A century of wit and verbal combat
A gala dinner tonight celebrates 100 years of UCD Law Society, one of Europe’s largest student societies. Former auditors of the LawSoc tell CIAN TRAYNORabout its traditions and great debates
WHEN Niall Ó hUiginn began delving into the history of University College Dublin Law Society, something struck him. The auditor’s inaugural address, a tradition that had inexplicably disappeared, was once a prominent media event that drew the likes of Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass. At some point the auditor’s chain had also been abandoned, turning up in the possession of UCD’s societies officer in 2007 with decades of names missing.
Although debating controversial issues in a combative atmosphere remained integral to the society, things had obviously changed. Since the late 1990s the society has attempted to court a more mainstream appeal: black-tie processions were out, bestowing honorary life memberships on celebrities was in.
Guest talks from the likes of Leslie Nielsen and Bill Bailey have helped the society surge towards 4,500 members and overtake its traditional rival, UCD’s Literary and Historical Society, to make it one of the largest university societies in Europe.
But preserving the heritage of the society has not been as easy. Ó hUiginn reinstated the inaugural address during his term as auditor in 2008-09. Since then a handful of former auditors and committee members have joined him in retracing the society’s past, in time for its centenary, which is celebrated with a gala dinner at UCD’s O’Reilly Hall tonight.
A similar plan to mark the 75th anniversary was scuppered by a fire in May 1984 that destroyed the society’s records, including those of a 108-hour debate intended to secure a place in The Guinness Book of Records.
Over the past two years, however, the committee has tracked down former auditors and trawled through libraries to recover what fragments it can, from the society’s early years to Martin Cahill’s infamous no-show at a debate in November 1988. Photographs, speeches and posters have all been uncovered, but the biggest find was books of minutes previously thought to have been destroyed in the 1984 fire. They had been left for safekeeping with Paul O’Connor, associate professor at UCD’s school of law, and were forgotten about until he produced enough dusty records to chart nearly 25 years of the society’s history.
Since its inception as the Legal and Economics Society in 1911, it has had an ethos, as a 1945 issue of National Student noted, of providing students with a platform “to think and to speak . . . to reject , at any rate, to examine the set of political and social ideas inculcated during his schooling”. The society has also been a breeding ground for the Bar, a tradition reflected in the missing 25 names that were engraved on the auditor’s chain this week.
“We took ourselves very seriously, but we were learning our trade, learning to talk in public,” says the Hon Donal Barrington, a former Supreme Court judge and auditor of the LawSoc in 1949-50. “As many would have realised, presenting your first case in court is sufficiently terrifying without having gained that experience.”
Harold A Whelehan SC
Auditor, 54th session, 1964-65
“In those days we didn’t have anything on our curriculum to deal with advocacy or public speaking,” says Whelehan, a former attorney general. “We didn’t have any training in matters of court practice or deference to a chair. Debating was a way of getting around that and overcoming shyness. One picked up the tricks of the trade watching those who were more experienced.”
Whelehan remembers many students he saw debating at the LawSoc coming to the Bar and establishing themselves quickly. “I could always identify them because of that slightly additional assertiveness. They found it easier to grapple with the early years of practice and went steaming on to success.”
Sunniva McDonagh SC
Auditor, 69th session, 1979-80
Sunniva McDonagh, the first female auditor of the LawSoc, recalls that the society helped break in maiden speakers by hosting debates for first years in the classrooms upstairs.
“They didn’t have to subject themselves to the full theatre of war the first time around, and I think that worked well,” she says.
Part of the society’s appeal was its coverage of serious topics and the draw it had with prominent legal figures. Although McDonagh wasn’t planning on being a barrister at the time – “Had I known I was going to do all of this I might have paid more attention,” she says with a laugh – certain lessons have stuck with her.
“I remember having the privilege of talking to Mr Justice John Kenny, who was one of the architects of Irish judicial activism and modern constitutional law. He told me to remember that the law is what wise men say the law should be. I must say I’ve remembered that and have pondered on it ever since.”
Cian Ferriter BL
Auditor, 81st session, 1991-92
When Cian Ferriter joined the UCD Law Society, during his first year as a law student in 1989, it was a time of “moral and political upheaval”. Charles Haughey’s time as taoiseach was nearing its end, Mary Robinson was about to become president and issues such as contraception and gay rights were being fiercely contested.
“It was a vibrant time for debates that reflected what was going on in Irish society,” he says. “It was getting so competitive and entertaining that companies started to sponsor debates with big prize money, so that created a bit of a circuit.”
During Ferriter’s era a rare appearance by Gerry Adams was fraught with tension, as was a debate over lawful abortion, coinciding with the X case. “It was so charged that it was very difficult to have any rational debate on that issue, because you had extremists shouting people down.”
