The present day College Historical Society originated from two associations founded in the middle of the 18th century and has produced many of Ireland’s greatest patriots, politicians, authors and orators. The history of the Society spans four centuries, and therefore resists meticulous retelling; however, the links below will lead you to a broad overview of each period.
A more detailed account would require consultation of the Records, which date back to 1747. Should you wish for further information, please contact the Record Secretary.
‘Language is the Eye of Society, without it we could ill signify our wants for our own relief, and by no means communicate our knowledge, for the amusement or amendment of our fellow creatures, and therefore without it the comforts and delights of life could not be enjoyed, no conveyance of learning, of chastisement, of praise, of solace, scarce virtue be practised, friendship subsist, nor religion ever aught and defended. And as language is the cement of Society so is the perfection thereof perhaps its greatest ornament and not the least of its Blessings. In it Innocence and truth find a defence and reward, and guilt from it, its discovery, conviction and disgrace.’
From the preamble to the Laws of Edmund Burke’s Club, adopted Friday 24 April 1747, Dublin.
The College Historical Society sprang from two associations, both founded in the middle of the eighteenth century: Burke’s Club and the Historical Club. The Club, founded by Edmund Burke and a few of his fellow students, is the earliest debating society composed of students of the University of which any definite record remains. The minute book of this club relates that the first meeting took place on Tuesday, April 21st, 1747, in a house in George’s Lane (now South Great George’s Street).
The members present were Edmund Burke, Matthew Mohun, William Dennis, Andrew Buck, Richard Shackelton and Richard Ardesoif. Mohun, for his ill-conduct and neglect, was later “formally expell’d the Society for ever“. The preamble to the Club’s laws stated its intention of providing “fair opportunities of correcting our taste, regulating and enriching our judgement, brightening our wit, and enlarging our knowledge, and of being serviceable to others in the same things.”
The business of the Club was to be “speeching, reading, writing and arguing, in Morality, History, Criticism, Politics and all the useful branches of philosophy”; the first law related to the conduct of members and ordained that “decency and good manners, virtue and religion, must guide their whole behaviour, and no word, gesture or action, contrary thereto, pass uncensored.” Burke, who sat six times as President and twice as Censor, was the moving spirit and was never once absent from the meetings. The last record in the minute book is that of a meeting held on Friday, July 10th, 1747.
The Historical Club was founded on October 24th, 1753 by Barry Yelverton, afterwards Lord Avonmore. Its original purpose was the cultivation of historical knowledge, but it soon began to hold monthly debates. Although composed entirely of students, it met outside College, as had Burke’s club. The Society lost the first volume of minutes of the Historical Club during the exile from College in 1815.
The last quarter of the eighteenth century was a golden age of Irish eloquence; among the greatest orators of this period were Burke, Grattan, Flood, Yelverton, Hussey-Burgh and other members of the Historical Club.
1770 to 1780
The Society soon established itself, furnishing comfortable rooms, awarding medals and collecting “subscriptions for the relief of the poor at this period of distress and misery.” John Hely Hutchinson, the Provost elected in 1774 who controversially opened the University to Roman Catholics, was a good friend to the Society. As the Patriot Party of the Volunteers gathered strength, the Society took an increasing interest in Irish politics. At its first Irish debate, held in January 1779, it rejected the proposal of a Union between Great Britain and Ireland.
In the following months, it supported the Volunteers and unanimously approved of the secession of America.
Many members of that time rose to fame or distinction as statesmen, lawyers, or divines. Issac Corry, who became Chancellor of the Exchequer and fought Grattan in a famous duel, was Secretary in 1772. William Conyham Plunket, afterwards Lord Chancellor and Baron Plunket, was Treasurer in 1782. Standish O’Grady – Lord Chief Baron and Viscount Guillamore – was Auditor in the session 1783-4. (For a while the period of office was one term only.) Wolfe Tone was Auditor in 1785 and a medallist several times. Charles Kendal Bushe was medallist in Oratory in 1784, and the George de la Poer Beresford, who became Bishop of Kilmore in notable circumstances, was Librarian the same year. In 1793, the session in which the Society’s troubles came upon it, the Treasurer was Samuel Kyle, afterwards Provost and Bishop of Dromore, and the Librarian John Jebb was to become Auditor after the trouble in 1797, and later to be distinguished as Bishop of Limerick. These are but a few of the distinguished names of the time. By far the greater number of the Society’s members were men whose names were no longer on the College books. Many of them were members of Parliament, which met nearby in College Green; for instance, Laurence Parsons, later Earl of Rosse, was a member of Parliament during his Auditorship.
In consequence, the Society had a political influence and independence of spirit that the College authorities disliked. Despite their hostile inclinations, they had to treat the Society with respect – but the Board would later make many attempts to neuter it.
To The Rebellion of 1798
Tone was a contemporary in the Society of Thomas Addis Emmett, who helped to establish the Society’s reciprocal membership (still in existence) with the Speculative Society of Edinburgh. In 1794, however, the Society went too far in its independence. It refused to exclude from its meetings a sometime member who had been banned by the Board from the College, and the Board retaliated by expelling the Society from College after its resolution “That no one be admitted to the debates unless he have his name on the College Books” was defied. Compliance would have excluded over five hundred members, many of whom were MPs and figures of distinction. The Society contrived to meet outside College, in William Street, but by the end of 1794 some members decided to accept the Board’s stringent conditions for readmission, which included as one of the fundamental regulations the stricture that “No question of modern politics shall be debated” – the spirit of which would be frequently infringed. The reconstituted Society flourished. In 1795, the Trinity students’ enthusiasm for the patriots lost them the privilege of watching the proceedings of the Irish House of Commons from a gallery of their own. Grattan spoke against the recall of the popular Viceroy Lord Fitzwilliam. At the end of the speech, Lord Edward Walsh recalled that the students:
“rose as one man shouting and cheering with the boisterous tumult of a public meeting… We were pushed out in a heap without the slightest ceremony, and were never again suffered to enter as privileged persons.”
