The following observation was submitted by the IRTA to Dublin City Council with regard to this planning application. Formatting adjusted slightly for web presentation.
Re. Planning Application Reference Number 4951 / 22
Location: The National Concert Hall, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin 2.
Applicant: The Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland.
Dear Sir or Madam,
The Irish Real Tennis Association (‘IRTA’) exists to promote, encourage, facilitate, and provide for the playing of the game of Real Tennis in Ireland and by Irish people.
The IRTA makes the following observations regarding the above Planning Application Reference Number 4951 / 22.
1. The IRTA
The Irish Real Tennis Association was set up in 1998 and has since 2003 (bar a Covid-related interruption) organised annual Irish Real Tennis Championship tournaments, held abroad as there is no playable court in Ireland. As well as the annual tournaments, the IRTA arranges occasional matches, and introductory weekends, to permit Irish players the opportunity of time on court. The IRTA desires the restoration of the Earlsfort Terrace Real Tennis Court to play.
2. The game of real tennis
Real tennis is the original racket sport from which lawn tennis, squash, badminton and other games developed. It emerged in continental Europe in medieval times, and has enjoyed fluctuating popularity over the centuries – in places it was so popular that it was outlawed, as it was considered too great a distraction from productive work. It had a resurgence in the later 19th century, when the Earlsfort Terrace court was built, and recent decades have also seen growth: there are currently some 45 courts in active use around the world, in Australia, France, the UK, and the US. Several of the courts now in use were built or refurbished over the last 25 years or so; further courts are planned or under construction.
While real tennis, like lawn tennis, involves hitting a ball across a net, it is played on an asymmetrical court with walls (off which the ball may be played), sloping roofs (known as ‘penthouses’) around 3 sides, a number of openings (including the ‘dedans’, which would be at the west end of the Earlsfort Terrace court) into which the ball may be struck, and other distinctive features including the ‘tambour’, a vertical buttress off which the ball may be deflected across the court and which is clearly discernible on inspection of the court and in the plans accompanying the application. It is a game which favours strategy and accuracy at least as much as power and speed; players of all ages can thus compete effectively – a feature which is assisted by a worldwide handicapping system, administered online.
3. The Dublin court
Among the buildings the subject of the above planning application is the only surviving real tennis court on the island of Ireland (there is another on Lambay, a private island, though it is of atypical design, open to the sky, and in poor repair). The Earlsfort Terrace court was built in the 1880s by the Guinness family; it was the venue for the World Championship in 1890; and it was given to the people of Ireland in 1939. In a letter written in anticipation of the making of his gift, a copy of which he sent in May 1939 to the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, Lord Iveagh, the donor, observed that the real tennis court ‘is unique in its way and might be appreciated by players in Dublin.’
The Earlsfort Terrace court is distinctive among real tennis courts in that slabs of Galway limestone were used to line its walls and to pave its floor, and these thus form the playing surface of the court.
4. Real tennis in Ireland
Several real tennis courts were built around the UK, the US, and Australia in the closing decades of the 19th century; the construction of the Earlsfort Terrace court coincided with that growth period, but it by no means represented the arrival of the game on this island. The real tennis historian David Best has identified references to real tennis courts in various parts of Ireland, with the earliest mention relating to a court in Dublin castle in 1361. He reports on courts in Armagh, Cork, Dublin (at least 8, not including that on Earlsfort Terrace), Kilkenny, Laois, and Limerick, and on references to the playing of tennis in Ireland from the 14th century onwards. His February 2012 article is on the IRTA website www.irishrealtennis.ie.
Professor Paul Rouse, a historian at UCD whose main research interest is the history of sport, has written an account entitled ‘Real Tennis and Ireland’ which is appended to this letter at Appendix 1.
THE PROPOSED DEVELOPMENT
5. The application and the real tennis court
As stated in its observations and submissions made in the context of the 2016 application (2362 / 16), the IRTA does not object to the development of a National Children’s Science Centre; indeed, such an educational facility could make a positive contribution. The IRTA considers that the appropriate use of the real tennis court is the playing of real tennis, and in this context we welcome the proposal that ‘The Real Tennis Court building will be refurbished including the restoration of the tennis court (to a playable condition)’ (Planning Report, page 7) or, as Blackwood Associates put it in their Architectural Heritage Impact Assessment, at page 5, ‘the Real Tennis Building is to be conserved, and repaired and the Penthouses reinstated to make the court playable again.’
