Turtle Bunbury

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Croquet - The Forgotten Irish Sport

This article was commissioned in August 2004 by the Carrickmines Croquet & Lawn Tennis Club.

Croquet. Overflowing jugs of frothy Pimms. Cucumber sandwiches sans crust. The gentle thump of mallet and ball. It is all so quintessentially English, isn't it? And then one delves into the history books and what is revealed? It is now an undisputed fact that croquet as we know it originated on the west coast of Ireland. But alas, while the thought of Croke Park becoming the national stadium for future croquet clashes is endearing, one would be hard pushed to say croquet was strictly an Irish game. It was more of a gentry thing. The Archbishop of Tuam hosted a few croquet tournaments back in the 1830s. By the outbreak of the Famine, it was being played nationwide. England didn't catch on until 1852 but when it did, croquet rapidly soared up alongside polo and tennis as the definitive sports of Britannia's colonial elite. In fact, Wimbledon was known as the All England Croquet Club before tennis came on its agenda. It was particularly popular with women, being the first outdoor sport which could be played by both sexes on an equal footing.

The Irish croquet team are presently ranked in the top four teams in the world. The majority of these young players hail from the Carrickmines Croquet & Lawn Tennis Club in South Dublin. As such, Fred Rogerson believes Carrickmines is the strongest croquet club in existence. Rogerson, a Construction Economist from Dublin, was one of the founding fathers of the World Croquet Federation in 1986. The WCF now oversees tournaments in 25 countries. Five more nations and croquet will merit inclusion as an Olympic sport. And that is good news for Ireland because the Irish team is as good as any of them.

This August, Carrickmines played host to the Irish Croquet Championships. Forty players from across the world competed in both a singles and doubles knock-out tournament. Among them was Robert Fulford, the Michael Schumaker of international croquet. Fulford, an Essex man, was first crowned world champion in 1990 when he was just twenty years old. The victor of four subsequent world titles he is universally regarded as the best in the world. Fulford has a degree in maths and works as an accountant. He also indulges in a bit of sports betting on the Internet. Croquet is an ideal game for gamblers, a constant swing of unpredictable breaks and astonishing blunders. Indeed it seems a silent book did the rounds of Carrickmines with Fulford in the role of keeper. He put himself down as 5-4 favourite to win the entire contest. He insisted he has never taken steroids, conceding that beta-blocker is useful for keeping blood pressure down during those high-tension make-or-break shots. Three days later, Fulford was beaten in the final by Carrickmines own Mark McInerney. Rogerson described the game as "a stunning display of accuracy and tenacity. If we were in the Olympics, Ireland would be going for Gold!"

Mark was one of three McInerney brothers who lined up to challenge Fulford. His brother Alan was Ireland's No. 1 in 2003 while elder brother Ronan has been Irish champion on three occasions. Other Irish players of note are Simon Williams (winner of the American Chatooga Cup, 1995) and Ed Cunningham (winner of the UK's President's Cup, 2000).

Croquet players are fiercely competitive and very strong-minded individuals. There certainly aren't many sports where people kick off with coffee and croissants at 8:30 am. They are disciplined enough - obsessed enough - to understand a staggering 58 pages of laws. And they are brilliant enough to be able to control their emotions under intense pressure in matches that can last up to four hours. It's a four-way deal involving strategy, tactics, psychology and, above all, emotion.

As Fred explains, "croquet is not a moving ball game like tennis where you only have a split-second to think where you're going to send the ball. It's a static game. And as your psyche wrestles with how best to deal with your next shot, your thoughts have all the time in the world to turn into doubts!" Joe Cunnigham, a champion in decades past, regards croquet as a combination of chess, snooker and war. Alan McInerney says the principal attraction for him is the randomness of his opponents. Croquet is not an elitist sport. He points at his rival competitors and names their professions. Farmer. Physicist. Bookmaker. Laundrette owner. Housewife. Musician. Jockey. These people, he says, have nothing in common save their mutual lust for conquest on the field. And perhaps an attitude of eccentric indifference to everything else.

While Alan fills me in on the intricacies of the sport, we keep a sharp eye on a nearby lawn where a very serious game is underway. A man in white stockings prepares himself for a vital hoop shot. If he misses, he's out of the contest. His cheeks are steaming but he takes his time, paces around hoop and ball, analysing landscape, scanning topography, wiping his hands. And then he takes a crack. Oooh, he's missed. A furious mallet leaps into the air, its owner trembling with rage and frustration. He holds the mallet high then lets it fall, his chin sinking into his chest. The spectators grimace in empathy. Alan swigs his Guinness and raises an eyebrow.

The croquet season runs from April to September but there's absolutely no reason why you can't practice in the dead of winter. And if you reckon you have the grit to challenge Ireland's foremost players, then call up a club near you and go whack a ball. Harpo Marx was utterly fixated with the game. So was the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland although, in fairness to her, Alice had to make do with flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls. But if you ever want to stun an Irishman in four to seven seconds, tell him that croquet is an Irish sport and there were once twenty-six croquet lawns in Maynooth.