In 1797 two members who subsequently distinguished themselves joined the Society: Thomas Moore and Robert Emmet. The two became firm friends. In 1798, Lord Clare, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Vice Chancellor of the University, held a General Visitation, during which it was discovered that there were some Orange Societies and four committees of the United Irishmen within College.
Emmet was a secretary of one of the United Irishmen committees. He did not appear before the Visitors and so was expelled as contumacious. Moore initially refused to take the oath at the Visitation and was marked down for expulsion, but so many other students refused it that even Lord Clare had to give way and modify the oath. Moore and the rest then swore and escaped expulsion. Emmet’s patriotism led him to the gallows. Moore’s resulted in sentimental ballads in London drawing-rooms. Nineteen students (eight of them members of the CHS) were expelled in total.
To The Second Expulsion of 1815
The following years proved turbulent for the Society, and relations with the Board deteriorated. There were many disorderly meetings. During the 1809-10 Session a debate on universal toleration led to the Auditor being summoned before the Provost, and questioned “as to certain inflammatory expressions said to have been used“. In 1812 the Provost, Dr Thomas Elrington, took exception to some of the subjects chosen for debate, including universal suffrage and capital punishment. He even objected to the motion ‘Was Brutus justifiable in putting Julius Caesar to death?’ on the grounds that “to admit a defence to be made for assassination must be injurious to morality“. The Board imposed more restrictive regulations in 1813, and many experienced members were excluded from the Society. Meetings became even more disorderly, and the following year the Provost intervened in a Society dispute and struck two participants of the list of members.
The Society protested against ever increasing Board severity. By 1815, it had concluded that the Board was determined to extinguish it.
In a dramatic final debate on February 15th, 1815, a committee of seven was established “for the purpose of resigning for the present into the custody of the Provost and the Board the rooms hitherto appropriated to the use of the Historical Society, the late regulations of the Board being in the opinion of the Society inconsistent with the successful prosecution of the objects for which it was instituted…”, and then the Society adjourned sine die.
Provost Elrington’s notebook for December 10th, 1815, reads: “An application having been made by some of the students for the re-institution of the Historical Society, it was refused“.
One of Elrington’s pupils, Lord Cloncurry, later wrote of him as “a learned man, but stupid and blockish, and thoroughly imbued with the narrowest views of his class and profession. It was he who accomplished the suppression of the Historical Society, then obnoxious to all who dreaded progression, as a nursery of genius and patriotism, and as opening a common field whereon the rising generation of Irishmen were learning mutual respect of each other..”.
The Extern Society
After 1815 the Society held its meetings outside College. Its debates remained vigorous. Among its members during this period were Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Thomas Davis, John Blake Dillon, and Isaac Butt, an outstanding orator who in 1832 attempted unsuccessfully to have the Society readmitted to College. Early in 1841, Davis and Dillon were among several members of the Society who joined O’Connell’s Repeal Association. They were later key figures in the formation of the Young Ireland society. As an ex-President, Dillon gave an Address to the Society in November 1841 entitled ‘Patriotism’. The Nation newspaper was founded in 1842 by Davis, Dillon and Gavin Duffy. In 1843, Davis was elected an Honorary Member of the Society.
At the request of many students, 1843 also saw the foundation within College of an Intern College Historical Society. Several members of the Extern Society, led by William Connor Magee, later Archbishop of York, went about uniting the two Societies, and in May 1843 they held their first joint meeting in College, with the Provost in the Chair.
MacDonnell (in the ‘Life of Archbishop Magee’ ) writes of it: “The meeting was crowded…It was a long series of oratorical triumphs. From that day the success of the Society was complete.”
The Society's Centenary
The remainder of the nineteenth century was a period of relative stability enlivened by the occasional riotous meeting or clash with the Board. In 1846, reciprocal honorary membership with the Oxford and Cambridge Union Societies was confirmed. In 1852 the Board helped the Society out of financial difficulties with a grant of £20. One of the outstanding debates of this time took place on June 10 th, 1857, on the motion “That the Reform Bill of Lord Grey was not framed in accordance with the wants of the country.” Isaac Butt spoke in the affirmative, and was opposed by David Plunket (afterwards Lord Rathmore) and Edward Gibson (afterwards Lord Ashbourne). The motion was carried.
Among the new members this Session were W.E.H. Lecky and J.P. Mahaffy, to be joined the following Session by Anthony Traill (afterwards Provost) and Gerald Fitzgibbon.
The buoyant mood of the Society at this time can be gauged by the tone of Plunket’s Auditorial Address for the 1859-60 Session:
“There is, indeed, but one responsibility I know I can incur on entering our guild, it is to be patriotic Irishmen. This Society is now in its ninetieth year. Called into being at first at the moment when the spirit of an awakening freedom and a new-born nationality began to breathe upon this land, it has watched that freedom’s progress – tenderly nursed that nationality. For ninety years it has sent forth the best and greatest Irishmen…If you are cold to patriotism, I have no wish that you should become one of us…”
In 1864, a movement began for the erection of statues to the memory of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith. The Society collected subscriptions from its members and donated £30 to the cause; Foley’s two resulting masterpieces still stand to either side of the entrance gate to College. The centenary Session of 1869-70 was celebrated with a banquet in the Dining Hall, at which Isaac Butt in his speech referred to the Society’s existence outside the walls between 1815 and 1843.
Bram Stoker was Secretary in 1870, and Auditor two years later. “Dracula” is said to have been written at this time in Botany Bay.