We maintain that the real tennis court deserves – architecturally but also in terms of its distinctive function – to be recognised and celebrated in its own right. It seems extraordinary that so valuable a protected structure as the real tennis court should be considered as an appropriate subsidiary venue, housing a ‘temporary interactive display space’ ancillary to the proposed science centre in the Butler building and new complex. An exhibition hall clearly does not require the features of a real tennis court. Smooth bare stone floors and walls, without electrical sockets or other fixtures or fittings, are surely not ideal for the mounting of interactive science exhibitions in the 21st century. Would it not be more appropriate – and indeed convenient – for temporary exhibitions to be held in another space / other spaces on the proposed development site, perhaps in the OPW Workshop building which is, pursuant to the proposal, set to be demolished, in the existing north wing of the Butler building, or in a purpose-built structure?
Certain of the problems inherent in the dual aspirations expressed in the application — to return the real tennis court to playable condition, while at the same time arranging it so as to accommodate temporary exhibitions as part of the science centre — emerge when one considers some of the interventions and alterations to the historic fabric of the protected structure which are apparently required for the building to function as a venue for temporary exhibitions.
The real tennis court is a protected structure, and it is the policy of DCC (CHC2, at page 186 of the Dublin City Development Plan 2016–2022), ‘To ensure that the special interest of protected structures is protected. Development will conserve and enhance Protected Structures... and will... protect or, where appropriate, restore form, features and fabric which contribute to the special interest.’
The real tennis court has been used, since its donation to the people of Ireland in 1939, as a gymnasium, as an engineering laboratory, as offices for a State-supported archaeological project, and then more recently, on foot of a temporary planning permission, as temporary accommodation for the Irish Museum of Modern Art. None of these uses contributed to the special, social, cultural or artistic interest of the tennis court — indeed all of them compromised the character of the building, and some involved the removal, alteration, damage, or destruction of essential elements. Real tennis is the purpose for which the building was designed and built, and the playing of real tennis is the use which should be promoted and protected by DCC.
In this context, we are concerned to draw attention to aspects of the proposal which give rise to concern from the perspective of real tennis. We have had regard to the drawings which describe and portray the proposed treatment of the court, but we would make the following commentary by reference to relevant parts of the text of the Heritage Impact Assessment by Blackwood Associates.
The walls of the court are lined with linestone slabs and these were covered in layers of paint that has recently been removed. Unfortunately the surface of this stone is now quite badly damanged and the original polished finish has now been completely lost. It is not clear if the clearning process was overly abrasive or the surface was like this prior to painting. The opes int he south wall of the court were quite crudely broken out and this included the limestone slabs. Pockets were opened up in the wall to support the structure for the UCD subdivision and this has caused a significant amount of damange to the slabs. The wall around the stell beams were infilled with concrete.
It is observed here that the ‘original polished finish’ of the surface of the stone on the walls of the court ‘has now been completely lost’, and it is implied here and in the drawings and other documents of the application, including at page 23 of the Planning Report (and indeed in a recently-performed trial on a section of the court itself) that a polished surface is the intended finish. However, we would suggest that the surface was indeed ‘like this prior to painting’, and that a polished finish would not be appropriate. We make this submission not only because it seems clear that a real tennis ball would skid along a polished stone surface, and that such a surface might well be dangerously slippery under foot, but also because an article on real tennis courts in The Field, volume 124, of 28th November 1914, recorded that the floor and walls of the court had been sanded by then as the polished finish was not satisfactory for play.
We welcome the intention to repair or replace the damaged or missing slabs on the floor and walls, and would emphasise the need for uniformity of surface on the walls, and uniformity of surface on the floor, if ‘playable condition’ is to be achieved. (The sloping penthouse roofs will be of a different material, but they will be mentioned later.)
It is planned to connect the Real Tennis Court Building with the Butler Building via an underground passageway. This will join at a low level in the outer foyer space with a lift and stairs to provide access to the main floor level. The court is to become a temporary interactive display space. There are significant alternations proposed in all spaces of the building that will have an impact on the historic integrity of the structure.
It is important to observe that many aspects of the historic integrity of the structure are essential to the objective that the court be returned to playable condition — the historic integrity of the real tennis court is inevitably bound up with its use for playing real tennis. If the court is to be returned to playable condition then any contemplated alterations will need to be considered in this context.
