IN­SIDE DUBLIN’S PRI­VATE CLUBS

The Hiber­nian Club on St Stephen’s Green is run like a ‘fun’ bou­tique ho­tel and is open to new mem­bers – a few doors down things are more se­cre­tive and ‘sniffy

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Rosita Boland

‘Ithink that the pub­lic think pri­vate clubs are very sniffy places, and to be fair in the case of the Kil­dare Street Club it is not wholly in­ac­cu­rate. It is a bit fusty, and it is a bit like walk­ing into the 19th cen­tury. But that’s kind of part of its charm as well. It is a de­fi­ant refuge for Lud­dites,” says Alexan­der.

Alexan­der has been a mem­ber of the Kil­dare Street and Univer­sity Club for more than 10 years. This is not his real name be­cause there is a tacit con­tract be­tween the club and its mem­bers that they do not speak to the press, ever, even though some mem­bers are also jour­nal­ists.

The Kil­dare Street is at num­ber 17 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, and the Stephen’s Green Hiber­nian Club is at num­ber nine, a few doors down. Both are lo­cated in large and splen­did Ge­or­gian build­ings, and both have been op­er­at­ing as pri­vate clubs for more than a cen­tury.

Both have web­sites, although you’ll get no fur­ther than the sin­gle- im­age home­page on the Kil­dare Street one: it’s mem­ber-only ac­cess. In con­trast, the Hiber­nian web­site, while it also has a mem­bers-only log-in to parts of the site, is en­tirely forth­com­ing with in­for­ma­tion about, and im­ages of, its fa­cil­i­ties; ac­com­mo­da­tion, din­ing and bars.

I con­tacted both clubs, ex­plain­ing that I was writ­ing an ar­ti­cle, and won­der­ing if I could in­ter­view an ap­pro­pri­ate per­son and per­haps be shown around. My email to the Kil­dare Street went unan­swered un­til I fol­lowed it up with a call. I then re­ceived an email from the sec­re­tary, who re­sponded: “Un­for­tu­nately it is not pos­si­ble to meet with some­one at the club at this time. I am sorry for the in­con­ve­nience this may cause.”

When I mailed back ask­ing when might be a more con­ve­nient time to meet, there was no re­ply.

“No, I’m not sur­prised by that,” says Ray Mooney, who has been the gen­eral man­ager at the Hiber­nian since 2005. “They don’t like talk­ing to the press.” So why is he talk­ing to me? “We made a de­ci­sion not to hide be­hind a veil of se­crecy but to show what we have. It’s only show­ing it: the price of ad­mis­sion is mem­ber­ship. The mem­bers made the de­ci­sion they wanted to be more open and in­clu­sive, and the new web­site is part of that.”

We are talk­ing in one of the many labyrinthine cor­ri­dors that lace through the Hiber­nian, link­ing its for­mal re­cep­tion rooms, din­ing room, read­ing room, bars, 12 bed­rooms and other ar­eas, in­clud­ing a very large court­yard which acted as the de facto din­ing room dur­ing this past sum­mer. The build­ing is feels enor­mous.

Tro­phy heads

So far I have seen tro­phy heads of beasts in the hall­way, all shot by for­mer mem­bers; a menu signed by WB Yeats for the din­ner given at the club in cel­e­bra­tion of his No­bel Prize; four Wil­liam Or­pen draw­ings Mooney found in stor­age; a Vic­to­ria Cross awarded to a for­mer mem­ber; the beau­ti­ful ceil­ings cre­ated by the Lafran­chini broth­ers; a very large paint­ing by hon­orary mem­ber Michael Flat­ley, which he do­nated to the club; and two snooker ta­bles.

Mooney is an ex­cel­lent guide, and clearly ex­tremely proud of the place: I note he is wear­ing club- branded mer­chan­dise; cuff­links, tie and a lapel pin. No­body must know the build­ing bet­ter. He has to­tal en­thu­si­asm for all its many quirks.

