What is the Gaelic Club?

The Gaelic Club premises. Only the top floor is still used by the club. An “Irish” pub operates for profit on the lower two floors, without any connection to the Irish National Association. Photo: Irish Echo Australia, 2019.

A question I didn’t expect myself grappling with heading into this project was perhaps one of the more simple ones – what is The Gaelic Club? A casual observer going there every now and again for a drink might just think of it as one of Sydney’s many Irish-themed pubs, with the added caveat of having to walk up a flight of stairs once.

The Gaelic Club is an institution and a space that is far more complex, and may be many different things, depending on whom you ask. While it’s a pub, it has one bar, a small selection of drinks, and no screens or poker machines. It does not operate for profit, and has often run at a loss. It is very consciously a place for the preservation of Irish culture, music and language in a society where that is not the default. It is also a community hub – people from young adults to the retired come for the community, to meet people and to see familiar faces. There are signs around the club advertising financial assistance for Irish in Sydney facing hardship far from family supports.

It is a home for Friday night traditional music sessions – people from across Sydney, from a range of backgrounds come down to play tunes and sing songs, and this is a key draw that has brought me to the site. Irish language lessons take place on Mondays. It is the place I’ve heard the most Irish being spoken outside of Ireland. Groups such as Sydney Queer Irish use the space as a base, and it is the home of the Irish Support Agency – despite being a small upstairs floor of a building in the city.

The building’s ground floor was sold in 2003 in the wake of issues stemming from an attempted redevelopment and contests over management. Prior to this, my understanding is that the ground floor was used as a space to hold regular Irish dances, events in which people would socialise, gather, meet partners and so forth. I’ve chatted now with quite a few people who have been around the space for a while, and a common thread is that it really was a central place for the Irish in Sydney. It was a space newly arrived people might come to find a job, to access support or make friends.

I’ve been going to the Gaelic Club for a while on and off, originally for Politics in the Pub some years ago and more recently for the traditional music sessions, so I knew a few familiar faces when I headed there last Friday night. I got chatting with a few people and got some contact details, and a project began to take shape.

I was chatting with a fella who has done some work with the Gaelic Club and the Irish National Association before, and realised after talking to him that he had created an oral history project of Irish seniors in Sydney, known as A Lifetime of Stories, linked here. It’s inspired my project, which in its formative stages is looking likely to be a compilation of audio recordings, dealing with the ways that people use the space and how that has changed through time and/or across generations.

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