As the great Damian Crawford once said, “What is this?”
From Humble Beginnings
Before the Queen’s College in Galway even opened its doors, the Literary and Scientific Society was inaugurated as a school of oratory and place of learning in the West of Ireland. Much has changed since 1846, including our name, but words used at its inaugural meeting still shape the Literary and Debating Society today. The foundational aim of the society was to “elicit the latent sparks of genius in a few individuals” and help to form men and women “who, vying with the great spirits of the past, shall illumine the future”. Now in its 167th session, the ‘Lit & Deb’ still holds to this inspiration and continues to elicit sparks and hopefully play some rule in the future’s illumination.
Having been incorporated into the Queen’s College in 1852, we were suspended in 1866 for refusing to prevent a passionately nationalist student from speaking. We continued to meet in one of Galway’s hotels during this period and returned in 1868 with a renewed vigour. And so we remain, absolute in our refusal to suppress any view, in the cause of acting as a true forum for debate and engagement with the issues that really matter to our members.
On another occasion the passion of a meeting led to riots and duelling in the city streets and so to another period of exile from the college grounds. In 1942 the Lit & Deb became the first student society in the world to elect a female auditor and was suspended for another period in 1964 for hosting a debate seen as politically insensitive.
We are a society devoted to public discourse and so are very proud to count amongst our alumni, our Taoiseach, Tanaiste and Attorney General as well as our former auditor, President Michael D. Higgins.
An Inclusive Forum
Since its conception, the Lit & Deb has acted as a forum in the West of Ireland for anyone inclined to enter the fray of public discourse. After all, it was a Galway institution before it was a college one. This translates today into an all-encompassing interpretation of membership. 20,000 registered students and staff automatically become members of the society and gain speaking privileges upon entering the university. Thus we are the only true forum for students on campus.
Private Members Time takes place before the main business of the society at each meeting. Any member of the student or staff body may propose any motion they wish. Provided the motion is seconded, and then opposed, an impromptu debate will follow.
Further still, we aim to debate real issues of interest to the general public as well as the minds of lofty academics. While motions may only be tabled by the society’s official members the public are very welcome to attend any event and speak on motions before the House. If members of the public feel that a particular issue is pressing they are encouraged to email the suggestion to email@example.com and a member of the society’s committee will propose the motion.
Records Held by the Society
The Lit & Deb have many records to their name. With the election of Clare Fitzgerald in 1942, the society was the first student society in the world to elect a female auditor. The first paper to be delivered by a woman in the university was also delivered under the auspices of the society.
In the 1980’s we broke the record for the longest continuous debate. Having lost it later that decade, the society broke the record again in 1995 and holds it to this day. This marathon feat of 24 hour debating for 28 days shows something of the resolve, passion and ability of so many of our fine alumni. The motion “That This House Has All the Time in the World” stands testament to a continuing tradition of students engaging in public life whilst hard at study and play in university life.
The Guinness record can be placed securely in our trophy case but we periodically attempt shorter (not lesser!) feats to raise funds for deserving charities. Our most recent was a successful 24 hour debate by our 165th session in aid of Concern Worldwide.
Role in the University
As well as being the student forum for the University, the Lit & Deb acts as a meeting place between the city of Galway and the, often aloof student world. Traditionally tasked with producing the university’s ‘College Annual’, the society continues to publish an annual which places its happenings and musings in the context of college and city life. Finally, the Lit & Deb has the privilege of being able to award the President’s Medal to persons of note, both nationally and internationally.
Galway’s Literary and Debating Society is not an island. We maintain close ties with Ireland’s other third level debating societies and are active in the world of competitive university debating. Our alumni include several winners of the Irish Times Debating Competition and the World University Debating Championship as well as several intervarsity competitions.
Almost every month of the academic year the Lit & Deb represents Galway at inter-varsities, ranging from Ireland’s universities and colleges to those in the United Kingdom and across the European Union. In partnership with the university’s Law Society, we host The Irish National Law Debates each year which draws over 200 speakers and judges from Ireland’s four corners (and further afield) to our city for a weekend of competitive debating with a Western tinge. We host the Irish National Maidens Competition on a rotational basis with other Irish universities and were proud to host the Global Youth Forum in August, 2013.
The Lit & Deb are very proud to support the development of tomorrow’s leaders by hosting the Western Schools’ Debating Competition and the newly founded Talk it Up mace competition each year. Students from second level schools all over the West of Ireland receive public speaking instruction and support from a group of our society’s members under the leadership of our schools’ convenor. We also help to facilitate inter-schools debating and host our regional competition towards the end of our academic year.
What, When & Where?
The Kirwan theatre on the University’s Art’s Concourse acts as the usual home of the Lit & Deb. Public Speaking workshops will be held there each Tuesday night of term and Main Business events will take place there each Thursday night; both at 7pm.
The Modern Society
The modern society is as committed to the evocation on the “latent sparks of genius” today as it was in 1846, but the topics of discussion have changed. The Lit & Deb’s members have, in their history, pondered the benefits of colonialism at the zenith of British power, discussed the technological advances of the Victorian era and examined the implications of fascism in Western Europe.
Recent sessions have played host to guests such as Nancy Cartwright, Professor Noam Chomsky, Martin Sheen, Roddy Doyle and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We have held comedy events, literary conventions and panel discussions. We have hosted debates of national and student politicians and discussed the merits of military and medical interventions. We have entertained philosophical notions of truth and freedom, and questioned how best to read our history and how to build our future.
This year sees the society enter into its 171st session, and as such we intend to tackle many of the questions that are ever present in modern life. These include the ethics of whistle-blowers, if NUI Galway’s recent gender equality taskforce has been effective, and questioning the core pillar of the society: free speech.
These events will be run in parallel with the society’s usual events, such as the annual Irish National Law Debates and the Western Schools Debating.
Freedom of Speech
The foundation of the Lit & Deb is the principle of freedom of speech and its importance as a core feature of university education. There is no issue or opinion beyond the society’s Pale. Subjects of recent debate range from the place of Fianna Fáil in Irish politics or abortion law to the cancelling of the university’s rag week and the true home of Irish sport.
Unfortunately, it is this commitment to freedom of speech that means the Society is never very far from controversy. In fact for many years, the discussion of controversial topics could only take place in the chambers of the society, due to the mainly conservative university authorities.
It is worth noting here that while the Literary and Debating Society maintains its defence of absolute freedom of speech we recognise a tendency in recent years for public discourse to descend to a form of verbal flogging. We will do our utmost to act as a forum for the debates that shape our time but will not resort to the invitation of guests who have left the realms of realistic debate as to do so would be to host virtual show trials for the sake of drama and increased numbers at events.