The search for Ireland’s greatest tennis player

Mabel Cahill could not be found.

The search for Ireland’s greatest tennis player

Back in the 1890s, she won five US Open Tennis championships. But then Mabel Cahill fell off the cliff of history.

The speculation was that she had left America for England later in the 1890s.

There were whispers that she had been seen attending the Wimbledon championships some time shortly after 1900.

But there was nothing concrete, nothing more than half-suggestions — and there was certainly no evidence that she had come back to her homeplace of Ballyragget in Kilkenny.

Occasional informal inquiries brought no news and so, in 1936, Harry Maunsell drafted a note to send to the newspapers. He was the secretary of the Irish Lawn Tennis Association and that association wished to honour the fact that in 1891 and 1892, Mabel Cahill had won two singles, two women’s doubles and two mixed doubles championships at the US Open.

A gold medallion was to be struck in her honour — Cahill was, after all, the most successful tennis player that Ireland had ever produced.

The note to the press circulated by Maunsell read: ‘Will Miss Mabel E. Cahill, the winner of the Women’s United States Singles Championship in 1891 and 1892, or her representatives, kindly communicate with the hon. Sec. of the ILTA, 91 Merrion Square, Dublin, relative to a gold medallion which can be claimed on her behalf.’

Nothing happened.

Four decades later, in 1976, Mabel Cahill was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame at Rhode Island. The Hall of Fame was opened in 1955 and Cahill was one of the first non-Americans to enter into it. But even then, there was no story of her life, no news of what had become of her.

The search for Mabel Cahill continued in the new millennium. In 2006, Tom Higgins produced a monumental three-volume history of tennis in Ireland which extended across some 1,774 pages.

The scale of the research was breathtaking on every conceivable aspect of tennis, but the author was forced to write of Cahill: “This lady has proved a bit of a mystery.”

This was gorgeous understatement. But it is something that can no longer be said.

Mabel Cahill has been reclaimed for history by Mark Ryan, who published his work on the website.

It is a masterpiece of biographical research — and a genuinely tragic tale.

She was born in 1863, the 12th eldest of 13 children of Michael Cahill (a barrister and land agent) and Margaret Magan. The family lived at Ballyconra house in Ballyragget.

Although both her parents died before she finished in school, Mabel Cahill (along with several of her siblings) were active in the social life of Co. Kilkenny in the 1880s.

That social life — for the elite of the county of which Mabel could have been considered part — included lawn tennis parties and tournaments.

The craze for lawn tennis had swept through Ireland, just as it had England — in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Little was more fashionable than garden parties that included tennis tournaments. And major events such as the national tennis championships in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin where essential events on the social calendar of high society.

In 1886, Cahill played in those championships, before emigrating to America in the late 1880s. She lived in Manhattan — alongside Central Park — and began playing tennis in the new courts built in that park.

Then, as she established herself in the city where one of her brothers also now lived, she became a member of the New York Tennis Club in 1890.

Later that summer she travelled across to Philadelphia and was the only non-American of the eight women to compete for the singles championship. She lost to Ellen Roosevelt, the eventual winner of the competition.

The following year, she returned and exacted revenge. She defeated both Grace and Ellen Roosevelt to claim the honours. The final victory over Ellen Roosevelt was 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory in a best-of-five sets match.

She then added the women’s doubles championship to her singles’ success — and duly came back in 1892 to repeat this double.

To extend her record, she also added the mixed doubles championship, becoming the first man or woman to record a treble at a major championship.

Mabel Cahill was now a sporting star and a syndicated article about her appeared in the American press. The article described her as “a petite, attractive brunette, with short black hair, and the brightest of grey eyes, full of life and spirits. Although a champion of America, she is a daughter of Erin.”

Mabel Cahill explained her success: “On coming here I played at first in the park, being a stranger among tennis players generally. On becoming better acquainted, I was asked to join the New York Tennis Club, where I have played ever since.

"I have improved very much since coming here, which is due largely to playing against men, the advantages of such practice being far superior to playing with even the best lady players.”

Indeed, newspaper references from the era refer to Cahill’s ‘manliness’ and pay tribute to the ferocity of her groundstrokes and her energy around the court. It was a hugely successful approach. As the syndicated article went on to mention:

“Miss Cahill was too modest to admit that she defeats, with few exceptions, her male opponents. The principal feature of Miss Cahill’s playing is her activity. On the tennis court she seems to be everywhere at once and her opponents find it difficult to place a ball out of her reach. Those who have never seen her play can form no idea of the dash and spirit she puts into her game.”

The whole story ended on an upswing: “Miss Cahill has only kind things to say of American and Americans. She likes New York so well it will probably be her permanent home.”

By then, Cahill was also working to forge a career as a writer. She published a novel in New York in 1891, entitled ‘Her playthings, men’. It was not a success. She tried shorter stories — ‘Carved in Marble’ and ‘Purple Sparkling’ — but they too died a death.

Her fiction was essentially an attempt to write of the life of single women in a modern city but her style was plodding, her characters unlikeable and the capacity to sustain a story over an extended span was not exactly evident.

Struggling with fiction, she moved to try a sort of journalism and in June and July 1893 she contributed two articles to the Ladies’ Home Journal, under the titles, respectively, of ‘The art of playing good tennis’ and ‘Arranging a tennis tournament’. These, too, were mediocre in quality.

And then the record of her writing dwindles and disappears.

Presumably struggling to live in New York, Mabel Cahill headed to London in 1897. She was by then 34 and was most likely ill, and possibly destitute. Either ways she was admitted to the Liverpool Road Workhouse in April 1897.

Nonetheless, she began to earn money in the city, writing articles for magazines and performing on stage in music halls where she sang and acted in variety performances.

She was not one to tangle with. In 1899 she represented herself as she sued Sydney Vecker of the Royal Muncaster Theatre in Bootle for £5 she claimed was owed to her.

Vecker argued that Cahill was essentially worked for free on a trial basis until he decided whether she was good enough or not. The judge decided in favour of Cahill and awarded her £5 plus costs.

It was one of her last victories. The challenges in piecing back together a life are revealed in that for the next five years it is unclear what Mabel Cahill did. Then, in late 1904 or in early 1905 she was admitted to a workhouse in the Lancashire town of Ormskirk. She may have been living in the area to work in the great seaside music halls of nearby Blackpool and Southport.

Either ways, her health was in precipative decline — she was run through with TB. On February 2, 1905, Mabel Cahill died in the Union Workhouse in Ormskirk.

Three days later she was buried in a pauper’s grave in the graveyard of the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

This was the bleakest of endings to a life that had begun with birth into relative wealth and status and had reached the heights of entry into the upper echelons of American society.

The cruelty of the descent was rendered all the more poignant by the subsequent disappearance from history.

Mark Ryan deserves great credit for his labours to remake the life and times of Ireland’s most successful ever tennis player — a woman whose story, both in its heights and its depths, is deeply human and a sharp reminder of the vagaries of the world. If nothing else, Mabel Cahill has now been found.

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