Photos by Caroline McNally

Flouting modernity, there are still private clubs in Dublin that refuse to permit female membership. Misogyny aside, this bucks the trend seen elsewhere in the last few years.

In 2012, Augusta National Golf Club in America voted to finally allow women to sign up, eighty years after the club was founded. In 2014, Scottish golf club St. Andrews voted to permit female membership after 260 years of a male-only policy.

In 2015, the Garrick Club in London underwent intense scrutiny in the lead-up to a members’ vote on whether or not to permit female membership. Although a majority voted yes, the motion was defeated as two-thirds in favour was the minimum requirement for the vote to pass.

At the time, this prompted The Telegraph’s Martin Daubney to assert that the vote was “an acknowledgment that men still want and need male-only spaces”.

Men of Goodwill

It’s just after five o’clock on a Monday evening. As workers hurry off home, a group of men gather inside the Freemasons’ Hall on Molesworth Street. The public tours have ended for the day. It’s now time for private affairs.

Almost exclusively middle-aged and white, the men shuffle into their respective Masonic lodges to adorn their garments and perform their ceremonies. The meeting rooms are ornately decorated. Symbols abound, collar sashes perch on the backs of chairs. The individual lodge is discerned by colour, with a particular holy text, or the Holy Law, always placed on the centre table.

The whole affair is idiosyncratic. Yet, for many of the Masons who meet here, therein lies the appeal. As one of the oldest private societies in the city, their traditions have changed very little. Morgan McCreadie, assistant to the Grand Secretary, is their resident historian.

He’s quick to point out that these ceremonies and meetings, where Masonic sermons are preached, are for “men meeting as Masons”. In essence, Masons meet for a non-denominational, spiritual high. But just as belief in a higher power is a prerequisite for membership, testicles are also a must.

Unlike London’s Garrick, or Scotland’s St. Andrew’s, membership of the Freemasons in Dublin comes in at an affordable €120 per year.

“That’s a lot cheaper than your annual golf club membership,” says one Mason I speak to. Yet, like Dublin’s Portmarnock golf club, it’s a phallocentric atmosphere.

The society doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of creed or race, yet women are still disbarred from donning the Masonic garb.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Although, unlike the Freemasons, many private clubs in Dublin have updated their policies, it’s been a long time coming.

The Stephen’s Green Hibernian Club, founded in 1840, opened its doors to female membership in 1993. Founded in 1782, the Kildare Street and University Club, only permitted female membership in the late 1990s.

Was it just dwindling membership numbers that prompted the shift?

Seeing the swollen coffers of mixed-gender private clubs like Krystle and Odessa towards the end of the boom, the “old Dublin” haunts began recruiting female members.

Last August, the CEO of the Blacknight hosting website, Michele Neylon, tweeted a copy of a letter sent to him by the Hibernian Club. They were looking to recruit “women from diverse backgrounds with a grown-up and respectful sense of fun who are willing and able to contribute to the community of Members”.

Although women can now join, they’d better be on their best behaviour.

The club now reckons, according to a spokesperson, that “30% of our members are female” and that the change in policy was simply “moving with the times”.

These private clubs, like any business serving food and drinks, have overheads and profits to worry about. Yet the Freemasons, where it takes up to two years to gain full membership, and who’ve never recruited, see no need to change their rules.

“The instinct of any institution is to protect itself,” says McCreadie, the assistant to the Grand Secretary. “It would defy the definition of regularity and we don’t want change.”

One Freemason I spoke to said, “The antiquated nature is what appeals to a lot of us, as well as the social aspect.” he says. Taxed on the male-only policy he admits that “some of the more old-fashioned rules may need to be looked at in the future”.

Yet there’s no system in place for democratic debate. With the “rules” handed down from centuries past, the Dublin Grand Lodge have seemingly no intention of a Masonic reformation.

While orthodoxy is hardly justification for exclusion, given that the Grand Lodge is a law unto itself, they see no reason to justify their infallible traditions.

Nor do Portmarnock Golf Club.

In 2009, the club won a High Court judgement which ruled that the private club was entitled to maintain its ban on female membership; women are allowed play the course, but only men may become members.

In May 2015, the Irish Times reported that a process had begun to determine whether members of Portmarnock wished to permit female members of the club. A spokesperson for the club told me that this is “a matter for private members” and that “no change in policy has occurred as of yet”.

Separate but Equal at the Gym

This separation of the sexes doesn’t just occur in fusty clubhouses and “grand” societies that refuse to update. There’s gender segregation in 21st century institutions, too.

In Westwood Gyms, trainers operate female-only areas. “The gym environment can be intimidating,” says Clontarf instructor Nick Whiteway. “This is just another service we found ourselves able to offer our female clients, so we did.”

In Dublin, there are male-only yoga classes, female-only kickboxing courses and male-only Pilates, ensuring that your male friends are well-trained in the art of fart-suppression.

The clubs and gyms that offer these services do not outlaw membership of one particular gender, however, but within their premises, they offer alternatives to the mixed-gender environment.

Is that substantially different?

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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