Beginnings, 1950s, 60s
“The Historical Society” was founded in late 1951. This was 37 years after Maureen Donovan O’Sullivan was made the first chair of history at University College Galway in 1914. She was also the patron of the society until her retirement in 1957.
Ireland and the university were very different in the first two decades of the society. There were classes on a Saturday, students rarely went home during term save at Christmas. They only took one course in history each year, there were no choices. For many years there were only two lecturers in history, one through English the other through Irish.
The society was part of an emergence of university history societies at that time linked to the founding of the Irish University History Students Association in 1950 mainly down to the efforts of Prof. Robert Dudley Edwards.
Soon after the creation of the I.U.H.S.A. efforts were made to encourage the creation of history societies in the various third level institutions in existence at the time.Papers of Robert Dudley Edwards. Includes minutes, agendas, correspondence relating to the I.U.H.S.A. Available to view in the U.C.D. Archives. This prompted the setting up of a history society in 1951 with Claire Naughton as the first auditor of the society.
Soon after its foundation, it organised its first I.U.H.S.A. Congress in 1954. It hosted it again in 1959, the congress took place on a Wednesday to Friday basis rather than the weekend format that it now has adopted. That conference was attended by the clergyman college president, mathematician and classical scholar, Pádraig de Brún who also chaired a paper. This was not long before he died the following year.
It was much more difficult for many years to run societies as there was no formal body and it remained so for several decades. Funding for the societies was limited. Thus, the society initially had few guest lecturers which were also on occasion subsidised by members of the history staff. Society members gave most of the papers at the meetings aswell as staff members. The auditor at the first meeting of the year would give the inaugural paper at the start of the year.
These practices continued until the 1970s when more funding could be found for guest lectures.
The student body at the time were more engaged in society activities though it was significantly smaller in size.
One source of income was the dances held at Seapoint in Salthill on a Tuesday in the 1960s. These were organised by the societies, though they were allocated certain Tuesdays, so they could be during study week. Thus there certain dates were highly sought after and societies launched joint bids.
One interesting lecture given to the society was given to the society in November 1967 was by the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin (Church of Ireland), George Simms. He spoke on the Book of Kells, of which he was an acknowledged expert. It was surely interesting for that alone, but someone had decided to invite the infamous Bishop of Galway and University President, Michael Browne.
In 1969, the I.U.H.S.A. congress was again held in Galway, having done so in 1964 too. This congress had a degree of consternation as the association had doubled in its membership. The degree attendance and of material presented too had grown drastically, which along with a lack of rapport created problems despite the best efforts of the history society.
The History Society was the first college society to be addressed by an Irish President when Erskine Childers addressed the society on February 13, 1974. The President’s lecture was on “The need for a social history of Ireland since 1945”.
Picketting took place at the entrance of the college by students from Galway Regional Technological College(It would later be renamed GMIT in 1997 as part of promises made to students of recreation facilities that had been failed to be delivered by the government.
The decade was also marked by the influence of Thomas P. O’Neill, a member of the history staff. He was the serving staff treasurer and the member of staff who took most interest in the society during this period.
O’Neill was the co-author of a biography of Eamonn de Valera commissioned by the man himself. He gave several talks during the decade on the topics about the life of Eamonn de Valera. One debate not long after the biography was released drew much attention, and controversy which was to debate De Valera’s legacy. Tim Pat Coogan was due to speak, and the college president advised the committee to manage the event carefully. O’Neill learning of Coogan’s participation, told the committee that he would withdraw if Coogan was to attend or speak. Fianna Fáil TD, Farrell McElgunn spoke too, though was subjected to criticism for a weak contribution.
The Arts Ball or ”Arts Dress Dance” was restarted by the society in 1978. It had previously been organised by the Arts Faculty Society which by this time was no longer in existence. The history society saw that there was no ball, the only faculty not to have one, which was especially unusual as Arts was and is still the largest faculty.
The society organised the I.H.S.A. conference twice in the 1970s. It was organised for two consecutive years in 1977 and 1978. In 1977, they had a special performance for those attending the Conference by the Druid theatre group.
The following year it was organised again by the society, but it was held in Westport, County Mayo.
