History of the Society

Foundation

Founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman in 1855, the Literary & Historical Society is among the oldest, most esteemed, and most active student societies in Europe. It is older than University College Dublin itself; most of the other societies that exist in UCD today can trace their roots back to the L&H, including the Students’ Union and many of the prominent faculty societies.

Earlsfort Terrace Years

Before the university moved to Belfield, the debates were held on Saturday nights in the Physics Theatre, in Earlsfort Terrace. Here, the popularity and renown of the L&H flourished and the society first became known on a national scale. Quite often, events occurring at the Society's debates made front page news in the national press.

At various occasions, college authorities and external bodies attempted to shut the society down, most memorably in 1961, when the L&H was suspended by UCD authorities. No such attempts have thusfar been successful.

Belfield Years

In 1972, the society again relocated, this time to UCD's new Belfield campus, where the majority of students now studied. Since this time the Society has grown in size and popularity and continues to be the 'bearpit' for debate that it has been renowned for since the 1950s.

Debates

As the college's Debating Union, the L&H has, for over 150 years, gathered for weekly debates on topics of general interest. From the controversy of debating Home Rule for Ireland in the society's early years to the college's ban on debating the Communist Manifesto in 1949 the Society has never failed to be to the vangaurd in addressing the most relevant issues of the day. Throughout its long history the L&H has been addressed by every President and Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) since the foundation of the State as well as such figures as Patrick Pearse, W.B. Yeats, Flann O’Brien and James Joyce. Both Joyce and O'Brien ran unsuccessfully for the position of Auditor of the Society during their student days at UCD, Joyce losing out to Hugh Kennedy, later the first Chief Justice of the Irish State.

More recently the Society has been addressed by Paddy Lord Ashdown, Sir John Mortimer, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Governors Frank Keating of Oklahoma and Bill Owens of Colorado, and Nobel Peace-Prize winners F.W. DeKlerk, Dr. John Hume, Nobel Literature Laureate Seamus Heaney and Nobel Laureate for Economics Dr. John Nash Jr., Harry Potter Author J.K. Rowling, Oscar winners Neil Jordan and Brenda Fricker, Actor Will Ferrell, the Rt. Hon. John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, the Rt. Hon. Robin Cook, Former UK Foreign Secretary, Bob Geldof, Michael Palin, Ralph Fiennes, Sir Alex Ferguson and Former UN High Commisioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to name but a few.

The Society boasts just over 5,000 enrolled members. Our debates and guest lectures regularly attract capacity crowds of 400 to 800 students. Many L&H members who have braved such crowds have gone on to achieve great success in Irish and international life. Six of our eleven Taoisigh since independence have been active L&H members while at UCD. Other modern examples include Mr. Justice Hardiman (the youngest judge to be called to the Supreme Court Bench), Dermot Gleeson SC (perhaps the finest practising lawyer our State has ever produced), and Gerry Stembridge (comedian and screenplay writer) all of whom are former Auditors. Writer Maeve Binchy, former Taoiseach and Chancellor of the University Dr. Garret FitzGerald and EU Commissioner David Byrne were all prominent L&H members during their time in UCD.

Centennial and Sesquicentennial Histories

A 150th Anniversary book, edited by Frank Callanan SC, has been published to update James Meenan's centenery history of the society, published in 1955. The book, together with the reprinted centenary history, details the complete story of Ireland's most famous debating society and comprises a range of articles by various personalities from the L&H's past on the last 50 years of the Society.

If you have any questions about or interest in the book, please contact Hannah at librarian@literaryandhistorical.com.