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Kilkenny unique Home Rule Club faces challenges on 125th anniversary

“People have this preconceived idea that this is a closed club – a political group. That, like my youngest son says, the IRA wants you in there and it’s that terrorist thing.

Darina O’Byrne explains the dilemma facing the Home Rule Club. She and other members of her organizing committee are seated at her front bar, a comfortable, low-ceilinged room adorned with depictions of John Redmond, the former congressman and leader of the movement.

From distaste for politics to anhistoric assumptions, the club, which is owned by its non-profit members, faces challenges as it celebrates its 125th anniversary.

It was created by Catholic businessmen in the city in July 1894, with the aim of “advancing Catholic and national interests”.

One of them is that the movement that gave the club its name lost much of its power a century ago. The title of Home Rule continues to seem like a drawback to some members.

“A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the Home Rule Club is a political club,” says Roger O’Reilly, “but it’s not political at all”.

‘Behoed’

Nonetheless, President John Kelly says that because of his role it is “a duty” to focus on the club’s original political goals.

He prepared a detailed timeline tracing the incidents and legislative movements in preparation for the approval of Home Rule, before the outbreak of World War I delayed its implementation, then its overrun by the Easter Rising and independence.

Its origins date back to the 1890s, when a bill introducing Home Rule for Ireland was introduced in the House of Commons in Westminster. It was the second time he had appeared before MPs, and the result was the same: defeat.

This served to further intensify efforts in Ireland to achieve a parliament in Dublin. Many local organizations have been formed across the country to provide spaces for organization and networking.

One of them was the Home Rule Club of Kilkenny. It was established by Catholic businessmen in the city in July 1894, with the aim, under the club’s original rules, to “advance Catholic and national interests and provide rational entertainment to its members.”

The latter objective was mainly provided by a pool table.

“Obviously at the time of independence it started to become more of a social club and that is what it is today, without any affiliation,” says O’Reilly.

But he may have been inclined to become a social club long before that. Darina O’Byrne, who reviewed the minutes of the first meetings of 1894, says: “Even when it had a political purpose, it was only a fraction of their topic. If you look at their activities, the first meeting was devoted to billiards. [They were wondering] how they were going to light up the pool table. Would they light it on gas? That sort of thing.”

Darina says the minutes show the focus was on education for the club, through its library and reading rooms. Excursions to parts of the country were also part of the club’s activities.

Now located on John’s Quay on the banks of the River Nore, its remit goes far beyond Home Rule. In addition to functioning as a pub, it hosts community groups from all over the city, covering movie clubs, dance classes, and tai chi groups. It is a full-fledged community center, say members.

For the coming year, a series of political and historic talks are underway. This July provided a glimpse of a violent confrontation in the 1830s south of Kilkenny, known locally as the Battle of Carrickshock, which saw 14 members of the Irish Police force killed by sharecroppers as they attempted to collect the tithe.

The front bar of the Home Rule Club in Kilkenny, which is adorned with old political campaign material from the early 1900s. Today the club is not political at all, according to one of its members. Photography: Alan Betson

Home Rule’s best-known modern supporter, former taoiseach John Bruton, surrendered last month. He became a member following his speech on John Redmond, the movement’s leading figure, who was an MP for neighboring Waterford.

It doesn’t take much to become a member, explains Kelly: “It’s € 10 membership for the year. It basically operates on a shoestring budget.

A bar manager is employed full-time alongside several part-time bar workers. Three years ago the bar and beer garden were renovated.

In the generations that followed the collapse of the political movement, the building had a reputation as a “dingy” workers’ club and was a favorite haunt for snooker players.

The premises were to be sold at the beginning of this decade, in order to cover an invoice of € 30,000. There were concerns that the club would disappear altogether.

But, says Kelly, “word got out that he was going to disappear from the face of the earth and that led to an increase in the number of members to keep the club.”

While many of these new members have since “melted away”, there are still around 130 people paying their annual membership fee.

Roger O’Reilly believes the brief swell in membership was a “vote of confidence in the club” and its plans for the future.

An artist, best known for last year’s illustrated look at Ireland’s lighthouses, O’Reilly opened the doors a decade ago to ask if they had any space he could rent as a studio.

It’s the kind of place you walk around on your own. The minute I walked in and walked through that door someone said, ‘sit there and sing a song’

“They had just set up the upstairs room at the club, so I ended up painting there for 10 years. Eventually, they managed to twist my arm and get me on the committee earlier this year – after only nine years.

It has managed to be more accessible than the building’s previous function, an elite school for young women. The residents were to bring three items with them to the entrance, says O’Reilly: a pair of sheets, a change of clothes and a silver spoon.

Other people found it more difficult to join. Nuala Culleton was introduced to the club by her husband Paddy when they were teenagers, but only Paddy was allowed to become a member.

Culleton sought to change this when she was older: “There was a campaign for women to become members. I think it was in 1989 when they agreed to let us join them, then I was secretary five years later.

“It wasn’t until we campaigned for us to become members that we found out that nowhere was it written that women could not become members,” she laughs.

There was another excluded group: the Parnellites. The personal life of Irish parliamentary party leader Charles Stewart Parnell, especially his adultery and divorce proceedings, sparked a split within the party in the 1800s.

“There were Catholic priests on the board for the early years,” says Clare Griffin, who has researched the club’s formative period.

“Many of the members were Catholics and given that the split occurred only a few years before the club was founded, it would make sense for them to be anti-Parnellites.”

Indeed, according to O’Byrne, the minutes of one of the first meetings showed that a man’s loyalty to the Parnellite faction was being used as a factor against his membership.

“Ironically, even though the [pressure group] The Home Rule Government Association was formed by a Protestant lawyer, this club was a Catholic club. I think there were really all kinds of disparate groups that were looking for self-determination and scrambling to take control of their lives, ”she says.

The next challenge for the club, she says, is to continue to attract and retain members so that they can “regenerate from the bottom up.”

The club’s combination of hikes, meditation, and regular music nights has attracted her, and she hopes its wide offering will be more popular.

“It’s the kind of place you walk around alone. The minute I walked in and walked through that door, someone said, ‘sit there and sing a song’.

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Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera