Anyone for Tennis? A look back at the golden age for Irish tennis

The Irish and tennis aren’t exactly synonymous with each other. With the US Open taking we look back over the years and see that Ireland’s tennis credentials are actually quite commendable.

In contemporary times and the Open era, Irish involvement in tennis has been quite limited. Both John McEnroe and Pat Cash have strong Irish descent, and they credit their Irish heritage for their rebellious attitude that helped them achieve so much on court. But you have to travel back to the turn on the 20th century to find a time when Irish-born players were able to regularly compete and succeed in the tennis world.

There have been numerous versions of tennis played for centuries, but modern tennis as we know it today was invented in 1874 by a British army officer Major Walter Clopton Wingfield. It quickly spread in popularity around Northern Europe, the United States and Australia.

The first Wimbledon Championships were held in 1877, followed 2 years later by the Irish Open which was held by the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club on Fitzwilliam Square in the centre of Dublin. The Irish Open was considered an equal of Wimbledon in these early days, gaining a reputation as a high class tournament that attracted many of the big name players on the court. However it was off court that the Irish Open would also deliver, with the event becoming one the highlights of the social calendar and renowned for its lavish and exuberant post-match entertainment. In short, the Irish knew how to party, and that made players decision to travel to Ireland for the tournament all the more easier!

One of the Fitzwilliams Club’s founding members would win the inaugural Irish Open. Vere Thomas St. Leger Goold was born in Clonmel, Co Tipperary. Said to be skilled in numerous sports, Goold took to tennis for the social element as much as the game itself. In the same year Goold managed to reach the final of Wimbledon. Due to a rain delay the match had to be played a day later. He lost in straight sets to Reverend John Hartley, and to many it was clear that a spirit of some kind played a part, with many remarking that Goold was clearly the worse for wear after a night out in some of London’s bars and clubs.

Vere Goold Tennis

Goold’s tennis career would quickly go into decline due to injury, forcing him to retire from tennis altogether in 1883. Afterward, Goold’s life would slowly spiral into disarray, and end in ignominy. He would meet his wife Marie in London and they would spend the next 25 years travelling from London, Montreal, Liverpool and Monte Carlo. At each place they would leave under a cloud of dodgy dealings and unpaid debts.

In Monte Carlo Vere and Marie’s luck would eventually run out. They were caught in Marseille with the butchered corpse of wealthy Swedish widow Emma Levin in their luggage. The story captivated the tabloid press of the time. Goold would be sentenced to life in prison, and sent to the notorious Devil Island penal colony. He would die a year later in 1909.

His wife, who in court was portrayed as the ringleader and instigator behind the plot to kill Mrs Levin, was originally sentenced to death, but was commuted to life. (Click here to watch Dhá Chúirt, a documentary on Vere Goold from TG4).

Goold’s off-court exploits unfortunately overshadow what was a golden age for Irish tennis, with many players competing and winning championships both at home and abroad.

In 1889 Lena Rice became the first Irish person to win a Wimbledon title. Rice was born in New Inn, Co. Tipperary, in 1866 and learned to play tennis on their own lawn before joining the local tennis club in Cahir. In 1889 Rice entered her first tournament outside of Tipperary, gaining entry to the Irish Open in Dublin. She made it all the way to the ladies semi-final where she was defeated by Blanche Bingley Hillyard. Hillyard was also her doubles partner and the pair reached the doubles final, where they were defeated. She had better luck in the mixed doubles, which she won playing alongside Willoughby Hamilton.

Later that year Rice entered the ladies singles competition at Wimbledon, and this time went one stage further and reached the final. Her opponent was a familiar friend and foe – Blanche Bingley! This time Rice prevailed, winning the final and with it became the first Irish person to win a Wimbledon title.

The following year in 1890 would prove to be a stellar year for the Irish at Wimbledon. Rice successfully defend her ladies title. The Irish duo of Joshua Pim and Frank Stoker (cousin of Bram Stoker) claimed the mens doubles title. Willoughby Hamilton would also claim the mens title, defeating William Renshaw, a 7 times Wimbledon champion and considered the first superstar of tennis.

Hamilton was born in Monasterevin, Co. Kildare, in 1864 and moved to Dublin as a child. By the age of 19 Hamilton was considered the finest mens’ tennis player in Ireland. His pale complexion and abilty to cover ground on the court soon earned him the nickname ‘The Ghost’.

It’s a nickname that proved very apt, as after finally clinching the Wimbledon title at the age of 24, Hamilton disappeared from tennis altogether, and next to nothing is known about his life thereafter. It’s a sadly familiar story with Rice. She choose not to defend her titles after 1890, and again disappeared from tennis.

In 1891, Mabel Cahill would pick up the baton for Irish tennis. Cahill was born in Ballyraggett, Co Kilkenny, in 1863. Living in New York, Cahill impressed at the Orange Club ladies championships, winning back-to-back titles in 1890 and 1891. In 1891, Cahill became the first foreign player to win the US Championships title, defeating Ellen Roosevelt to win the ladies title. Cahill defended the title in 1892, and in doing so is one of only 22 ladies players to win back-to-back US Championships. Not only did she successfully defend her title, so was also able to win both the ladies doubles and mixed doubles that year.

And just like Rice and Hamilton, Cahill would disappear from the tennis scene, almost as quickly as she arrived. Cahill chose not to defend her title in 1893 and returned to the family home in Kilkenny.

Irish tennis players enjoyed more success at Wimbledon and other international tournaments thereafter. Joshua Pim would win back-to-back singles titles in 1893 & 1894, and another doubles title in 1894. Pim was born in Bray, Co Wicklow, in 1869, and as the name suggests, he was related to the same Pim’s family who made the famous alcoholic drink that has a long association with Wimbledon. Pim continued playing tennis as long as he could, but eventually retired to focus on his medical career.

Thomas Mahony was the last Irish person to win a Wimbledon title, collecting the mens title in 1896. Mahony was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1867. His parents were Irish, and his father was a prominent barrister and landowner. Mahony spent most of his early life between Scotland and the family home at Dromore Castle, Co. Kerry. Dromore Castle had its own tennis court, and it’s here he learned to play the game. Mahony would also go on to collect 2 medals at the 1900 Olympics. Competing for the Great Britain and Ireland team, Mahony won silver in the singles and a bronze in the doubles.