Belfast Telegraph

After 91 years, famous Ulster Sports Club to close its doors

The Ulster Sports Club
The Ulster Sports Club
The Ulster Sports Club's exterior
The Ulster Sports Club's interior
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

You know your days are numbered when your youngest member is in their mid-40s.

And sadly, after 91 years in existence, time is being called on Belfast's legendary Ulster Sports Club, with one last hurrah planned for this New Year's Eve.

The premises in the city centre have been bought by prominent hotelier Bill Wolsey, who has promised to retain its integrity by keeping the memorabilia that currently adorns the club.

Today's members remain proud of the huge selection of framed and signed Irish League football shirts and a signed Northern Ireland shirt that all still hang on the walls in the bar.

There's also a collection of portraits of Northern Ireland sporting heroes such as George Best, Willie John McBride and Alex Higgins, painted by Joe O'Kane, and others including Mary Peters, Rory McIlroy, and AP McCoy by artist Brian Croker.

In its heyday, the club boasted a great selection of boxing memorabilia too.

Club secretary Stephen Watson (59) followed in the footsteps of his father Tommy (81), the club president, and joined when he was 18 because he liked playing snooker there.

"This used to be one of the best clubs in town; you had to be here by 7.30pm on a Saturday if you wanted to get in," Tommy said.

"We had a cabaret on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday nights and this was very much the place to be, the number one spot in Belfast."

He said that all through the Troubles "the club represented a place where politics and sectarianism could be forgotten and where friendship was shared among all".

Founded in 1926, a combination of greyhound owners, trainers, punters and bookies clubbed together to get premises - initially on Ann Street, later on High Street - because the local pubs closed at 10pm and they wanted somewhere to go after that.

People from the Falls, Shankill, Newtownards Road and Markets "sat side by side without any bother, united by sport".

Women were allowed in from 1968, which is when the club started doing cabaret.

But prior to that it was men only, with its male patrons often frequenting it four times a week.

There were famous local visitors too - the late football legend George Best, whose father Dickie was a long-time member, Olympic 'Golden Girl' Mary Peters, and snooker pro Joe Swail to name a few.

But times have changed; members have dwindled, the cabarets stopped on Fridays and Sundays six months ago because they couldn't afford to pay the bands, and now the club is no longer financially viable.

"Only 20% of our members use the club, if the other 80% supported it we probably wouldn't be closing," Tommy said.

Stephen said neither of his sons Gerard (39) and Christoper (36) had wanted to sign up.

"It's an age thing," he said. "We had 400 members 16 years ago, now there's 100."

Club treasurer Frank McKee (74), who became a great-grandfather to baby Frank earlier this week, admitted that none of his sons Francis (45), Paul (40) or Stephen (35) had joined either.

"We have to close for financial reasons, we're losing money every month," Frank said.

"It's a real pity. We're all going to break our hearts over the decision to close, but unfortunately the shutters must come down."

Club chairman Jim McLaren (74) and trustee and committee member Ed Boyle (81) both agreed that it would be terribly sad to say a final farewell to the club and its members on December 31.

"We're hoping that it will be kept as a sports bar and then we will still use it," Jim said.

"Otherwise, we'll probably see other again at funerals and things like that," Ed added.

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