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Archive for April, 2012
Once May is in sight, thoughts of tennis come flooding through me. They came a bit earlier than usual this year because I was fortunate enough to be in Mallorca at Easter and hoped that maybe, just maybe, I would catch sight of Rafa Nadal. I didn’t and what surprised me even more was that I couldn’t even find a copy of his autobiography over there. I have read it since I came home and understand now that Mallorca is the one place where this superstar wants to be, and most importantly, is, treated like a normal human being.
Passion for tennis is what emerges from Nadal’s book and that is something with which I can certainly identify. One doesn’t have to be a superstar to know that special feel of rusty red clay courts – will Nadal follow up his recent win in Monte Carlo with yet another victory at the forthcoming French Open?
The clay courts in Ireland that brought me hours of pleasure were those in County Tipperary Lawn Tennis Club, which was founded in 1887, and which was steeped in quaint old-worldness when I used to play in the August tournament there throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. This was the era before floodlights were widespread and those weeks in Tipperary, which were punctuated by cucumber sandwiches and homemade cream sponge cakes, also highlighted the fact that summer was ending as failing light would curtail play around half-eight. We would retire in our rust stained whites into the tiny wooden hut that housed the ‘bar’ and all the talk would be about the highlights of the season just passed and questions of how it was possible to find two such different personalities as Borg and McEnroe.
But most of all, May brought the scent of cut grass and thoughts of Wimbledon. My first introduction to tennis was on the grass courts of Tramore, Co. Waterford when I was three. From those early days, I harboured dreams, as so many youngsters and not-so-youngsters do, of being Wimbledon champion one day. Thoughts of serving for the Championship were never far from my mind as I practiced endlessly against the walls of the Bank Houses that we lived in around the country when I was growing up.
Billie Jean King was my idol and deep down I hoped that, at least sharing part of her name, might help me to follow in her footsteps. While others might have counted sheep to get to sleep, I would work my way down through the Men’s and Ladies’ Singles draws which I tried to commit to memory from the minute they were made. John Newcombe was my heart throb ~ he had it all! Whenever I was sick, my mother would ask me a key question to try and gauage if I was as bad as I was making out: ‘Now, if John Newcombe was at the front door, do you think you’d be fit enough to go down and talk to him?‘ Even when I moaned, ‘No‘, I knew that I would be well able to zoom down the stairs if there was even the remotest chance that ‘He’ might be calling!
I had a fleeting glimpse of the ‘Big Time’ when I was drawn to play against the great Maria Bueno – 3 times Wimbledon Champion and tennis legend – in the first round of the Irish Open when I was 19 and she was semi-retired. That was a lesson and a half! I learned more about spins, angles and drop shots in the seventeen and a half minutes it took her to beat me than I had learned in the sixteen years I had been playing tennis. Forever after, no matter who I had to play, I could at least say, ‘Well, she’s not Maria Bueno!’
Walking through the airport in Mallorca, I thought of my mother’s view that being able to play tennis to some kind of reasonable standard is like a passport in life. I also wondered how it must feel for Rafa Nadal to ‘come home,’ having won so much from the Under -12 Balearic Islands Championships, aged only eight, to Grand Slam titles, Davis Cup and Olympic Gold.
Hearing about his humility, I was also reminded of his rendition, with Roger Federer, of Rudyard Kipling’s, ‘If,’ which hangs in my heart as well as at the entrance to the hallowed Centre Court of Wimbledon. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEeLh5ItQcY
One of my most vivid memories from childhood is gathering wild flowers with my mother to enter a competition at Castlebayney Agricultural Show back in the 1960s. It was a happy, happy time and, even though I was very young, I knew that Mother was enjoying the adventure just as much as I was.
Mother died almost three years ago, aged 88, and today I unearthed an article which she wrote around the time that we were collecting the wild flowers. Reading it, I became acutely aware of just how deeply she appreciated nature and how it is no coincidence that the re-emergence of wild flowers, especially in spring, is so fundamentally important to me. Here is what she wrote:
Flowers, especially wild flowers, played a large part in my childhood in Co. Meath. In the woods at home grew masses of snowdrops, under the trees, making the winter woodlands beautiful with their dainty white flowers among dark green ivy leaves. Oh, the thrill of the first snowdrop. To know that spring was on its way, and soon my beloved woods would be awakening from their winter slumbers. My birthday is in late January, and perhaps that is why I loved the snowdrops so much. They were my special flower. I would search the woods diligently, and always succeeded in finding enough to decorate the table for my birthday tea. After I left home, my mother never failed to include a tiny bunch of snowdrops in my birthday parcel. Snowdrops have always been synonomous with home to me, and although I have moved home umpteen times, I always plant a few snowdrop bulbs in each new garden.
Then there were the lesser celandines. There was a wood at home which was completely carpeted with them. Surprisingly early in the year, not long after the snowdrops were in bloom, that particular wood was filled with birdsong, sunshine, the tender green leaves of the celandines, and the little golden flowers.