In order to make this space a viable location for interactive displays some alterations are required to the historic fabric. It is essential that a large opening is created on the north wall of the building to provide access for the temporary interactive displays. Two openings on the south wall of the court are also proposed to be widened as part of the works. These openings are a later insertion so no original reveals will be lost, but the limestone cladding on the court will be cut back further to create these opes. One of the widened opes is in the court playing area, but the other two are behind the Real Tennis Penthouses so will not interfere with the use of the space as a court. An existing modern opening will be blocked up on the south elevation with limestone cladding reinstated to match the surrounding wall.
Surely the ‘interactive displays’ contemplated, which apparently require a new entrance to be created in the fabric of this protected structure, could be dismantled and then reassembled? The creation of a new entrance in the north wall interferes with the fabric of the protected structure by breaking through the outer wall. It appears from a reference further on in the Heritage Assessment document that it is contemplated that there should be demountable penthouses in the area of this proposed new entrance, ‘to facilitate delivery and installation of temporary exhibits.’ This suggestion would need to be given careful consideration as part of the assessment of the necessity (and indeed viability) of this proposed new opening. The proposed new entrance would permit access to the space beneath the penthouse. Even if a section of the penthouse were to be demountable in some way (hinged?), the penthouses are themselves supported on battery walls. These battery walls are necessarily of solid construction, and would be faced in the same limestone slabs as are to be found on the floor and on the surviving walls. Access to the playing area of the court from the proposed new entrance through the north wall of the building would logically be at the net, and it might well be possible to install a demountable net post to permit use of the full width of the opening between the battery walls at this location.
We welcome the closure of the current set of doors in the south (main) wall (and the reinstatement of the limestone slab finish, which will presumably be supported appropriately with fabric similar to the rest of the wall), but are concerned at the indication that two openings in the said south wall are to be widened. One of these openings is in fact under the penthouse at the east end of the building, and it appears that it may in fact be intended that it should be heightened rather than widened (it involves the conversion of an existing window into a door). Provided this opening remains within the penthouse it ought not to interfere with the playing surfaces of the court, so should not be of concern as regards the playability of the court. The other proposed opening, however, is problematic.
It is remarkable that Messrs Blackwood feel it appropriate to observe that ‘These openings are a later insertion so no original reveals will be lost.’ This is a strange statement: no original reveals will be lost because originally there would have been no opening at all in the main (south) wall in the playing area of the court. The proposed enlargement (indeed the very presence) of an opening in the wall of the playing area of the court is of fundamental (and detrimental) significance for the playability of the court.
The limestone floor and wall cladding of the court require repair and conservation work. Considerable damage was done to the stone when the court was previously subdivided. The stone was broken away to allow steels to bear onto the walls and sections of the floor were removed to provide footings for the steel columns. These interventions were crudely carried out, leading to a lot of damage to the stone. There are also a number of stone slabs that have structural cracking and these will need careful repair as these slabs span between tassel walls. A combination of carefully chosen new stone slabs and stone indent repairs will be required to repair these surfaces.
We acknowledge the complexity and scale of the work involved in remedying the previous interventions, and damage, to the floor and walls.
The stonework will need to be sensitively cleaned, ensuring no damage is done to the original court marking. It is then proposed to apply a sealer finish to protect the stone. New Real Tennis Penthouses are proposed to allow the court to be brought back into use. These will be a modern interpretation of the original and will be demountable in areas, to provide a flexible exhibition space. The windows and louvres are to be repaired throughout with secondary glazing added to the louvres to improve the thermal performance of the space.
If the court is to be returned to playable condition, the court markings will be of fundamental importance. Obviously they should not be damaged, but they will need to be refreshed, and it should be recognised that the surviving floor (and wall) markings represent only a very small proportion of the markings required for the court to be playable. It is possible that the application / refreshment of court markings would best be done over the protective sealer finish that is proposed. However, the character of the sealer finish must be compatible with safe use of the court for real tennis.
It is noted that timber penthouses are to be reinstated, but it is not clear what specification is contemplated, and there is no reference to the battery walls upon which they would sit. While the penthouses are included in drawings, it is not clear, for example, what consideration has been given in determining their proposed height at the lower edge (and thus to the angle they would make with the walls of the court). It appears that the timber beam marking their junction with the wall of the court (and probably supporting their upper edge) survives intact, and the significance of this surviving element should be recognised not only as a clue to the original arrangement, but also as a relic of the original fabric which might well be reusable.
