The short, sad life of a Kilkenny tennis champ


 By Gerry Moran

Mention champions and Kilkenny in the same breath and one immediately thinks: hurling. And rightly so. After all, regardless of how things pan out on the playing field this year, Kilkenny are still top of the pile with 36 All Ireland Hurling titles, followed by Cork with 30, Tipperary with 28 and Limerick with 11.

However, Kilkenny has more strings to its champions-bow than hurling. Take for instance Michael Phelan, from Castlecomer, who left Ireland in1824, aged four, and became the world’s greatest billiards player and made popular the game we now know as pool. He died in 1871, aged 52, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Billiard Congress of America (rather belatedly) in 1993.

Or there’s James Mason who was born in Kilkenny City in 1849 and, aged 11, emigrated to the US where he  went on to become the chess champion of America. Mason was not his real name but one he adopted to avoid anti-Irish sentiment which was prevalent in America at the time. Mason not alone became the chess champion of America but, in 1877 aged 28, was No.1 chess player in the world, a position he held on to for 11 months. Mason might well have held that position for longer but unfortunately succumbed to the demon drink and died in 1905, in his 56th year. Mason wrote several books on chess the most popular being The Principles of Chess in Theory and Practice, first published in 1894 and still in print to this day.

But perhaps the greatest Kilkenny champion of all was tennis player Mabel Cahill who didn’t win Wimbledon but who made history by becoming the first non-American, and the only Irish person, to win the US Open Tennis Championship back in 1891. Mabel also won the Women’s Doubles the same year. In 1892 Mabel was back as defending champion and made yet more history by becoming the first player to win the Singles, the Ladies Doubles and Mixed Doubles in the one year.

Yet, for all her historic tennis achievements, Mabel’s life was short and sad.

Mabel Esmonde Cahill was born in 1863, the 12th of 13 children, in Ballyragget, Her father was a barrister and a man of means. Mabel’s mother died when she was Mabel was 12. Her father remarried but it was not a happy union. He died within 12 months but left enough money to educate the family and give them a start in life.

Mabel had been introduced to lawn tennis at an early age and in 1884, aged 21, won the Kilkenny City and County Lawn Tennis Tournament beating Mary Langrishe, the first winner of the Irish Lawn Tennis Championship, in the final. Mabel then moved to Dublin where she continued to play excellent tennis and in 1889, aged 26, emigrated to New York.  Her tennis playing soon caught the attention of the media. The Brooklyn Daily Edge wrote: “Miss Cahill, the young lady who has made her name famous as a tennis player, is a slight and rather delicate-looking girl, yet the severity of her play is the terror of her opponents.”

In 1890 she made it to the final of the US Open losing out to Ellen Roosevelt, a cousin of Franklin D Roosevelt, but returned to win the title in 1891 and 1892 making tennis sporting history along the way.

Mabel did not contest the 1893 tournament due possibly to money problems. Her father’s inheritance had run out and Mabel, without a profession, turned her hand to journalism and romantic novel writing but with little success.

By 1897, aged 34, she was in London where she tried a career in the theatre but that, too, met with little success. Mabel Cahill died in Ormskirk Workhouse near Southport in Lancashire in 1905 in her 42nd year. She was more than likely buried in a pauper’s grave with no headstone to mark her resting place.

In 1936 the Irish Lawn Tennis Association placed an ad in the national papers searching for a relative, or representative, to come forward to accept a gold medal struck in honour of her achievements in America. It is not known if the medal was ever collected. In 1976, in appreciation of her historic tennis records, Mabel Cahill was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Sadly, once again, after a search, no relative, or representative of her family, came forward.

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