Features Magazine

An Almighty Racket

Looking for the real thing in Dublin.

There’s a building on Earlsfort Terrace, central Dublin, that you would walk past hundreds of times without ever noticing. It’s a rectangular structure built from warm-hued red-and-yellow bricks, 40 metres long with a steep, gabled roof. In place of windows there are blank recessed panels, as if to emphasise the inscrutability of what goes on inside. The building’s divided by a sliver of car park from the north wing of a neoclassical pile, once the headquarters of University College Dublin (UCD), which today houses the National Concert Hall. Round the corner lies Iveagh House, now Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs.

Visiting the city this summer, I gazed at this strange building from across the street. Nobody went in and nobody came out. Civil servants hurried past, clutching warmed-over deli wraps from a nearby sandwich shop. Hiding in plain sight, the last real tennis court on the island of Ireland escaped all notice. Although it hasn’t seen play for more than 80 years, the Irish Real Tennis Association (IRTA) are fighting to restore it.

Real tennis is the ancestor of the globally popular game played enthusiastically by Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams and the now-retired David Cameron. It’s the first racquet sport from which all others derive, originating in the marketplaces of medieval Europe. Rallies take place across a net, but the walls are also in play, and the asymmetrical court includes a litany of strange features: there’s a sloping roof (the ‘penthouse’), covering a row of netted galleries; a horizontal grid of coloured ‘chase lines’ painted across the floor; and a sunken box (the ‘grille’) in the far corner which, if you can hit it, resounds with a sickening, satisfying crunch. Today, about 50 courts are playable – more than half in England, with a handful in the US, France and Australia.

In recent decades, real tennis has experienced a revival. What was once the preserve of public schoolboys and retired colonels has opened out to the broader world of racqueteers, appealing to squash and ‘lawn tennis’ players with its technical and tactical intricacy. Men and women play together, and most English courts have become breezier and less stuffy than golf clubs. The game attracts eccentrics and creates obsessives.

Real tennis once flourished in Dublin: there were several courts around Winetavern Street, described in a pearl-clutching article of 1755 as ‘seminaries of vice and idleness’. The court on Earlsfort Terrace was commissioned by Edward Guinness, stout tycoon and philanthropist, later first Earl of Iveagh. It opened in 1885 and five years later hosted the world championship. But in the twentieth century the game declined. Certain sports acquired new cultural associations in modern Ireland, especially after independence in 1922. Until 1971, members of the Gaelic Athletic Association were forbidden from playing or even watching any ‘imported’ sport. The court passed into the control of UCD; it was a gym, then an examination hall, then a laboratory.

Earlsfort Terrace is the only real tennis court on the Irish mainland. Yet there is, amazingly, another court in the Republic of Ireland – on Lambay Island, two miles off the Dublin coast, east of Portrane. Since 1904, Lambay has belonged to the Baring family; the fifteenth-century Lambay Castle became one of their family seats. Cecil Baring, Baron Revelstoke, commissioned Edwin Lutyens to design an extension, and in 1922, an outdoor real tennis court was built on the western shore. Like Earlsfort Terrace, it hasn’t seen regular play for decades, but it retains its original and unusual shape: two sloping sets of galleries, of sturdy concrete, run either side, while other courts have just the one. Shamrocks, carved into the wall, mark the chase lines.

Having inherited the barony in 2012, Alex Baring aimed to renovate his family seat as a luxury bohemian haven, complete with recording studio. He also hoped to restore the court, so that visiting enthusiasts might play matches while albums were mastered next door. (Rock and real tennis might seem an odd mix, but Johnny Borrell, still the Razorlight frontman, is reportedly a keen fan, and has been spotted on court in Paris.)

Baring’s plans haven’t yet come to fruition, though the island now produces whiskey and runs weekend retreats. Red-necked wallabies, which the family introduced in the 1950s, roam free. It’s difficult to envisage this off-grid court as a viable base for the country’s real tennis players, though the image of a mishit ball landing in the Irish Sea is undoubtedly an enticing one.

In 2006, David Lowry played real tennis for the first time at a court in Cambridge. Returning to Dublin, he immediately joined the IRTA. It was then under the chairmanship of co-founder Mike Bolton, four-time British Army singles champion in rackets, who had retired to County Wicklow.

When Lowry first got involved, the court was under its most recent occupation: a team of UCD archaeologists, housed in a set of Portakabin-style offices, researching evidence from the neolithic passage graves at Knowth, County Meath. After the university vacated in 2007, completing its gradual migration from Earlsfort Terrace, the IRTA stepped up its efforts to secure the court’s restoration. It’s been a long road, Lowry tells me. ‘I’ve seen a lot of false dawns on this one,’ he says with a sigh.

In 1939, the second Earl of Iveagh gave the Earlsfort Terrace court to the people of Ireland with the wish – though not the formal stipulation – that it should be preserved for real tennis. Since then, responsibility for the court has rested with a government agency, the Office of Public Works (OPW). Its ultimate destiny lies in the hands of the state, but external proposals for the site’s development surface periodically.

