[A version of this article appeared in the April 2002 edition of The Dedans, the newsletter of the United States Court Tennis Association. It is reproduced here with permission.]
For the greater part of the twentieth century, Tennis has been a game practised in just four countries; two in the "old world" whence it sprang, and two in the new. When Ireland’s last playable court, built by the Guinness family in Dublin, was closed in 1940, it can hardly have created more than a ripple of sad resignation at a time when the game in general was at a low ebb, and the world in general focussed on more pressing events. In more caring patronage the court itself might have survived intact, poised to avail of the revival in fortunes of the most ancient and enduring of games that has taken place in the last two decades. Now as Ireland, enjoying better economic circumstances, is looking to expand its sporting facilities across a broad spectrum, the once-famous black-marble court has re-entered the public consciousness in rather unexpected circumstances.
Those who have followed the story by reading the Status Reports will be familiar with the turn of events but perhaps a little history and summary is called for.
There have been courts for Real Tennis in Ireland since at least 1610, but the one built by Sir Edward Guinness in 1885 was the first roofed venue, and it was also constructed of the most exotic materials. Appropriately for a family whose fortune was generated through its eponymous black beer, the floor and walls were laid in very large slabs of deep black limestone from County Galway, the walls being given a high-polish "marble" finish which was undoubtedly striking, but sadly deficient as a playing surface — and so, many hands were put to work to re-sand the surfaces to their natural matt state, which produced more predictable ball behaviour.
Sir Edward, later to be elevated as the 1st Baron Iveagh (pron. eye-vah) built the court at his city-centre residence which faced St. Stephen’s Green, the main Georgian square in Dublin. A Princes, London trained professional, Frank Jewell, was employed and within five years the court was singularly honoured as the venue for the 1890 World Championship match between Tom Pettitt (Boston) and Charles Saunders (Princes, London), an encounter which pitted 2 exponents in their prime, and which is still regarded as one of the epic battles. Pettitt retained his crown 7-5, in a match which is well documented, but for which no photographic record of any kind has been unearthed.
Interestingly, the same year began an unrepeated sequence of wins by Irish-born players in the Wimbledon men’s singles, which ended in 1896 with Harold Mahony. There does not seem to have been a similar impetus to the "Real" game generated by the 1890 championships.
Nonetheless in 1922 another private court was built in Dublin, or rather in Dublin Bay, when Cecil Baring, 3rd Baron Revelstoke constructed an open-roofed structure on the cliff-side at Lambay Island where a number of leading professionals came to play, most notably Henry Johns who coached the young 4th Earl. Both master and pupil were to live into ripe old age; Baring lived the last 50 years of his life on his island retreat, and died in 1994, Johns died in 1995.
Meanwhile play continued at the Iveagh court until 1939, when, after earlier approaches by the Irish Government to buy the property, Rupert Guinness the now 2nd Earl of Iveagh generously gave by bequest to the State his entire holding consisting of Iveagh House, quickly earmarked and occupied to this day by the Irish Government Dept. of Foreign Affairs; the gardens of several acres adorned with fountains and statuary and now open as a public park, and the Real Tennis court.
Knowing that the Irish Government had wished to develop the site for other purposes, he cautioned in his letter of offer to the Irish Prime Minister ("Taoiseach") Mr Eamon de Valera, "I am of course loath to think of the Tennis court being destroyed, as it is unique in its way, and might be appreciated by players in Dublin". Those few who had access to the court as Lord Iveagh’s guests were also keen that the facilities be available to a wider player-base, and immediately wrote to Mr de Valera offering to organise an "Irish Tennis Club" to run the court without burden to the State. Sadly they were rebuffed, the court was closed, the galleries dismantled and the building was given to the nearby University College of Dublin who used to as a multi-purpose gymnasium until the 1970’s, at which time more serious interventions were made involving the creation of a laboratory and offices on two levels. This remains the use of the court to this day.
Mike Bolton, a prominent player of Tennis and Rackets, and Ted Neville, a player of neither but of eclectic sporting interests, had been making little headway in seeking to interest the State in the fate of the court until a plan was announced in March 1998 to convert it to a music recital hall aided by European cultural funds. But soon they would have to be heard.