The battery walls would be faced in the same limestone as the other walls and indeed the floor. It is not at all clear how it is contemplated that demountable penthouses would work, nor what advantage they would bring to alternative uses of the tennis court. While Messrs Blackwood indicate that the penthouses are to be ‘demountable in areas, to provide a flexible exhibition space’, the particular ‘areas’ do not seem to be specified, and the system contemplated seems not to be elaborated, so assessment of the feasibility of this aspect from the point of view of the intended playability of the court is not currently possible. Of course the consistency of the surface of the penthouses is important, so joints / seams could well be problematic (quite apart from any consideration of the engineering involved in installing / demounting such substantial structures).
As for glazing and thermal performance, one would need to be wary of the potential that the court might ‘sweat’ in the context of weather and other conditions, and thus become unplayable (or indeed unpleasant for uses other than real tennis) due to condensation.
The modern glazed roof structure over the Real Tennis Court is not fully in keeping with the historic building and the presentation of the overall building would be greatly enhanced if it were replaced with a roof respecting the original design intent. Unfortunately this does not form part of the proposed scheme. The external brickwork will be cleaned and repaired as required throughout. There are small pockets where brick replacement is necessary and cleaning is proposed to remove atmospheric pollution and patches of graffiti.
It appears to us that the work carried out to the roof of the building by the OPW towards the end of the 20th century involved the retention of much (all?) of the timber and metal structure which supports the glazed section of the roof, and we welcome the repairs to the roof, intended to render it watertight, which are proposed as part of the application. We consider a glazed roof to have been part of the original design, and comparable roofs are to be found over some other 19th century real tennis courts, to provide natural light to permit play (e.g. Canford, as illustrated at page 27 of the Planning Report).
It seems almost certain that the court has never seen tennis played other than by natural light through its glazed roof, but any artificial illumination system contemplated for the court would need to be consistent with the playing of real tennis if the court is to be returned to playable condition. This needs to be borne in mind not only so as to provide an appropriate level of illumination for the playing of real tennis (whether in addition to the natural light provided through the glazed roof, or during the hours of darkness), but also because real tennis balls are hard, and often travel fast, and would easily damage inappropriate / inappropriately protected lights.
Overall the interventions proposed for the Real Tennis Court Building are positive despite the loss of some historic fabric and considerable opening up works. The reinstatement of Real Tennis Penthouses to allow the court to be used again is hugely significant and a very positive addition to the scope of this project. These penthouses are demountable in localised areas, to facilitate delivery and installation of temporary exhibits. The door ope in the playing area on the south elevation is problematic and a solution will need to be carefully designed to temporarily reinstate a stone finish to allow the court to be playable in the event of a tournament. It is unfortunate that a large door must be provided to the north elevation as the opening will have an adverse impact on this elevation and will be clearly seen from Earlsfort Terrace. It is however an essential intervention to make the court a usable space. It is essential that all interventions to the original structure are carried out as carefully as possible, ensuring the original brickwork is dismantled to create new openings and the original bricks salvaged for possible repairs elsewhere.
We agree that ‘The reinstatement of Real Tennis Penthouses to allow the court to be used again is hugely significant and a very positive addition to the scope of this project.’ As mentioned above, it is not clear to us how demountable penthouses might work in practice.
We welcome the intention to return the court to usable condition, but would observe that some of the proposed interventions are in conflict with this aspiration.
We would endorse the observation that ‘The door ope in the playing area on the south elevation is problematic’. It is not clear whether sufficient consideration has been given to access arrangements which would be consistent with the return of the court to playable condition.
We would agree that ‘It is unfortunate that a large door must be provided to the north elevation as the opening will have an adverse impact on this elevation and will be clearly seen from Earlsfort Terrace.’ We do not agree with the statement that follows, which is that this ‘is however an essential intervention to make the court a usable space.’ The court is a purpose-designed structure which could and should be used for its originally-intended purpose, without any such ‘unfortunate’ intervention. Furthermore, the court has been used since 1939 for a number of different purposes — including as an engineering laboratory, and indeed by IMMA as an exhibition space — without any need to create an additional opening in its northern wall.