The catalyst for the IRTA’s foundation in 1998 was the unrealised initiative to convert the tennis court into a recital hall. In the late 2000s, a yet more ambitious scheme conceived a tower block of offices enveloping the court, leaving a central well of natural light – a tower of commerce, which, in its failure to materialise, seems to encapsulate Ireland’s experience of the post-2008 recession. The IRTA’s strategy has been to work with the OPW, and any potential developer, in order to protect the court’s essential characteristics and, eventually, return it to use. In each instance, there’s something of a gamble at hand: engaging with a development project might ensure the restoration of the court, but at the cost of restricted opportunities for playing.

In 2012, the IRTA submitted architects’ drawings and a business plan to the OPW. Their aim was to lease the court and make it playable. They emphasised not only the value to Ireland of joining the international real tennis scene, but also their intention to make the court accessible to all: it could double, for instance, as a facility for badminton. The plan didn’t gain as much traction as hoped. David wonders whether politicians were nervous about optics: accusations might run, as he puts it, of something stereotypically ‘upper-class being given this prime location’.

Since then, the IRTA has promoted its cause by organising matches in other real tennis-playing nations. Annual tournaments have taken place since 2003 and now include an open event, for all-comers, and a closed event for those with at least one Irish grandparent. The court, meanwhile, has been left derelict: parts of the Galway limestone floor remain, and the elegant glass roof has been repaired, but almost everything else is missing. In the last seven years the IRTA has been negotiating the latest proposal for its redevelopment.

If this story were a Hollywood parable, a beautiful and characterful building would find itself encircled by greedy developers itching to charge extortionate rates. As it is, the court forms part of a proposal to build a children’s science museum. Áine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education at University College Cork, reminds me that Ireland is unique among OECD countries in lacking a child-focused science centre. Her involvement with efforts to build one began in 2006, but her association with Earlsfort Terrace goes back to her days as an undergraduate at UCD in the 60s. She remembers the real tennis court, which she had presumed was a storage area. ‘I wasn’t even sure it was part of the campus.’

The science museum was supposed to be built on a greenfield site near Heuston Gate, west of the city centre. The Irish government lent enthusiastic support, but then the recession hit. Despite financial troubles, the campaign for an ‘Exploration Station’ persevered. In today’s incarnation it has received endorsement from various Irish luminaries – Dara Ó Briain and The Edge among them – and alighted on Earlsfort Terrace. The current proposals include the renovation of the UCD building’s north wing as a permanent exhibition hall, a new, 200-seat planetarium opening onto Iveagh Gardens and a space for temporary exhibits, housed in the real tennis court and connected to the main buildings by a tunnel.

The OPW has approved the project and entered into a partnership with the National Children’s Science Centre. But the path has not been a straight one, and among the obstacles they still face are the IRTA. Planning permission was first granted in 2016, but several objections were raised. An Taisce (loosely equivalent to the National Trust) and the Irish Georgian Society both expressed concerns about the fate of the real tennis court and later submissions protested at the impact on Iveagh Gardens. Following the IRTA’s appeal, a decision from An Bord Pleanála, Ireland’s independent deliberative body for planning, determined that any subsequent development of the court should restore it to a playable condition. After five years, the permission lapsed in 2021.

An updated planning application last year was approved, but again, the IRTA appealed. Roland Budd, another Dublin-based real tennis player, argues that the conditions placed on the redevelopment mean that the building’s most logical use is as a dedicated real tennis court. The OPW is bound by the 2021 report, and by the court’s status as a Protected Structure, to respect its original character. In practice, Budd says, this means that ‘they will be creating, in large measure, a real tennis court’ without concrete provisions for how and when the court will be available for play. The IRTA is especially concerned about the proposed new entrance in the court’s north wall and a lack of clarity about the commitment to build temporary penthouse roofs. From the Exploration Station’s perspective, however, Ireland’s strength as a centre of scientific excellence depends on inspiring the next generation.

At the heart of this dispute is the question of how much respect renovators should pay to a building’s original function. There has been, as An Bord Pleanála’s inspectors put it, ‘a fairly energetic and candid exchange of views… as to what constitutes the restoration of an historic building’. But this saga also illustrates how easily buildings end up standing empty, even in these squeezed times. A verdict on the IRTA’s appeal was due this year, but has been twice postponed. In addition, An Bord Pleanála is in chaos following a string of resignations in the wake of a scandal that engulfed its chair, Paul Hyde, in 2022.

Catching up with Lowry on the phone, I mention in passing the recent All-Ireland hurling final in which Limerick overcame Kilkenny. It transpires that he is a devoted Kilkenny supporter, and I was the last person he expected to open the wound – ‘here I am in my office trying to keep my head down,’ he jokes. Sport in Ireland has changed massively in recent decades, evading the old binary designations of Gaelic and garrison. Hurling’s own history, as Budd points out to me, has a hidden entwinement with that of Irish cricket. A restored real tennis court would have a wider cultural appeal than might be supposed. At the same time, in Ireland’s robust (though unequal) post-recession economy, with its emphasis on tech and drive to promote STEM subjects, a children’s science centre has a central role to play.

In the midst of these changes, and the middle of Dublin, stands the court on Earlsfort Terrace. I gazed at the building for a long time, wondering what kind of crowd spectated as the American Tom Petitt defeated Charles Saunders, an Englishman, seven sets to two in 1890, for his second and final world championship title. A security guard wandered over and asked me what I was looking for.

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