Genealogical footprints of professional golf in Ireland

The release of the 1901 and the earlier release of 1911 census figures for Ireland provide an interesting snapshot of golf as a profession at the turn of the twentieth century. Why would you want to be a professional golfer? Perhaps a quote from Andra Kirkaldy, the St. Andrew’s professional, in his Scottish brogue when proffering advise to Abe Mitchell on the very subject might provide an explanation –

” come ower among the boys this verra day. What’s the good o’ a workin’ man like you gan aboot frae place to place spendin’ yer money to win bits o’ tin in the shape o’ medals and cups ? Tak’ yer courage in baith hands, Abe, and follow the siller* like every wise man.”

* money

Whatever the reason for choosing professional golf as your livelihood most practitioners would agree that it is better than ‘office work’ which, to paraphrase one professional, is more than just two words it’s a sentence.

The chart below sourced from 1901 and 1911 censuses suggests more prestige was afforded a clubmaker than a professional but with the advent of mass produced golf clubs the title of professional moved to the fore by 1911.

In 1901 thirty-six individuals list golf professional or clubmaker as their primary source of income, although perhaps not many could be considered accomplished golfers. The profession was split almost fifty: fifty between Irish and non-Irish with Scotland being the principal birthplace of most non-Irish professionals and by 1911 the split was seventy:thirty. Its little wonder that Scotland played such a key role in the profession not least it being the home of golf but also many of the early pioneers (David Ritchie {Curragh}, George Baillie/Thomas Sinclair {Royal Belfast}, John Lumsden {Royal Dublin}, Thomas Gilroy {Royal Dublin, Baltray, Mornington} , George Ross/W.C. Pickman {Portmarnock}) were Scottish by birth.


In the same census fifteen individuals describe themselves as caddies but only five described themselves as greenkeepers suggesting many of the clubs at the time were sharing resources and relying on the professionals or voluntary work by members.

It was not the type of profession that would be lauded by a career guidance officer, the pay and working conditions were poor similar to that of a general labourer – a professional could earn between ten to twenty schillings a week from the club but expected to work ten hour days, six day weeks. However, depending on the arrangement with their club, the pro could make money from lessons, club repairs and club and ball sales etc – your final remuneration depended on your reputation. A professional, in many cases, was meant to be a jack-of-all-trades: greenkeeper, golfer, clubmaker, caddiemaster, caretaker, course designer and instructor. The average salary for a general labourer back in the years up to the 1913 lockout was between 4.5d to 6d per hour – which equated to 15/- to £1 (or 20/-) per 40hr week. Some professionals could only attend competitions with the aid of supplements from club members to cover their expenses. In fact many professionals could not freely enter the clubhouses for which they served until the thirties and forties.

Royal Belfast Golf Club represents the first officially organised golf club in Ireland when it was founded in 1881. The next ten years saw a further eighteen golf courses including: Royal Dublin (1885), Royal Portrush (1888) and Royal County Down (1889) and it was these golf clubs that thrived and saw the emergence of golf as a profession. The base for these professionals was where the game was most concentrated and this meant the counties of Antrim, Dublin and Down, the chart below shows the distribution of professionals in the main golfing counties in 1901. It was still in its infancy as a profession in Ireland and the skills needed of club and ball making together with the ability to play golf were not common and so newly formed golf clubs needed to search in Scotland where the game and profession had developed further. Collingwood, the secretary of the County GC, Portrush , in his article for the 1888/89 Golfing Annual noted the concentration of golf was consistent with the “plantations” of Scottish and English settlers and that the initial slow pace of assimilation probably related to the Irish psyche for fast, physical sporting outlets but he still expected it to flourish (“Floreat in Perpetuum”) as it was picking up a good head of steam.

Alexander Guthrie Day from Musselburgh is often considered the first professional golfer in Ireland when engaged by Royal Belfast GC in the mid-1880’s firstly as greenkeeper and then in February 1889 as their professional. While there is a record of Alex Day’s engagement another contender was Archie Simpson who, it’s suggested, was engaged by the Royal Dublin GC early in 1886 just after its foundation while based in the Phoenix Park. While Simpson did arrive in January 1886 his tenure was very short, if it was a professional engagement, perhaps on seeing the ‘primitive’ nature of the facilities he had second thoughts. An accomplished golfer he later became an acclaimed course designer. Archie was the youngest of the famous Elie golfing family and worked for his brother Robert at Carnoustie between ‘1884-1891’. While he never won the Open he was considered one of the great golfers of that time – such was his prowess he issued an all-comers bet of £100 a side. Nobody collected on this bet even Willie Park jnr. the reigning Open champion, who accepted the bet, lost by eleven holes.

Over the following ten years up to 1901 golf clubs began to spring up across the country with a further seventy courses appearing on the golfing landscape. Some of the great links courses appeared during this period with County Louth and Lahinch (1892), Ballybunion and Rosapenna (1893) followed by County Sligo and Portmarnock in 1894. Most of the courses continue to this day but a number fell by the wayside like Otway, Renvyle and Toomebridge as did the records surrounding their foundation and demise.