As part of one of the many re-brandings of the society, the society was officially renamed itself ”HistriSoc” in 1977 as part of efforts to brush away the image of history students and history as stuffy. Topical and interesting lectures were held to reach a broader audience. Off the wall events such as toga parties and an infamous medieval gala dinner at Bunratty castle, which also helped to fund the society.
The Ambassador to Ireland from the Soviet Union addressed the society in 198.
It was notable for the fact that the ambassador parked his car outside where they were eating.
This was double yellow lined, but he was undeterred given his diplomatic immunity and that the Gardaí who followed him constantly would keep an eye on it for him.
The I.H.S.A. congress once again rolled into town in 1984 and again in 1989. The society went on a number of trips
which included, London and Durham. A journal, ”Stair” was published by the society each year for a number of years in the late 1980s. The society won the ‘Best Departmental’ society award in the year 1988-89.
There were further issues of ”Stair” in the early 1990s. The 1991 issue as well as having some excellent articles plus a section historical truths, culled from history papers. This included such insights as Magellan circumcised the globe with his forty-foot clipper, and, de Valera told O Buachalla, ‘you are abolished’, ‘you are one yourself’, replied O Buachalla.
History was made when members of the History Society of Queens, Belfast University|Queens University, Belfast visited Galway for a weekend in 1998. It was the first such occasion according to the ”Connacht Tribune”, though there had been delegates at previous I.H.S.A. Conferences hosted in Galway. This was part of a broad opening of society post-ceasefire. They were quests of the NUIG History Society. The QUB group comprised students from both sides of the political divide. It had been initiated by Brigid Ryan, the auditor of the society who led a delegation to Belfast weeks before. An invitation was extended and accepted by Queens. It was quite an occasion considering that it came at the end of the troubles. The group were given a reception upon arrival met by the vice-president of NUI Galway and a councillor in the mayor’s stead.
In relatively recent years the society has undergone many changes, especially in the structure and organisation of the society. Its level of activity has grown greatly in the number and scope of events has greatly increased.
The society despite its natural interest and tendency to look in the past, has embraced the opportunities brought about through the rise of the internet and social media. Youtube, Facebook, and other platforms were set up over the course of the decade. It was one of the first societies to create its own website when SuperStair.com was launched in the early 2000s. It also eventually acquired [http://www.cumannstaire.com CumannStaire.com].
As of the 2007 A.G.M. the society formally was to be known as “An Cumann Staire”, the name as Gaeilge was to be given primacy. The Irish name was used at different stages, and was equal in regards to most of the previous constitutions, the decision made it formalised as “An Cumann Staire”. An Armas (coat-of-arms) too was created for the society. At the 2009 A.G.M., after being a long time in the works a new and comprehensive Bunreacht (Constitution) was adopted by the society.
The society hosted the I.H.S.A. conference in 2004 for the first time since 1993 and again in 2008. In 2004, they also were recipients of the ”Best Departmental Society” Award at the Society Awards.
New links were forged with ISHA and the Fachschaft Geschichte of Mainz.
An international intervasity conference, ”Aistir” was organised by the society twice in 2008 & 2009.
The ‘Best Departmental’ society award was won at the 2004 Society Awards.
The website has had a number of facelifts over the years, and Tonaí Ó Roduibh’s efforts led to winning “Best Website” at the 2008 society awards aswell as Nóra Ní Dhomhnaill winning ‘Best Fresher’.
The society website was again given a make-over by in 2011 and again in 2013.
Students came from all over Ireland and further afield to attend the I.H.S.A. Conference in 2012. The chief organisation duties switched hands several times over the course of the year, with one organiser moving home and was unable to continue the organisation; the person who took over suffered a mountaineering accident a week before the conference and the baton had to passed one final time. Though despite the unforeseen circumstances, the conference was highly successful by all accounts.
In 2012, after several different and less substantial incarnations, the society launched a month long series of history based events. History Month won “Best Event” at the 2013 Society awards.
Little had been known to the society of its history, thus initial work began on gathering about the society began in the spring of 2012. Substantial efforts were then made the following spring and summer to find information, and make contact with former members. As a result the society is now able to produce this partial history!
Irish History Students’ Association
The I.H.S.A. or the Irish University History Students’ Association as it was then known was founded in Dublin in 1950. This was in the main because of the endeavours of Robert Dudley Edwards. He was chair of modern Irish history for University College Dublin, which he held until his retirement. Dudley Edwards was the main protagonist of the association for the subsequent decades.
