The Great Golfing Days of the Irish Bar, 1904-14

From the Western Morning News of 21 April 1911:

“The representative match between the members of the Bar Golfing Society and the Irish Bar has now become a very well-established annual fixture.  At one time there was the possibility of the contest being only an intermittent one and an idea was prevalent that the Irish bar could never be strong enough to take the full strength of the English Bar.  Last year the Irishmen secured a very creditable win on their own links at Dollymount, a course of which practically all the Irish barristers who play golf are members, and on Thursday last the Englishmen had again to put up with a defeat at St Anne’s-on-Sea. 

The Irishmen should be able to play golf, for between the Four Courts, where they do their pleading, and the Royal Dublin links where they golf, there is little less than a four-mile tram run, while Portmarnock is within fairly easy access.  On the other hand, with the English barristers it is not an easy thing to engage in practising unless they forego a complete day in the courts. 

It has been asserted that barristers who are good golfers disdain to practice at the Bar, but a glance at the names of those who played in the representative matches will rather disabuse this idea.  The Scottish bar has many good golfers and it would be interesting to have the fixture made a triangular one.”

The first match between the English and Irish Bar took place on 8 April 1904 and was a win for the English Bar despite the Irish Bar fielding a very powerful team including the Hon E Gibson, the Dollymount record holder (photo above) and WH Boyd, an Irish champion.

Another match took place the following year and the Northern Whig of 29 April 1905 reported that the English barristers had a very extended holiday afterwards and that a number of them still remained in Ireland tasting of the pleasures of the links.

On the 18th May 1905 the Whig further reported that the Golfing Union of Ireland had decided that the date of the Irish close championships should be set for the Whitsuntide vacation so that members of the Irish Bar would be able to compete at a time when they were not in attendance in the Law Library.  

The reputation of the Irish Golfing Bar had clearly recovered from the Portrush Links Affair of August 1898 when Mr TA Harrison, barrister, was involved in an altercation with Mr William Anderson, member of the Belfast City Council, in the course of which he was alleged to have struck Mr Anderson a blow to the face with his golf club.   Mr Anderson was removed to hospital while Mr Harrison was detained pending an examination of his opponent’s injuries.

In general, however, the Irish Bar managed to avoid incidents such as the Flemton Golf Club Scandal of 1932 involving James Stanley Brooke Reeves, a young London Barrister whose father was a KC and County Court judge. Mr Reeves was charged with stealing money which had, after several pilfering incidents, been left as a trap protruding from the pocket of a jacket hanging in the club house.  In his subsequent trial, he asserted that the money had been taken by him as a practical joke when he saw it sticking out of the wallet; he had intended to give its owner a fright so that he would not be such a beastly careless fool again.  Mr Reeves’ counsel said that he was not criticising the actions of the club but a trap was likely to catch an innocent person as well as a guilty one.  The majority of the bench dismissed the case after a retirement of less than 10 minutes.

After a hiatus of a number of years, the Irish Bar Golfing Society was re-energised by the arrival of Mr LO Munn, at that date probably the strongest golfing recruit to the legal profession in any part of the world ever.  The annual match against the English Bar was resumed, resulting in a glorious victory at Dollymount on 9 April 1914, with subsequent Circuit Court judge James Sealey among the Irish players. 

Sadly, this match proved a last hurrah for the Society before it was dispersed by the First World War, the subsequent emigration of many of its members to England and the Colonies, and the division of the Northern and Southern Bars.

A nostalgic article in the Belfast News-Letter of 23 April 1929 remembers with affection the Society’s annual foursome’s tournaments where the golf counted for little, sport and good fellowship were the things that really mattered, partnerships consisted of a strong player and a weak player, witty spectators made up for their lack of knowledge of golf by pungent witty comments on the players, and even the slightest dispute as to the rules opened gates of law and learning.

Not to mention the unnamed but enthusiastic judicial participant (the Court of Appeal is mentioned), who stalked the course in silk top hat, tails and grey striped trousers whilst barking orders at the low-handicap Junior allocated to shepherd him towards a respectable overall result!

Hypothesising on a possible revival of the sport among the Bar, the author concluded that, alas, those days were gone for good:

“It is difficult, nay impossible to imagine anything comparable with the golf tournaments of the Irish bar in those days.  Even if they were to be revived in a modified form by a joint meeting of the golfers of the Ulster and Free State Bars, they would have little or nothing of the old atmosphere.  We take our golf (and ourselves) too seriously nowadays.”

Difficult certainly to dispute that last sentence!

Image Credit: The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, April 16, 1904

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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