Clodagh Finn: Honouring the Irish woman who won five US Open tennis titles

Clodagh Finn: Honouring the Irish woman who won five US Open tennis titles

Mabel Cahill: sports star and writer who was born in Ballyragget in Co Kilkenny.

It is heartrending to think that Ireland’s most successful tennis player, five-time US Open tennis champion Mabel Esmonde Cahill, spent her final days in a workhouse and was buried in an unmarked grave. At least now, in the place where she spent her earliest days, that unrivalled achievement is being remembered.

When Kilkenny Tennis Club opens its doors on Monday morning, it will be celebrating more than an easing of lockdown restrictions. 

The club will be introducing its 1,000 members to the local woman who won a singles championship there in 1884 before going on to become, in the words of The New York Times, “the best player in America”.

A new mural in the clubhouse celebrates the woman from Ballyragget, Co Kilkenny, whose “remarkably powerful backhand” helped her to set several records. “Those who have never seen her play can form no idea of the dash and spirit she puts into her game,” the New York World newspaper enthused in 1892, the year she became the first player, male or female, to win the singles, women’s and mixed doubles — the ‘triple crown’ — at the United States Championships.

A year earlier, she won the singles and doubles to become the first non-American, and only Irish person, ever to win a US Open title. Many years later, in 1976, she became the only Irish tennis player to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

New tribute to Mabel Cahill Ireland's most successful tennis player at Kilkenny Lawn Tennis
New tribute to Mabel Cahill Ireland's most successful tennis player at Kilkenny Lawn Tennis

Now Mabel Cahill is honoured in her home county with a mural painted by artist Paul Murphy, who lives within a stone’s throw of her childhood home at Ballyconra House. Club captain Ivan Powell came up with the idea in lockdown. He says he hopes it will act as an inspiration to all members, but particularly to young women and girls to show them what can be achieved.

It is an important tribute because it honours a history that is only just starting to re-emerge thanks to the work of writers, historians, tennis enthusiasts and Kilkenny County and City Lawn Tennis Club, to give the club founded at Archersfield in 1879 its full title. Former captain Nicky Read named a tournament after Mabel in 2019 and conducted research on her life as part of a ‘herstory project’ with another former captain, Angela Moylan.

As she says, women are too often written out of history and it’s important to set the record straight. The mural is a definite start but club captain Ivan Powell hopes for more; perhaps a commemorative blue plaque or a street in Kilkenny named after her.

You can’t say enough for this club which has gone out of its way to retrieve an important story from history, although you have to wonder why her memory is not celebrated at city, if not at national, level.

Having said that, it is not just women who fade in the public’s memory. It is well known, for example, that Tipperary woman Lena Rice was the only Irish woman to win Wimbledon but few recall the sweep of Irish victories in the year of her singles success, 1890. In that year, James Willoughby Hamilton from Kildare won the men’s singles title while Joshua Pim of Wicklow and Dubliner Frank Stoker won the men’s doubles.

A unique life story

Mabel Esmonde Cahill’s story, however, has resonance far beyond the sporting world. Hers is the story of a 19th-century Irish woman who struck out into the world on her own, pushing boundaries in the sporting world and later as a writer and actress in London, where so many other Irish women were also struggling to establish careers of their own.

Mabel Cahill: her story has resonance far beyond the world of sports.
Mabel Cahill: her story has resonance far beyond the world of sports.

Indeed, the challenge in establishing the facts of her life highlights how much falls through the cracks of a historical narrative that too often focuses elsewhere. We would know little about her life without the exceptional, painstaking and meticulous research done by Mark Ryan who, as late as 2011, fleshed out the details in a moving biography posted on the website tennisforum.com

It charts her arrival into a privileged background on April 2, 1863, the twelfth of 13 children born to Michael Cahill, a wealthy Catholic landlord, and his wife Margaret (née Mangan) at Ballyragget in Co Kilkenny. She had early access to the fashionable game of lawn tennis and had already won tournaments in Kilkenny and Dublin before she emigrated to New York, aged 26, in 1889.

There, she lived near Central Park, was asked to join the New York Tennis Club and was soon gaining attention, playing against such luminaries as Ellen C Roosevelt, sister of the presidential Franklin D.

It’s interesting, too, to see how she was fêted in her new home. A syndicated article in 1892 paints a picture of a US champion at the height of her success. It describes Mabel as “a petite, attractive brunette, with short black hair, and the brightest of grey eyes, full of life and spirits” who lived in a “pretty little house up-town near [Central] Park.”

Just four years later, however, a New York Times article offers a very different insight into the difficulties facing women in the late 19th-century. It recounts how Mabel represented herself in court in a case she took against a New York police officer who failed to take her claims of harassment and assault seriously. In one of several attacks, she said a group of boys had called her ‘a new woman’, pushed her to the ground and tore the riding costume she wore in her new life as a professional rider.

New career path

She had also started to write, suggesting that she needed an income. Up to then, she may have lived off a stipend from her father’s estate. While her first novel, Her Playthings, Men, was dismissed in a review, her journalism was well-received. As the Weekly Irish Times noted on July 15, 1893: “Just how to arrange a tennis tournament is an excellent article, as timely as it is it authoritative, since it is written by Mabel Esmonde Cahill, the champion lady tennis-player of the United States.”

It is not clear why Mabel decided to move to England. But when she did, she found it impossible to earn a living from writing and/or acting, an experience shared by many other Irishwomen, from Corkwoman Clotilde Graves to Kerry antiquarian and writer Mary Agnes Hickson who both successfully applied to the Royal Literary Fund for financial help.

Mabel Cahill, however, did not and the clues to her final years are contained in the records of a workhouse infirmary in London and later the Union Workhouse in Lancashire where she died of TB of the larynx in 1905. She was, most likely, buried in an unmarked grave at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Ormskirk, Lancashire.

Her local club has celebrated her in her birthplace and, to its immense credit, it will also look into the possibility of marking her tragic end with a plaque or gravestone when travel opens up again.

It is a welcome and important step on the long road to restoring women to the pages of history.

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