The Irish Times view on 250 years of the Hist: the power of persuasion

Visiting speakers at the Trinity debating society have included almost all heads of government, North and South

In 1840, Thomas Davis, President of the College Historical Society (the Hist) of Trinity College Dublin, gave an address on 'The Utility of Debating Societies in Remedying the Defects of a University Education'. This week the Hist, the world's oldest student debating society, has been celebrating 250 years of testing that thesis at weekly debates.

Hist members have charted and changed the path of Irish history, sometimes as conservatives but most famously as radicals. It fomented three revolutions, 1798 (Wolfe Tone), 1803 (Robert Emmet)and 1848 (John Blake Dillon). More constructively the Irish Parliamentary Party (1874) was founded by Isaac Butt and the Gaelic League by Douglas Hyde (1893). The first signatory to the Ulster Covenant in 1912 was Edward Carson. Daniel O’Connell’s aides, Thomas Wyse and Richard Lalor Sheil, had been members, as were Thomas Moore, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. Samuel Beckett debated the motion ‘That Principles Ought to be Sacrificed for Expediency’.

Visiting speakers have included almost all heads of government, North and South. Three generations of Churchills addressed the society. Senator Ted Kennedy discussed Edmund Burke at the Bicentenary in 1970. The Hist approved of abortion in 1964 and questioned the dominance of religion in Ireland at a time when both subjects were rarely discussed in public. In 1972 it adjourned its weekly meeting as a mark of respect to those killed on Bloody Sunday. In 2011 it mourned the death of Brian Lenihan, Jnr. Margaret Atwood spoke to a packed house in 2019.

Hist250 celebrations were opened by President Higgins, an ex-Auditor of UCG’s Literary and Debating Society. More recent graduates, Frederick Boland, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Owen Skeffington and Mary Harney, the first woman auditor, have been honoured and Jaja Wachuku, Nigeria’s first foreign minister, is remembered today. At the heart of all events is a recognition of the Hist’s proud record of fostering independence of thought, eloquence and the power of persuasion among generations of young orators.