Given the popularity of the Wimbledon Grand Slam in Ireland every June, some might wonder at the complete and ongoing absence of Irish players from the famous London tennis courts. The Irish have been playing tennis since at least 1609, when a tennis court was recorded on Thomas St, Dublin.[i] Our last cause for celebration was when Matt Doyle reached the final 16 of the US Open in 1982.
But roll the clock back to the last decades of the 19th century and you will find that Irish men and women were dominating the world’s tennis elite.[ii] The first Wimbledon championship was held in 1877 with the first Men’s title falling to Spencer Gore, a grandson of the Earl of Arran and scion of the Gores of Mayo. The first Irish Championship was held a few weeks later at the Limerick Lawn Tennis Club. The world’s first Ladies Championship took place in Dublin in 1879 and attracted nearly as many spectators as Wimbledon. During the Golden Age of the 1890s and early 20th century, Ireland’s tennis legends racked up nine Wimbledon titles (4 x men’s, 1 x ladies, 2 x men’s doubles and 2 x mixed double’s) as well as two Olympic Golds, the Australian Open, the US Open and, effectively, the Davis Cup.
Here are some of the stars of that era.
VERE ST LEGER GOOLD (1853-1909)
Undoubtedly the oddest pairing in Wimbledon history were the men’s finalists of 1879. The Rev John Hartley won a straight sets victory and remains the only clergyman to have won a Grand Slam title. His opponent Vere St. Leger Goold is the only Wimbledon player to have been convicted of murder. Born in Waterford in 1853, Goold was a grandson of Sir George Goold of Old Court, Co Cork. Many of his forbears were Mayors of Cork. A dashing and quick-witted net player, he won the 1879 Irish championship before falling to Hartley at Wimbledon. He subsequently fell ill and lost twice to the brilliant Willie Renshaw before retiring from the sport in 1883. He moved to London, began to drink heavily and married an ambitious French dressmaker called Marie Giraudin.
In 1907, the Goolds went to the casinos of Monte Carlo to try and boost their ailing fortunes. They became acquainted with a wealthy Danish woman, Emma Liven, from whom they borrowed money. The Goolds were arrested in Marseilles when a hotel porter spotted blood leaking from a large trunk in their possession. Goold rather lamely claimed it was a dead chicken. The trunk was opened and Madame Levin’s dismembered body was found inside. The Goolds were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment on the penal colony of Devil’s Island in French Guiana (where ‘Papillon’ was set). Marie Goold died of typhoid fever within months of their arrival. Vere Goold had killed himself suicide within a year.
Look out for ‘Murder In Monte Carlo’, Michael Sheridan’s 2011 book on the murder story.
WILLOUGHBY JAMES HAMILTON (1864-1943)
1890 was the year Wimbledon fell to the Irish. Joshua Pim and Frank Stoker won the Doubles. Lena Rice scooped the Ladies’ Singles. And Willoby Hamilton from Monasterevin, Co Kildare, defeated Pim in the Men’s Singles final to become the first Irishman (and the first non-British player) to win the tournament. Popularly known as ‘The Ghost’ on his account of his delicate stroke and his ability to seemingly skate to all corners of the court at once, Hamilton was the arch-nemesis of seven-times Wimbledon champ Willie Renshaw. In 1889, the Irishman’s confidence went sky-high after he beat Renshaw in a 5-set victory to win the Irish Championships. Together with Lena Rice, Hamilton also won the 1889 Mixed Doubles title at Wimbledon. However, a severe illness terminated his tennis career at its very zenith. A contemporary described him as ‘the greatest and best exponent of the Irish drive that ever stepped into court’.[iii]
JOSHUA PIM (1869-1942)
Descended from a celebrated Quaker family, Dr Joshua Pim was born in Bray, Co Wicklow, in May 1869.[iv] His winning tactic was to consistently dupe his opponents into thinking he was a no-good slouch when really he was notching up victories with listless brilliance. This was the manner in which he scooped four Wimbledon titles – two Men’s Singles, two Men’s Doubles. As a young man, he was coached at the Lansdowne Club by the brilliant Thomas Burke.[v] His first Wimbledon triumph came in 1890 when he partnered Dubliner Frank Stoker to win the Men’s Doubles, an act they repeated in 1893.[vi] (Stoker also won five caps as a forward for Ireland’s rugby team and was a cousin of Dracula creator, Bram Stoker). Pim reached the finals of the Men’s Singles at Wimbledon in 1891 and 1892, despite suffering from a severe bout of typhoid during the latter match, but lost to Wilfred Baddeley both times. He got his revenge when he defeated Baddeley twice to score back-to-back victories in the Wimbledon Singles Champion in 1893 and 1894. (This made him the second Irishman after Willoby Hamilton to win the Wimbledon championships). He did not defend his title in 1895 and seems to have concentrated on his medical career, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1896. In 1902, the moustachioed Wicklow man was summoned from retirement to be the token Irishman on the British Davis Cup squad who took on the invincible Doherty brothers in America.