College debating is in decline and it is a matter of regret that it no longer produces “wits and poets and orators” anywhere near as impressive as those who went before. So said the chairman of Trinity College Historical Society at the start of its sixth session in 1775.
It is fair to say “the Hist” — as it is better known today — has managed to produce a few of merit during the intervening 250 years or so. Edmund Burke was a founding member; Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet joined later; Mary Harney and Mary Robinson were among the first women members; and more recently, Leo Varadkar and Sally Rooney were members.
Despite being banned and criticised at various points since it was founded, the Hist is set to celebrate its official status as the world’s oldest college debating society.
The society, founded 253 years ago, has secured Guinness World Records recognition only after providing extensive documentary evidence of its continuous existence. Former auditor Luke Fehily and others were able to source enough evidence to show that even when the society was banished from the campus — twice — it continued to meet outside the walls.
Much of the tension with the university, Fehily says, was linked to attempts by college authorities to restrict debate to historical matters only. Rather than bow to demands, records indicate that the society continued to meet and became a forum for free debate. It returned to the campus in the 1840s.
Nick Adams, on behalf of Guinness World Records, said: “On review of the expansive evidence submitted, and with the corroborating expert witness statements from historians, Profs Roy Foster and Marianne Elliott, Guinness World Records is pleased to recognise the College Historical Society of Trinity College Dublin as the oldest student society.”
The Hist is due to celebrate with a gala dinner at the university next month and, presumably, a speech or two.
Over the years it has been a place where generations of public figures cut their oratorical teeth in what was an early proving ground for distinguished careers in law, medicine, theatre, media and politics. It was also a place where controversial issues were debated, often well ahead of their time, such as Irish independence, slavery, apartheid and gender equality.
Former pro-chancellor of TCD Prof David McConnell — and a former president of the Hist — says the rollcall of former members shows it is clear they were active across all sides and divides, “joined by the common desire to improve themselves and wider society”.
He notes it included members who went on to play vital roles on different sides of the Irish question, such as the Young Irelanders (Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon), the Irish Parliamentary Party (Isaac Butt), the Unionist Party (Edward Carson) and the new Irish State (Douglas Hyde).
In an era of intellectual tribalism and echo chambers online, former auditor Luke Fehily says the society is showing a new generation how to disagree, agreeably.
While the format of debate has changed over the years, these days it is usually four speakers from either side of a debate, with a motion put to a vote. The formality of the rules, he says, prevents debates descending into a free-for-all.
“Their purpose is not to make everyone agree with each other; it’s to foster an acceptance of disagreement, so people can respectfully disagree with each other. It puts people together who ordinarily would never come into contact with each other,” he says.
“That mix of people can be very good at making change. They question the status quo, they weather disagreement and can go on to do great things outside the college sphere.”
Some skeptics may regard university debating as synonymous with privilege, exclusivity, self-regarding speechifying or students in ill-fitting formal clothes.
But it is also, say others, a place where generations have seen democracy played out, ideas debated and society change.
In doing so, according to Prof Patrick Geoghegan, a historian at Trinity College Dublin and author of a recent history of the society, it has been transformative.
“By providing a peaceful forum to speakers representing every shade of opinion, it has been a place where great ideas have been contested and where national and international figures have been shaped,” he wrote in The Irish Times recently. “Today, in the 21st century, it still serves the same vital function.”