Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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BADMINTON

Caps for Ireland: 58.

National Ladies Doubles Titles: 6.

National Mixed Doubles Titles: 2.

Irish Open Doubles Title: 1.

Member of winning Helvetia Cup Team.

CAMOGIE

All-Ireland Camogie Medal: 1.

Leinster Championship Medals: 4.

GOLF

Winner of Leinster Junior Cup.

AWARDS

Power’s Sportstar Awards 1965 (camogie)

Power’s Sportstar Awards 1967 (badminton)

Wexford Badminton Star (1965, 1988)

Wexford Player of the Year 1965.

Wexford Hall of Fame 1980.

GAA Camogie Team of the Century.

MARY SINNOTT-DINAN
CAMOGIE & BADMINTON

Local leadership is something that modern Ireland often lacks. In times past, every community had a leader. From chieftains and barons, it became priests and police. In each instance, some are good and others bad. One of the finest in Co. Wexford’s history was Garda Sergeant Sean O’Connell. In 1960, this native of Cork was transferred to the village of Taghmon which is pitched upon a ridge in the south-western hills of the county.

Sergeant O’Connell had formerly been involved with Rathnure St. Anne’s GAA during the glory days of the Rackards and the Quigley brothers. It occurred to him that when the young people of Taghmon were not at school or working on their family farms, they were inclined to thumb-twiddling. There wasn’t a lot to do in the area. The Sergeant consulted John Sinnott, a farmer from nearby Aughfad. The two men, and several others, joined forces to construct a new handball alley for the village. When not on the beat, the Sergeant was also a badminton enthusiast. And so he ensured that the court was marked out with the necessary lines for a badminton game.

‘It’s the fastest racket sport in the world’, says Mary Sinnott-Dinan authoritatively. For six years in a row, she was Ireland’s undisputed ladies doubles champion. Since 2002, she has also trained the Co. Wexford team to four All-Ireland victories.

Mary is the only daughter of the Sergeant’s friend, the late John Sinnott. Her family have been in Wexford for many long centuries. For the past 300 years, they have farmed at Aughfad and lived in an ancient schoolhouse, which was converted into a home in the early 18th century. Not all Sinnotts stayed in Aughfad. In 1851, for instance, two Sinnott brothers left for America. One became Colonel Nick Sinnott, an iconic hotel-owner in Oregon, whose son was elected Senator of that state.

Mary’s grandfather, Nicholas Sinnott, was born a decade after his namesake left for America. At that time, badminton had not yet been invented. However, in 1873, when Nicholas was 11-years-old, the Duke of Beaufort held a lawn party at his country pile, Badminton. Guests were invited to play a game imported from British India called Poona where players used a paddle, called a Battledore, to hit a Shuttlecock over a net. The guests adored this new pastime and christened it "the Badminton game".[i]

But badminton was not for Nicholas. He preferred Gaelic football. In 1886, he lined out for Taghmon against Kilmannon for an epic match in which, as one participant later recalled, Taghmon ‘beat themselves by tasting well but not wisely of the many good things that were loaded into the wagonettes and cars in the field’.[ii]

In 1940, Nicholas’s son John married Mai O'Connor, with whom he would later run the family farm, tending the dairy cows, harvesting the grain. Nicholas, Mary and Sean followed, with Mary being born in 1943.

Mary’s childhood was set against a golden age for the Wexford hurlers. Her uncle Mick O’Hanlon was corner-back on the team who won the All-Ireland in 1955 and 1956. Her neighbour Jim Morrissey was also on the team in '56 and it was he who whacked the sliothar up the field to Tom Ryan who shipped it over to Nicky Rackard who banged it into the Cork net and thereby won the day.

And thus sport became Mary’s childhood. ‘I used to be always out in the fields hurling with my two brothers’, she recalls. ‘We didn’t have television or computers so it was all outdoors. There was very little else to do, except play cards. We all played everything. I played camogie, tennis, hockey and badminton. We enjoyed it and we got great fun out of it’.

Mary was seventeen years old when Sergeant O’Connell began pacing around the kitchen at Aughfad, talking about handball courts and badminton. ‘He was an absolutely fantastic man. We owe him a lot for what he did for the village. He knew everything that was going on. He tried to get all the youngsters into sports. If one of them did something wrong, he’d bring them in and give them a tap on the ear. He didn’t charge them and that was the end of it. You’d never hear of any trouble.’

Educated at the Loreto Convent in Wexford, Mary continued to play badminton after she left, frequently practicing on the handball court in Taghmon. She quickly ascended the ladder and showed herself to be a player of considerable dynamism and style. On one particularly memorable occasion in 1967, she won Co. Wexford’s senior and junior singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles, all in the same evening. She went on to win the Munster senior singles and doubles titles and secured her place on the Munster provincial side. One fellow player by name of Gay Dinan was so impressed that he proposed to her. Mary and Gay had been seeing each other since 1962; they were wed in Taghmon in 1968.

