Trinity ‘Hist’ officially recognised as the world’s oldest debating society

Guinness World Records entry for Historical Society, whose members included Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, and Mary Robinson

It has been banned, criticised and expelled from the university over the years. Today, however, the College Historical Society of Trinity College Dublin – better known as The Hist – is celebrating its official status as the world’s oldest college debating society.

The society, founded 253 years ago, has secured Guinness World Records recognition after providing extensive documentary evidence of its continuous existence.

Its foundation in 1770 preceded the Cambridge Union, established in 1815, which is often cited as the oldest continuously running debating society in the world.

The Hist boasts a rich history of debating success over the years and its list of former members’ is a who’s who of patriots, politicians, authors and orators of national and global significance.


Edmund Burke was a founding member; Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet joined later; Douglas Hyde and Edward Carson were on opposing sides in the debate over Irish independence; Mary Harney and Mary Robinson were among the first women members; Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was also a member during his time in college.

To prove the Hist’s case to Guinness World Records, former auditor Luke Fehily collected a large file of photographs of the society’s records, one for nearly every year since when it was founded in 1770, and drew extensively from the college’s library record.

There were some gaps due to conflict with college authorities which led to the Hist being banned from meeting on college grounds in 1794 and, again, in 1815. In both cases, it was readmitted years later.

However, Fehily said he was able to gather unambiguous evidence that the society continued to exist and meet during those times.

Much of the tension with the college, he said, was due to its licence to discuss historical issues only, rather than more incendiary contemporary matters.

“They weren’t supposed to be rabble rousers. But within 20 years of being formed it was being led by students who became revolutionaries. That really upset the college,” he said.

The Hist will officially receive its Guinness World Records certificate at a celebratory dinner next month.

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.”

Hist auditor Áine Kennedy said the society was thrilled at the official recognition.

“This achievement demonstrates a remarkable tradition of encouraging student voices, radical discourse, and oratorical excellence,” she said.

“For over two and a half centuries, the Hist has continued to cultivate these ideals. I want to acknowledge the time and effort invested by previous auditors into proving our case as the world’s oldest such society, and for the support we’ve received for this endeavour from alumni.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent