Sporting 'oddity' hopes to reclaim its Earlsfort Terrace court after 65 years — John Burke


REAL Tennis was first played by monks in Italian and French monasteries in the 11th century but Vatican officials looked unfavourably on clergy playing around with small balls and the game was banned briefly during the 12th century. By the 14th century, the game was widely played by the nobility. The ball is made with a core of cork and covered in felt. Both human and animal hair have been used in making the ball. England's Henry VII played the game, as did his successor, Henry VIII, who gambled much of his personal finances by betting on rounds of the game. The modern version of Real Tennis is virtually indistinguishable from the 16th century version. The game flourished in France and England in the 16th and 17th centuries with an estimated 1,800 courts in Paris during the game's heyday. By the 1800s, the game had begun to decline, partly due to the French Revolution and social and political unrest in Europe.

ONE of the country's most protracted sporting disputes may soon be at an end as the legendary game of real tennis gets closer to reclaiming its unique home after decades of occupation by the state and the country's biggest university.

For the past six years, the Irish Real Tennis Association (IRTA) has opposed the development of the only remaining real tennis court in Ireland — at Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin — into a recital hall for the nearby National Concert Hall. The court was specially built for the game by the Guinness family in 1885 and was bequeathed to the state in 1939 by Rupert Guinness, the second Earl of Iveagh, with the express wish that it be kept for use by the tennis players.

However, over the subsequent 65 years, the building has been used as a laboratory by UCD and, in more recent times, a portion of the interior has been divided into offices by the Office of Public Works.

With growing speculation that UCD plans to move its laboratory facilities to a new complex on its Belfield site, the IRTA believes it will kick-start a process that will see wooden bats and small, hardened balls back on the historic court.

"I believe we are getting closer to realising the spirit of the Earl of Iveagh's generous gift to the people of Ireland," said IRTA secretary Ted Neville at the association's AGM yesterday.

The association is now convinced that the recital hall will not go ahead, despite the tennis group failing at three attempts to overturn a grant of permission for the development. The deadline for that planning permission ends on 8 June 2004.

Real tennis has recently undergone an international revival, and sister organisations in the US and Australia have been monitoring developments on the Earlsfort Terrace court, Neville said.

"This is a unique venue. The interior finish is constructed from black Galway marble from Merlin Park and the slabs were of great proportions. It was recognised as an excellent venue in its heyday and is among a handful of real tennis courts that have hosted the world championships of the game," he said.

It is estimated that a sum in excess of 2m euro would be required to restore the court to its original condition. However, the IRTA first faces the challenge of convincing the state to permit the sport to be played there.

"We're undoubtedly seen as an oddity in sporting terms," said Neville. "Real tennis is a minority sport but that is no reason why consecutive sporting and state agencies should ignore our right to play in a court that was built just for that purpose."