The Celtic Club is Australia's oldest surviving Irish Club. It is non-political and secular, catering for those of Irish and Irish/Australian heritage and anyone else with an interest in Irish culture, the Irish contribution to Australia and the wider Celtic family. The Club is also aware of its Australian heritage and acknowledges that it stands on the traditional land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.
Founded on 26 September 1887, the Club was originally a semi-political association, supportive of Irish Home Rule amongst Melbourne's sizeable Irish population; and championing the rights of Irish Australians in an establishment otherwise dominated by the Anglo-Saxon, (largely Protestant) traditions of Great Britain and its colonies. Reflecting this political background, the original name of the club was the 'Celtic Home Rule Club'.
Though politicised, the club nevertheless sought to avoid domination by the clergy, both to avoid offending Protestant Irish members and to preserve the institution as a contributor to the secular life and culture of Melbourne.
The Club had its formal opening in 1888. Meetings of the Club were originally held at the Imperial Hotel, before the first club rooms were opened at 82 Collins Street. This makes the club the second-oldest Irish organisation in Australia, after the Sydney-based Hibernian Society (founded 1880); and the popularity of such an association is evident from the membership increasing from only 70 to 400 within its first year. The dominant figure of the club from its foundation to the early 20th century, was Morgan Jaguers, who also headed Melbourne's Irish Land League, Irish National League, United Irish League and Melbourne Irish Pipers' Club. A mason and enthusiast for Celtic art forms (then becoming popular in Ireland), Jaguers is also famous for the introduction of the traditional Celtic Cross to the Irish-Catholic areas of Melbourne's cemeteries: a monumental feature which largely dominated from the 1890s to the present day.
Disagreements within the club over political crises back in Ireland almost destroyed it as a viable entity. The Parnell divorce scandal (1890–1891) caused a split in the club between continued supporters of Parnell and his detractors. Such was the turmoil wrought by the Parnell case, the club was refounded at the corner of Collins Street and Swanston Street, in 1891.
Enduring such divisions (and threatened bankruptcy in 1900), the club remained the Australian centre for fundraising aimed at establishing a free Ireland, and a peak was reached in 1912 with the profitable departure dinner of Irish envoys W. A. Redmond and J. T. Donovan. The pair, feted by notaries from all over the country, left Australia after eighteen months with £30,000 to devote to the cause.
Despite being a focal point for often overt sectarianism, the "Triumphant Years" of the club (and its associated St. Patrick's Day events) were between 1908–1913, during which attendances at marches rose to 100,000, and successive Governors-General also put in appearances at the club and festivities, before the First World War brought renewed tensions.
With civil war threatening in Ireland in 1914, Club president Major T. M. McInerney took the remarkable step of cabling British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith with an offer of assistance from the club. The actual outbreak of war led to the club slowly losing touch with mainstream events, its chief members clinging to outmoded ideas about an autonomous Ireland within the United Kingdom, long after the rank and file had turned to republicanism. The Easter Rising (1916) and Anglo-Irish War (1919–1921) reignited the divide between British loyalism and Irish nationalist feeling in Melbourne, resulting in the increased politicisation of St. Patrick's Day marches and events with which the club was associated. Archbishop Daniel Mannix's championing of the 'No Conscription' case caused tension within the Celtic Club; but the Irish Civil War (1922-1923) was most divisive, as politicised Irish Melburninans were forced to choose between the government of the new Irish Free State and the Irish Republican Army (headed by Éamon de Valera). The club practically split again in 1920 as a result of this, as well as the city council's attempts to ban the St. Patrick's Day celebrations.
Irish politics quickly became less important, particularly as the effects of bitter division and infighting on Melbourne's Irish community became apparent. The Celtic Club was one of the few survivors from the plethora of Irish-Australian political and social organisations which existed before the turmoil of the First World War. As the 20th century progressed, the club began to assume its current form as a purely social gathering place for "respectable gentlemen". The Club is now open to all.
Since 21 December 1959, the Club's headquarters have been at 316–320 Queen Street, near the corner of Lonsdale Street in Melbourne's Central Business District. This purchase – of Monahan's New Union Club Hotel – provided the club for the first time with a stable headquarters. The Club is now open to both members and non-members for meals, drinks and other facilities.
On 21September 2016 members voted in favour of selling the Club's building to a developer for in excess of $25million. This will see the site redeveloped to include a modern 48 storey tower while maintaining the existing heritage facade. When completed the Celtic Club will occupy the first 3 or 4 floors. This brave move will help secure the Club's future ensuring financial stability and a home to meet modern demands. The Club has a permit to redevelop its current site.
Live sports events (including Gaelic football, Hurling, AFL, soccer and rugby) are broadcast in the bar area of the club, and live music is also performed, in keeping with the club's heritage as a champion of Irish/Australian culture.
Histories of the club include Hugh Buggy, The Celtic Club – A Brief History, 1947 and D. J. O'Hearn, Erin go bragh – advance Australia fair: a hundred years of growing, Melbourne: Celtic Club, 1990. Both record the key events in the club's history, and the role it played in helping Irish Melburnians to become accepted into mainstream Australian culture. Various histories of the Irish element in Victoria (and Australia more generally) make frequent reference to the importance of the club in maintaining a sense of 'Irishness' in Melbourne, as well as in helping to foster a new identity. The club was also included in Andrew Brown-May and Shurlee Swain's Encyclopedia of Melbourne in 2005.
The Club appreciates the role of the Irish language as an element of Irish-Australian culture. It has hosted a number of events relevant to the language and also provides accommodation for the Irish Language Association of Australia.
Famous members of the Celtic Club include Victorian Premier Charles Gavan Duffy; Labor leader Arthur Augustus Calwell; Justice Redmond Barry and former North Melbourne Football Club chairman and media personality Ron Casey.