“Reciprocity”. Not a word that rolls off the tongue easily, but one that features on the list of benefits for Members of the Ulster Reform Club. And a benefit that, once tasted, leaves you wanting to experience more. Indeed, a bit like discovering a new and exciting wine.Our association with Clubs locally, nationally and internationally is fairly extensive. A glance at the list will show a vast range of countries that offer the opportunity to visit an establishment that, like our very own URC, will be steeped in history and, possibly, housed in a building that, architecturally, will take you back in time. What you will also experience is a very warm welcome: something that is always much-appreciated when visiting a new country or city. A recent return to Canada, where I had lived almost 50 years ago, presented the opportunity to visit three Clubs – two in Toronto and one in Ottawa.
In Toronto the Albany Club was visited for lunch. Established in 1882 as a club for the Tories, the Albany has been based at its current site since 1898. Right Honourable Members have included many Conservative Ministers of Canada and Conservative Premiers of Ontario. Indeed, it was founded by Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister.
But, by way of an interesting ‘diversion’, one extract from a book on the Club’s history would indicate that the great were not always good.
The rules of the Club provided that a complaint regarding the conduct of a Member would be made to the management or House Committee. One complaint, recorded in the archives of August 1900, reads:
McP…. did not send the apology he promised. He acted like a blackguard while he was drunk and like a cad since he sobered up. I shall now press the complaint as I think there is not room for the two of us in this Club. Yours truly,”
But back to the visit. As indicated earlier, stepping into the Club, which is sited in downtown Toronto, is like stepping back in time. The dining room, situated on the ground floor, has a church-like feel to it. Service, at lunch time, was very casual and friendly, with the food accompanied by ‘wine of the country’: Canada can do that.
Memory tells me the wine list was biased towards Italian wines: the simple explanation being that the dining room supervisor hailed from that country!
The Club also had its own label wines, with the Niagara Peninsula being the source. Who knows, maybe with global warming, sometime in the not-to-distant future, the Ulster Reform Club will be able to offer ‘wine of the country’. But, for now, there is always the option of Bushmills.
The second very enjoyable luncheon experience was in the Rideau Club, Ottawa. Situated in the National Capital, this Club offered a very different meal experience.
Firstly, the Club is located on the 15th Floor of a fairly modern tower block, with the bar, dining room and private rooms offering fantastic views of Parliament Hill, the surrounding city and the nearby hills. The interior surroundings are pretty stunning, also.
The Rideau Club was established in 1865 – predating Confederation and, only just, the establishment of Ottawa as the centre of Government. Sir John A Macdonald, mentioned earlier with a link to the Albany, was instrumental in its formation.
The current 15th Floor environment wasn’t always home to the Club. The first dedicated building was in 1875, with a new home established in 1911 to accommodate the growing membership. That building was destroyed by fire in 1979. (A story I was to hear fairly frequently during the trip, with many fine, historical buildings damaged: the consequence, I was told, of mainly wooden structures, heated by open fires during the very cold winters – and not the outcome of overactive arsonists.)
The Club has a history of hosting royalty and many distinguished personalities over its long lifespan but, regrettably, most of the original documents in the Club’s archives were lost in that 1979 fire.
When we exited the Club’s dedicated elevator to the 15th Floor, we were greeted by Maria – now in her 53rd year with the Club. Maria started life in the Club as a young waitress from Germany and was responsible for salvaging some of the Club’s silverware when she walked through the charred ruins in 1979.
Maria told the story of being invited to the stage earlier this year, during one of the Club’s 150 anniversary (sesquicentennial) celebrations: she was able to recall events during the centenary anniversary – and remind the ladies, now present, that back then she was one of only a few females allowed on the premises.
Another interesting conversation was with the Club’s sommelier – a new post created relatively recently. The lady had just come on duty for the day, having been out tasting – on the Club’s behalf - 40 wines at a tasting hosted by the Canadian Liquor Board. In Canada all liquor is ‘promoted’ (controlled?) through the Board.
The Club’s list was, as you would expect, both interesting and extensive. We picked a couple of indigenous wines from the aptly named “Derniere Chance / Last Chance” section. That would be “Bin Ends” when at home.
And soon we would be heading that way. But, those of you sharp enough to note that, earlier, I mentioned visiting three clubs: the above talks about visits to two, both of which feature on our ‘Reciprocal Clubs’ brochure. So, what about the third?
Well, that Club, based in Toronto and bearing the easily-remembered name of the Toronto Club, is not on our list. Indeed, they are not on anyone’s list: visitors are not allowed.
So, how did I gain entry? Why was I allowed to walk the various rooms, in a downtown club established in 1837? How did I get to admire and appreciate the art on display: art that would have put many a famous gallery to shame? And why, knowing there was an interest, did I get behind the locked doors of the wine cellar, to view the 15,000 bottles in stock – valued, at cost, well into seven figures?
Why? The answer is simple: almost 50 years ago I walked those rooms, wearing a suit of tails, identical to that worn by today’s staff. And being back, it felt as though it were only yesterday.
During the visit I was told, by the current Secretary-Manager, that the Secretary-Manager responsible for employing me, in the late ‘60s, still comes to the Club: he is 101.
That, fellow Members of the Ulster Reform Club, was living proof of how all of us can benefit from – and here I am going to quote from the Rideau Club’s brochure – “... a place where members can relax and enjoy good company, good talk, good food (and wine?) and fellowship in an elegant and a comfortable setting and congenial atmosphere.”
But, for all of that, we have no need to leave Belfast and the Ulster Reform Club.
Photo: Rideau Club Coat-of-Arms, with the motto “Savoir Faire – Savoir Vivre” , encouraging members to ‘act right and live right’ ..... fostering a sense of common fellowship and belonging.