Back from the brink: How Edenderry Golf Club was saved by its members

A vulture fund, huge debts and dwindling member numbers had the club on its knees

Ken O’Brien, Kathleen Finnegan, Kevin Farrell, Peter Moore, Siobhán O’Callaghan, Eoin Osborne, Ciarán McDonnell, Martin Murphy, Mary Farrell and Sean Murray – committee members of Edenderry Golf Club on the 18th Green. Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Ken O’Brien, Kathleen Finnegan, Kevin Farrell, Peter Moore, Siobhán O’Callaghan, Eoin Osborne, Ciarán McDonnell, Martin Murphy, Mary Farrell and Sean Murray – committee members of Edenderry Golf Club on the 18th Green. Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

It’s a sunny bank holiday Sunday afternoon in the midlands and Edenderry Golf Club is buzzing. There’s a steady stream of members heading down to the first tee for the day’s four-person team event while the club pro is coaching some of the junior members on the putting green. Everyone knows everyone and there’s plenty of chat.

At every club around the country members are delighted to be back out playing after so many closures over the last 15 months and with interclub events and weekly competitions now in full flow the future looks bright for Irish golf and the air is full of optimism.

In Edenderry that optimism and hope is felt even stronger. Here, on the border of Kildare and Offaly, the members are just happy to have a course to play on after a tumultuous number of years plagued by the recession, dwindling member numbers, huge debts, vulture funds and the constant threat of the club going out of existence.

To get a good sense of the journey this golf club has been through you have to go back to 2007. Before then Edenderry had always punched above its weight on the Irish golf scene. The club would regularly compete in the latter stages of the Senior Cup, acquainting themselves with the Dublin heavyweights like Castle, The Island, Portmarnock and the rest. In 2004 Edenderry won the All-Ireland Junior Foursomes title while Provincial Towns and Central Towns Cup pennants are also on the walls of the clubhouse.

But then came the hard times. It was around 2007 when members were told that there had been an accident with the greens and nearly all of them had been burnt to a point where they were unplayable. A golf course without its greens is like a football team without footballs and it showed. What had been a thriving local club with 780 members now faced a full season on temporary greens and over 200 members left.

And that was only the start. Just as the greens began to improve and come back towards the condition they had always been in the recession hit and all was turned on its head.

The crash

There’s no need to go through the finer details of 2008 and the years that followed. Everyone knows and everyone remembers and most want to forget. For the midlands the crash hit particularly hard and in Edenderry it was felt with a vengeance.

Even now, according to the latest GeoView Commercial Property Report, the town has the highest commercial vacancy rate in the country with 29.1 per cent of all commercial properties lying empty and that has been the reality for the area since the recession hit, while the winding down of Bord na Móna’s peat-harvesting has also seen numerous jobs lost across the bogland regions over the last few years.

The practice area and the clubhouse at Edenderry. Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The practice area and the clubhouse at Edenderry. Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

For Edenderry Golf Club the realities were felt in membership numbers dropping from 780 in 2005 to barely more than 300 in 2013. John Wyer, who was the treasurer of the club at the time, recalls going into Ulster Bank to discuss the club’s financial situation when the man behind the desk asked him what the vision was for the club. Wyer said they wanted Edenderry to be the best golf club within a 25km radius.

The bank manager specified that he meant what was the vision financially for a club which had €800,000 of borrowings, an overdraft of €80,000 and a dwindling membership. In a struggling community the club was on its knees.

“When you can only survive in the moment you don’t have time to lift your head to think about the future. You don’t have time to think about next year, to think about next week, all you’re trying to do is survive in that moment,” says former captain and committee member Kevin Farrell.

But survive is what the club did. With some big cost reductions, redundancies and a huge reliance on volunteers the club kept chugging along week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year. Some fundraising here and there and a loyal core of members kept the club alive but it was more a case of life support than growing and prospering.

With the debts taken over from Ulster Bank by a vulture fund and a receiver appointed to the golf club it looked like Edenderry was on the brink. When Farrell became captain in 2019 he knew radical action was needed so he approached three members who had played golf in Edenderry all their lives and who, most importantly, all worked in finance.