[vii] Pim was roundly derided for having put on excessive amounts of weight, despite the fact he shed thirty pounds in six weeks. He was trounced in both his matches and laid down his racket thereafter. Nonetheless, even in 1903, experts ranked him as ‘the finest player the world has seen’. For the remainder of his life, he concentrated on his medical duties, serving as Medical Officer in Loughlinstown Hospital for forty two years.[viii] He was an enthusiastic swimmer and well-known member of the Killiney Golf Club. Dr Pim died at Secrora, his home in Killiney, on April 15 1942 aged 75. He was survived by his wife and three daughters.
[For more on Joshua Pim, see ‘A Fine Irish Player’ by Mark J Ryan. With thanks also to Sean Boyle who corrected my initial assertion that the Pim family were also responsible for Pimm’s No. 1 Cup; the drinks family is spelt “Pimm” and take their origin from a London oyster bar owner of the 1820-30s.]
HAROLD MAHONY (1867-1905)
Wimbledon champion Harold Segerson Mahony was raised in Gothic splendour at Dromore Castle outside Kenmare.[ix] An exceptionally popular player, Mahony played the role of court jester with aplomb and constantly delivered wise-cracks to his fans during matches. Having graduated from Trinity College Dublin, he made his Wimbledon debut in 1890 but crashed out in the opening round.[x] He reached the semis in 1891 and 1892, and the final in 1893, but in each instance, he was beaten by fellow Irishman, Joshua Pim. Victory finally came his way in 1896 when he upstaged Wilfred Baddeley to win at Wimbledon, his only Grand Slam title.[xi] He reached the final again in 1898 and made it to the semis in 1900, 1901 and 1902. At the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, the Kerryman won a silver medal in the men’s singles event and a bronze medal in the doubles tournament. He made his last Grand Slam appearance in June 1904 when knocked out in the third round.[xii] He retired to live full-time at Dromore Castle but, the following summer, the 38-years-old tennis star was found dead at the foot of a steep hill near Caragh Lake with his mangled bicycle wrapped around him. He was the last Irishman to win the Wimbledon championships. He was also the last male descendent of the Mahonys of Dromore Castle.
LENA RICE (1866-1907)
In 1890, Lena Rice from Co Tipperary became the only Irishwoman to win the Women’s Singles at Wimbledon. The sixth of seven children, Helena Bertha Grace Rice grew up in Marlhill, a Georgian mansion in the Golden Vale between New Inn and Cahir. Her father, Spring Rice, died when she was young and the family tumbled into near destitution.[xiii] However, the young Rice siblings played tennis at home and, in the 1880s, Lena became an active member at Caher Tennis Club. In May 1889, she caught the public’s imagination when narrowly beaten in the Irish Championships at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club by Blanche Bingley – five times Wimbledon Champion – in the semi-final. She took revenge in the Mixed Doubles when, partnered by Willoby Hamilton, she won the Mixed Doubles title, beating Bingley and Henry Stone in the final. Later that year, Lena travelled to Wimbledon where she reached the final to play Blanche Bingley. After almost two hours on Centre Court the Irishwoman had three match points to become the Wimbledon Champion of 1889. Her nerve failed and Bingley won the next three games and the match. Some might recall a similar encounter in the women’s final at Wimbledon in 2005 when Lindsay Davenport had a match point against Venus Williams but went on to lose. With her confidence in tatters, Lena returned to Ireland where she lost in the Irish championships. However, on 4th July 1890, she was back in Centre Court for another Women’s Final. She wore a full length dress with long sleeves, bustles, corsets and long petticoats, along with an ankle-length floral- skirt and a blouse tightly clinched to her waist. In the final game of the match, the 24-year-old Tipperary girl sent strawberries spilling across Wimbledon when she leaped into the air to smash the ball over the net. This jump not only introducing the forehand smash into tennis but also made Lena the first Irish woman to win Wimbledon. She retired from the sport soon after and became a recluse in Tipperary where she died in June 1907, aged 41, after a long and painful battle against tuberculosis. The Wimbledon champion is buried in New Inn.
