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Published: 12:04 | 24/6/19

From Centre Court to Devil’s Island - The Irish at Wimbledon

With Wimbledon starting on Monday, it’s worth remembering that the Irish were once regular challengers for top honours at this great tournament. But their story is about more than just tennis – it’s full of mystery, intrigue and even murder too!

Irish sports men and women have achieved huge success internationally over the years. For a small country, we punch well above our weight in the sporting arena. However, we might easily be forgiven for thinking that tennis is one area where major success had eluded us. Not so, as it turns out, as four Irish people – three men and one woman – have actually won the Wimbledon singles crown.

He may not have won the title, but Vere St Leger Goold is undoubtedly the most famous (or is it infamous?) Irishman ever to grace the finely coiffed lawns of SW19. The youngest son of a baron, Goold enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Waterford. Known to his fans simply as ‘St Leger’, this dashing figure won the inaugural Irish tennis championship in 1879 which was initially held in Fitzwilliam Square before later moving to the Fitzwilliam Club in Donnybrook.

Goold was one of the favourites for the Wimbledon championship that year where he duly made it all the way to the final. He was expected to beat clergyman Reverend John Hartley in the decider but suffered a surprise 6-2 6-4 6-2 defeat, a result that may have been down to the fact that Goold had stayed up all night drinking the night before. He failed to defend his Irish title the following year and quickly faded from the scene.  

Murder in Monte Carlo

That was last anyone heard of Goold for almost three decades. He spent most of the intervening years drinking, gambling and running up debts. He moved from one failed business venture to another with his French-born wife, Marie Giraudin, a former dressmaker and seamstress. They moved between London, Liverpool, Montreal and Paris before eventually winding up in Mote Carlo in 1907 where they decided to try their luck in the casinos.

Referring to themselves as ‘Sir’ and ‘Lady’ Goold, they enjoyed a good run of luck on the roulette tables upon their arrival. But fortune soon turned against them and they quickly found themselves strapped for cash. Desperate to maintain their outward façade of wealth, they latched onto a Swedish widow, Emma Liven, and borrowed money from her. When she came to their hotel to collect, they murdered her, stole her jewellery, dismembered her corpse and placed her remains in a suitcase. They decided to flee but, in order to allay any suspicions, calmly had breakfast in the dining room with the suitcase at their feet. But they didn’t get away with it - they were detained in Marseille when a rail porter noticed blood dripping from the suitcase.

Goold was sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime early the following year. He committed suicide two years later on Devil’s Island, an ignominious end to a life that had once held so much promise. Marie faced the guillotine but, remarkably, they were unable to find a working one in the area and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. It proved a short stay of execution, however, as she died of typhoid in Montpellier prison in 1914.

First winners

Ireland had its first Wimbledon winner in 1890. Kildare-born Willoughby Hamilton was already an international footballer, cricketer and badminton player when, after beating three future winners en route to the final, he overcame seven-time champion William Renshaw in five sets to win the title. He was ranked number one in the world and looked set to dominate the game for many years to come.

Known as ‘The Shadow’ for his pale countenance and the way he ghosted around the court, he failed to defend his title the following year and soon dropped off the radar altogether. He was just 25. Nothing else was heard of him until a short obituary in the newspaper revealed that he had died, aged 78, at home in Dundrum, Co. Dublin on September 28th 1943.

But Hamilton wasn’t the only Irish winner at Wimbledon in 1890 – Tipperary-born Helena Rice won the ladies singles title. A native of New Inn near Cashel, she was the second-youngest of eight children and grew up playing tennis with her sister in the garden of the family’s large Georgian house. She reached the semi-finals of the ladies singles at the Irish Championship in 1889 where she was beaten by six-time Wimbledon champion Blanche Bingley Hillyard. However, she did win the mixed doubles title with Willoughby Hamilton.

She competed at Wimbledon later that year where she squandered three match points at 5-3 and a set up before eventually being beaten by Hillyard in the final. However, she came out on top the following year as, after winning the all-comers’ crown to reach the challenge final, she was awarded a walkover as Hillyard was unable to defend her title because she was pregnant. Rice is credited with developing the forehand smash shot which she unleashed for the first time at Wimbledon, hoisting up her long skirt and leaping into the air to smash the ball back past her opponent to spontaneous whoops and cheers from the crowd.

However, as was the case with Hamilton, Rice quickly faded from the scene and there is no record of her ever playing a major tennis tournament again. Her mother died in 1891 and that may have precipitated her decision to stop playing. She died of tuberculosis in 1907 on her 41st birthday.

Joshua Pim

The next Irish success at Wimbledon came in 1893 when Bray-born Joshua Pim won the first of two titles in succession. A member of the family that invented the famous fruit cup drink (itself a big Wimbledon favourite), Pim had reached the semi-final in 1890 where he lost to eventual winner Willoughby Hamilton. He made it to the final in 1891 and 1892, but lost in four sets both times to Englishman Wilfred Baddeley.

Baddeley was his opponent once again when he reached the final in 1893. However, this time it was the Irishman who emerged triumphant, again in four sets. He defended his crown the following year as he beat Baddeley in straight sets in the final. He opted to compete in America in 1895 and didn’t defend his title at SW19. Pim also twice won the Wimbledon men’s doubles title – in 1890 and 1893 - with fellow Irishman Frank Stoker, a first cousin of Dracula author Bram.

Pim slowly withdrew from the tennis circuit as he concentrated on his medical career. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1896, although he made a brief comeback to the sporting arena in 1902 when he was the token Irish member of the British Davis Cup squad. However, his best days were long behind him and he retired immediately afterwards. A keen golfer and swimmer, he moved to Killiney and served as Medical Officer at nearby St Columcille's Hospital in Loughlinstown for over 40 years. He died in April 1942 at the age of 72.

Last winner

Harold Mahony is generally considered to be the last Irish person to win a Wimbledon singles title. Although born in Edinburgh where his family had a house, he was brought up at the family seat of Dromore Castle near Kenmare, Co. Kerry where he practised on an improvised court. He was the last Scottish-born player to win a major Wimbledon title until Andy Murray won the first of his two men’s singles championships back in 2013.

Mahony had been a significant contender at SW19 for several years before he eventually won the title in 1896, beating Pim’s great rival and three-time champion Wilfred Baddeley in the final following an epic five-set encounter. He was beaten in the final the following year by Reginald Doherty who went on to win the championship four times in all. Although he never challenged for top honours at Wimbledon again, Mahony continued to play. He was runner-up at the US Open the following year and won silver medals in the men’s singles and doubles and a bronze in the mixed doubles at the 1900 Olympics in Paris.

An excellent musician, Mahony was well-known for his good humour which made him a favourite with spectators. He is said to have carried on conversations with crowd members between points, even resuming them after the change of ends had taken him up to the other side of the court and back. He had a keen eye for the ladies and is rumoured to have had a relationship with Lottie Dod, five-time ladies singles champion and one of the greatest sportswomen of the age. He died tragically in June 1905 at the age of 38 after a cycling accident near his home in Kerry after trying to negotiate his way down a steep hill.

123 years on from Mahony’s triumph, the wait for the next Irish champion continues.

Images: Getty/Public domain

*******Enjoy LIVE coverage from Wimbledon 2019 every day from Monday, July 1st on eir sport 1. 

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