Hist250 exhibition celebrates ‘The Greatest of all Schools of Oratory’

An exhibition marking the 250th anniversary of the College Historical Society ‘The Greatest of all Schools of Oratory’ was officially opened in the Long Room in the Old Library.

‘The Hist’ as it is more popularly known is the world’s oldest student debating society. The Society has been the premier intellectual forum in Ireland and has been at the forefront of College life since its inception in 1770. As well as providing the scene for Edmund Burke, Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet’s first steps into political debate, the Society has played a part in the formative years of great Irish writers such as Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett, all former members. The Society is also noted for its guest speakers from Winston Churchill to Edward Kennedy to Margaret Atwood among many others.

The Society’s records are held in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The collection includes meeting minute books, debate attendance registers, lists of members, medals, accounts, photographs and correspondence.

Group photo of the officers on the Committee of the College Historical Society, 1872-73. Seated in the centre is the Auditor Bram Stoker.

Librarian and College Archivist, Helen Shenton said: We are delighted to be hosting this important exhibition marking the Hist’s 250th anniversary in the Old Library, showcasing some of the highlights of the debates over the centuries involving notable members, ranging from the renowned author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, to the former Tánaiste, Mary Harney. The student debating society has documented life in Ireland and the challenges it faced over the decades. It continues to do so and is a critical component of student life in Trinity.”

The first meeting of the College Historical Society took place on Wednesday, 21 March 1770. It was a time of great change in Ireland and the Western world, at the height of the Enlightenment and before the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. From its inception it showed itself to be at the forefront of intellectual thought in Ireland, and many of its members later went into politics.

Highlights from the  archives include the  1747 minute book of [Edmund] ‘Burke’s Club’, which inspired the foundation of the Hist, a photograph of the 1872-73 committee featuring Bram Stoker as Auditor, a signature book signed by Wolfe Tone, a photograph of the first Hist debate chaired by a woman, and medals awarded for skill in oratory and composition.

In the 1870s Edward Carson was a Librarian on the committee, and as such had responsibility for keeping the attendance book at meetings. The attendance book is not only notable for its list of attendees, but even more so for the topics being debated each week, spanning questions such as the role of women in society and the relationship between Church and State. In February 1872 the following motion was debated: ‘That the social and political disabilities of women should be abolished’. ‘A.Stoker’ was in attendance and spoke against the motion.

These items form just a small part of a treasure trove of records in the archives of the Hist, which are available for consultation by all who have an interest in the history of ‘The Greatest of all Schools of Oratory’.

Chancellor of the University, Professor Mary McAleese opened the exhibition  and also launched the history of the Society by Trinity’s Professor Patrick Geoghegan.

Co-curators of the exhibition are Ellen O’Flaherty of Research Collections at the Library of Trinity College Dublin and Ursula Quill, former Hist member, and director of the Hist250 celebrations.

Commenting on the exhibition, Ursula Quill said: “”This exhibition was the result of a rewarding collaboration between students on the current Hist committee and the Library of Trinity College as part of the Hist250 celebrations. Finding records of the debates that members such as Wolfe Tone, Bram Stoker and Conor Cruise O’Brien spoke at, or attended, was a reminder of the rich history of the Society in its 250th year. We also found plenty of colourful material, including drawings, jokes, and satirical verse, which was also a reminder that the Hist has always been a vibrant student society on campus. There is a wealth of material in the archive and the items on display were chosen to represent the story of the Society since its foundation, right through to the modern day.” 

Ellen O’Flaherty added: “The College Archives in the Library contains a treasure trove of records relating to the academic, administrative and social history of the University.  The Hist archive is one of the more comprehensive of the student society records and gives a fascinating insight into the history not only of the Society but of student life through the centuries.  We are delighted to have had the opportunity to work in collaboration with current members of the Society on this exciting project.”