“Hold,” shouts one club member.
“Keep it there,” says another.
Three men stand on a small elevated platform at one end of the ground-floor gym. One short, one tall, one middling. They pose and posture.
It’s about 12:30pm at the Hercules Club championships on Lurgan Street in the north-inner city, and the second competition of the day.
Dozens of supporters watch on. Some hold up their phones, filming the scene. Others cheer. The bodybuilders arch their backs and lift their shoulders. They flex their arms into “D” shapes.
A kid of about five with black hair and a blue hoodie mimics them, crossing his arms in a triangle above his head.
This club is built off the work of volunteers, says chairperson Bernard Delaney. “It’s all volunteers and we run and take care of it.”
As they have done for decades and decades.
Delaney first stepped through the doors to the Hercules Club when he was 14 years old.
Like many young men in the area, Delaney liked football. But he wasn’t, he says, “able to kick it out of the way”.
Lifting was different. “I loved it and it took to me. I was naturally very good at it. It’s always easier to excel when you’re very good at it,” says Delaney, now in his mid-forties.
Delaney won a national championship in powerlifting a year after he joined, he says. Later, he added European medals and World Championships to his list of achievements, including breaking three world records in Germany in 2005 for each of the lifts he did there.
He pauses as he tries to recall how many times he has been Irish champion. “Maybe 20 times,” he says.
Hercules Club has turned out many champions, but its origins are humble. It was founded in 1934 on Ormond Quay by an English bantamweight wrestler called George Dale.
“From club records it appears that Dale’s initial motivation was to provide a space for the local boys and men to congregate and train,” said Conor Heffernan, a PhD history researcher at University College Dublin, by email.
The gym was a working-class organisation, says Heffernan, who studies fitness history and trained there himself for a while.
At the start, the thrifty members made equipment themselves, he says. Later that changed as the club’s reputation grew.
“It provided friendship, diversion and information about training,” says Heffernan. In the 1930s, members shared bodybuilding magazines such as Health and Strength, which were banned by the Irish Censorship Board, club records show.
Before Hercules Club, middle-class athletes generally had secular gyms, and working-class athletes had gyms run by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
But this was one of the first secular gyms, meant for and run by working-class men, in southern Ireland, says Heffernan.
More than 80 years later, club Secretary Ben Kelly still says it’s a point of pride that the club is owned and run by its members.
All who pay membership dues are owners of the club, he says. All the funds they raised go back into the club’s coffers, too – to pay for new equipment such as aerodynamic bikes, or the solid steel beam that runs across the ground-floor ceiling to support the heavy exercise equipment.
“I’ve worked in gyms for the last decade or so,” says Kieran Hegarty, a club member who won Saturday’s powerlifting competition. “Hercules Gym was always something we knew of but we thought of it as somewhat kind of scary sounding.”
It was the environment and equipment that attracted him, he says. “I think everyone that trains there has an appreciation of what everyone else is doing.”
You might see an 80-year-old trying to stay fit or an 18-year-old bulking up for a bodybuilding competition, he says “Everyone there appreciates physicality and the dedication it takes to get there.”
Paul Quirke. Nick Sweeney. Philip Conway. They’re just some of the former Irish Olympians who have trained in the gym, says Patsy Conboy, the club’s longest-running member.
Conboy has trained with Hercules Club since 1966. Back then, it was still in Ormond Quay. It didn’t set up on Lurgan Street until 1986.
Convoy was into athletics, but curious about weightlifting, he says. “Once I started at the weightlifting I never left it,” says Conboy, who is in his early 70s and still trains once a week.
What would now be called Olympic weightlifting came to Ireland later than many countries, says Heffernan, the fitness historian. “Though at the first olympics in 1896, it was not until the late 1920s that it began to become a recognised sport in Ireland.”
Belfast was a recognised hub early on. Hercules put Dublin on the map, he says. “Such was the club’s success that it encouraged other co-op clubs in Dublin to emerge with similar names, like Apollo, Olympus.”
Heffernan attributes some of the lag to economics. Northern Ireland’s economy was wealthier at the time, and had a closer connection to British culture – where there was more interest in the sport.
Conboy still remembers the gym as basic when he started.
It was full of the characters, too. People such as Benny Brady, the “rugged matman”, who worked in the law courts in Dublin Castle and drew up the club’s rules, according to an account by long-time club member Jimmy Jennings, which Heffernan collected.
“Benny played the piano and was something of an expert on [James] Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. He … in his late 70s, used to go over to America to give talks on Joyce to old ladies’ clubs,” writes Jennings.
There were folks such as Tommy Dillon, who when the future of the club was in doubt at Ormond Quay threw a £5 note, “a not inconsiderable sum at the time” on the table at the emergency meeting. This “probably represents the moment when the Hercs was saved”, writes Jennings.
These days, members continue to chip in in all kinds of ways. When club members stop competing, they still work to support the next generations.
“Everybody at the club helps everybody else. We coach, we mentor, we travel,” says Delaney, the chairperson.
At about 1pm, Delaney takes his seat to judge the powerlifting tournament that is about to kick off. This sport, after all, is the many-times world and Irish champion’s forte.
The first competitor stands by a metal frame, ready for his squat lift. Five others keep their warm-up going, on the platform to the left.
They wait, muscles strained, and watch for their turn, for Delaney’s right hand as it rises – the signal to lift.
[UPDATE: This article was updated at 15.52 on 12 December, to correct the spelling of Patsy Conboy’s surname. Apologies for the error.]