Real Tennis in the Courts


“The court…was of black polished marble, and very nearly as smooth as glass. It was entirely built of Irish marble, I believe, from quarries in Connemara. One effect of this construction was that the players and the ball were mirrored, as ‘in a glass, darkly’, on floor and walls — a rather distressing feature, both to the players and to the marker.”

This description is from an account of the 1890 world championships in real tennis, held in Dublin on what has become known as the ‘Guinness Court’. Real tennis is like lawn tennis, in that there is a net and players on either side. Beyond that it is a quite different game, evident when you look at a real tennis court. There are only 47 real tennis courts in the world in active use, found in the UK (which has over half the total), France, the US and Australia. The game has an involved history, and according to one theory is said to have been started by medieval monks. The galleries, or inset nets at the side and back of a real tennis court, are believed to be derived from monastic cloisters. A pivotal event of the French Revolution took place on a real tennis court, the so-called ‘tennis court oath’, the best-known depiction of which clearly shows the court, with galleries familiar to real tennis players, as well as a racket and balls in one corner.

As evident from the quote, there is a court in Ireland. The Dublin Real Tennis Court is only a few steps from St Stephen’s Green, on Earlsfort Terrace. It was built in 1885, and tennis was played there up to 1939. In the decades since 1940 it has been used by University College Dublin (then located next door), initially as a gymnasium and more recently as a laboratory and offices. Since the end of the 1990s the Irish Real Tennis Association has been working to have the court re-opened for play.

The realm of cultural rights is often overlooked. However the role of traditional sports and games (now given the acronym TSG) has recently come under the protection of UNESCO, with a proposed world heritage list. UNESCO notes: “Most of the traditional sports and games…have already disappeared and those that are surviving are threatened of imminent disappearance and extinction under the combined effect of globalization and harmonization of the rich diversity of world sport heritage.”

So what happened to the Guinness Court? It is so named after its builder, Edward Guinness, Lord Iveagh, of the brewing family.  The court was presented to the Irish State, along with Iveagh House, at the end of the 1930s, by Edward’s son, Rupert Guinness.  The court has seen little or no tennis since then, having been used from an early stage for other purposes by UCD.  The interior was adapted over the years, with the removal of the penthouses, the building of partition walls, the installation of laboratory equipment, the construction of an upper floor at one end, and even the breaking of an entrance door through the main (side) wall, but generally the court remained easily recognisable, and never far from playable condition.  From the exterior, the building would be familiar to any real tennis player, and indeed the glazed roof appears to have been well maintained. However a 1990s proposal to turn the court into a recital hall as an extension of the neighbouring National Concert Hall led to a planning objection, and the court found itself in the courts.

Lord Iveagh’s wish, set out in an exchange of letters with Eamonn de Valera in 1939, was that the court would continue to be used for tennis. The correspondence was cited in an application for judicial review of the decision to grant planning permission for the recital hall proposal, heard before Mr Justice Ó Caoimh in the High Court, in which judgment was delivered in July 2001. Lord Iveagh had written: “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.”

Further angles, of which a real tennis court has many, were provided by the ‘Venice Charter’, or the International Convention for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, and the ‘Granada Convention’, or Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of the Architectural Heritage of Europe. Article 5 of the Venice Charter reads: “the conservation of monuments is always facilitated by making use of them for some socially useful purpose. Such use is therefore desirable but it must not change the layout or decoration of the building.” The Court heard that the proposed recital hall was considered to fall within Article 5, despite the fact that it would alter the layout and decoration of the court.

Mr Justice Ó Caoimh found in favour of the planning authorities. As for Lord Iveagh’s letter, he wrote that it “only represented an expression of will on the part of the donor but in no way formed part of the grant and had no legal force.” Similarly he rejected the proposed interpretations of the Venice Charter and Granada Convention. Yet the recital hall did not go ahead; I am uncertain as to why not, but it is apparent that the case had the effect of forestalling the proposal and the project was abandoned. The Office of Public Works retains control of the building on behalf of the State. The Irish Real Tennis Association is working on plans for the refurbishment of the court for the playing of real tennis. Meanwhile, the Irish real tennis championships take place every year in the UK, with the 2011 championships on 18 June.

There is one other court in Ireland; an open-air structure by the sea, built in the 1920s on Lambay, a privately-owned island some miles off the coast of north county Dublin. As well as being open to the sky, the Lambay Island court has an extra hazard (as court features are known), which distinguishes it still further from other courts. Some photos of the Lambay Island court, as well as of the Guinness Court, can be seen here.

Roman Krznaric argues that a real tennis court is more than a real tennis court; it is a theatre of the imagination. The Guinness Court – restored to active use – would make an important addition to Dublin’s social architecture, and would undoubtedly become a tourist attraction (the name alone would attract the Americans). Sport and culture are often inter-mingled; it is important that unique aspects of our heritage are protected. The real tennis story in Ireland is an unusual one, like the game itself.

I am grateful to barrister (and Irish champion) Roland Budd for his insights on the efforts to have the Dublin court re-opened.

Real Tennis in the Courts

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