It was not until the second half of the 19th century that the expansion of golf in Ireland truly took flight, writes Paul Rouse.
The modern game of golf emerged in the 1740s in Scotland.
The origins of the game lie on the commonage of sheep-grazing lands but cannot be detailed with any certainty. The men who developed the game were drawn from the Scottish aristocracy and from a new administrative and mercantile elite, including lawyers and merchants. They banded together as the Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1744, when they produced the first written rules for the game. This was the world’s first golf club.
Similar clubs were later founded in other parts of Scotland, most famously in 1766 when the Society of St Andrews Golfers (which became the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1836) was formed to allow its members take part in the ‘very healthful exercise of the golf’.
From the very beginning, golf became the place where men came together, played a game, drank into the evening and of course made their business deals; this was a fellowship of sport and commerce.
There is merely slim evidence for any early expansion of golf to Ireland. The Faulkner’s Dublin Journal reported on October 23, 1762, that a golf club was in existence in Bray, Co Wicklow.
In his book Early Irish Golf, William H Gibson notes that the chairman of the club, Elias de Butts, was a descendant of a Huguenot family whose father was a minister in Co Kerry.
A decade later, the fact that commonage near Bray was ‘famous for golf’ was also reported in the press, where it was also noted that this was a ‘manly game’.
It was, however, not until the second half of the 19th century that the expansion of golf in Ireland truly took flight.
Golf tentatively appeared around The Curragh in Kildare in the 1850s when army officers played the game and a few holes were laid in the Phoenix Park in Dublin in the early 1880s.
The formation of golf clubs followed as the Royal Belfast Club was founded in 1881, followed in 1885 by the Royal Dublin Golf Club.
And then through the rest of the 1880s and into the 1890s, interest in golf exploded. Golf clubs were built at seaside resorts and, more importantly, around the expanding suburbs of Ireland’s cities and around prosperous country towns.
The spread of golf in Ireland mirrored similar trends in England and America as golf gained swift and widespread popularity as a ‘gift from Scotland’.
By 1900, 103 golf clubs had been formed with an estimated 12,000 golfers now playing the game. This expansion continued in the new century and by the outbreak of the First World War, there were 190 golf clubs in existence.
It became the game of the upper middle classes — and those who aspired to join those classes. Assorted officers in the British army were prominent in many early Irish golf clubs.
The alliance of blood, land, and commerce was fundamental. Money found money as the middle classes bought into the legitimacy conferred by association with the old sporting gentry.
There was, for example, a private course built at what we now know as Áras an Uachtaráin in 1902. At that time, the Áras was home to the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the course was used by the elite of Irish society until the outbreak of the Great War.
It was, when it came down to it, the plaything of the men who ruled Ireland.
Despite the inherent misogyny of the Victorian sporting world, some women began to play the game.
Many of these pioneers had husbands already engaged in sport: one such woman was Mrs Wright, the first recorded female golfer in Ireland and husband of an officer with the Gordon Highlanders, who played at Royal Belfast Club in 1887.
This, in turn, led to the establishment of the Holywood Ladies Golf Club in Co Down in 1888. Other ‘ladies clubs’ were established across Ireland in the 1890s.
Separate ladies courses were built in some instances, as were separate pavilions, but mostly women joined men’s golf clubs at a reduced subscription rate. Just as the men did, the women played in open competitions (from 1891), leading on to the establishment of the Irish Ladies Golf Union in 1893 and the staging of the first Irish Ladies Golf Championship in 1894.
In 1897, an Irish team began a series of internationals, firstly against England, and then in 1899, May Hezlet became the first Irish winner of the Ladies British Amateur Championship.
The sporting culture wars of the revolution years impacted on the progress of golf in Ireland. The IRA man Ernie O’Malley later recalled that there were those who played Gaelic football and hurling and were ‘very contemptuous’ of golf.
Republicans dug up the greens at a golf club in Mullingar in 1918, motivated by the fact that the club was a bastion of British army officers and the local elite.
But this is a complicated story. There is also evidence of Republican activism among golfers. John Burke, for example, was a golf caddie and future champion amateur golfer who won multiple Irish championships. He was also ‘a member of the 4th Battalion of the Mid-Clare Brigade, and was involved in one of the most notorious incidents of the war of independence, the Rineen ambush in September 1920, when six RIC men were killed.’ Golf prospered in independent Ireland. Between 1924 and the outbreak of Second World War, 71 new golf clubs were established.
The establishment of provincial branches of the Golfing Union of Ireland — the development of local, provincial, and national competitions — oversaw this expansion.
For example, after the establishment of the Connacht branch in 1924, 16 new golf clubs were established across the province in the decade that followed.
In the process, the golf club became a focal point of social life in city suburbs and in country towns for the Irish Free State’s expanding middle class. This was not just a matter of golf but also of other activities.
This can be seen by their importance to the spread of bridge. In the early decades of the 20th century, golf clubs ‘became nurseries for the new game. Until the arrival of clubs dedicated to bridge in the 1920s, golf clubs were among the few places outside the home where men and women could meet and play bridge together.’ The use of golf clubs as venues for card-playing continued in the decades that followed and the same was true of tennis clubs.
The importance of golf clubs to Irish social life can be seen from when the then President of Ireland, WT Cosgrave, when he spoke in 1926 on the occasion of Clontarf Golf Club becoming an 18-hole course.
The imagery conjured up by Cosgrave in his speech was of men enjoying ‘relaxation in moderate healthy exercise when his day’s work is done, benefitting his health and making himself stronger and fitter for the battle of life’ and of an ‘equable atmosphere in the clubhouse.’
Cosgrave attempted to dismiss the idea that golf was ‘a game which may be indulged in only by the well-to-do.’ The difficulty was that at many golf clubs the pretensions of the Irish middle classes were prone to manifest themselves in outright snobbery.
It was also a profoundly male environment. There were clubs where women were not allowed be members, and in the remainder, they were essentially second-class citizens (at best).
Between 1940 and 1965, a further 30 clubs were added and further change came in the 1970s with the opening of several public golf courses, though this was a century later than the opening of similar courses in England and Scotland; earlier attempts to open public courses in Ireland foundered through the lack of public or private funding. Indeed, the Government had agreed to fund a public golf course in the Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1926, only for the project to be abandoned.
The establishment of new clubs — as well as the closure of some of the older ones — went some way towards changing the culture of golf clubs. The game opened up to people who would not previously have been able to play.
By the end of the Celtic Tiger, there were 400 golf clubs operational in Ireland, 200 of which had been constructed during the boom and the golf society became a staple of almost every public house.
This was accompanied by unprecedented success on the international stage. Nine major championship won in the eight years after 2007 placed Ireland second only to the United States in the number of major championships won by its players in that time.
Three major championships won by Pádraig Harrington in 2007 and 2008, were added to by others for Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, before Rory McIlroy — potentially one of the greatest golfers of all time — won four majors before turning 26. It was a spell of success that was scarcely credible. And it confirmed the idea that golf was a game that had outgrown the limitations of its early history.
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