MABEL ESMONDE CAHILL (1863-1905)
The only Irish person to make the prestigious International Tennis Hall of Fame is Mabel Esmonde Cahill, one of twelve children born to Kilkenny barrister Michael Netterville Cahill and his second wife, Eliza. They lived at Ballyconra House, Ballyraggett, Co. Kilkenny. Mabel was a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Roscrea when her father died in 1877. His will reveals that Mabel’s mother had ‘shamefully deserted’ him. By 1877, at least three of Mabel’s brothers were living in California which may have prompted her entry into the 1891 US Open. The sprightly right-hander from Ballyraggett defeated Franklin D Roosevelt’s cousin, Ellen Roosevelt, to win the tournament. In fact, she won the singles, doubles and mixed titles at the US Open in both 1891 and 1892, and was the first player ever to win three titles in a single year at any of the four ‘Grand Slam’ events. In 1891 the lawn tennis champion published a ‘dainty love tale’ called ‘Her Playthings, Men’. Little is known of her latter years but she succumbed to tuberculosis at a Lancashire workhouse aged 43 in 1905 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Clodagh Finn penned an account of her life in April 2021.
J. CECIL PARKE (1881-1946)
Australian Open winner J. Cecil Parke was born in Clones, Co Monaghan, in 1881. Contemporaries described him variously as ‘very sound and dour’, ‘brilliant but erratic’ and ‘the best player in the world’. He was one of Ireland’s greatest all-round sportsmen – a scratch golfer, a fine cricketer, a chess prodigy and probably the best tennis player we have ever fielded. He won his first rugby cap for Ireland while still a student at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1903.[xiv] Over the next six years, he played for Ireland twenty times, three times as captain. He won eight Irish singles championships, the Wimbledon mixed doubles in 1914 and an Olympic silver medal in 1908.[xv] His career peaked in 1912 when he won both his singles games in the Davis Cup Challenge round against Australia in Melbourne. He travelled to Hastings, New Zealand to play in the Australian Open. He made it through to the final where he faced Arthur Beamish (1879-1944), an illegitimate scion of the Irish brewing dynasty from Macroom, Co Cork. With the pace of a Clones puma, Parke won in five sets to take his first and only Grand Slam title. During the First World War Parke was wounded by an exploding shrapnel shell at Gallipoli and rose to the rank of Major with the Essex Regiment. In 1920, the 38-year-old Parke caused a huge upset by beating reigning U.S. champion Bill Johnston in the second round at Wimbledon. After retiring from tennis in the early 1920s, he settled in North Wales and indulged his passion for golf, which he played to a handicap of 4. He died in 1946 aged 64. A fuller account of his life appears in my book, ‘The Glorious Madness.’
JOHN PIUS BOLAND (1870-1958)
In 1994, the British Olympic Council unexpectedly received a 137-page handwritten journal about the 1896 Olympics. Its author was Olympic champion John Mary Pius Boland, winner of the first Men’s Single Olympic Gold Medal in 1896.[xvi] Jack Boland, of the Dublin baking dynasty, lost his father when he was 12 years old. The family were wealthy adn while his five sisters were despatched into the world with useful dowries, Jack and his brother went to the Catholic University School on Dublin’s Leeson St where three racket-wielding priests introduced them to tennis.[xvii] As head boy at The Oratory School in Birmingham, Jack was taught by Father Edward Pereira, one of the greatest tennis coaches of the Victorian Age.
