A night on the tiles can have a whole new meaning as Nuala Woulfe meets board game enthusiasts who get out and about in search of triple-word scores
When I was a kid I loved Scrabble, though my mum called it squabble because of the fights that would inevitably break out over the legitimacy of a word. That’s when the Oxford dictionary would come out, or occasionally my Dad, an English teacher, would be the final arbitrator.
But in the 21st century with text speak a reality, with computers able to correct every mistake and with every kind of fun technology imaginable available you’d wonder why anyone would be interested in learning off words? Regardless, spelling is enjoying a resurrection. It could be due to the popularity of Child Genius, where pint-sized wonders spell lengthy words you never knew existed, it could be due to spelling bees infiltrating classrooms or the enduring appeal of Countdown, which has never gone away and which has morphed into the quirky 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. The spelling revolution could also be due to the rise of the nerd — The Big Bang Theory has finally made smart sexy. But underlying it all is the enduring appeal of the trusty Scrabble board which has never disappeared and which is gaining again in popularity.
In Ireland, the All Ireland Scrabble Association lists scrabble clubs north and south and while lots of members play socially, there are those who play competitively with a number of tournaments being held throughout the year; the next big one being held in Cork in March.
“Scrabble has always been popular it never goes away, you can also play scrabble online but board games have been making a comeback generally,” says John Ryan from Wexford’s Menapia Scrabble Club, who is also secretary of the Irish Scrabble Association. John started playing scrabble socially and competitively in his twenties and says Scrabble lovers often start young, get side-tracked by college, family or work for a few years but tend to come back to the game in their mid-twenties.
“In Wexford we meet in the Gaelic Bar; it’s social, you can have a pint but equally some people might have a cup of tea, there’s no pressure, it’s a friendly group but then there’s a few tournaments a year which attracts the complete nerds.”
He laughs when I ask is he one of the nerds. “Oh completely, all my life I’ve played Scrabble, I love reading, I love crosswords and I’m involved in some literary stuff too,” he says.
Scrabble ‘as gaeilge’ has also taken off big time in this country and is played throughout schools, getting young people hooked from an early age.
“Scrabble and Junior Scrabble are some of our most popular items, a lot of orders come from schools” says Úna Ní Chonaire who runs www.udar.ie which was set up under Glór na nGael. Udar also sells an Irish scrabble floor puzzle, which was out of stock for a while but is now back on shelves.
“As well as school children being interested, a fair bit of interest comes from overseas. When people emigrate Irish seems to become more important to them. We’ve sent Scrabble as Gaeilge to Australia or America and I remember one man in New York wanted it because he wanted his children to get up on Christmas morning and be able to play in their native language. Once a year at the Oireachtas, Glór na nGael also has a fun open scrabble tournament which is very popular with people of all ages,” says Úna.
The Scrabble spike has been picked up on by chocolate makers; you can now buy a Chocolate Scrabble on line complete with Scrabble board and chocolate letters and a chocolate trophy that can be eaten by the winner. It’s popular with scrabble lovers and those who occasionally want their nearest and dearests to ‘eat their own words.’
The Scrabble craze has even hit Irish supermarkets where Twitter devotees of #herbscrabble use the letters on herb and spice jars to spell out messages and post the resulting pictures online. Scrabble mania has also been noticed by Cork woman Gillian Black, who set up an online business a year ago, www.magpiechic.ie to make and sell personalised Scrabble art.
“I buy in the pieces from the UK, they’re exactly the same as Scrabble tiles, the same letters and the same value numbers, but they’re made of wood. You can make any message you like; a name or a greeting perhaps and then it’s framed. I find there are two kinds of people who are attracted to Scrabble Art; people who have unusual names, especially Irish names who never see their name on anything and scrabble fans who say they love scrabble and are buying for themselves or for another Scrabble enthusiast.
“I was at a fair recently and a guy wanted me to do a scrabble board as a background with his name on it,” says Gillian, who is happy to customise her work as much as possible for clients.
As well as Scrabble clubs affiliating through the All Ireland Scrabble Association, it is clear that other Scrabble clubs are quietly sprouting up independently throughout Ireland. A new one will run soon in the evenings at Gorey Library, Wexford and another one has just started up in Nenagh Library in Tipperary on Friday mornings.
Tipperary libraries decided to run a club as a community service because of the success of another county scrabble club in Carrick on Suir. Due to the time slot, the Nenagh club tends to attract older members but as well as enjoying the activity themselves, they’re finding it easy enough to keep the love of the game going among children and grandchildren.
“I love Scrabble; my younger relatives always loved it too so I was thinking of setting up a junior Scrabble club in my home village when I heard about the club starting here in Nenagh a few months ago,” says Sarah Malone from Portroe. “I’ve junior scrabble at home and when my nephew and niece came down from Dublin I used to make them play, they’re now 15 and 16 and they know when they’re coming to visit we’ll still be playing Scrabble,” she laughs.
Maureen Slattery from Dolla, says she played Scrabble with her own children and she’s now playing it with her six-year-old granddaughter.
“People think that with all the technology available today that kids wouldn’t be interested in board games, but if you initiate it as an adult they love it.”
It’s likely the new phenomenon of spelling bees and Scrabble enthusiasm go hand in hand. The Eason’s spelling bee attracted 1,200 primary schools in 2016 and, “standard is extremely high throughout the country. We always receive positive feedback from children who enjoy the experience,” says a spokesperson.
“Every school that takes part gets a spelling bee dictionary and a words pack which the school can use to run in-house competitions.”
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