It would be a pity, Ferriter says, if debating were to diminish across university campuses. “There’s such value to people getting together to kick around ideas, argue things out and let people have their say.”
Auditor, 97th session, 2007-08
As the internet has become the forum for so much discussion, debating is unlikely to reach the heights it once occupied, says Ahern, a trainee solicitor. But strong guests and timely topics can still bring important issues into focus. When Ahern invited Jean-Marie Le Pen to speak at a Lisbon Treaty debate at the LawSoc in 2008, the right-wing French politician announced his acceptance at a press conference, causing furore among both sides of the campaign in Ireland.
The opportunity for students to interact with the likes of Rev Jesse Jackson and the author Jung Chang, Ahern adds, gives him faith in the society’s value.
“I think queuing up to get into Theatre L, asking a politician or celebrity a question in a live atmosphere where there’s shouting, whispering and paper planes being thrown, that’s still magic.”
You can see more photographs of UCD Law Society with this article on irishtimes.com
‘What do I remember from those days? The sheer fun of it all.’ Memories of two alumni
Auditor, 68th session of UCD Law Society, 1978-79; honorary vice-president of the society; chairman of Arthur Cox solicitors.
When my college life began in October 1975 Belfield was a forbidding, concrete place, yet to mature into the vibrant campus it is today. Like most first years I joined the Law Society in freshers’ week.
A biography of George O’Brien, one of the founders of the society, records that in its early years the society discussed papers, liked to debate serious topics and was distinctly highbrow. I have no idea how long that lasted, but by the time I arrived highbrow it was not. Nowhere was this more evident than in the weekly performance of the records secretary, who was expected to deliver a stand-up comedy routine with new material every week.
The records secretary in my first year was Brian Carroll, a fellow alumnus of St Macartan’s College, Monaghan, who brought to the sophisticates of Dublin a weekly dose of droll Monaghan humour. I was hooked. When, later that year, Gearoid Williams got me involved in supporting David Hardiman’s bid for the auditorship I became a fully fledged college hack.
What do I remember from those days? The sheer fun and innocence of it all. Also, dressing up in black tie every Thursday evening because that was “tradition”, as was the quaint notion of a sherry reception before each debate or retiring to the Montrose Hotel afterwards to unwind from what we genuinely believed was enormous stress.
There were bad nights when guests didn’t show or, worse still, did show and were dreadful. There were nights when hardly any audience turned up and those who did wished they hadn’t. But I have erased those nights from my memory.
Every college generation deludes itself into believing that its time at UCD represented a golden age, unequalled before or since. My generation can make a legitimate claim to relative distinction in one respect. In 1978 a Law Society team of Conor Gearty and Donal O’Donnell (now a judge of the Supreme Court) won not only the Irish Times debating competition but also became the first Irish team in many years to win the Observer mace. The following year they became the first team to win the mace two years in a row, beating another Law Society team (Suzanne Kelly and me) in the final in Bristol.
One lesser-known prize won during those years was the Young Accountants’ Debating Society trophy. It is sad to reflect that, of the four of us who represented the Law Society in that competition, I am the only one around. Rory Brady, Eamonn Leahy and Declan Madden are no longer with us, having each passed away far too young. They will be in my thoughts this weekend as I raise a glass with other friends from 1970s Belfield to the continued success of the UCD Law Society.
THE HON HUGH GEOGHEGAN
Auditor, 50th session of UCD Law Society, 1960-61; former Supreme Court judge
During my year as auditor one of the motions I selected for debate was “That we have never had it so good”, a topical phrase at the time in that Harold Macmillan, as prime minister, had given such a message to the British people. I was slightly taken aback when my guest chairman, the late senator Alexis Fitzgerald, voiced disapproval of the choice of what he regarded as an immoral motion. In the light of recent events perhaps he was right.
By far the most remarkable event (or, more accurately, non-event) occurred when my successor, Micheál B Ó Maoileóin, was in office. It coincided with sensational stories (now long forgotten) associated with Conor Cruise O’Brien, in relation to both his controversial role as a UN representative in Congo and his marital life. Some joker in a pub convinced prominent members of the society that he could procure Cruise O’Brien as chairman one Thursday. This was perceived as a big catch, and the meeting was recklessly advertised around the college.
The situation got out of hand when it emerged that Cruise O’Brien not only knew nothing about the meeting but was nowhere to be found. News of the alleged event had spread far and wide, prompting a frantic but ultimately fruitless visit to London by LawSoc officers to locate Cruise O’Brien.
All in all, the society in my time was popular with its members, who were conscious of its proud heritage, now encapsulated by the list of former auditors to be found on a plaque in Belfield.