IT IS the 26th of May 1890.
The Real Tennis World Championship is about to be played at Sir Edward Guinness’s new court on Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin, just behind his fine home – Iveagh House — which faces onto St Stephen’s Green.
The Real Tennis Court is a beautiful piece of sporting architecture, a marvel of its time. Light is flooding through the glass roof onto the black marble floor and is bouncing around the nettings and the galleries on the boundary walls.
More than 150 people — some of whom have travelled from America and France and England —have gathered for the World Championship final between American-based Tom Pettitt and Charles Saunders from Britain.
The stakes are high — some £500 having been put up by each man’s backers — and the match will last three days.
The marble has been polished to the point where it is as smooth as glass — the court is just 5 years old and its choice as the venue for the World Championship final is a testament to its international renown.
Even now, when you look at the Court on Earlsfort Terrace, its faded grandeur is apparent to see, the echoes of its glorious past linger on.
Edward Guinness’ son, Rupert, presented the Real Tennis Court — along with Iveagh House — to the Irish state at the end of the 1930s. Rupert Guinness’s expressed wish was that it remain in use as a tennis court: “I am, of course, loath to think of the tennis court being destroyed as it is unique in its way, and might be appreciated by players in Dublin.”
But this wish was never realised. The court was adapted for use by UCD through the breaking in of a new door, the building of partition walls and the installation of lab equipment. Subsequently, it was proposed for use as an extension recital hall of the neighbouring National Concert Hall.
Now, it is planned that the Real Tennis Court will be included as part of the development of a Children’s Science Museum.
The site is owned by the Office of Public Works and the
plan is to use the Tennis Court as an exhibition space.
This has dismayed the Irish Real Tennis Association (IRTA) – which extends to some 300 members and organises tournaments, occasional matches, introductory weekends and an Irish championship. There is currently no Real Tennis Court in Ireland and Irish players must travel abroad to play – this year’s Irish championships will take place on June 11 and 12 at Radley College in England.
The IRTA does not object to the general development of a National Children’s Science Centre — indeed, it supports it. What it opposes is the inclusion of the Tennis Court in the plans. To this end, the IRTA is currently appealing to An Bord Pleanála in the hope that the Tennis Court will be restored for play and not lost to it forever. Crucial to this appeal is the fact that the proposed development of the Science Museum involves the inclusion of the Tennis Court as merely an add-on (amounting to some 8% of the overall size of the project). The main part of the Science Museum will be in the north wing of the former UCD premises on Earlsfort Terrace and in a new building at the back of the National Concert Hall site.
It is planned that the Real Tennis court will be linked to the main part of the centre by a tunnel. When it comes down to it, the Real Tennis Court is not fundamental to the proposed Science Museum, but it is fundamental to the lives of those who play Real Tennis.
And the opportunity now stands to return the Tennis Court to its original use.
This would require the restoration of some of the features of the building that have been lost in the decades since the court was presented to the Irish state and which are fundamental to the playing of the game. It would also mean the undoing of other adaptations that were made to the building over the years.
This restoration — which is not envisaged to be particularly costly given the amount of the original building that survives — would be a reflection of the history of the game, its place in Irish life and the passion for it that is manifest in the membership of the IRTA.
Like lawn tennis, Real Tennis involves hitting a ball across a net. It is played on an asymmetrical court with walls (off which the ball may be played), sloping roofs (known as ‘penthouses’) around three sides, a number of openings into which the ball may be struck, and other distinctive features including the ‘tambour’, a vertical buttress off which the ball may be deflected across the court. In short, it is a game which values strategy and accuracy at least as much as power and speed.
The roots of the game lie deep in the Middle Ages. Ancient manuscripts, drawings and other historical documents depict the place of Real Tennis in European cultural life, at least from the 12 century onwards.
On one level this was the game of Kings, played by royalty as diverse as King Louis X of France in the 14th century and King Henry VIII of England in the 16th century. But it was also played by the religious orders, in schools and by members of the public in towns around Europe.
Real Tennis spread into Ireland in the 14th century, with the apparent construction of a tennis court in Dublin Castle. There is evidence that the game was played more widely by the 16th century and the Irish Historic Towns Atlas series reveals the existence of Real Tennis courts across Ireland in the 18th century.
