GROUCHO Marx had it all wrong, you know. When he said he wouldn't want to be in any club that would have him as a member, he must have been referring to some stuffy uptown racquet club. Surely not even he could resist the lure, the charm and the magnetism of the members-only nightspot.
A decade ago, the great and the good of London's illuminati joined private members' clubs in the West End en masse; where you ended up depended largely on one's intellectual proclivities. While local arts clubs are very much part of London's high society, two clubs stand out in the capital's nocturnal folklore to this day.
The rogueish, excessive camp of bratty media players, as headed by Julie Burchill, Will Self et al, descended upon the Groucho Club, while the more sedate, understated (though no less elitist) faction headed to Soho House. Naturally, the celebrities followed in their droves, effectively turning the clubs' waiting lists into an interminable nightmare. Before long, it was about as easy to enter either club as it is to put mercury back in a thermometer. Proof of entry to either club was little short of a badge of honour, worn loudly and proudly by London's new 'mediaocracy'.
Just as London's oversaturated members' club system now readies itself for a backlash, Dublin's own cluster of exclusive nightspots are only just coming into their own. A growing number of venues now offer membership to regulars in a kind of 'speakeasy' manner . . . in fact, to join a club like The Odessa Club, Renards or The Arts Club, one must know an existing member and get inducted, oldboys style, into the network. While the crowds at Groucho Club and Soho House may seem debauched and contrived, Dublin's breed of members-only clubs are laid-back and decidedly demure by comparison. That is not to say, however, that life beyond Dublin's velvet rope is not without its dramas.
The likes of Renards and Lillie's Bordello are not exclusively members clubs per se (both boast non-members areas). Still, their reputations render them an attractive prospect to Ireland's burgeoning celebrity pack, as well as heavy hitters in business, the media and the arts. Renards in particular is largely characterised as the backdrop against which the follies, foibles and future fables of Irish celebrity are gloriously played out. From the well-documented incident involving Snoop Dogg to Colin Farrell's highoctane high jinks, Renards is all but a byword for glamour and drama.
"As much as people pretend they don't like rubbing shoulders with celebrities, they absolutely do, " contends proprietor Robbie Fox, himself a celebrity-by-proxy. "It's like, 'don't look at them, but make sure you're in the same room as them'. Somewhere down the line they'll be at a dinner party and they can mention the fact that they were in the same room as Bono."
Fox, for his part, balks at the mere mention of exclusivity. Though not based on the Groucho Club's template as such, private membership is a way of keeping things on an even keel, a way to keep 'good decent people' as regulars.
"Legally, Renards doesn't have to be a private club, that's a personal thing we've chosen, " he explains. "We make sure you control the environment whereby everyone knows everyone. It keeps the club at a particular level. It's its own security. A certain group of people or part of society knows they can get in, but others think of the myth of the celebrity, and think they can't get in."
Still, this notion of elitism (imagined or otherwise), has contributed to the sheer longevity of the club. "That's one of the things I'm proud of, " says Fox. "It's 10 years old and it's not going out of style. It's still very much at the top."
While Renards has been going strong for a decade, Fox contends that Dublin, more so than ever, needs a haunt whereby its glitterati, and anyone else willing to pay the 1,500 annual membership fee, can party uninterrupted.
"There has to be a place where they feel normal and feel they won't get hassled, " he states. "We have been lucky that this is now what the club is. The likes of Bono, The Corrs and Colin can be left alone and can feel comfortable."
Lillie's Bordello is beginning to subscribe to the more conventional members-club template. With Oliver Hughes now at the helm, the club is evolving, but with "a modern twist".
"We are now expanding membership to include different things, from wine clubs to tickets for events like the Monaco Grand Prix, " explains Hughes. "I've always liked the Groucho Club, and we're now aiming at the top end of the market and we've a lot to offer."
As the demure yin to Renards' or Lillie's rather theatrical yang, the Odessa Club on Dame Court feels a rather organic experience given its members-only policy. With its beguiling mix of old, classical fixtures and a modern, minimalist decor, the club certainly bears the hallmarks of a quality establishment. According to its co-founder, the vibe is, paradoxically, not so much elitist as it is welcoming.
