The celebrated Celtic Club has found a new home, taking over AVC’s (former) Sarah Sands Hotel, in the craic of Brunswick.

Melbourne’s 600-strong Celtic Club was formed in 1887, and has outlasted sister initiatives in Sydney and Brisbane to become Australia’s oldest – and largest – ongoing Irish social and cultural club.

The Sarah Sands Hotel has stood on the corner of Sydney and Brunswick roads since 1846 and represents a significant chapter in Irish-Australian history, being the site where a handful of Irish immigrants met, in 1860, to establish what would become the first Catholic church in Brunswick, St Ambrose’s. 

In recent decades the pub has been known as Bridie O’Reilly’s, then closed four years until Australian Venue Co took the keys, reviving the interior and reopening as the Sarah Sands in 2021.

It has now been sympathetically renamed again, as The Wild Geese, stocking Australia’s largest selection of Irish whiskies, counting 72, as well as a range of Irish gins, and draught pourings of Guinness, Kilkenny and O’Hara’s Pale Ale.

Beyond the drinks menu will be modern Irish cuisine, seeing a signature dish of venison with beetroot and a white pudding rosti. A pared-back menu is served in the lower and upstairs bars. 

The décor is essentially Irish, lined with plush green carpet, between walls of photos, memorabilia and artwork and home-style Guinness posters, and no EGMs. The Club strategically avoided what it dubs the slightly offensive “Gaelic kitsch”.

Immigrants from Ireland were one of the largest and most distinctive groups in Brunswick in the 19th century, prompting plenty of streets and buildings to receive Irish names.

For more than 50 years, from 1959 to 2016, the Celtic Club occupied a building on Melbourne’s Queen Street. The property was sold for a reported $25.6 million, which proved highly profitable but costly in terms of the Club’s identity.

Proceeds enabled it to purchase the Limerick Arms Hotel in South Melbourne, which it continues to own as an investment, but the building was not large enough for the club’s requirements, prompting a long period of factional infighting.

Harmony was restored with establishment of a new committee, led by renowned psychiatrist and former Australian of the Year, the Dublin-born Patrick McGorry, whose family came to Australia in the 1960s.

Takeover of the lease ends a five-year search for new premises. The Wild Geese will serve as a new home for the Club, providing a private members’ lounge, library and function rooms.

But the majority of the large venue will remain open to all comers.

The disputes brought into clarity that in order to be sustainable and be relevant to younger potential members, of all genders and going forward, the club needed reimagining and reinvention, or “it would just simply wither and die”, suggests McGorry.

A formal opening by Stephen Donnelly, the visiting Health Minister of the Republic of Ireland, took place on the second Monday in March, just in time for St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Addressing the guests, McGorry offered that the new digs represented a “turning of the page” in the Club’s history. 

L-R: Ireland’s Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, Victorian Deputy Premier Ben Carroll, and Celtic Club president Patrick McGorry

Ending a fairly brief tenure for the dynamic AVC, which recently added its first freeholds to its portfolio of more than 200 operations, the group suggests the pub is better suited to the Celtics.

“On occasion we will strategically exit a site if we find that it doesn’t suit our beverage-led model,” explains AVC CEO Paul Waterson. “[It’s] a fantastic venue and in great hands.”

It will now provide foundation for the Celtic Club to build on its base, hoping to appeal to the ‘wave’ of Irish immigrants who have made their way to Australia over the past decade.

Wild Geese is a reference to Irish soldiers who fought for Catholic armies in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s, but also to the phenomena of the far-flung Irish people, who have had a profound influence on the world and given Ireland “such a huge global footprint, respect and affection” champions McGorry.

Accordingly, music and literature will be common occurrences at The Wild Geese, including regular traditional Irish folk music and dancing, and a monthly meeting of the pub choir, harping Irish staples.

Chief executive Robert Clifford welcomes anyone to ‘join the club’. 

“We know there’s only two types of people in the world – the Irish and those who want to be Irish.”

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