There were, for example, Real Tennis courts in Cork, Kilkenny, Limerick and Dublin (Winetavern Street, Lazer’s Hill, St. John’s Lane, Dame Street, etc.).
These courts were not the preserve of an elite (although there were, indeed, also elite courts), but were also available to the public to hire.
They would have been out of reach of those mired in poverty, but were frequented by those known to history as ‘the middlin’ sort’. To this end the game was popular with apprentices in Galway in the 17th century, and the court in Kilkenny City was in use until the 1840s, at least.
Indeed, the evidence of the existence of Real Tennis in Ireland affords it an antiquity in historical documentation that is second only to hurling and horseracing as organised sport.
The transformation of sport in the 19th century, with the emergence of a new sporting culture centred on dedicated sporting clubs and organisations, dramatically changed the social life of Ireland.
By 1880, this modernisation of Irish sport was in full bloom. During these years sporting enthusiasms broke in waves across Irish towns and its countryside. These sometimes endured, changing the social life of the inhabitants; on other occasions they disappeared leaving little or no trace (bicycle polo, for example, once thrived, but has since disappeared without trace).
But those sports that established clubs and laid down an infrastructure usually thrived. Rugby, soccer, and GAA, for example, began to construct a physical playing infrastructure which remade the Irish landscape. And, basically, this infrastructure made possible the spread of organised sports.
Tennis was, itself, profoundly changed by this sporting revolution. The newly- invented sport of lawn tennis exploded into popularity in the mid-1870s. It swept first England and then Ireland like wildfire, equally popular in the estates of big houses and the new suburbs of the middle classes. It quickly developed a competitive championship structure centred on Wimbledon and, later, on major competitions such as the US Open, the French Open and the Australian Open. The Irish championships were established just two years after Wimbledon and were an international sporting event of great importance, while Irish men and women won Wimbledon and US Open championships.
This change did not obliterate the long-established game of Real Tennis, however.
The sport retained its old traditions, and refashioned those traditions for a new age.
New Real Tennis courts were built and the sport sought to rejuvenate itself. Courts were built in the late 19th century in England (London, Manchester, Newcastle, Dorset and elsewhere), America, Australia and France.
It was within the context of this Victorian sporting revolution that Sir Edward Cecil Guinness built the Real Tennis Court that stands on Earlsfort Terrace. The court is a striking manifestation of how past and present routinely unite in sport. The traditions of the game of Real Tennis were remade in a new structure that is acknowledged as unique.
That the court subsequently fell into disuse as a Tennis Court and that it has subsequently been used for other purposes is a singular shame that cannot disguise what it is has been and what it should be.
A similar fate actually befell quite a number of the Real Tennis courts constructed during the Victorian era. It is equally striking, however, that many of these have been renovated and made available for play in recent years, having fallen for a time into disuse or become run-down.
When it comes down to it, sport is an essential part of modern life and communal gatherings around sports events — ‘the day out’ — are a vital part of modern society.
The role of the sports club is apparent in this. The connections that people make in sport can sustain them through life: for some people sport is what makes school bearable, work possible, life liveable. For mainstream sporting events, the evidence for this is everywhere to be found. What makes this possible and what emphasises the centrality of sport to life in modern Ireland is the great necklace of sporting facilities — from floodlit grounds to climbing walls and swimming pools – that now bejewel the Irish landscape. These sporting facilities are the bedrock which allows people engage in the sports that they love – they are the fundamental on which everything else rests.
For mainstream sports, their future seems to stretch out beyond a foreseeable span of time. What guarantees that future is the extensive physical infrastructure that underpins everything that they do. Without a place to play, any sport will ultimately wither and die.
And that is, ultimately, what is at issue here. The traditions of the people who play Real Tennis, the importance of the sport to their lives, their passion to play is as relevant, as just, as real and as clear as those of any other sport.
That an Irish Real Tennis Association exists and that its members travel out of Ireland to play emphasises both their commitment to their sport and the challenges they face to live that commitment. Their sporting world is one that does not make the newspapers or does not drive content and advertising on websites – but this is an irrelevance. Indeed, it underlines the essential issue at hand here.
The antiquity of their sport is obvious, its place is Irish society is genuine and established, and their need for a place to play is undeniable. Their rights should be vindicated.
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: Champions League Final preview
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