The I.U.H.S.A.’s main function and continues to be was to organise an annual congress where papers were given by students and a ball would be held on the last night of the weekend. It is held in a different town or city every year and was initially organised by the student societies, though this trend only really continues through An Cumann Staire.
The I.H.S.A. has always been an important pillar of An Cumann Staire. In the early years, the congress brought students together from the different traditions and classed from all over the island of Ireland. In most cases the predominantly protestant students from Queens University Belfast had not been south of the border prior to attending the congress.
The society has organised the congress on numerous occasions he society hosted the IHSA annual conference in 2008, 2012 and 2016 in recent years. Also Galway hosted it in 2004, the first time it had done so since 1993.
It was hosted and organised by the society for the first time in 1954 aswell as 1959, 1964, 1969, 1977, 1978 1984 and 1989. Up until relatively recent years the congress had taken place off campus in hotels such as the Meyrick Hotel(Formerly the great Southern Hotel) and even Westport(1978) and Sligo on occasion.
International Students’ of History Association
The International Students of History Association (I.S.H.A.) was founded in Budapest in 1990 after the drawing of the iron curtain. This was down to the initiative of Hungarian history students who wanted to forge links with their colleagues in Western Europe. It was and still is primarily based in the former U.S.S.R.. It currently has over 25 sections all over Europe from Saint Petersburg to Galway. It organises several conferences and seminars each year which are conducted through English and are hosted by different sections.
2007 saw An Cumann Staire organise itself as an I.S.H.A. section opening up new horizons for the society and becoming the first Irish section of the association. It remains and has been the only Irish section of the society.
Delegations from the Cumann Staire have attended the conferences and seminars all over europe, including: Turku, Pula, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Zagreb.
Fachschaft Geschichte is the student history society at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz in Germany. It pre-dates the Cumann Staire as it is believed to have been set up around the same time of the re-establishing of the History Dept. of that college in 1946.
In 2005/2006, a new working agreement was made between history departments of NUI Galway and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, consequently parallel links were forged between the two student societies. There has been a link between the two societies ever since. An Cumann Staire have took several members of the Fachschaft under their wing and had them serve as Erasmus Rep. There has been an Erasmus Rep. from Mainz on the committee for most years of the last decade. Several trips have been made to Mainz by the society and for conferences. The Fachschaft too returned the favour too coming to Galway on a number of occasions.
Each year the society organises a number of academic lectures given by a range of historians from Ireland and abroad. This normally consists of a lecture of 40–60 minutes, a questions and answers session of around 20 minutes and an informal wine reception follows. On occasion too there have been speakers who have been storytellers such as Edmund Lenihan or others who have spoken about their own experiences, for instance in 1998/99, Laurence McKeown spoke about his experience as a hunger striker.
Every february the NUI Galway Arts Faculty Ball or the Arts Dress Dance is held in Galway. An Cumann Staire has organised it since the 1978 when it took over from the now defunct Arts Society after a significant intervening period. It caters for the single largest faculty of the university. It is attended by students and staff alike.
Thus since its inception it has traditionally been the largest university ball and has a large demand for tickets.
On some occasions students camped out over night from one in the morning to secure tickets.
Some even joined the queue on their way home from another ball.
In recent years it has massively jumped from an attendance of 490 students in 2002 to highs of 1,700 in 2011 and 1,600 in 2016. Arts Ball 2009 won the “Best Event” award at the NUI Galway Students’ Union awards. It has been the largest dinner dance event in Ireland.
It has generally been the only ball to have a dedicated webpage.
In 2012, this was acquired [artsball.nuig.ie], and it was the first ball on campus to have a dedicated website with all the relevant information. In the same year a specific page was set up on Facebook for the event.
The Arts Ball is also notable for the large amounts of money it donates to charity, something not all the other university balls have an emphasis on. It has also made donations to the history department for the purpose of purchasing history books for the library. It has raised upwards of €10,000 on several occasions.
Every year An Cumann Staire usually organises a national and international trip. The trips are open to all members and take in historical sights, museums and plenty of fun. The national trip normally takes place in the first semester, there have been trips to Belfast and Cork in recent years. The international trip would take place in the second semester. There have been trips abroad to Turkey,Germany, Scotland, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Czechia and Estonia in recent years.