If the promoters of the museum need a space for temporary exhibitions which is not only large in internal volume but also has large entrances, perhaps it would be more efficient to design and build such a structure from scratch, rather than trying to adapt an existing building which was not only designed for a specific purpose but which is also protected, and is unique in Ireland? This would be more consistent with good conservation practice, and with the aspiration to return the court to playable condition.
There is a considerable amount of fabric repair and conservation required to the original structure. It is essential that this is carried out in a sensitive manner ensuring the original fabric is protected. Extensive testing will be necessary to identify the preferred cleaning method for the stone and brickwork to ensure the process provides the results desired while ensuring the surface of the fabric is not damaged. Similarly, significant investigation and testing will be required to identify a repair technique, and treatment process, for the stone floor that will provide the surface required, while retaining as much of the original fabric as possible and protecting the remaining original stonework. Repairs to all historic fabric must be carried out to best conservation practice and agreed with the design team conservation architect prior to commencement.
We would agree with this statement, and we would reiterate our recognition that the proposal to return the court to playable condition pursuant to appropriate building conservation practice is not only complex but would also involve very considerable resources. In the context of such conscientious conservation work to return the court to playable condition, it seems paradoxical that significant compromises should be made concerning specific aspects of the protected structure. We would also submit that, given the intention that the court is to be returned to playable condition, when considering various aspects of the works to the building — such as, for example, the identification of ‘the surface required’ on the floor — there will need to be consultation with real tennis expertise.
Implementing these alterations will allow direct access to the Real Tennis Building from the Butler Building and aid in the provision of a viable new use to a building that would otherwise remain redundant. The continuing use of a historic building greatly aids to prolong the life of that structure.
In this section it appears that the inclusion of the real tennis court in the proposal as an ancillary exhibition space for the proposed science museum is being presented as providing ‘a viable new use to a building that would otherwise remain redundant.’ The Irish Real Tennis Association has been promoting the return of the real tennis court on Earlsfort Terrace to playable condition for use for its originally-intended purpose for more than 20 years. The IRTA agrees that the continuing use of an historic building greatly assists in prolonging the life of that structure, but would add that the proper and most appropriate approach to the use of an historic building is for it to be used for the purpose for which it was constructed. This position is illustrated by the history of the real tennis court, and indeed by certain of the measures proposed in this application. The integrity of the real tennis court has been compromised by its use as a gymnasium, as an engineering laboratory, and indeed as a store and offices for archaeological projects associated with UCD. One has only to look at the crude destruction of the limestone slabs on the walls and floor, whether occasioned by the breaking of entrances in the ‘main’ (or southern) wall, by the insertion of additional floor space in an upstairs section at the Earlsfort Terrace (or ‘hazard’) end of the court, by the installation of pipes, wires, and other services along the playing surfaces, or by the mounting of engineering equipment on the floor; at the removal of the battery walls and penthouses; and at the proposals now to break through the northern facade of the building, and to install yet another opening in the main (i.e. south) wall of the court. All of the historic interventions mentioned above have compromised the structure, and although those which are now proposed come in the context of an aspiration to return the court to playable condition, they will detract from its character as a real tennis court.
The proposed service routes in the Real Tennis court are to be surface mounted. This will minimise damage to the original surface finishes, particulary the stone finish on the walls and floor of the court.
If services are to be ‘surface mounted’ so as to ‘minimise damage to the original surface finishes, particularly the stone finish on the walls and floor of the court’, this appears to imply that services are to be attached in some way to those surfaces. This would clearly dramatically compromise the playability of the court.
In addition to the aspects mentioned above by reference to extracts from the Heritage Impact Assessment, we would also draw attention to the need for consideration of the following:
While there is reference in the application to the tennis court at Canford (which bears many similarities of design to that in Dublin) and to that at Falkland Palace (which is very different), and the application is clearly based on considerable investigation of the game (including use of an illustration of a court marking from the court at Hampton Court Palace), we would reiterate our observation that if there are to be works towards returning the tennis court to playable condition these should be carried out in ongoing consultation with persons experienced in real tennis court construction and or refurbishment.
6. The role of the IRTA
The Irish Real Tennis Association has developed links with organisations and individuals with expertise in connection with real tennis, and with real tennis courts, and is keen to assist with the return of the Earlsfort Terrace court to playable condition and with the creation of a vibrant real tennis club for the people of Ireland.
