Wednesday, 30 December 2020

An old Victorian club
in Dun Laoghaire has
finally closed its doors

The doors have closed at the former Kingstown Men’s Christian Institute and the premises have been sold (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I went for a long walk on the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire this afternoon, in bright winter sunshine and under clear blue skies.

During those short few hours in Dun Laoghaire, that included lunch at Fallon and Byrne’s in the People’s Park, and searching once again for any connections between Haigh Terrace and the family of Vivienne Haigh-Wood, TS Eliot’s first wife, I also search out Dun Laoghaire’s two Church of Ireland parish churches, Christ Church beside the People’s Park, and the former Mariners’ Church, which now houses the National Maritime Museum.

For many decades, both churches were closely linked with the 130-year-old former Kingstown Men’s Christian Institute at 43 Upper George’s Street, one of the striking late Victorian buildings in Dun Laoghaire. Until recently, this was home to one of the longest-running, purpose-built social clubs in Ireland, and so I was surprised to learn that it closed in recent years, and was sold earlier this year.

The Sunday Business Post reported earlier this year (26 July 2020) that the music moguls Denis Desmond and Caroline Downey of MCD had bought the 130-year-old, striking, red-brick building for €1.5 million.

Desmond and Downey reportedly plan to convert the 130-year-old former Kingstown Men’s Christian Institute building in Dun Laoghaire into their company’s head office and that Gaiety Investments had applied to change its use from a social club to a commercial office.

The distinctive, large and imposing building – with ‘Kingstown Men’s Christian Institute’ in redbrick over its entrance – was home to a social club since 1888 catering, initially, to the Protestant community of Kingstown.

Work on the building began around 1884 thanks to benefactor William McComas of The Grange, Monkstown, who donated £4,000 for its building, and also left £10,000 in a trust to ensure the club could survive and changes in its fortunes over the years.

The initial idea was to set up a club for young provincial Protestants who moved to the area for their first jobs in what was then Kingstown. Many of these men found employment in businesses such as Edward Lee & Co, the department store where Dunnes Stores stands now.

By providing them with a place to socialise, and study the Bible, the intention was to keep them on the straight-and-narrow, close to their Christian faith and support their initial steps towards establishing themselves away from family and home.

The premises at No 43 included two Bible reading rooms and a large gym on the ground floor, and two billiards rooms on the first floor. Snooker was, apparently, banned in the club back then as it was seen as a ‘working man’s game.’

The caretaker’s accommodation was on the second floor. When complete, it was one of the first commercial buildings in the town to have indoor toilets.

The club was associated with the three Church of Ireland parish churches in the immediate vicinity: the Mariners’ Church on Haigh Terrace, Christ Church on Park Road, and Saint Paul’s, Glenageary.

Christ Church, Park Road … closely associated with the institute (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

At its height, the club had over 300 members. But membership dwindled in the 1970s, mainly due to the advancing age of members. Rather than close, the club opened its doors to Catholics and women, and a bar was added in 1977 close to where the snooker had come to be was played. The addition of a bar also led to a name change – the club became Dún Laoghaire Christian Institute.

Membership grew again to more than 200 by the millennium – with a 70/30 split between the genders. The bar beside the snooker room, where a pint of Guinness cost €4, proved too small for the club’s needs so another was installed in what was the gym, where a music venue was also developed.

Double bay windows lit up the high-ceilinged spaces that had have plenty of period detail but could never be considered as extravagant. This addition – complete with a giant figure of Marilyn Monroe trying to keep her skirt down – proved a mainstay of the club through the ‘Naughties.’

However, as surrounding buildings were converted from offices to apartments, there were complaints about noise and it was decided to close this part of the operation.

Membership began to drop off again in the early 2010s, although annual subscriptions were about €85. In its closing years there 52 members – the youngest was 60 and the oldest 91, and most were local residents.

However, high insurance costs and rates, combined with the closure of the music venue, led to financial strains in recent years. The trust, which helped the club greatly down the years, apparently lost money in bank shares during the recent financial crisis and could not sustain the club in straitened times. In these circumstances, the sale of the premises became inevitable.

The building was designed by the Dublin architect, William Kaye-Perry (1853-1932). This impressive Victorian era building on Dún Laoghaire’s main street was built of red Bridgewater brick in English garden wall bond and the brickwork on this building is of very high quality. It is accessed by a flight of granite steps at the front. The main entrance is flanked by two octagonal walls and with a massive Tudor arch springing from moulded jambs.

Double bay windows light up the high-ceilinged spaces which have many restrained period details.

The premises extend to 650 sq m (7,000sq ft) over five levels. The impressive entrance is grand in scale and gracious in its detail. There are clear views over Scotsman’s Bay from the second floor.

The Institute had a large gymnasium, an active literary and debating society, a tearoom, a games room, and at least three classrooms.

Although membership of the society was exclusively male, a committee was formed in 1893 to arrange ladies’ gymnasium classes and members were permitted to bring in a non-member visitor to the Institute.

When the building was put on the market in 2018, it was reported that when it was sold and the club debts were cleared, any surplus will be paid to the local Church of Ireland parish under the terms of the trust that established the club.

The Genealogical Society of Ireland has from the trustees the full records of the institute for preservation in the Society’s archives in Loughlinstown. The records include the minute books, membership records, and financial records going back to the foundation in the early 1890s. The minutes include references to the wide range of activities of the institute, and the activities of other organisations the used the rooms in the building.

Looking back at Dun Laoghaire from the East Pier this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

1 comment:

Hazel Lacy said...

Very interesting! Whilst living quite close to the building most of my life I never knew it's history.