He greets all staff by name. He knows ev­ery club mem­ber we come across. As we walk around he ex­plains to me that he will greet mem­bers by their first name if they are with fam­ily or other club mem­bers, but if they are with guests he ad­dresses them as Mr X or Ms X. “It’s like a bou­tique ho­tel but very per­sonal be­cause we know ev­ery­one.”

I ask Mooney the same ques­tion I asked Alexan­der. What mis­con­cep­tion does he think the gen­eral pub­lic have about pri­vate clubs?

“That they are fuddy-duddy. Fuddy-duddy and no fun. Fun is in fact the by­word for all of our events. The other mis­con­cep­tion is that they are very dif­fi­cult to get into, but I don’t know any club who isn’t look­ing for more mem­bers. And there’s a per­cep­tion of them be­ing very ex­pen­sive, but they are ac­tu­ally very good value for money.”

Do they turn down many would-be mem­bers?

“We don’t tend to get ap­pli­ca­tions that won’t make it” is how Mooney puts it.

Like ev­ery pri­vate club, the Hiber­nian has a range of mem­ber­ship fees de­pend­ing on age and lo­ca­tion. The cur­rent an­nual fee for a “town mem­ber” is ¤2,000.

To ap­ply for mem­ber­ship you need to be pro­posed and sec­onded by cur­rent mem­bers of 10 and five years stand­ing; then the ap­pli­ca­tion goes be­fore a board of nom­i­na­tions and then on to an­other board of elec­tions. I try hard to fol­low all this, but it’s a tad con­fus­ing.

‘Fast-track’ mem­ber­ships

“But i n t he re­ces­sion we did have a fast- track sys­tem,” Mooney says. Pre- re­ces­sion they had 2,000 mem­bers. It is al­most 1,500 now. “We’d like about an­other 400 more mem­bers. We are at ca­pac­ity with bed­rooms, which is now re­strict­ing us. How do you at­tract more coun­try mem­bers if you can’t ac­com­mo­date them?” (An­swer: de­velop an un­used rear wing into ad­di­tional bed­rooms, which is what their 2015 Ap­pli­ca­tion Plan­ning Con­text Re­port pro­poses).

The dress code is more ca­sual than it used to be. “A tie is al­ways wel­come, but not re­quired. Denim is ig­nored. [ It’s not per­mit­ted in the Kil­dare Street club.] But def­i­nitely no ath­letic dress – no train­ers or track­suits.”

There are var­i­ous din­ing rooms (where there are no prices on the menus given to guests), bars, a read­ing room and two snooker rooms. Or, as Mooney jok­ingly de­scribes them, “our golf cour­ses”.

There is also a “busi­ness cen­tre” with s ome com­put­ers t hat l ooks as if it time-trav­elled right from the 1980s, and a small win­dow­less room off it, where, as Mooney says, “you can step into to take a pri­vate call”.

There is a ci­gar room where mem­bers can store cigars, some 40 of whom ap­par­ently have done so at present.

“We also have 70 cel­lars, and mem­bers can store wine with us,” says Mooney, when we stop in front of a glass door be­hind which stand neat stacks of wine cases.

I am con­fused. The build­ing is in­deed huge, but where could they pos­si­bly have all these other cel­lars? “You have an­other 69 cel­lars in the build­ing? Are they in the base­ment?”

Mooney finds my ques­tion hi­lar­i­ous.

It’s not a lib­eral place, but it’s not a fusty old man’s place. It’s not a place where women feel un­wel­come, so in that re­gard it has moved with the times

When he has stopped laugh­ing, he ex­plains that each case rep­re­sents one cel­lar. I f y ou ar e a mem­ber y ou c an r e nt case-space, which the club then equates to one cel­lar. I have never heard this ex­pres­sion be­fore, but it is an­other quirky ex­am­ple of a kind of in­sider lingo all mem­bers-only es­tab­lish­ments prob­a­bly have.

There are a lot of large pho­to­graphs of men through­out the club; the walls of one bar por­trays only men. What about the gen­der bal­ance in the club?