There are relatively few real tennis courts in the world, and the people of Ireland are fortunate to have been presented with one in 1939. If it were returned to use, the Earlsfort Terrace Court would not only provide a distinctive sports facility for Ireland, it would add another country to the select list of those with active real tennis courts, and it would also attract players from abroad to visit Dublin to use the court. We are attaching statements of support in this regard from a number of real tennis organisations around the world, as well as from the most prominent players (Appendix 2).
8. What could be done?
We welcome the proposal to return the real tennis court to playable condition. It is not clear from the application that the real tennis court is an essential part of the science centre development; it is at best a satellite, to be connected to the Butler building, somewhat surprisingly, by a tunnel. The inclusion of the tennis court in the science centre development would apparently necessitate the breaking of a new opening in its north wall, and the retention and enlargement of an incongruous and inappropriate opening in its south wall, as well as the special configuration or adaptation of certain other elements of the court. We submit that the court should not only be returned to its original configuration, and to playable condition, but also that it should be available for its original purpose, in accordance with good building conservation practice. As such, it would be restored to use as a sporting venue but would also re-emerge as a distinctive and attractive heritage building in its own right, unique in Ireland, and would be a particular magnet for enthusiasts for the game from around the world.
9. Enclosed with this letter of observations is the sum of €20.
Appendix 1: Report by Paul Rouse
Real Tennis and Ireland
History has shaped modern Irish sport in ways that are many and complex. There are aspects of Ireland’s sporting history that are uniquely Irish. However, the Irish sporting world is unique only in parts; there is much of the history of Irish sport that is a shared history with that of other societies. This is partly a reflection of the universal instincts that draw humans to the idea of play, partly a reflection of the history of Ireland within what was once the British Empire, and partly, also, a reflection of an international cultural exchange where political and geographic borders are permeable. It is within this context that the extended history of Real Tennis in Ireland – and its place in Irish culture and society – should be considered.
Documentary evidence indicates that Real Tennis is one of Ireland’s oldest surviving organised sports, second only to horseracing and hurling. Unlike these latter sports, which have an extensive physical infrastructure on the island, the future of Real Tennis in Ireland is at risk for lack of playing facilities. Although lacking the breadth of impact of sports like soccer or rugby, Real Tennis is as important and relevant to its players and supporters as these mainstream games are to their communities. That the Real Tennis Court in Earlsfort Terrace was not used for its intended purpose on presentation to the State in 1939 is a shame; a failure to take this opportunity to return it to this use, and return the game of Real Tennis to its rightful place on this island, would compound this.
Origins of Real Tennis
The roots of our modern sporting world lie deep in the Middle Ages. Those roots began to bear fruit before 1800 and then the nineteenth century wrought a transformation in the way people played sport. This transformation amounted to a revolution in play. The story of this process is perfectly encapsulated in the extraordinary history of Real Tennis. (The term Real Tennis comes from the 1870s and was coined in response to the growth of the newly-invented sport of Lawn Tennis. Previously, the sport was usually just known as Tennis, but the Real was now added to signify both its antiquity and its distinction.)
This is a story that is superbly told in Heiner Gillmeister’s extraordinary book, Tennis: A Cultural History, which records the place of Real Tennis in European cultural life from the twelfth century onwards. On one level this was the game of Kings, played by royalty as diverse as King Louis X of France in the fourteenth century and King Henry VIII of England in the sixteenth century. But as Gillmeister has revealed, it was also played by the religious orders, in schools and by members of the public in towns around Europe.
Spread of Real Tennis to Ireland
The spread of this sport into Ireland extends back to the fourteenth century, with the apparent construction of a tennis court in Dublin Castle. There is evidence that the game was played more widely by the sixteenth century and the Irish Historic Towns Atlas series reveals the existence of Real Tennis courts across Ireland in the eighteenth century. There were, for example, Real Tennis courts in Cork, Kilkenny, Limerick and Dublin (Winetavern Street, Lazer’s Hill, St. John’s Lane, Dame Street, etc.). These courts were not the preserve of an elite (although there were, indeed, elite courts), but were also available to the public to hire. They would have been out of reach of those mired in poverty, but were frequented by those known to history as ‘the middlin’ sort’. To this end the game was popular with apprentices in Galway in the seventeenth century, and the court in Kilkenny was in use until the 1840s, at least.