And then came the primroses; primroses and baby chicks are always associated in my mind. They both arrive around Easter time and are the same delicious pale yellow. There was a stream at home which ran between very steep, sloping banks on which great clumps of primroses grew. Primroses abounded in the woods as well, but I loved to pick them on the banks of the stream. There was always a distinct danger of falling in, and of course this added to the fun. There were periwinkles in the woods too. They made a lovely posy, their tender blue toning beautifully with the pale yellow primroses.
In a dark corner of a laurel grove grew a few shy wood anenomes. Never enough to pick, but I had to visit them each year and admire the few precious blossoms.
Bluebells and beech trees go together, and the bluebells are in blossom just as those beautiful fresh young beech leaves unfold. To me, there are few lovelier sights than a carpet of bluebells dappled by the sunshine in a beech wood.
Cowslips were not very plentiful in our part of the country, but there was one field where they flourished. I used to make a pilgrimage to see the cowslips every year. I remember a grown-up explaining to me how to make a cowslip ball. I was horrified. How anyone could do that to my lovely cowslips!
I always prefer to see flowers growing, and when I do pick them I like to pick them here and there so that they will not be missed. Lilac grew in the woods, too. There was one big lilac bush in the wood by the river. Oh, the scent of that lilac with the dew on it, on a warm May morning.
We always went to stay with my grandmother in the early summer. She lived in Co. Kildare, and when I think of going there I think of dog-roses. The road from the station was always bathed in sunshine, with blue mountains in the distance, and the hedges simply covered with dog-roses and honeysuckle. And in the tillage fields on either side of the road, there were wild red poppies. I know farmers don’t like wild poppies much, but I loved them. Oh, let me have dog-roses and honeysuckle and poppies for my holidays. Nothing in all the travel brochures can give me such a thrill.
Until yesterday, Cahir was one of those towns that I had only ever really passed through – mainly on my way to play tennis on the magnificent clay courts in Tipperary town. Now, I have a real sense of what I was missing as my mind was focussed on the challenges of playing on clay and wonderment at the stamina, spins and slices of clay-court experts of my era, like Borg, Lendl, Wilander, Evert, Seles, Graf …..
So much history and beauty in Cahir; a town which is built on the River Suir, which is heading for Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir, Waterford and onward to the sea as the estuary widens at Cheekpoint and Passage East …..
Cahir Castle is situated on a rocky island in the River Suir and is one of the largest and best preserved castles in Ireland. It was built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier native Irish fortfication called a ‘cathair’ (stone fort), which gave its name to the place. Cahir Castle was granted to the powerful Butler family, Earls of Ormond, in the late 14th century. The mere mention of the Butler family has me thinking of Kilkenny Castle and the stunning Tudor House in Carrick-on-Suir as well as a condensed version of a vast Butler Family Tree that left me stunned by all its branches when I first saw it.
Cahir Castle has been lovingly restored on various occasions over the centuries and is now a State National Monument, managed by the Office of Public Works. Over 60,000 people visit each year and are treated to well-informed guided tours, such as I had from Hazel yesterday. The most stunning room, for me, was the banqueting hall, but I was also enthralled by the beauty of the courtyards and the ingenuity associated with the defences.
I seem to remember having a meal years ago in the Cahir House Hotel after a tough tennis match in Tipperary. What I didn’t realise then was that this building was once a residence of Richard Butler, 12th Baron Caher and Emily Jeffreys of Blarney Castle, Co Cork, who married in 1793 at the ages of 17 and 16 respectively.
It was they who were responsible for building the Swiss Cottage which is a breathtaking ‘cottage orne’ about a mile and a half up river from the town of Cahir. It is thought that the Swiss Cottage was designed by leading English architect, John Nash, who worked extensively for King George IV and was responsible for the planning of Regent Street in London and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, amongst many other projects.
The Swiss Cottage is a leading example of an ornanmental cottage which was highly fashionable among the aristocracy in the early years of the nineteenth century. Essentially, it was a fanciful rural retreat with the theme of ‘nature’ running throughout. Nature was perceived as being asymmetrical and irregular and the Swiss Cottage is steeped in these aspects. The most striking features, for me, were the subtle differences in the shapes of the elegant windows many of which have oak leaf decoration.
The thatched roof of the Swiss Cottage is beautifully crafted and it was Hugh O’Neill, the master thatcher whom I featured here on Social Bridge http://socialbridge.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/master-thatcher-hugh-oneill/, who was responsible for its restoration in the early 1990s. The history of Swiss Cottage is quite amazing in that it had fallen ino terrible disrepair through vandalism in the 1980s but was ‘rescued’ largely as a result of a very generous donation by American philanthropist, Mrs Sally Aall.
Given the range of links and the depth of history which emerged for me in my exploration of the this town that I had never really noticed before, it probably shouldn’t have come as any surprise to find that Cahir even has its very own Viaduct, opened in 1852.