Portmarnock members knew time was up for men-only policy

Court case from 2009 still stands but sometimes old institutions just need a nudge

It was interesting to see that after 127 years just 16.6 per cent of Portmarnock GC members preferred to remain faithful to an old court decision.

In a special vote on Rule 3 of the club’s constitution, a majority of 83.4 per cent voted in favour of removing the four words “who shall be Gentlemen”. That means the brass and panelled rooms of the venerable club will be thrown open to women members.

The previous court case that the club won 12 years ago was always a conundrum that was never really squared, or fully understood, although that is often the case with legal decisions that pivot on the meaning of words.

This week’s vote came after a decision in 2009 when the Supreme Court dismissed the Equality Authority’s appeal against a decision that said Portmarnock Golf Club was not a “discriminating” club under the Equal Status Act.


By a majority of three to two, the Supreme Court upheld a previous High Court decision that Portmarnock, while refusing to admit women as members, was not a “discriminating” club under the Act because it fell within exemption provisions in Section 9 of the Act.

The proceedings brought by the Authority argued that the club was “discriminatory” and not exempt under Section 9 on the basis its “primary purpose” was to play golf and not to cater for the “needs” of male golfers.

Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman, Mr Justice Hugh Geoghegan and Ms Justice Fidelma Macken agreed with the High Court while Ms Justice Susan Denham and Mr Justice Nial Fennelly disagreed.

Not a ‘need’

In his judgment, Mr Justice Hardiman said the club argued it was a gentlemen’s golf club, a golf club for gentlemen.

The Authority said that could not be so within Section 9 because, in the Authority’s view, the club provided facilities for the game of golf which was not a “need” of men.

At the time it was reported that the ordinary, natural and literal meaning of the word “need” was set out in the Oxford English Dictionary and according to Mr Justice Hardiman, it was broad enough to embrace social, cultural and sporting needs as well as more basic needs for things such as air, food and water.

His view was that the Authority’s construction of the term “needs” was “a narrow, outdated and unnatural one”.

Taking a different view, Ms Justice Denham said she felt that the principal purpose of Portmarnock golf club was golf and that it catered for the needs of men and women, not just men.

The thing is, that judgment still stands and while Portmarnock’s decision to set it aside and allow women to become members, it is a club decision, and the law remains.

One question is whether Portmarnock would have been as successful in the courts if the club’s main purpose was not to serve the needs of one gender but one religion, the Evangelical Anglicans, Chaldean Catholics, Manchu Shamanists or Hasidic Jews.

Would “non-discrimination” on the basis of religion or ethnicity or colour have been as acceptable to the courts as denying membership to half the population based on their genetics and biology.

Rights and discrimination or non-discrimination are complex issues and while many may not have agreed with the court decision, there is an important point.

That is, whether the State or its agent, in the Portmarnock GC case the Equality Authority, has the right to tell a bunch of blokes who they should allow or should not allow into their private club.

For decades discrimination didn’t bother the GAA with their wrecking ball Rule 27, which was in place from 1905 to 1971.

“Any member of the Association who plays or encourages in any way rugby, football, hockey or any imported game which is calculated to injuriously affect our National Pastimes, is suspended from the Association.”

Pretty discriminatory you would think. GAA members were also prohibited from playing, watching or attending any event associated with these sports. In some areas "vigilance committees" were sent to football and rugby matches to check for any GAA deviants.

Steel fist

That must have been a hoot and while suspension is different from denying membership, if you played an ‘imported game’ membership was automatically denied. On that the GAA had a steel fist.

For Douglas Hyde, it must have really sucked. Then President of Ireland and a patron of the GAA, he was removed from his patronage and banned in 1938 when he attended a football match at Dalymount Park between Ireland and Poland.

But the GAA moved on and in 2007 England played rugby in Croke Park. As God Save The Queen blasted out, spectacularly, NOTHING happened. Sometimes, to move on, institutions just need a nudge.

In 2013 Clare Balding created a fuss when she declined to cover the Open Championship at Muirfield for BBC Five Live because the club refused to admit women. Just five years after voting to change their rules, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers will now host the Women's Open at Muirfield next year.

Regardless of whether the law should or should not instruct an institution on how to conduct its business, the GAA knew the time was right for change just as Portmarnock GC know that the single sex paradigm was creaking. A majestic golf course with no prospect of major events, time was up.

Now Royal Dublin, show us what you got.