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It's a man's world ... but what really goes on in mens clubs?

Jamie McDowell discovers as he goes inside four Belfast venues

Jamie McDowell

Clubs have always been an integral part of social life in Northern Ireland, ranging from the Ulster Reform Club, home to the political, legal and business elite, to the working men's institutions.

During the bad old days of the Troubles, when many people dared not leave their communities for fear of being caught up in violence, or worse, social clubs served as focal points of their local communities – a bar, a meeting place, a hub for a variety of local sports teams.

Initially many clubs were predominantly male – although Belfast once had a woman's only Blouse Club housed in a city centre bar where ladies could enjoy their tipple in the days when women didn't normally frequent public bars.

While many clubs grew up around specific activities, they gradually became open to everyone and raising funds for charities became a significant role within them. But times are tough for the social clubs of Belfast. Recession, coupled with the boom of new bars and clubs in the city centre has lured younger people away from social clubs. Many young people now prefer to buy alcohol from a supermarket and drink it at home before going out to save money, although the cost of a pint at their nearest social club still remains lower than in most bars.

We spoke to some of the key figures in four of the city's best known social clubs to find out how and why they were formed, and how they see the future of their establishments.

John Davidson (70) is the treasurer of the Welders club in east Belfast and the chairman of the Federation of Clubs Northern Ireland. He says:

My father was a founding member of the Welders when it was formed back in 1959. He started his career as an apprentice welder in the shipyard, and like most of the other welders, he'd play football during his lunch break. The welding department then decided to form a football team that entered the lower leagues and it soon worked its way up through the divisions to the B Division, which is just below the Irish Premier League.

It was a love of football that really started the club, and the basis of the club is in sport. We have one of the best darts teams in Northern Ireland as well. I think it would be safe to say that we're cleaning up at the minute in darts. We also have snooker tables and we have golf and angling societies. We're also one of the flagship Rangers supporters clubs in the country.

At the moment, it's the big sporting events like Manchester United and Liverpool matches that draw crowds into the Welders. We have live entertainment and we frequently raise money for various charities. In fact, we raise about £500 per month which goes directly into local charities in the area and we raised about £8-10,000 last Christmas for charities such as Fleming Fulton school in Belfast for children with special needs and Marie Curie Cancer Care.

Bars and businesses across the country are facing hard times at the moment and it's fair to say that the club sector is no different. The days of people coming in during the week are gone. Since Belfast has gone back to normality after the Troubles, people now travel all over the city for a night out instead of staying in their own community. It's great for city centre bars and nightclubs, but it has an adverse effect on clubs like this. I think we're also paying the price because of the low-cost alcohol available in supermarkets. Surveys show that 65-70% of people now prefer to consume alcohol at home rather than in a bar.

In spite of this, we've had a great number of American tourists coming to the club because of our link to the Titanic. In it's heyday, the shipyard would maybe have had 1,200-1,400 welders working there, so the club was a big part of the community, and to certain extent it still is. The Welders is an institution, and it belongs to the community."

Stephen Watson (53) is the secretary of the Ulster Sports Club in central Belfast. He says:

I've been a member of the Ulster Sports Club since I was 18 – about 35 years now. My father was a member here, and I joined because I liked playing snooker in the club. It was a combination of greyhound owners, trainers, punters and bookies that founded the club in 1926. The local pubs closed at 10pm, so they wanted somewhere to go after that. They clubbed together to get premises, initially on Ann Street, but we have since moved to High Street.

We are a mixed religion club. We flew the flag – in a manner of speaking – against sectarianism the whole way through the Troubles, and we've always had people from the Falls, the Shankill, the Newtownards Road and the Markets sitting side by side here without any bother, united by sport. In a way, the club served as a good place for people to go to when they got fed up with staying in their own communities. It is actually written into our constitution that we must always keep the club in the city centre if we ever move out of here. This means that it can never move to a particular area that's dominated by one side of the community or the other.

We don't get as many doggy men these days as the only racetracks left are a bit out of the way in places like Drumbo near Lisburn. Most of our members are quite old. I'm one of the youngest at 53. We still get big crowds in for sporting events though, as we're open to the public.

We have big wide screen televisions and sporting memorabilia everywhere throughout the building, and generally our three floors are used for socialising. Our snooker room is also very popular. We also serve as a place where the Northern Irish Ex-Boxers Association frequently meets, and they have a space of their own to the front of the building.

We're busy at the weekends, but the crowd dies down a bit on a Sunday. One of our draws is that the price of a pint still remains about 70-80p cheaper than in the pubs around us.

I have two sons who like to come in here for a few drinks before they go out to the nightclubs. We even recently had people coming here before they went to the Belsonic music festival in Custom House Square, because they knew it was cheaper to drink here than in other pubs around the area.

