Royal Dublin Society weaves the cloth of Irish society and industry

The long, gray stone facade in one of Dublin's most fashionable areas breathes solidity, style, tradition. Polished floors, marble busts, a hushed, clublike members' reading room, an ornate council chamber, an elegant library of 200,000 volumes, a conference hall seating 4,500, and a concert chamber seating 1,200 announce to the visitor that here is the heart of the Irish elite.

Indeed, it was all founded eight months before George Washington was born. When a group of high-minded landed gentlemen gathered at Trinity College Dublin on June 25, 1731, England had yet to go into India, and France still ruled the settled parts of Canada.

Over the years it gave Ireland what is now the National Library, part of the National Gallery, the Dublin Botanical Gardens, and even the mansion in which the Dail (parliament) now meets.

Yet, even as it turns 250 years old this year, the Royal Dublin Society faces new challenges.

The RDS, as it is known throughout Ireland, is still a rock of stability. On its 65 choice acres it stages two of the country's most famous and enduring annual exhibitions: the Dublin Horse Show, and the Spring Show and Industries Fair.

It is strictly private: It has accepted no government funds for 100 years.

But Ireland is changing. Half the country is under 25. Forty percent is under 19. Yet of the 14,910 members of the RDS only 497 as of Dec. 31, 1980, were under 21.

When the society set up booths at its shows to encourage new and young members, a common reaction was an incredulous, "You mean I can join?"

The elitist image is a acknowledged by the society president, James Meenan. But Mr. Meenan, who headed the society's executive committee for 21 years and is a former professor of political economy at University College, says the reaching out to young people has already begun.

"We have accepted junion [under 21] members for the last 10 years," he said over lunch at the Irish Yacht Club. "We have links with universities, though we could have more with vocational and technical schools.'

The RDS had staged some popular concerts, including performers like Johnny Mathis and the rock group "Queen." Every Christmas it puts on a "fun fair" for children: Some Dubliners told me it was well done, but expensive.

Betty Searson of the RDS arts committee said RDS concert performers (the society is the only Irish organization that brings in world-famous musicians) follow their traditional evening performances with a 45-minute lunchtime concert for office workers and youngsters.

The society is adjusting in other ways, said A. J. Fitzgerald, chief executive officer of the society. It is letting out its exhibition space to commercial shows: the national boat show, the auto show, even the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest, broadcast throughout Europe the night of April 4.

"We compete for international exhibition business with European countries who have full state backing," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "We've done well so far, but we have to work hard."

The society celebrates its 250th year with scientific lectures concerts, awards, a massive garden party June 21, and, five days later, a massive ball -- five bands, a disco, three halls, Irish salmon, salad, and strawberries and cream.

"But I'd say our most significant efforts this year are in music and science, " said Mr. Meenan.

"We're spending more on bringing to Ireland better performers, and the audiences are coming. In science, we've put together some solid lectures on natural science, energy and new technologies."

Performers this year include US pianist Malcolm Frager, the Smetana Quartet, the Zurich String Sextet, and violinist Mincho Minchev.

The W. K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich., (the breakfast cereal Kelloggs) has given the society $254,000 (US) to finance three years of international summer schools on agriculture.

The first, this year, will cover the economics of energy on the land, biomass , photosynthesis, anaerobic digestion, nitrogen fixation by legumes, animal wastes and wind, hydraulic and solar energy.

The society was founded in 1731 to boost "husbandry, manufactures, and other useful arts." Two weeks later, the word "sciences" was added.

Until union with England it took the place of the non-existent civil service, encouraging the plowing, drainage, land reclamation, and spinning vital to a rural country. Today it is pondering how to have closer links with the industry that now plays a bigger part in Ireland's economy. It strongly supports arts, the sciences, and agriculture.

And it is turning more and more attention to Ireland's young people. "The society is remarkably unpredictable," said Mr. Meenan in an anniversary lecture. "You can never be quite sure what it is going to do next."

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