What happens when the gates close?
Ireland is full of golf courses. Take a drive anywhere around the country and your eyes will inevitably be drawn away from the road as you pass different clubs. That’s what happened on a drive back from Glendalough recently but this time there was something different. As the trees parted and the course came into view it was clear that this was a rare sight. There were no people walking the fairways, not a flagpole to be seen, an empty car park and a vacated clubhouse.
The chance to have a look around an abandoned golf course doesn’t come up too often so, despite the rain that was falling, the empty car park now had one space taken up.
This is (or was) Djouce Golf Club. The nine-hole parkland course opened in 1990 and was a family-run venture sitting between Vartry Lake and Djouce Mountain in Wicklow. Last April the club shut for good with course manager Donal McGillycuddy telling the Wicklow People newspaper that the Covid-19 pandemic was the final nail in the coffin.
When we’re now all so accustomed to golf courses being perfectly presented with tightly-mown fairways and greens and nicely raked bunkers, it’s striking to see what happens when nature takes over. The two-foot high grass means there’s no distinction between fairway and rough, the bunkers are beginning to disappear and only the trees and the overgrown greens give any real indication of the shapes of the holes.
The stone on the first tee says it’s a 177-yard Par 3 but if you were to pull out your five-iron and hit a ball now you’d never see it again when it lands in the high grass. Back in the car park the clubhouse is a lot bigger than you might expect for a nine-hole course with one half devoted to the golf club while the other used to house the popular Grange Kitchen restaurant. Now the building lies empty with just a few tables and chairs visible through the grimy windows.
After the year that was 2020, this is the fate of a number of golf clubs around Ireland that shut their doors, never to reopen again.
During the first lockdown in April, when courses around the country were forced to temporarily close, both Castle Barna in Offaly and Water Rock in Cork didn’t reopen in May when restrictions were lifted while, most recently, Charlesland Golf Club in Greystones closed permanently on December 31st.
In the case of Castle Barna and Water Rock, both were privately-owned courses built on family farms with the land now going back to its original agricultural use. At the time the news came as a shock to members of both clubs when they were told by management that the course would not be re-opening but, with both very reliant on green fees and society income, it wasn’t viable to continue spending money on maintaining the course with no income coming in.
Ironically, when golf did return, clubs around the country were booming with an influx of new members as seemingly more people than ever before were taking to the fairways.
However, with a further lockdown following in October and November, all golf clubs around the country were closed for a total of 14 weeks in 2020 with some also more affected than others by local travel restrictions at different times of the year. At some courses, losing such a level of income was simply too much to take.
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For the more than 600 members of Charlesland the news of closure came as something of a surprise after the club had seen a nett increase of 60 members during the year. Nikki Evans, on behalf of the Evans family which owns the land, said that the main reasons for the closure were the need for regular cash injections from the family as well as the “uncertain medium term outlook for golf”.
While the Wicklow club appeared to be operating well enough there was a sense among members that issues could arise given previous efforts made to boost revenue streams by using the clubhouse for ventures such as a nail bar, yoga, a small gym and a café.
Currently the course lies idle but, with its prime location on the fringes of Greystones, it’s likely that won’t remain the case for long with the land possibly being re-zoned for housing or other developments in the future.
Although there initially was talk that some members might mount a High Court challenge against the closure, that now seems to have been resolved and membership fees which had already been paid for 2021 have been refunded.
Such is the merry-go-round of club golf at times that many Charlesland members originally joined when Glen of the Downs closed down in 2017 and have now been left scouting around again for somewhere to move to although one upside is that, given the volume of golf clubs around south county Dublin and north Wicklow, they won’t be short on choice. Indeed, Druids Heath offered Charlesland up to 300 membership spots, Blainroe had capacity for around 70 while Delgany and Powerscourt also made offers to departing members.
However, it wasn’t all bad news on the closure front in 2020. Ballykisteen Golf Club in Limerick, despite looking like it may well follow the likes of Charlesland to the annals of lost Irish golf clubs, survived and looks to have a bright future ahead.
The 18-hole course on the Limerick and Tipperary border had been put on sale as “a golf facility or as farming land” but the new owner – believed to be a Tipperary-based businessman who paid around €1.25m for the 155 acre site – looks set to lease the land to the 400 members, meaning it will remain as a golf course.
When Castle Barna and Water Rock closed during the first lockdown they were joined by Castleisland and Killorglin in Kerry with both clubs, just 30km apart, confirming their respective closures within nine days of each other.
Castleisland, which once boasted 650 members but had been reduced to just 125 in April of 2020, now lies dormant and much like Djouce, Castle Barna, Water Rock and many other former courses around the country, is resigned to nature reclaiming the fairways and greens.
However, further down past Kerry Airport towards Killorglin, the course there is still very much being maintained and is waiting for golfers to return once again when the latest Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
Between the two towns of Castleisland and Killorglin flows the River Maine and it’s that link which gave the new Maine Valley Members’ Club its name. The club was born in April of last year when members from Castleisland and Killorglin got together and negotiated an agreement to lease the Killorglin course.
With Castleisland’s diminishing membership numbers and Killorglin’s around the 150 mark, the new Maine Valley club looks a lot stronger with over 400 members currently on the books after a very successful first eight months.
“We looked into ways of salvaging something from the situation and we investigated ways of amalgamating the two clubs,” explains secretary Jim Foley.
“Obviously we were in a quandary because we had no finances. At the time the owner of the Castleisland club was not in a position to renew the lease on that land but fortunately the Killorglin owner – a man by the name of Billy Dodds – he was anxious that it would continue as a golf club. We met with him and he was very co-operative. We did some market research into it first of all because we wanted to determine what the level of interest would be on an amalgamation and we got very positive feedback. We wanted to consolidate that so we asked for a commitment of €100 and that came in fairly substantially so from there we said we have a decent enough commitment so we proceeded.”
With an agreement made for a 10-year lease on the land the members at Maine Valley have used the last two lockdowns to do some renovations to the course and have high hopes for the future.
“When we got the members on board we set a figure and we got in full members, junior members, distance members, any member who could contribute to the coffers we took them on board,” says Foley.
“The timing was good. If Killorglin had closed down on its own the motivation might not have been there to resurrect it but the fact that the two of them went around the same time it gave us the bit of motivation to get both sets of members on board. We didn’t get all of them but we got the vast majority from both clubs to sign up.”
While the argument is regularly made that there are too many golf courses in Ireland and that many could be better used as green space for different amenities it should be remembered that the likes of Djouce, Castle Barna, Water Rock, Charlesland, Killorglin and Castleisland were all a far cry from the old fashioned stereotype of the golf club being the preserve of the elite. They were all friendly, €20 green fee sorts of courses which epitomise the accessibility of golf in Ireland and each will be missed within their locality and beyond.