane Macken, about the society’s unorthodox approach to history

This past year has seen an undeniable refocusing on social issues on social media platforms, especially from younger generations. There has been a movement toward re-educating oneself, becoming more aware of deeply rooted biases that continue to have consequences on our lives today. If this growing awareness has taught us anything, it is the importance of understanding our history, and the realisation that events that happened in the past – far from being confined to the seemingly unreal word of history books – are still very much alive in the way we think, the stereotypes we consume, the political and economic structures in which we live. History is a tool for understanding. Unsurprisingly, Shane Macken, auditor of DU History, is very aware of this, and tries to bring that mindset into the society. “History is so much more than books about dead people collecting dust on a shelf. There’s a fun, contemporary spark we try to bring into our social events and I think that is so unique.”

According to Macken, the society is always looking to “push the boundaries” and “try to bring history into events in fun and unconditional ways.” What does this actually look like when it comes to events? Macken cites a favourite example of his, which took place back when he was in first year; the Fall of the Wall club night with Trinity Ents. “Tramline was divided into East and West Berlin with the mighty Berlin Wall in between coming down at midnight! I’m sure [the society’s] founding members would have loved the sound of Nena’s 99 Red Balloons as the paper-maché wall came down!” Having personally attended the event when I myself was in first year, I can assure that it was as fun as it sounds. There is a certain misconception whereby people associate engaging with history as inevitably boring, but as the society creatively demonstrates with these kinds of events, such a perception is far from true. Despite the unusual and challenging circumstances that we have found ourselves in this year, the creativity of DU History has not faltered, and the society recently won Best Event at the 2021 CSC Awards. The event in question was Trinity’s Hidden History, back in week 5 of Michaelmas term. A virtual tour of Trinity campus, Trinity’s Hidden History “broke down the history of areas on campus, such as student activism in Front Square, Social Darwinist science at the Anatomy lab, and murder at Rubrics.” The motivation behind the event was in part to help recreate an on-campus atmosphere through a virtual medium, especially for first year students, who haven’t had a chance to experience it yet.

“The creativity of DU History has not faltered, and the society recently won Best Event at the 2021 CSC Awards.”

Rather than describing this past academic year in terms of its limitations, Macken switches the script and takes a noticeably positive outlook. “This year has been really eye-opening as it allowed us to see the full potential of DU History. We pushed our limits to run brand new events.” This included virtual tours, cocktail making sessions, baking tutorials, along with virtual guest speaker events, game nights and pub quizzes. An innovative step taken by the society was also the introduction of its podcast, Many Moons Ago, now well into its second season. The process of creating the podcast began in June last year, when the reality of an online academic year was still just starting to become apparent. Macken says, “DU History wanted to challenge itself to devise a new method of engagement with history in ways that would not only push boundaries but push our society out of its comfort zone.” The podcast has covered an impressive range of interesting topics, from the pilot episode on the relationship between history and art, to Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, to the history of gaming. The final episode comes out in Week 12, and Macken hints that it “provides a very fitting end to the year that brought about the podcast!” Many Moons Ago featured collaborations with different societies, and a variety of guest speakers, including academics, comedian Bláithín de Burca, and Reverend David Latimer, who previously was Minister of The First Presbyterian Church of Derry, and spoke on the podcast about his experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Guest speakers have always played a prominent role in the society’s line up of events, and creating a podcast was an “opportunity to take a new approach to historical discussion through a more engaging platform.”

“DU History wanted to challenge itself to devise a new method of engagement with history in ways that would not only push boundaries but push our society out of its comfort zone.”

Founded in 1932, the society’s original purpose was to “provide supports for History students.” To this day, they run workshops on essay writing, the schols exams, and dissertations, along with their social events. Of course, a large proportion of the society members study history, which is why Macken originally joined in first year, but there are also many members from other courses who use the society as an outlet to maintain a love of history, especially if they are no longer formally studying it. For Macken, as society Auditor, “It’s great talking to society members who come from all ends of campus, because you see just how far DU History reaches.” Although he has clearly decided to look on the bright side of this past year, this is not to say that Macken did not miss typical society traditions and events. This includes their Michaelmas Term Reading Week Irish Trip, Hilary Term European Trip and the Apollo Ball. Restrictions also meant that simpler traditions couldn’t take place – as Macken recalls, “One of my favourite things about being on the Freshers’ Week stand was talking to new students and seeing their reaction to all the unconventional angles from which we try to approach history.”

Indeed this unconventional angle is what the society is all about. Incorporating history into socialising, and engaging students with the past via fun events, is clearly the main aim of the society, and one that they achieve successfully, even if it has to be done over Zoom.