Mooney says women now make up about 25 per cent of the mem­ber­ship, and that its “fastest grow­ing” sec­tor is busi­ness­women. As re­gards the Hiber­nian’s age pro­file, the av­er­age age is 57. This is down from 68 in 2012. Of the most re­cent 150 mem­bers to join, their av­er­age age is 42.

The build­ing – eas­ily worth ¤20 mil­lion, Mooney es­ti­mates when I ask – is held in trust for its mem­bers. He is not in­ter­ested in spec­u­lat­ing how much it might fetch in to­day’s febrile prop­erty mar­ket. “It’s not for sale, and never will be.”

We’re now sit­ting in the vast din­ingroom, with its large pe­riod win­dows over­look­ing St Stephen’s Green. There are only a few din­ers present at the end of lunch ser­vice.

He waves a hand at the largely empty room. “The club must make money, be­cause if it loses money it will close. But we are a non- profit. So it doesn’t mat­ter if there are only eight for lunch to­day or 40 to­mor­row. Ob­vi­ously I’d like to see the room full, but that’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween our­selves and a com­mer­cial en­ter­prise: we have to man­age this as a pro­fes­sional busi­ness, but it is not man­aged as a com­mer­cial busi­ness.”

While un­der­stand­ably anx­ious to pro­tect the pri­vacy of mem­bers, Mooney does dis­close a few things.

“We are pre­dom­i­nantly a so­cial busi­ness club. I be­lieve we have a dif­fer­ent mem­ber­ship base to the Kil­dare Street club. Our mem­bers are from the busi­ness, le­gal, and med­i­cal pro­fes­sions. We don’t com­pete for the same kind of mem­bers.”

Past and cur­rent mem­bers of the Kil­dare Street club tell me that its mem­ber­ship has long rep­re­sented academia, the clergy, peo­ple from the Protes­tant com­mu­nity and those with in­her­ited land and wealth. Or, as John tells me, “An­glo-Ir­ish landed gen­try be­fore they all died out.”

John, like Alexan­der, doesn’t want to go on the record. He is a re­tired man­age­ment con­sul­tant, who was a mem­ber of the club for close on 30 years.

“I re­signed a cou­ple of years ago be­cause I was never there any­more. I went in for lunch, and my one lunch that year cost me ¤650 or what­ever the coun­try mem­ber­ship was that year, be­cause my visit equated to the mem­ber­ship fee.”

As a coun­try mem­ber, part of the rea­son John joined was to avail of the mod­est rate for ac­com­mo­da­tion. What makes the club dif­fer­ent to stay­ing in a ho­tel?

“It’s per­sonal. The staff knew you when you came in. It was very nice to have peo­ple there to talk to, who knew you. Some of the staff had been there for more than 20 years, even 30 years. And one could have a very per­sonal type of con­ver­sa­tion even with the bar­man.

“Stephen’s Green is in the cen­tre of Dublin, and the club was very com­fort­able and very pleas­ant. You could meet friends in the draw­ing room by in­vi­ta­tion. It was rather like a home in the mid­dle of the city. Sit­ting at the mem­bers’ ta­ble for din­ner in the evening was very pleas­ant, but things, of course, be­came slightly less so­cia­ble when the rules for drink driv­ing came in.”

John does not re­call there be­ing many women mem­bers dur­ing his time. As for age pro­file, he es­ti­mated it was “in the re­gion of 50s and 60s”.

Fran­cis doesn’t wish to go on the record ei­ther. Un­like John and Alexan­der, he was never a mem­ber of the Kil­dare Street club, but he was brought there for lunch some years ago by a rel­a­tive.

“The whole ex­pe­ri­ence started be­fore I even went in­side. I was late, be­cause I couldn’t find the place; I had ac­tu­ally walked past it sev­eral times. I had never been to such a place be­fore, and I was very ner­vous.” His rel­a­tive had, with some em­bar­rass­ment, in­structed him to wear a tie for the oc­ca­sion. “He even of­fered to loan me one of his just in case I turned up with­out one.”

Fran­cis even­tu­ally re­alised which build­ing was the club be­cause his rel­a­tive was stand­ing at the door, call­ing him.