One of the things that we're most proud of is our huge selection of framed and signed Irish league football shirts that we have on the walls in the bar.

We also have a great collection of portraits of sporting heroes painted by Joe O'Kane and and a great selection of boxing memorabilia."

Hugh Taggart of the RAOB Hugh Taggart (69) is the president of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB) in central Belfast. He says:

I've been a member of the 'Buff' club, as many people prefer to call it, since 1964. In that time I've certainly seen many changes here. My father and my grandfather were both members before me, but we mainly come here because of the friendships we have and the great social aspect of the club.

Many people ask how we got our name. The first recorded lodge meeting of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes dates back to 1822 at the Harp Tavern in London, near Drury Lane theatre. It was set up for stage hands and technicians who were denied acceptance into the City of Lushington club, which consisted of many of the actors and artists of the day.

Disaffected stage hands wanted their own club that had 'nuffin to do wit them actor fellas'.

Antediluvian literally means 'before the flood' – referring to the great flood in the Bible. But as the club was formed in 1822, which was obviously long after the flood, it had a different meaning.

The word antediluvian was used simply as an antiquated reference by the skilled orators who founded the club to a romantic notion of a bygone era. It was just a word used instead of 'ancient' to impress the unenlightened.

As the stage hands spread throughout the land looking for work, they brought the club with them. During the 19th century the clubs spread all over the world with the expansion of the British Empire.

We initially were named the Loyal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, but as time progressed, and due to a slip of the tongue, we became 'Royal', even though we don't have a Royal charter.

Anyway, the RAOB is an extremely charitable club. We've been in existence since the 1930s in Belfast, and we've raised over £280,000 for charity over the last 20 years alone. We also look after anyone who is in need within the order, which has around 500 members in Northern Ireland. There's a real sense of fraternity.

We're also a non-sectarian club. We welcome everyone here and members of the public are free to come in off the street for a drink if they wish.

We have great facilities here including pool and snooker tables.

As well, we frequently put on pensioners' evenings, cater for christening parties, wedding receptions and birthday parties."

Brian McCann (74) was one of the founding members of the iconic Dockers club in Belfast's Sailortown. He says:

There was a walkout from the docks in 1974 over the lack of work training facilities that were in place for the dockers. As a docker, most people got their jobs handed down to them from their father just as he had got it from his father. New workers learned on the job, which was why there was no real formal training.

This was the same year that I found out that my first child was on the way. We were in the American bar near the docks one day back then when a group of us came up with the idea of starting our own club.

I decided I was going to pursue this idea. The chairman of the union and my best friend said they'd back me, if I was going to establish a club for the dockers of the area.

All of the dockers clubbed together and we tried everything we could in order to raise funds. After a year the coffers were booming. We also had a donation from the owner of the Midland Hotel, who gave us £13,000, which was obviously a lot of money back then.

The main hall of the clubhouse, which still stands today, was built by the dockers themselves inside eight weeks – a very short period of time by today's standards.

We have always been a mixed religion club and we welcome everyone. Our mantra when we set up the club was, and always will be, that we leave our politics at the door.

About 90% of the people who worked in the docks lived in this area, which was known as Sailortown. There has always been a strong sense of community, and that's produced some funny stories.

There's a famous anecdote about the American troops who were stationed here during WWII. They were trying to get trucks on to a boat to take them to Britain, but the roofs of the trucks were hitting the top of the boat's cargo hold. The Americans were panicking because they would have to send for bigger boats. One of the foreman in the docks offered to help, much to the amusement of one American captain. But he was left red-faced, and quite furious, after the foreman drove the trucks on to the boats without fuss after letting the air out of the tyres.

The Dockers club has raised more than £1m over the last 20 years for various charities. It's something we're very proud of. We have a golf day every year with all funds going to the Northern Ireland Hospice and a Christmas party every year with all funds going to the Everton Day Centre on Crumlin Road, which looks after people with special needs.

We also donate to Sinclair Seaman's Church and Donegall Street Church of Ireland has brought over Welsh choirs to perform here and we've had some fantastic sing songs. We also have an adjoining gym and the new bar has been built to replicate one of the streets in which the dockers would have lived on years ago.

I've gone about getting original doorfronts and paraphernalia from the docks area and the ships, such as an old ship's telegraph machine. We've done a good job with the place in that respect.

We also get a lot of people into the main hall when we're holding boxing championships here, but apart from that we can be quite quiet. Back in the '70s we really thrived, but today we're just ticking along. We've sat and watched the government throw millions into the Titanic Quarter and restoring the Nomadic tender while this area, which also has a long and distinguished maritime history, has been neglected.

We are open to the public however, and everyone is welcome to the Dockers, which has an incredible history behind it."

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