However, badminton had to take something of a back-seat as Mary’s camogie career was simultaneously flourishing.[iii] She was regarded as one of Co. Wexford’s most consistent players and, for a long time, was hailed as the best full-back in Ireland. In 1968, she put in a particularly brilliant performance to help the Model County win its first All-Ireland (O Duffy Cup). She also played for Leinster for ten years, winning two Gael Linn medals in 1962 and 1965.

One ebullient match commentator for the Irish Independent enthused how Mary had stood ‘head and shoulders over every other player on the field … grabbing the ball out of the air, forcing her way past opponents to get seventy and eighty yard clearances … connecting with the most difficult ground and air shots to clear many dangerous situations and in a race for the sliotar leaving many opponents standing, she proved that the title of Ireland’s best camogie player is hers beyond doubt’.

In 1968, Mary and Gay moved to Dublin. Mary signed up with the Clan na Gael Fontenoys and continued to play camogie for her county but, following the birth of their daughter Elizabeth in 1969, she set the stick aside and began to concentrate solely on badminton.

She started at the Pembroke Club at a time when standards were high. ‘It was very hard to break into it’, she says. ‘But I persisted’. And gradually the young lady from Wexford worked her way up to secure a place on the Leinster team. She later moved to KADCA with whom she won the Irish Open and six national titles. She won her first international cap in 1975 against the Netherlands and went on to represent Ireland 59 times. In 1981, she was one of the seven players who made history in Norway when Ireland won the Helvetia Cup, which are effectively badminton’s European Championships.

In 1983, she announced her retirement, having rather epically just won both the Ladies Doubles (with Wendy Orr) and the Mixed (with John Scott) to seal Ireland’s first victory over England since 1903.

From 2002 to 2009, Mary was trainer of the Wexford badminton team. ‘I drove down from Dublin every Friday night from October until the All-Ireland was over in May’, she says. ‘But we did well. We won four All-Irelands and five Leinster titles.’ Amongst those she has also coached was Sonya McGinn who became Ireland’s first Olympian badminton player at the Sydney Games in 2000.[iv] She was also President of the Leinster branch of Badminton Ireland.

‘I like to win and I hate losing’, says Mary. ‘I’m competitive at everything I do and while I don’t show it, if I lose, I am seething inside. But aside from that, I love playing badminton. It’s good to get out in the evening and take your frustrations out on the shuttle! And it keeps you very fit. For ninety minutes, you’re constantly moving. The shuttle can’t bounce so you’ve got to get there first, and the shuttle can be going at speeds up to 120 miles an hour. If you’re not fit, you might as well stay at home.’

FOOTNOTES

[i] Poona was an oriental game, popular with officers in British India. In 1877, the Bath Badminton Club was formed and developed the first official set of rules. The International Badminton Federation was formed in 1934, with Ireland as one of its nine founding members.

[ii] Reviving and Fostering Gaelic Games - Part 11 (1886-1915), Paddy O'Reilly. (http://taghmon.com/vol2/4gaa/4gaa.htm;

[iii] She initially impressed as a camogie player with St Patrick’s Club in Taghmon, and later Oylegate-Glenbrien.

[iv] ‘I enjoyed that immensely. Sonya was an absolutely super character, super fit and really dedicated. Gave 110% every time.’ She met the No 5 seed and was brilliant. ‘To even qualify for the Olympics is just incredible’.

Badminton wasn’t Olympic when Mary played so the All-England was about the biggest there was – she and John Taylor reached the Quarter Finals in the Mixed Doubles. ‘You’re up against Malaysians and Chinese who dominate the Olympics. Denmark are also strong. For an international in Malaysia, they would get a crowd of 40,000 watching it inside’.

‘A lot of people have stopped exercising. I think its down to computers and games and driving everywhere.’

‘I think a lot of minority sports in Ireland don’t get the recognition they should get. GAA is Irish and brilliant and all the rest of it. They play one international against Australia. It’s a pity they haven’t developed it to play against more countries’.

‘We are such a small country. We have the population of Birmingham. To get the people we have in sport, no matter where they come from, who compete overseas, in all sports – and in music, writing, acting. For the number of people here, it is just incredible. And no matter what country you go to, you will always meet somebody from Ireland. They are all over the world.’

Mary helped to establish the Baldoyle Badminton Centre.

She has also made her mark on the golf course. In 1990, she won a stimulating 19th hole victory to scoop the Leinster Junior Championships.

With thanks to Tom Williams and Clare Maguire.


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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.