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In Memoriam: Des Rea O’Kelly

The administrator, who probably did most to promote equality for women in Irish golf, was a man. It may be no harm to remind the country’s lady golfers of this often overlooked fact, now that Des Rea O’Kelly has departed from our midst.

O’Kelly, who gained the distinction of becoming centenary president of the GUI in 1991, happened to have the unenviable role of honorary secretary when the first moves were made in what would become a highly controversial issue, spanning more than 20 years. The fight against discrimination in golf began in earnest in 1985, when representatives of the GUI, Irish Ladies’ Golf Union and “Women in Golf” aired their views before a specially convened government committee on equality.

Though admirably ambitious in concept, those initial moves delivered little. In fact, the most significant step came two years later when the GUI, at their annual general meeting, removed the infamous Clause 9 from their constitution. Under this regulation, disaffiliation was threatened on any club that permitted women to attend or vote at any annual general or special meeting.

Yet, while it appeared woefully discriminatory, it actually made eminent sense in that it protected the men’s right to exclusive control over the running of their own game. Indeed, a similar rule would have been equally applicable to the ILGU. Still, its clumsy wording caused deep offence.

It was essentially as a conciliatory gesture to his women counterparts that O’Kelly set about having it removed, even though he knew that for all practical purposes such a move would be largely cosmetic. In lengthy chats he and I had on the issue, we agreed that the key lay in separating the playing of the game from the administering of golf-club facilities. So it was that he and I devised what became known as the “Three-Tier Constitution,” recognising a women’s club, a men’s club and the actual facility of course and clubhouse, all under the same roof.

Meanwhile, the government stepped up the pressure and came with an edict, through Failte Ireland, that no club that was deemed to discriminate against women could expect to be awarded a European Union development grant.

The ILGU also did their bit. In a departure from the established practice of male club officials being polled on the issue, they surveyed the women themselves in 1997. Among their findings was that women were still largely excluded from the more important club committees and that only one-third of clubs included women on the main, general administration or finance committees. And in half of the clubs surveyed, the women’s committee was not consulted on the election of new women members.

In effect, the survey confirmed what most of us already suspected: that if male-dominated clubs were to fully toe the line in a meaningful sense, a solution would have to be imposed. This eventually came about through the introduction of a national Equal Status Bill (1999), which covered all areas of discrimination, including fairness in any payments a club might consider appropriate when a woman changed from associate to full membership.

A club would also be deemed guilty of discrimination if it provided “different terms and conditions of membership for members or applicants for membership.” In other words, you couldn’t have full membership for men and not for women, nor, for that matter, an associate membership category for women and not for men. The teeth came in section 10, which ordained, in effect, that any club found guilty of discrimination would lose its certification of registration. That, in turn, would cause it to forfeit its liquor licence.

Though subsequent challenges through the courts indicated that much work remained to be done, there was no turning back. The process that Des Rea O’Kelly did so much to support in its early stages was now clearly irreversible.

On a personal level, I found Des to be a modest, retiring man who made an extraordinary contribution to Irish golf through most of his adult life. His first love was Howth GC, which he represented at the GUI level. Then after serving as honorary secretary of the Union from 1976 until 1989, when he and the late Gerry O’Brien filled the role in a joint capacity, he became president-elect as a prelude to the presidency in 1991. By that stage, he had been a golf administrator for 33 years.

For the centenary celebrations, the high point of his year was the staging of the Walker Cup at Portmarnock on September 5th and 6th when he played host to a victorious American team, which included such future luminaries as Phil Mickelson and David Duval.

Against that background, it seemed remarkable that he could still find time for a distinguished career as an architect and engineer. Yet, Dublin’s one-time tallest building, Liberty Ball, remains a monument to those skills. Indeed, when it was completed in 1965, I remember him telling me proudly that it could withstand winds of 160 miles per hour.

As he later discovered, the winds of change in club golf in Ireland would prove to be a much more daunting challenge.


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