"It came about organically, " says Peter O'Kennedy, co-owner of the club, which opened in October 2004. "We'd been muttering about how nice it would be to have a members club for ages, and we felt Dublin was ready for it and it would be fun to do.
We're trying to do a club that's as low on 'wankiness' as possible. It's an ethos that runs through all of the Sherland businesses (as owned by partners Jay Bourke and Eoin Foyle). Ri Ra, for example, has always been inclusive as opposed to exclusive. There's a degree of exclusivity but within those confines we want to offer an alternative to that sardines-in-a-bar feeling."
Initially O'Kennedy, along with partners Jay and Foyle, directed the club at "arts and media types".
"It's like throwing a party . . . you need a good mix of different people, " he says. "We just opened it to friends, and members joined really quickly. There's a real community sense to it, and there's also that networking element."
With a growing number of people willing to pay the 282 annual fee for membership, the club's waiting list is growing by the day.
"We deliberately kept the fee reasonable because we don't do any kind of corporate membership at all, " explains Mary Delaney, the club's manager. "We try to encourage members to become long-term clients. It's nice for members to have a place to come in and work, and it's an informal place for likeminded people to come together."
On the other hand, the O2 Club at the Point appears to be largely the preserve of corporate groups. Despite this, the fringe benefits of memberships are also appealing to what general manager Virginia Fortune calls 'Ireland's high society', in spite of (or perhaps due to) a substantial annual fee of 8,000.
"We open solely on the back of every concert or event, although it can be privately hired by members, " says Fortune of the club, which opened in September 2003 . . . the night the Rolling Stones played the venue.
"Within membership, clients have guaranteed access to priority seating."
Again, the O2 Club's waiting list is perilously long; in fact, a member needs to drop off the 100-strong core to allow for new members. While several banks and newspapers partake in the club's benefits, celebrities such as Amanda Brunker, Brian O'Driscoll and Glenda Gilson have also been spotted at the O2 Club's exclusive aftershows. Of course, incoming dignitaries are also afforded access to the club after a performance.
"This club is out on its own, partly because of its attachment to the rock scene, " asserts Fortune. "Some [acts] just leave and go back to the hotel, but they're coming up to the club more often."
If all of the above sound rather heady and wild, the United Arts Club, founded in 1907, is probably a safer option. Before the current ecosystem of members clubs was ever in place, Dublin's artistic elite favoured the United Arts Club, a venue in the tradition of London's cosy Chelsea Arts Club. In 1915, WB Yeats and Countess Markievicz were regulars; these days, you're more likely to bump into Ulick O'Connor or Tom Ryan. Essentially the club, held in an imposing building on Upper Fitzwilliam Street, provides a base for the intellectual elite to network and be seen. The club also holds a number of events, from exhibitions and talks to bridge clubs and watercolour classes.
Unlike the slightly forbidding gentleman's clubs around the corner (namely the Stephen's Green Club and the Kildare Street Club), the United Arts Club has a welcoming, down-at-heel vibe.
"Although you need to know a member, you need to have an interest of the arts. . .
that's the only eligibility, " says former chairman James Downey. "It was founded for people interested in arts and literature, to promote that, and to have a social club with food, drink and entertainment. Women were always accepted as equal members, there was never business about having to be brought in by a man; in fact, one of the founders was (journalist) Ellen Duncan."
While the club boasts a cross section of artisans and professionals, the United Arts Club's base of members tends to be slightly more mature.
"We all wish there was a younger guard in here, " laughs Downey. "It should be said, our members don't tend to be terribly young."
For young and old revelers alike, the members-only club phenomenon shows little sign of slowing down. Already, Hugh O'Regan has made known plans to open a similar enterprise on Stephen's Green.
The question is no longer whether you'd want to be part of a club that would have you as a member. You're either in or you're out, it would seem. Still, whether we will be speaking in the hushed, reverent tones of these places as we once did of London's great establishments, remains to be seen.