At the heart of Georgian Dublin lies the United Arts Club – a unique gathering place for lovers of arts and culture. And while it remains true to the ideals of its founders more than a century ago, it's now focusing on attracting new members, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL
YOU COULD call it the most cultured B&B in the country. Located in the heart of Georgian Dublin, on Upper Fitzwilliam Street, for more than a century the United Arts Club has attracted everyone from Iranian princesses to Nobel Prize winners for artistic talks, late nights and affordable overnight accommodation. A members’ club marked by an egalitarian ethos often lacking in similar private clubs founded in the late 19th or early 20th century, it has remained in operation since its inception in 1907; a feat in itself given the prestigious location.
Yet the fact it remains doggedly true to its founding aims is perhaps its greatest achievement.
The walls leading from the downstairs reception to the first floor bar are adorned with paintings and sculptures of past and present members, including Countess Markievicz, Micheál MacLiammóir, Michael Scott and Thomas Ryan.
Original art works donated by members feature throughout, while the bar area also doubles up as an exhibition space and gallery. There is a large performance and lecture area, which can hold up to 100 people, while several bedrooms are located on a separate floor. Just don’t expect plasma TV screens or jacuzzi baths – the decor is distinctly vintage, something akin to staying in your auntie’s, circa 1960.
There’s a restaurant on the ground floor, run by Ballymaloe-trained chef Anthony O’Grady, and dinners are frequently held to honour writers and artists such as Seamus Heaney, Kathleen Watkins and Joseph O’Connor. In the basement, public drawing classes are also held while, more recently, speaking suppers and jazz nights have also been incorporated into the events programme.
THE IDEA OF THE CLUB is that people with similar cultural and artistic interests can use it as a place to meet and socialise and host artistic evenings, from recitals to snippets of theatre and critical talks. Membership fees are quite reasonable (annual artist membership costs €345) and members can stay for less than €40 a night.
There is currently an exhibition in the bar area by two members, Ursula Klinger and Selma McCormack, in a show entitled Different Perspectives. For Klinger, membership of the club helped her to make good contacts in the arts scene in Ireland when she first moved here from Germany. “I lived in Connemara first and joined through a contact when I moved to Dublin. It was extremely helpful in getting into Dublin society. I would have found it very hard, so the club was invaluable for that. We don’t have anything like it really in Germany.
“With the exhibitions, the club takes a 15 per cent commission. Most galleries would take 50 per cent as an average and here, you have a ready-made audience of persons interested in art. Often, the openings are very well attended. The value of membership for me also is in building up a network of contacts and those who buy pieces of art.”
Members are also entitled to use affiliate clubs overseas in places such as New York, London and Barcelona.
One of the longest serving members of the club is writer Ulick O’Connor, who joined in the 1960s. He recalls many Abbey actors coming back to the club after performances as well as visits from US senators George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy, who read some of his poetry upstairs. Jack B Yeats visited almost every day after he joined and poet John Montague and artist Eamonn O’Doherty were also active members.
O’Connor says the club was distinctly different to other members’ clubs from the start. “Basically, it was founded by persons such as Yeats to gather together people interested in the arts. At the time, most people interested belonged to the Anglo-Irish and the native Irish-speaking traditions. It wasn’t at all like a gentleman’s club. For a start, it was not founded as a woman’s club or a man’s club.”
As Patricia Boylan notes in her book on the club, All Cultivated People, the club was founded in 1907 by Ellie Duncan. Her aim was to provide the usual advantages of a social club, but one that was open to both ladies and gents with a special interest in art, music and literature.
Those who supported it from the outset included James Duncan, Constance Goore-Booth, Count Casimir Markievicz, Lady Gregory, W B Yeats, Sir William Orpen, Hugh Lane, Jack B Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.
Long-standing member Mary Caulfield first came into contact with the club as a teenager and remembers seeing a rich array of characters in the bar, such as union organiser Archie Heron, who was married to James Connolly’s daughter. “Many captains of industry used to come in here also, for example Michael Smurfit senior, as well as ambassadors and judges,” Caulfield says.
“I remember painters such as Charlie Brady and lots of actors and journalists would come in later at night. One person who stands out was Roger Casement’s brother. He was a real character – a sailor with very colourful language. He’d outrage the ladies of the club by saying ‘I love you nearly as much as I love my brother’. He was thrown out [of the club] and helped set up the Irish coastguard. He later walked into the canal. I remember every coastguard sent a shilling for his headstone.”
THE CHALLENGE FOR the club in 2011 is to remain loyal to its founding philosophy while sustaining itself into the future. Historic buildings require upkeep and investment, and the United Arts Club is no different.
A generation of members from the 1970s and 1980s will at some point be outnumbered by younger members, and the type of activities and events may continue to evolve to reflect this change.
Already, the club is branching out a little, hosting a workshop examining female participation in the broadcasting industry entitled Women on Air and allowing the premises to be used for other occasions. The club will inevitably need to attract new members without being seen to actively canvass for them. That’s a tricky balancing act but one the members are confident of achieving.
“I think it is the only club in Dublin where big business never took over,” says Ulick O’Connor. “Yeats inserted a clause into contract for the building, which was unbreakable, and meant the club could not be ousted from the building while it remained in use. Some years ago, businesspersons had their eyes on this place and they became members and were offering us a golf club in the hills to take it over. Most of those who joined don’t have any interest in golf or swimming.”
O’Connor says it is a considerable achievement the club has endured.
“It is truly amazing it has survived with low fees and the connection with the past still strong,” he says. “I don’t know how it has done that. I think it is a credit to the members that they’ve managed to hold on through some very difficult times. I’d like to think it will be here in another 100 years.”