Put simply, the evidence of the existence of Real Tennis in Ireland affords it an antiquity in historical documentation that is second only to hurling and horseracing as organised sport.
Nineteenth Century Revolution in Play
The modern sporting world is the product of the accretion of change and the deepening of traditions over time. The transformation of sport in the nineteenth century with the decline of long-practised sports such as cockfighting and bullbaiting and the emergence of a new sporting culture centred on dedicated sporting clubs and organizations is, more than anything, a reminder of the manner in which sport reflects broader trends in society. Commercialization, growth in disposable income, and revolutions in education and health served to create the conditions for sport to develop new characteristics in the years after the Great Famine.
By 1880 this modernisation of Irish sport was in full bloom. During these years sporting enthusiasms broke in waves across Irish towns and its countryside. These sometimes endured, changing the social life of the inhabitants; on other occasions they disappeared leaving little or no trace (bicycle polo, for example, was invented in Wicklow in 1891, but has since disappeared without trace). But those sports that established clubs and laid down an infrastructure usually thrived. Cricket, athletics, and rugby clubs were by then well established, while soccer clubs were expanding at a phenomenal rate. Hunting and horse racing remained a central feature of the island’s sporting experience, while rowing and boxing also had a steady following. All of these new clubs bonded together in dedicated governing bodies and organisations. They also began to construct a physical playing infrastructure which remade the Irish landscape. This infrastructure made possible the spread of organised sports and evidenced a democracy of play in which all could take part.
Tennis and the Revolution in Play
In terms of tennis, the newly-invented sport of lawn tennis exploded into popularity in the mid-1870s. It swept first England and then Ireland like wildfire, equally popular in the estates of big houses and the new suburbs of the middle classes. It quickly developed a competitive championship structure centred on Wimbledon and, later, on major competitions such as the US Open, the French Open and the Australian Open. The Irish championships were established just two years after Wimbledon and were an international sporting event of great importance, while Irish men and women won Wimbledon and US Open championships. This change did not obliterate the old tradition of Real Tennis, however. The sport retained its old traditions, and refashioned those traditions for a new age. New Real Tennis courts were built and the sport sought to rejuvenate itself. Courts were built in the late nineteenth century in England (London, Manchester, Newcastle, Dorset and elsewhere), America, Australia and France. It is striking that quite a number of Real Tennis courts have been renovated and made available for play in recent years.
A Place to Play
It was within the context of this Victorian sporting revolution that Sir Edward Cecil Guinness built the Real Tennis Court that stands on Earlsfort Terrace. The court is a striking manifestation of how past and present routinely unite in sport. The traditions of the game of Real Tennis were remade in a new structure that is acknowledged as unique. The history of the court lends it a significance that elevates it beyond the normal. In the first instance, it stood – and stands – as the only Real Tennis court on the island. And in the second instance, it staged a world championship in 1890. That the court subsequently fell into disuse as a Tennis Court and that it has subsequently been used for other purposes is a singular shame that cannot disguise what it is has been and what it should be.
Conclusion: Past and Present
Sport is an essential part of modern life, a vital presence. People’s passion to play is at the heart of what attracts them to sport and goes a considerable distance to explaining the ubiquity of sport in modern Ireland. A seismic shift in sporting culture has obviously occurred through the centuries and this reflects the changes from pre-industrial to postmodern society in Ireland. Nonetheless, the human emotions that continue to drive sport remain essentially the same. This love of sport is not a simple matter of escapism. Sport, instead, is utterly real, a normal part of everyday life for millions of Irish people.
Tradition matters in the modern world of sport — and no tradition matters more than the idea of ‘the day out’. Communal gatherings around sports events are a vital part of modern society. The role of the sports club is readily apparent. The connections that people make in sport can sustain them through life: for some people sport is what makes school bearable and work possible. For mainstream sporting events, the evidence for this is everywhere to be found. For example, travel to and from sports events involves the almost ritualistic stop at particular sites, for picnics or pints. The diversity of this endeavour spans helicopter trips to the Galway Races and ferry rides to support English soccer clubs, as well as the annual cross-country pilgrimages undertaken by GAA supporters.
