In a recent interview on RTE’s ‘Newstalk’ with Minister Jimmy Deenihan, who has Special Responsibility for the Diaspora, it was pointed out to the Minister that a recent Irish government initiative to ‘connect’ with the Irish diaspora in Australia was less than successful. In a series of ‘Town Hall’ style engagements by the Irish government officials, an average of 30 people attended each meeting. Yet an internet FaceBook page targetting the Irish immigrants in Australia frequently registers 30,000 hits. And there is ongoing discussion in the media and blogs in Ireland on the role of the diaspora in current Irish politics.
Engaging the flood of Irish migrants – 80,000 at last count – is not only a problem for the Irish government. There are, it seems, 22,000 Irish- born folk now living in Victoria and 500,000 who identify themselves as Australian-Irish. Yet the registered membership of that quintessentially Australian-Irish icon, the Melbourne Celtic Club, presently housed on the corner of Queen & La Trobe streets, is barely 700. The problem of the survival of the Club as a viable entity in the 21st century has vexed the membership for several years. There seems to be a consensus that the state of disrepair and general shabbiness of the current building and the lack of finance to refurbish it, are contributory factors to the failure of the Club to thrive. The fate of the current site was (yet again!) the main item on the agenda for the AGM on the 23rd October 2014.
The Celtic Club was established in Melbourne on the 26th September 1887, at the Imperial Hotel in Bourke Street. It was founded to raise awareness of the Home Rule for Ireland Movement and aspired to attract anyone who sympathised with Ireland’s aspirations for Home Rule, regardless of creed or Australian party politics. It also sponsored various social events as well as political events, many related to other Irish issues.
The Home Rule Bill was passed in September 1914 but was suspended because of the outbreak of the First World War. The implementation of the Bill – which should have happened at the end of the War – was subsequently superseded by the events of 1916 and the establishment of the First Dáil Eireann in 1919. Meanwhile back in Melbourne, the Celtic Club – its initial raison d’être having been more or less achieved, successfully morphed into an Irish cultural heritage establishment, providing a lively meeting place for Irish emigrés and those who claimed Irish ancestry. It has occupied several premises before taking up residence in its current location in the mid 1990’s.
It is this location, which is at the hub of a fierce debate about the future of the Club. A few years ago the Club got planning permission for ‘air-rights’ on the site. The heritage-listed facade could not be pulled down but a building of up to 40 storeys could be constructed on the site. An interested developer offered the Club $12 million dollars, which included four storeys to house the Club premises, to develop the site but this deal fell through when, after an acrimonious Special General Meeting in 2013, approval for the deal did not reach the required two-thirds majority. In the wake of this debacle, the Committee set up an Advisory Sub-Committee to examine the options for the ongoing viability of the Club.
The Chairman of the Advisory Sub-Committee, Maurice Hanrahan presented its report to the membership at the AGM on the 23rd October. The Report proposed four resolutions; that the members agree to either
- 1a) the continuation of the Club in the current building; or
- 1b) pursue a redevelopment or relocation;
If 1b) is supported then members agree to:
- 2a) pursue a redevelopment; or
- 2b) pursue a relocation;
If Resolution 2a is supported then in accordance with the Club’s constitution the Club would pursue:
- an invited expression of interest for a joint venture redevelopment of the site;
- a subcommittee be established to undertake this task;
- at the end of the EOI process that the committee be sanctioned to a full contractual close pending approval of the Club; or
- if a proposal was not deemed financially acceptable to the Club the committee would pursue the relocation option (Resolution 4)
There was robust debate on Resolutions 1a) and 1b) (occasionally descending into rancorous mud-slinging from a small group of members and ex-members) before item 1a) was decisively defeated by the membership present. There was also lively debate over the merits of Resolution 2a) – redevelopment of the site – including an impassioned plea for the membership to pursue redevelopment as the site was increasing in value and was a valuable asset for the Club. However item 2a was also decisively defeated and option 2b) – relocation – was endorsed by the majority of those present with much emphasis that it was the site and not the Club itself which was up for sale! There were several quibbles raised over Resolution 4 – how the relocation would be best achieved – but there was no doubt that the mood of the meeting was that the future of the Club would best be served by a suitable relocation.
The meeting was marred by the ‘bad behaviour’ of a disaffected group, totally opposed to any proposal other than 1a. Maurice Hanrahan had pointed out that there was no way the Club could survive if the proposal ‘to continue in the current building’ was adopted because of the crippling debt (just under $2 mil), the ongoing and rising operational costs of the Club and the lack of the wherewithal to refurbish the building. This conclusion was endorsed by the Committee of Management and many of those present. This did not prevent those opposed to the Advisory’s Committee’s findings,using every stonewalling tactic they could muster, including loud and acrimonious interjections and hogging the microphone, strategies that had stood them in good stead at the AGM in 2013 but failed to have any impact at the meeting on the 23rd October 2014.
The Committee will now ‘pursue a sale’ – of the site and purchase an alternative venue in the CBD for the Club. This course of action is fraught in itself but hopefully will see at its conclusion, a new lease of life, inclusive, intergenerational and relevant, for the Celtic Club. The process ideally will give the Committee, the staff and the membership itself ample time to reflect on just what sort of a Club they want which will be both attractive to, and supportive of, the new wave of the Irish diaspora. For it is with this demographic that the future of Club will be assured.
At the same meeting, a new version of the Celtic Club Rules was passed by a large majority. The new Rules are available on the Celtic Club website.
Elizabeth McKenzie is a member of the Tinteán editorial team.