By 1890, Boland was studying law at Oxford and playing tennis and cricket in his spare time. In 1895 he transferred to the University of Bonn in order to study German. He was a member of Bavaria Bonn, the student fraternity of the Cartellverband, and his classmates nicknamed him ‘Paddy’. In March 1896, he went to Athens for the Olympics with a bandaged eye from a football injury. Konstantinos Manaos, an old friend from Oxford, was now secretary of the Olympic Organizing Committee. Manaos was depressed by the lack of entries for the tennis. He suggested Boland step forward for Great Britain. His only preparation for the Olympics was three soccer matches against school teams back in Bonn and a golf party in Wiesbaden. He had played no lawn tennis as that was still strictly a summer game.
The following day, the tall, blue-eyed Irishman went shopping for a racket and flannels. He couldn’t find any shoes that fitted so ultimately played in his own leather shoes. He went on to defeat Dionysios Kasdaglis of Egypt in the final of the Men’s Singles in a specially-erected hall on the shores of the Illosus. He won a second Gold medal when, with the German 800metre athlete Fritz Traun, winning the Men’s Doubles ‘with considerable ease’.[xviii] In his book, “A Day In Parliament”, he modestly dismissed his double gold in one sentence, ‘I was lucky enough to win the singles and doubles tennis titles in Greece.’ Imagine such reserve from a modern tennis star!
Boland was called to the bar in 1897 and subsequently settled in London. From 1900 to 1918, he was MP for South Kerry for the Irish Parliamentary Party. A faithful supporter of John Redmond, he was the party’s Chief Whip at Westminster from 1906 to 1918, during which time he famously addressed the House of Commons in Irish. He co-founded the National University of Ireland and, as an ardent Irish revivalist, insisted that the Irish language should be compulsory for matriculation. He was General Secretary of the Catholic Truth Society for 21 years and proof-read their new edition of the Bible at the age of 85. He also negotiated the registration of the Irish trade mark which, greeted with hilarity at the time, was the origin of all subsequent national trade marks. He was one of the strongest campaigners for the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell which now stands in O’ Connell Street, Dublin..[xix] Friends included Tim Healy, Joe Devlin, Bonar Law, Winston Churchill, Keir Hardie, Joe Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin. He died on St Patrick’s Day 1958, leaving a son and five daughters, including Honor Crowley, TD for East Kerry from 1945-66, and the playwright, Bridget Boland, who wrote “The Prisoner” which was made into a film with Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins.
Surely it cannot be too much longer before Ireland yields another crop of tennis stars.
[i] Ireland cannot claim to have invented tennis. That achievement seems to belong to the French monks who used to bat a ball over a rope in the cloisters of Paris eight hundred years ago. By 1598, it is estimated that there were two tennis courts for every church in France. Indeed, the word ‘tennis’ derives from the French word ‘tenez’, meaning ‘take this!’, which is what players used to have to shout while serving.
The sport probably began making its first inroads into Ireland in the Middle Ages when tennis was outlawed by the monarchy as it distracted the common man from improving his archery skills. Henry VIII was a famous patron of the game in his youth, back when he might have looked like Jonathan Rhys Meyer. The first known tennis court was situated in Thomas St, Dublin, by 1609
[ii] In 1889, Irishman George Kerr (Fitzwilliam Club) beat the real tennis world champion American Tom Pettitt three times in four meetings. In June 1890, Kerr won all three matches against Pettitt in Dublin.
[iii] Educated at Haileybury and Oxford, Willoby Hamilton was also a runner and international cricketer. In 1894, he married Sophia Jane, 3rd dau of Charles Thompson, JP, of Herbert Hill, Dundrum. His father was the Rev Canon William Alfred Hamilton, Rector of Taney and Canon of Christ Church. One of his brothers ran Ashford Castle for the Guinness estate and later helped out at Luggala and Lough Dan. His nephew, Willoughby Hamilton, was one of Ireland’s foremost badminton champions in the 1930s and fathered Hugh Hamilton of Hamilton, Osborne & King. His sister Mavis McNaugton (nee Hamilton) was apparently the most capped badminton player ever.