What makes this possible and what emphasises the centrality of sport to life in modern Ireland is the great necklace of sporting facilities – from floodlit grounds to climbing walls and swimming pools — that now bejewel the Irish landscape. Some are entirely new, built as interest in particular sports has spread and the capital to develop facilities became available around the turn of the new millennium. Other modern sports facilities are built on sites where sport has long been played, often dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when modern sport enjoyed its most dramatic period of expansion. Others extend still further back into history: to stand on The Curragh in County Kildare and watch racehorses gallop in silhouette against the morning sun is to bear witness to something timeless and majestic where past and present stand as one. These sporting facilities are the bedrock which allows people engage in the sports that they love — they are the fundamental on which everything else rests.
For mainstream sports, their future seems to stretch out beyond a foreseeable future. What guarantees that future is the extensive physical infrastructure that underpins everything that they do. Without a place to play, any sport will ultimately wither and die. And that is, ultimately, what is at issue here. The traditions of the people who play Real Tennis, the importance of the sport to their lives, their passion to play is as relevant, as just, as real and as clear as those of any other sport. That an Irish Real Tennis Association exists and that its members travel out of Ireland to play emphasises both their commitment to their sport and the challenges they face to live that commitment. Their sporting world is one that does not make the newspapers or does not drive content and advertising on websites – but this is an irrelevance. Indeed, it underlines the critical issue at hand here. The antiquity of their sport is obvious, its place in Irish society is genuine and established, and their need for a place to play is undeniable. Their rights should be vindicated.
Paul Rouse, School of History, University College Dublin. November 2022
Appendix 2: Statements of support
From the Tennis and Rackets Association (the UK’s governing body for the sports of Real Tennis & Rackets):
The Tennis & Rackets Association maintains a strong interest in the fate and condition of the Dublin court, and would very much support not only its return to playable condition, but also its eventual return to play. We look forward to the day when our members, along with the global Tennis-playing population, can travel to Dublin to play Tennis on the Earlsfort Terrace court.
Chris Davies, Chief Executive Officer, The Tennis & Rackets Association Limited
From the Australian Real Tennis Association (Australia’s governing body for Real Tennis)
The Australian Real Tennis Association is the national governing body for the game of real tennis in Australia. We represent players and professionals in our member clubs of Melbourne, Hobart, and Ballarat. The Association maintains a strong interest in the fate and development of the Dublin Real Tennis court.
We strongly support not only its return to playable condition, but also its return to play. We can assure you that there are many Australian real tennis players who are looking forward to the day when they can travel to Dublin to play tennis on the Earlsfort Terrace court.
We wish you well in your endeavours.
ALISTAIR CURLEY, ARTA Chairman
From the United States Court Tennis Association (the US governing body for Real Tennis)
The United States Court Tennis Association maintains a strong interest in the fate and condition of the Dublin court, and would very much support not only its return to playable condition, but also its return to play. We look forward to the day when our members can travel to Dublin to play tennis on the Earlsfort Terrace court.
Mary A. Livingston (President) / Dacre C. Stoker (First Vice President)
From the International Real Tennis Professionals’ Association (the international association of real tennis professionals)
The International Real Tennis Professionals' Association maintains a strong interest in the fate and condition of the Dublin court, and would very much support not only its return to playable condition, but also its return to play. We look forward to the day when our members can travel to Dublin to play tennis on the Earlsfort Terrace court.
Susie Falkner, CEO
From Camden Riviere
As 2-time and current men's world champion of the sport of real tennis, I have a keen interest in the fate and condition of the Dublin court. I strongly support not only its return to playable condition, but also its return to play. I look forward to the day when I can travel to Dublin to play tennis on the Earlsfort Terrace court.
From Rob Fahey
As 13-time men's world champion of the sport of real tennis, I have a keen interest in the fate and condition of the Dublin court. I strongly support not only its return to playable condition, but also its return to play. I look forward to the day when I can travel to Dublin to play tennis on the Earlsfort Terrace court.
From Claire Fahey:
As 6-time and current women's world champion of the sport of real tennis, I have a keen interest in the fate and condition of the Dublin court. I strongly support not only its return to playable condition, but also its return to play. I look forward to the day when I can travel to Dublin to play tennis on the Earlsfort Terrace court.
From Chris Ronaldson:
As 3-time men's world champion of the sport of real tennis, I have a keen interest in the fate and condition of the Dublin court. I strongly support not only its return to playable condition, but also its return to play. I look forward to the day when I can travel to Dublin to play tennis on the Earlsfort Terrace court.