By 1901 the thirty-six professionals and apprentices, many of them Scottish by birth, were matched by just over ninety courses. The early Scottish professionals to cross the Irish Sea included Mungo Park, the Open Champion from Musselburgh, joined Foxrock GC but moved to Portmarnock GC soon afterwards but again his stay was short. Alexander ‘Sandy’ Herd, the 1902 Open champion, joined Royal Portrush as professional in 1890 but his stay was less than two years. Others who crossed the Irish Sea set up shop and developed lucrative businesses these included; Thomas Francis Hood, from a renowned Musselburgh club-making family, who was engaged by the Royal Dublin GC in 1899 but only left in 1914 when the course was taken over by the military. Thomas Hood’s brother Frank was engaged with Malahide GC but joined his brother in his club-making business not long afterwards but left before the 1901 census. John Aitken at Royal Portrush and Cuthbert Butchart (Royal Co. Down), both Scots, set up lucrative clubmaking operations and had a number of staff working for them.

Of the Irish-born professionals: the McKenna’s, James and John; the MacNamaras’, William and John and Fred Smyth were the most noteworthy of those listed in the 1901 census. Fred Smyth was to become a renowned golf clubmaker based at the Royal Dublin GC for more than twenty years after WWI. James McKenna was a mere teen (18/19) when he was engaged at Lahinch GC in 1893 a year before Old Tom Morris prepared a layout for the course, which no doubt James had to mold into the finished product. Willie MacNamara was trained at Westward Ho!, in Devon before returning to replace James McKenna at Lahinch GC and its as much gambling exploits in both golf and on the stock market as his ability as a golfer and club-maker of some note that make him the stuff of legend together with his eventual departure under questionable circumstances in 1927.

After 1901 golf was undergoing significant changes with the advent of the rubber-cored golf ball and the mass manufacture of golf clubs placing less reliance on the individual craftsmanship of the professional. Where once competitions for professionals were limited with the first taking place in Royal Portrush in 1895 or in conjunction with the Irish Amateur Championship there were now more exhibition matches, native professionals were now entering the Open Championship since the turn of the century and 1907 saw the inaugural Irish Professional Championship.

The creation of golf courses continued unabated as the Irish discovered an affinity for the Royal and Ancient game and by 1911, the timing of the second online census, a further 75 courses were littered across this small island. The notable additions during the period were Rosslare, the Grange, Dun Laoghaire, Douglas, Bangor and Laytown and Bettystown amongst others. By this time up to one hundred individuals had now listed their profession as golfers but there was a geographical shift towards native professionals. Greenkeepers numbered 25-30 while the number of caddies was now in the region of fifty.

The intervening years [1902-1910] had seen Michael Moran, James Edmundson, Hugh McNeill, Patrick Doyle and the O’Hare brothers from the Greenore GC join the professional ranks. While Moran was the most promising of these his life was cut short in WWI others made a name for themselves here or later, as part of the diaspora who made their way to Ellis Island, in the United States where there was a greater appreciation of their skills. Marmaduke Montgomery Devitt who listed his profession in 1901 to be that of a mechanic was now a golf clubmaker at Elvery’s – Marmaduke was one of the founding members of the St. Anne’s Golf Club on the North Bull Island.

In June 1911 golfers met at the Northern Counties hotel in Portrush and hatched the formation of the Irish Professional Golfers Association (IPGA) to look at its members interests with Thomas Hood, James McKenna, John Aitken and Alex Robertson included in the joint committee (amateur and professional) to draw up a constitutional framework and by 1914 it had 40 members albeit that not many were professionals from the North of Ireland.

Note: The above chart reflects all golf courses founded during these years some of which no longer exist.

The life of the professional golfer in Ireland was, through most of the twentieth-century, considered not a particularly lucrative existence with most still attached to clubs. The idea of a touring professional not didn’t really materialise until the European Tour had established itself in the 1970s. Despite this Irish professionals like Fred Daly, Harry Bradshaw and Christy O’Connor Snr. notched up some major achievements with the latter inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009.

The IPGA was dissolved in 1975, sixty-three years after its formation, after 30 out of the 140 IPGA professionals attended the meeting to vote on a merger with the Professional Golfers’ Association, moves to reform the association in 1982 were unsuccessful. There are currently over 400 PGA professionals (not including tour professionals) plying their trade in Ireland but not just attached to golf courses as they have branched out into golf academies, driving ranges, corporate entertainment, retailing and course design.

Seapoint Golf Club, the links course designed by Des Smyth and Declan Branigan, hosted the premier event on the Irish golfing calendar  or homegrown talent with the 100th PGA Irish Championship was played from 23-26 September 2010. The event has missed out on only four years (1915-1918) since it was first played for on 20-21 May 1907 at Royal Portrush Golf Club under the guidance of the Golfing Union of Ireland. David Mortimer, the 2006 champion, became the hundredth Irish professional golf champion with an eagle on the final hole to snatch victory from Damien McGrane by a single shot.

Note: While every effort is made to ensure dates, figures and information on
golf courses and census data are accurate using cross-referenced information
this article should be used as a guide only.