The Revival of Members’ Clubs

Forget POP-UP RESTAURANTS and flash-in-the-pan bars, long-established private members’ clubs are enjoying a renaissance, says THERESE QUINN

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The private members’ clubs in and around the environs of Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green have traditionally exuded an air of mysterious exclusivity – images of old boys swilling claret in a cigary fug spring to mind. In the not too distant past, this was indeed the case. However, all has changed utterly in recent years. Today these clubs are decidedly open for business, are keen to increase their membership and are attracting younger patrons, many of them women. More than one club said that female membership was its fastest growing market.

How does one gain entry to the hallowed porticos, and indeed why would you want to join? In the main, clubs are owned and controlled by their members and potential joiners are proposed, seconded and approved by a committee. However, like neighbouring London, there are newer, purely for profit clubs more than willing to open their doors to anyone who can afford the fees. So, members vary from the old school crowd to well, just about anybody, from judges to journalists and everyone in between.

The main thrust of a private members’ club’s existence is to offer a home from home – a haven in a sought-after location, where one can relax, wine and dine, and use the facilities for business and pleasure, all in absolute privacy. In line with international work trends, there is an increased emphasis on using these establishments as a second office (or indeed, as is the case for many sole traders and start-ups, the only office) and now a raft of meeting rooms kitted out with all the necessary technologies is as important as the traditional port decanter and black ball ballot.

Some clubs offer accommodation, and all have very appealing reciprocal arrangements with similar establishments in major foreign cities, which gives members access to some really classy places, ranging from the RAC on London’s Pall Mall to the Athletic Club in New York, the St James in Paris to City Tattersalls in Sydney. Where private members’ clubs really come into their own though, is for entertaining, where the host can feel genuinely at ease in familiar surroundings, is guaranteed great attention and personal service, and where the food and wine are terrific value. Discretion at all times is most definitely the eleventh commandment.

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So which club is for you? The grand daddy of them all is the STEPHEN’S GREEN HIBERNIAN CLUB, a most impressive institution run with panache and charm by the highly experienced Ray Mooney. The Stephen’s Green Club, situated in some splendour, was founded in 1840 and was frequented by Daniel O’Connell and Catholic landowners, later joining forces with the Hibernian Club. The historically significant premises are impressive and this member-owned institution has ploughed vast sums into its continuous restoration. The overall atmosphere is plush and carries a fair dash of old world charm with fabulously elegant rooms – the Francini ceilings and roof dome stained glass window are spectacular. The food is traditional and there are some very grown-up wines which are bought en primeur and are regularly released to the dining room at bargain prices for lucky members. It’s not all about fine dining though, the management puts huge effort into creating diverting events for the members and there are various clubs – Bridge, Snooker, Wine, Cigar and Art. Being a member here could become a full-time job but thankfully there are twelve luxurious suites available if it all gets too hectic.

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Around the corner on Dawson Street is the ROYAL IRISH AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION CLUB, the RIAC, founded in 1901. This club has a more sedate vibe – it’s like stumbling into a slightly old-fashioned but very soothing country house hotel (think Hunters of Rathnew). Everyday food is comforting and there is a rather jaunty wine bar/restaurant, La Ruelle, open at weekends. The atmosphere is low-key and calm and members enjoy great reciprocal rights at the stately RAC on London’s Pall Mall – a prime location. But perhaps the greatest advantage to joining this genteel club in the centre of our snarled-up capital is the valet parking available to members 24/7, 365 days of the year.

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Further east on St Stephen’s Green is a young pretender, the commercially run RESIDENCE MEMBERS’ CLUB, which, having opened in 2008, is the baby on the scene. After a well-documented precarious start it is now confidently holding its own. The splendid Georgian building dates from 1745 and is full of intimate rooms where members can dine in private or hold business meetings. The jewel in the crown is Restaurant 41, which is also open to the general public, whose chef Graham Neville has won many prestigious accolades for his delicious dishes. (Much of the produce is grown organically in its own Killiney kitchen garden.) The outside casual dining terrace is reminiscent of the Hotel Costes in Paris (and is reputed to be equally the scene of delicious gossip) and downstairs the Piano Bar has borne witness to many a late night session. There is a perceptible on-trend vibe to this club and, while the business is increasing, there is a definite bias towards plain old socialising. It’s all quite hip, and it’s probably fair to say that there a bit more Prada Patrol going on here than in the older clubs.

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THE ROYAL DUBLIN SOCIETY is an underrated gem on the scene and, while located out in the D4 ‘burbs, is still intrinsically linked with city life. Here, in gracious and warm surroundings, members have much to enjoy, from free parking in Ballsbridge to world-class lectures. The society was founded in 1731 to promote agriculture, science and the arts. Initially based at Leinster House, it moved out to Ballsbridge in the late 19th century to its well-known neo-Georgian premises. While the RDS is well known for high-profile events, the members’ club is a much quieter affair. On a wet winter afternoon, its elegant dining room is a welcome sanctuary, with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, a perfect place to meet old friends. The dining facilities are geared more towards lunches and coffees rather than evening meals, though the Friday Dinner Club events are gaining popularity. Members have access to the wonderful library, and there are various organised outings too. It’s an interesting place with purpose and has plenty in common with London clubs such as the Athenaeum, which was founded on principles of intellectual rigour and exceptional achievement.

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Of all Dublin’s clubs, THE UNITED ARTS CLUB on Fitzwilliam Street seems to take the grave business of having fun most seriously. Set up in 1907 by Ellen Duncan to promote an appreciation of the arts, its founding members included WB Yeats and JB Yeats and the Count and Countess Markievicz. Current luminaries include the sculptor John Behan, poet Paula Meehan and Sinéad O’Connor. However, being proficient in the arts is not a prerequisite for joining, an appreciation will suffice. The rooms are gracious if a little down-at-heel and there is a grand sense of history and an inescapable feeling of barely constrained eccentricity – oh if only the walls could talk. Chef Anthony O’Grady cooks in a modern Irish style and the wine list is long on value. The Poetry Dinners, where members recite their own and more renowned works, are always a sell-out and there are frequent lectures, exhibitions and all manner of drawing room dramas. Past presidents include Lennox Robinson and Micheál Mac Liammóir. Club secretary Martin Lynch leaves one in no doubt that this is a most compelling club for witty conversation and repartee. Not really a daytime refuge, but more of an evening haunt.

While the number of private members’ clubs in Dublin is relatively limited compared to other capitals, they have all succeeded in not only rescuing themselves from fatal decline, but have risen phoenix-like and, indeed in the case of Residence, have captured a new market altogether. Being a member of various sporting clubs, I had thought I was all clubbed up but after spending time in these town clubs the only question I’m asking is, “Would it be very extravagant to join more than one?”

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our December issue, out Thursday January 7.

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