When Brendan McGrath, James Farrell and Ciarán McDonnell came on to the committee they brought their expertise with them and the club began to turn a corner. After tense negotiations, a settlement figure was agreed with the vulture fund in May 2020, just after the Covid-19 pandemic had thrown another curveball at the club.

The first tee box at Edenderry Golf Club. Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The first tee box at Edenderry Golf Club. Photo: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

With a figure agreed the hard part came next - raising the money to pay it off. First the club approached Community Finance Ireland - a finance provider for social projects around the country - who agreed to provide some of the funding.

And then the members stepped up. With their own money, in the middle of a pandemic, the members of the club went into their own pockets and contributed almost €250,000 to cover the rest of the settlement figure and pay off the debt to the vulture fund.

In its darkest time, during the grim lockdown days of closures, the club was saved by its members. James Farrell, who is the club treasurer, says it is a testament to the loyalty of the members that they managed to save the club from the brink of extinction.

“It was an indication of the membership and how strong their affinity to and love for the club is and their desire to see the club last. When we had an EGM that time we got the figure, one of our longest-standing members said, underneath a tree outside the clubhouse as it was Covid times, ‘don’t let the crows build here’. That stuck with me and with a lot of us to this day.

“We still obviously have a loan to pay back, we have members to pay back, we have Covid to deal with but all in all we’re on a very strong financial footing and it’s really from that volunteerism and that club base.”

There is something in the Offaly psyche that says ‘we’re not going away’ and I think we’re putting the building blocks in place that we will never face what we faced before again

From constantly looking over their shoulders and worrying, the members of Edenderry can now look to the future with hope and optimism. At the end of 2018 there were just 307 members at the club but that number has grown steadily since and, with an added increase from the Covid-19 golf boom, now sits at 573. With the weight lifted the committee is now able to look at how the club can improve and how they can ensure that those dark days never return. The key to that, they believe, is embedding the club in the local community.

In 2018 the club had just 17 junior members. Since then they have put a focus on that area of the membership specifically and have now increased that number to 119. Added to that, the club runs a programme for autistic children which allows them and their parents to come to the course once a week where they play with specialised brightly coloured plastic equipment and are helped along by club pro Ken O’Brien.

Partnerships

The club has also partnered with a local justice diversion programme called the Acorn Project which gives at-risk children in the area the opportunity to try their hand at golf and take weekly group lessons with O’Brien.

The healthy junior section is clear to see on that bank holiday Sunday as children of all ages line up at the first tee to play a round with their friends. Their excitement is infectious and there’s a real feeling that this is what golf should be - a fun activity to be enjoyed with friends and family without being weighed down by overly formal dress codes and rules for the sake of rules.

By strengthening the junior section the club has also benefitted from parents and other family members joining and the future is looking brighter by the day, says Kevin Farrell.

“When you’re on the ledge and looking off the edge of a cliff it does force you as a club and as people to look at things differently and reformulate where you want to go. We’ve identified that we need a broader playing base and a more central role as a community venture and not just strictly in terms of playing golf competitively where everybody is preoccupied with handicaps and scores.

“If we can be seen as a community hub that cares for, and genuinely cares for, autistic children and children at risk then we become anchored in the community in such a way that we will never face that cliff-face again.

“This is not an overnight success, this is a 10, 11-year success story that was built on stubbornness and a refusal to go away. Geographically we represent the people of the Bog of Allen which goes into Kildare but this story for me is anchored in a kind of weird Offalyness that just says ‘I don’t give a damn, we’re not going away, we’re not beat’.

“Kerry seen it in ‘82, poor aul’ Limerick were five points ahead in ‘94 and were beaten by seven, we had a young lad from Clara who ambled up to the North of Ireland and went and won a British Open. There is something in the Offaly psyche that says ‘we’re not going away’ and I think we’re putting the building blocks in place that we will never face what we faced before again.”

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