[iv] His father may have been Jonathan Pim, sometime MP for Dublin, or Joshua Pim, Chairman of the Great Southern & Western Railway. Another Joshua Pim of Lisnagarvey died in 1878; his wife was a daughter of J.N. Richardson of Glanmore. And another Joshua Pim (presumably this man’s son) died in 1929. The latter was a linen merchant from St Valentine’s, Hollywood, Co Down, as well as director of Messrs Richardson, Son & Owden, and of the Belfast Steamship Co.
[v] Thomas Burke was reportedly as good a player as the leading amateurs, but he is totally forgotten today. He was tutor of the Tennis Club de Paris and taught Joshua Pim who won Wimbledon twice. His son Albert Burke was one of the most notable players of the 1920s.
[vi] He made his debut at entered Wimbledon in 1890 and made it to the semis, where he lost to Hamilton.
[vii] Between 1897 and 1906, the Dohertys won the Wimbledon singles title nine times between them, and the doubles title together eight times. They were also unbeaten in the Davis Cup.
[viii] In May 1906, he was the Workhouse Medical Officer at Rathdown Hosiptal in Dublin attended to a Miss Dowling, District Nurse, Castleknock, who fractured her leg following a bicycle collision in Cabinteely. He was later the resident surgeon in Jervis Street Hospital and went on to become Medical Officer at St Columcille’s Hospital in Loughlinstown.
[ix] He was born on 13 February 1867, perhaps in Edinburgh. He was a grandson of the Rev. Denis Mahony of Dromore Castle, Templenoe, Co Kerry, by his first marriage (1827) to Lucinda Catherine, only child of John Segerson of West Cove, Co Kerry. When he died on 27 June 1905, Dromore Castle passed to his sister Nora Eveleen Mahony, wife of Lt Col Edward Hood. It subsequently passed to their cousin, Mr Hughe Bolton Waller.
[x] He went out in the opening round to D.Miller.
[xi] Baddeley led two sets to one but Mahony won a tight fourth set 8-6 and went on to take the fifth 6-3.
[xii] Defending his title in the Challenge Round in 1897, Mahony lost in straight sets to Reggie Doherty. Making his debut in the US championships later in the year, Mahony went out in the third round to Malcolm Whitman. At Wimbledon in 1898, Mahony lost in the All Comers final to Laurie Doherty. The following year he lost in the semis to Arthur Gore. In 1901 Mahony lost in the semis to C.P. Dixon and he made the semis again the following year, this time losing to Laurie Doherty. In the 1903 US Open Mahony lost in the fourth round to Laurie Doherty. He made his last Grand Slam appearance at Wimbledon the following year, when he lost in the third round to Frank Riseley.
[xiii] On Jan 31 1869, the Rev John Ryan, PP, told the people in his chapel at New Inn that Spring Rice had converted to Catholicism
[xiv] An 18-0 defeat by Wales was in keeping with the decade – arguably Wales’s greatest, while Ireland fell back from the Triple Crown triumphs of the 1890s.
[xv] At Wimbledon, Parke reached the semis in 1910, but was thrashed by Anthony Wilding and in 1913, when McLoughlin swept him aside.
[xvi] The manuscript has been described as ‘perhaps the most intriguing document in Olympic history’.
[xvii] His adopted parent may have been Nicholas Donnelly, parish priest of Rathgar from 1882-1894, and of Bray from 1894-1904, he was auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop of Dublin from 1883. See: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/magazine/2009/0321/1224242980430.html
[xviii] In his book ‘Tennis’, author Heiner Gillmeister disposes of the ancient myth that Traun and Boland met while purchasing a racket in a sports shop. Traun shot himself for no known reason in 1908.
[xix] Many leading Catholics, including the Bishops, opposed making Irish compulsory for matriculation at the new NUI, fearing as it might push middle class Catholics to Trinity. The Gaelic League saw it as a chance to spread Irish in schools in Boland was among the greatest supporters.
With thanks to John and Caroline Hamilton, Denis Bergin, Desiree Shortt, Chris Pringle, Jessica Rathdonnell, Regina Lavelle, Mark Ryan and others.