Aca­demic ti­tle

“But he wasn’t call­ing my name. He was ad­dress­ing me by my aca­demic ti­tle, and call­ing out ‘doc­tor’. It was al­most as if by stand­ing in the door­way of the club it meant that he had to use this more for­mal mode of ad­dress.” It was not a term his rel­a­tive ever usu­ally used.

Once in­side, he re­calls: “An un­re­con­structed place in ev­ery pos­si­ble way. It is like an ex­pan­sive bed and break­fast rather than a gen­tle­man’s club, at least the bits that I saw. The room where we had lunch was not par­tic­u­larly elab­o­rate. It was slightly dowdy and not in a charm­ing way.

“I had thought the place would be or­nate, or like some­thing out of a Le Carre movie, with lots of old leather chairs, and a li­brary, but it was all quite bland, and the wait­resses, at least in my mem­ory, were an­cient. The whole ex­pe­ri­ence was like step­ping back into the 1950s. And ev­ery­one was speak­ing a lan­guage I had no idea how to speak.”

Although Fran­cis con­tin­ued to lunch with his rel­a­tive in cen­tral Dublin for years af­ter­wards un­til his death, by some unspoken mu­tual un­der­stand­ing they never again re­turned to the Kil­dare Street club.

Like Mooney, Alexan­der, a mem­ber of the Kil­dare Street club for 10 years, is un­sur­prised that no rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the club was will­ing to talk to me. “They are very sniffy about any kind of pub­lic pro­file. But I can un­der­stand why they are quite sniffy about pub­lic­ity; they want to pre­serve the sanc­tity of the place. And I ac­tu­ally think that’s right.”

So what goes on at the club?

‘Great power’

“Clubs are not ma­lign places; they are not places where great power is wielded. What both the Kil­dare Street Club and the Stephen’s Green Club are do­ing with those build­ings is very good, be­cause at least they are ac­ces­si­ble. They are be­ing used by large num­bers of peo­ple. Yes, you have to join to go into them, but at least they are not of­fices.

“With the ex­cep­tion of the le­gal pro­fes­sion, my sense is that there is lit­tle or no net­work­ing done in the Kil­dare Street Club. It is a largely so­cial venue, and I think that is a good thing about it. Out­siders in­evitably as­sume that these places are where the elite come to do their busi­ness, but they don’t even like you talk­ing about busi­ness in the club. Which I think is prob­a­bly quite dif­fer­ent to the Stephen’s Green Club: I imag­ine there is a lot of net­work­ing there.”

The “Univer­sity Club” part of the ti­tle is there as two clubs merged to form one, and the univer­sity re­ferred to was Trin­ity.

“Be­cause of the Trin­ity el­e­ment there are a lot of aca­demics, and they are a nice counter-bal­ance to the le­gal el­e­ment,” he says. “There are a lot of bar­ris­ters and lawyers and judges who are mem­bers. My sense is that it is no bad thing for a lawyer to be in it, in terms of se­cur­ing con­tacts or work, par­tic­u­larly if you are a bar­ris­ter.”

Alexan­der es­ti­mates the gen­der bal­ance to be be­tween a quar­ter to one third women. “It’s not a lib­eral place, but it’s not a fusty old man’s place. It’s not a place where women feel un­wel­come, so in that re­gard it has moved with the times.” What about the age pro­file? “The age pro­file is rel­a­tively old. The me­dian age is about 55.”

Alexan­der, who is him­self ap­proach­ing mid­dle- age, tells me he is al­most em­bar­rassed to ad­mit how much he en­joys his club mem­ber­ship.

“I meet a lot of very nice peo­ple there. It is the kind of place you find your­self in con­ver­sa­tions you feel lucky to be part of.”

Video Take a look be­hind the scenes of the Hiber­nian mem­bers-only club irish­times.com

Ray Mooney, gen­eral man­ager of the Stephen’s Green Hiber­nian Club, in the club’s din­ingroom: “We have to man­age this as a pro­fes­sional busi­ness, but it is not man­aged as a com­mer­cial busi­ness.” PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRYAN O’BRIEN

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