A planning objection was lodged with Dublin Corporation and support solicited from Tennis Governing Bodies worldwide. Eloquent pleas arrived (one splendidly "en Francais") and it was not long before this curious story was picked up by the press. They sensed this was not going to be any ordinary struggle where some well-intentioned but strategically inept enthusiasts would evaporate at the first show of the Government’s might.
But it was an unequal battle: the developer, the OPW, able to exercise unique leverage, won its case at Dublin Corporation and then on our appeal to the National Planning Appeals Board (though we were granted a public oral hearing in the latter — something reserved only for cases considered of particular significance).
All the while support was being gathered, we spoke at the Government’s House Committee on sport, appeared on T.V. (Neville cutting balls off the Tambour at Iveagh’s court for the first time in 60 years) and the matter was debated in the Irish House of Parliament (the Dáil) - when last on Capitol Hill?
The Tennis court building was also included for the first time in "List 2" of Dublin Heritage sites, though regretfully pressure from the developers prevented it being given a more substantive "List 1" rating. That remains our objective next time around.
Despite the fact that there is actually a Minister for Sport and a statutory Sports Council in Ireland they showed a rather dead hand throughout our appeals — something which led us to rely on our own resources and the very good help of the independent Dublin Sports Council.
We were sunk however — Minister Síle (Sheila) de Valera (a granddaughter of the Taoiseach of 1939 and sponsor of the project) acclaimed the imminent launch of the recital hall. We invested our last Irish Punts and hugely welcome donations of US dollars in a technical challenge to the planning permission at the Irish High Court, knowing it to be a difficult challenge. More importantly however, the State Commission for Bequests voiced its concern to the Attorney General, having had expert legal opinion on the actual title deed of 1939, which resulted in a commitment from the OPW not to proceed with work. We did, it seemed, have some weighty support in the State’s machinery.
And indeed no work has taken place there at the end of 2001 - the genial Paddy Donovan who will greet discrete Tennis visitors warmly, still runs his laboratory under the huge glazed roof that lit Pettitt’s winning strokes 110 years before. Moreover, a grandiose plan to relocate the National Concert Hall to new facilities, including its recital hall, was unveiled in the summer of 2001.
This would both get the original threat to the court off the agenda and better satisfy the music community which had grown weary of our obstinate defence. However at the time of writing there has been no further confirmation of the project.
In November 2001 our lengthy legal challenge (which had encouraged much of the alternative planning above) finally failed, exposing us to a potential bill for costs. However, we are hopeful that this will not be pressed as some sort of magnanimous gesture by the State to those who have in essence saved one of its own assets to live another day.
To close a chapter that has seemed to linger forever in the law courts rather than the ball courts, there is still a major legal impediment for the State should it ever try to resurrect its plan for a music hall — provisions of the 1939 deed would appear to preclude it. So all is in a state of flux really, the ball is in the air or at least "up on the roof" - "where will it land?" is the question.
The Irish Real Tennis Association was formally put in place in October 1998 and is soon to seek formal state recognition as a national sporting governing body.
The title is rendered in Gaelic in our logo — Cumann Leadóige (Tennis ) na hÉireann (of Ireland). It is notable that the game has a distinctive name in the old native language, testament to its antiquity on the island. The racquet in the logo carries a representation of the Guinness trademark harp.
We plan to renew our political lobbying in 2002 — an election year, and hopefully produce a short video presentation for the conversion of the uninitiated.
University College Dublin which operates the laboratory in the Tennis court out of space necessity, has been offered a significant grant to move its Dublin city-centre facilities to its main suburban campus. Our aim is to be ready when it vacates so that we can stake the logical claim of Tennis to its spiritual home. The city-centre location of the court is a considerable asset — a venue in the heart of a thriving metropolis.
Those who planned the Irish Tennis Club of 1940 never fulfilled their dream for the game in their native home. We however plan to take one small step in 2002 — the first Irish Real Tennis Championships to be held most probably at an accessible English venue. Irish ancestry is the only entry criterion, so watch this space.
Throughout our efforts we have been encouraged by people, many of whom we have never met and yet who are our closest allies at every turn. Prime among these must be Síle Reilly (she has adopted the Gaelic version of her name for Irish business!) who has harnessed the goodwill of so many to our aid.
We are determined to return the confidence so that Ireland can regain its lost place as the fifth playing nation and invite you all to Dublin to the marble court.
Ted Neville is a technical employee in the pharmaceutical industry and is Secretary of the Irish Real Tennis Association