Turning the tide
Time has caught up on the men who wanted to keep Forty Foot membership as a male preserve. But the battle isn't over yet. Will Portmarnock Golf Club be next?
Jane Dillon Byrne remembers the putdown as though it was directed at her yesterday. "One of the gentlemen – well, he was hardly a gentleman – called me an 'old cow' for having the temerity to suggest that women should be able to swim at the Forty Foot too."
The verbal abuse happened in 1974 when Dillon Byrne was first elected as a councillor to the local authority in Dun Laoghaire. She was among a group of female campaigners who earned the wrath of the men-only Sandycove Bathers' Association for arguing that women should also be able to use the south county Dublin spot immortalised in Ulysses by James Joyce as "the scrotum-tightening sea".
"I thought it was absolutely ridiculous then that we could be arguing over something like that," the Labour councillor says, "but here we are 40 years on and it's only now that the Sandycove Bathers' Association have agreed to allow women to use their facilities."
Those facilities may amount to little more than a pair of huts, but the victory represents far more than just a place in which to change out of swimming clothes, according to Dillon Byrne. "We were always arguing for the principle," she says. "This was a public space, remember, and some men were trying to cling to an archaic position."
Despite this, she says she won't be rushing out to join the club. "I will continue to swim as I always have done," she says. "The point is that it is no longer forbidden for women to become members if they want to and that's a breakthrough to celebrate."
Rory McIlroy at the 2006 Irish Amateur Open in Portmarnock, Co Dublin, a bastion of male-only golfers.
Jane Dillon Byrne may be reluctant to join the association – which charges just €15 per annum – but another keen swimmer, senator Ivana Bacik, has been quick to take up the opportunity. "I think it's a significant decision," she says, "another part of the process in creating greater parity between women and men."
Bacik says that in the days following the decision to reverse the 134-year male-only policy at Sandycove, she has had several inquiries from people who wonder if another case can be taken against Portmarnock Golf Club. The prestigious links course in north county Dublin continues to prohibit female members. Women can play golf there on a green fees basis, but have no say in how the club is run.
"It is ridiculous in this day and age that such a policy can exist, but this is a club, don't forget, who took their case to the Supreme Court in order to uphold their men-only membership rules."
Ireland's highest judicial authority ruled in their favour in 2009, and the club has stood fast to its gender-oriented policy since then, although it is highly unlikely that a blue riband event, such as the Government-sponsored Irish Open, will be held there while the status quo persists.
Brian Merriman of the Equality Authority of Ireland says a great deal has been done to tackle gender-based discrimination over the past 20 years. "In the early 1990s, 440 golf clubs in Ireland discriminated against women in one way or another," he says. "Maybe they weren't permitted full membership, or they had to make do with playing on Sundays only. Now, only one or two persevere with such policies. They can get away with it if they are not in receipt of state funding and if they are on privately owned ground."
The infamous sign in Sandycove.
Merriman cites the Equal Status Act of 2000 as the piece of legislation that ensured that clubs and amenities of all hues were forced to end sexist rules or behaviour.
"Pubs could no longer have a policy of women in the lounge, men in the bar," he says. "Gentlemen's clubs had to be open to women and even though they may not have been flooded with female members, it was important that they had the choice."
Even before such legislation came into being, old bastions of male-dominated Ireland were being dismantled. The exclusive Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis club in Ranelagh, Dublin, finally agreed to allow women to become members in 1996 after years of failed attempts from equality organisations.
A sense of the kind of entrenched opinion such groups were up against could be gleaned in The Irish Times letters page in 1993. "I am writing to express my commendation and full support of the decision of the members of the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club to maintain its status as an all-male association," wrote W.G. Tomblin from Glenageary, Co Dublin. "It is encouraging to see in this day and age that there is still a place for the more traditional values in our society ... there is a strong argument for keeping our more honourable, long-established institutions as they were at their birth, thus upholding their original aims and virtues."
Such virtues amount to little more than "Neanderthal thinking", according to Pat O'Connor, professor of sociology at the University of Limerick: "It underlines the fact that when it comes to business, politics and religion, positions of power are occupied overwhelmingly by men.
"I'm less concerned about the situation at the Forty Foot as I am with the fact that there are so few women in the Dáil – or in company boardrooms."
Her views were thrown into sharp relief this week when Fianna Fáil announced that it struggled to find sufficient numbers of women willing to contest the local elections. Prof O'Connor rubbishes such claims. "The big political parties, especially Fianna Fáil, have been extremely poor at finding female candidates," she says. "They don't cast their net wide enough and, instead, keep looking in the same narrow channels. It's a depressingly similar attitude in big business too."
A report from the National Women's Council earlier this month highlighted the fact that one-quarter of Irish women have been the victims of violence but, says Prof O'Connor, what wasn't nearly as well publicised was "the alarmingly high figure of 65pc of university graduates suffering harassment based on gender. We still have a long way to go".
Ivana Bacik believes insidious sexism can be found all too easily in Irish society. "Often, it's dressed up as banter or tomfoolery," she says, citing the example of the "lapgate" incident in the Dáil last year when Fine Gael TD Tom Barry pulled party college Aine Collins on to his lap during a boozy, late-night debate on abortion. "I'm glad to say that that incident wasn't swept under the carpet – it was much publicised and highlighted the sort of behaviour that women have had to put up with for a long time. It is utterly unacceptable."
Meanwhile, Jane Dillon Byrne will be keeping a close eye on the Forty Foot in the hope that there will be a truly egalitarian use of the celebrated amenity from now on. She's not taking anything for granted just yet. "Some habits die hard," she says.
Dillon Byrne and others will be hoping that a misogynistic opinion expressed by a member of the Sandycove Bathers' Association in 1974 is merely a relic of a different age. According to a member of Women's Lib, who was quoted by the Irish Independent, the man said he had no problem with "young, beautiful women" – he just didn't want "old women and kids" to ruin his enjoyment.