When Helen Wills Moody Came To Ireland (1938)
By Mark Ryan
Helen Wills Moody’s only known visit to Ireland took place soon after she had won her eighth and last Wimbledon singles title early in July 1938. If certain contemporary sources are to be believed, the American tennis champion had originally planned to visit the Irish writer and physician Oliver Saint John Gogarty, whose work she admired, at his country house, Renvyle, in County Galway, at some point early in July 1938.
However, William ‘Willie’ Sandys who, as well being an Irish squash international, was responsible for recruiting players for the Irish Championships tennis tournament held at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club in Dublin, enlisted the help of Gogarty in securing Helen Wills Moody for the Fitzwilliam tournament. In 1938, it was held just after Wimbledon, from July 4-9, thus coinciding with Helen Wills Moody’s planned visit to Ireland.
On Tuesday, July 5, Helen Wills Moody travelled to the port of Holyhead in Wales where she took the mail-boat across the Irish Sea to the port of Dun Laoghaire in Dublin, on the east coast of Ireland, embarking in the late evening. Gogarty was at the port to meet the tennis star, and it is likely that he accompanied her to the Shelbourne Hotel on Saint Stephen’s Green, near the city centre, where she stayed while taking part in the Fitzwilliam tournament.
Saint Stephen’s Green is one of five Georgian squares located in and around the centre of Dublin. Another is Fitzwilliam Square, located only a five-minute walk away from Saint Stephen’s Green on the south side of the capital. It was in the former square that the first Irish Lawn Tennis Championships were held, in May 1879. This tournament was the first national championship in the world to feature a women’s singles event. It enjoyed its golden years in the years 1880-1902, when the top English and Irish players often took part, raising its level to just below that of Wimbledon.
However, the popularity of the Irish tournament declined somewhat thereafter; this decline coincided with the tournament being moved from Fitzwilliam Square to a new venue, the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club in Wilton Place, still on Dublin’s south side, but further away from the city centre. Around this time the Irish Championships were also moved up the calendar, from late May to July, after Wimbledon. This meant that it was no longer one of the important tournaments players took part in the run-up to Wimbledon.
As already indicated, by the time Helen Wills Moody took part in the Irish Championships in 1938, it had lost some of its lustre, but was, nevertheless, still capable of attracting a number of the world’s top players each year. Although Helen Wills Moody was 33 at the time of her participation, she brought with her an intimidating air, if no longer of invincibility, then at least of someone who was still capable of winning any tournament she entered. In addition to her successes at Wimbledon, she had won the singles title at her native United States Championships seven times and the singles title at the French Championships in Paris on four occasions. In recent years she had taken part in very few tournaments, partly for health reasons, but her reputation alone was enough to attract big crowds.
At the Irish Championships in 1938, Helen Wills Moody received a bye in the first round and was due to take on the unheralded Irish player Miss J. Adam (first name unknown) in the second round. However, for an unknown reason Miss Adam was unable to play, so the American had a walkover into the next round where, on Wednesday, July 6, she took on Dorothy Curley.
According to the “Irish Times” newspaper of July 7, 1938: “Mrs Helen Wills Moody made her first appearance in the Irish Championships at Fitzwilliam [yesterday], beating Miss Dorothy Curley, the Irish junior titleholder, by 6-1, 6-2, to qualify for the quarter-final, in which she will meet Mrs Joy Myerscough today on the centre grass court. Mrs Moody gave a splendid display, despite a heavy shower of rain during the match; but even though she won easily, her young opponent fought hard, and took seven games which she lost to deuce.”
As the above excerpt indicates, the weather during the tournament was not ideal, particularly for play on grass. According to the “Irish Times” of July 8, 1938: “The heaviest rain seen in Dublin during the month of July for years past flooded the courts at Fitzwilliam yesterday...” This meant that there was no play at all on the Thursday. According to the same newspaper on the same day: “Mrs Helen Wills Moody has informed the secretary of the Fitzwilliam Club that, should the weather be fine today [Friday], she will play her quarter-final in the women’s singles of the Irish Championships against Mrs Joy Myerscough early in the day, probably at noon. Should this be possible, and Mrs Moody wins, her second [third] match in the tournament will be played at three o’clock.”
Fortunately for the organisers, the weather on Friday, July 8, was favourable and Helen Wills Moody was able to play both a quarter-final and a semi-final match that day. Under the heading “Mrs Moody’s splendid displays”, the “Irish Times” of Saturday, July 9, carried the following report: “Mrs Helen Wills Moody will play the woman titleholder, Miss Thelma Jarvis, this afternoon [...] and this ought to provide a capital struggle, for the holder showed excellent form against her namesake, Miss Rita Jarvis, in one semi-final. Mrs Moody appeared twice, having a brief encounter against Mrs Joy Myerscough in the morning and then a fine match against Miss Patsy O’Connell, one of the English international team, in the afternoon. [...]
“Completely unable to find her touch, Mrs Myerscough could offer no resistance to the Wimbledon champion’s steady driving in the morning, and only two games of the twelve went to deuce. [...]
“It was a different affair in the afternoon, for Miss O’Connell forced Mrs Moody to show her real strength, and the English girl more than earned her five games. She matched drive for drive with the American, but the latter found the corners just too frequently, and, in addition, used the strong cross breeze very cleverly. In fact, her forehand cross-court drives were the decisive strokes, and Miss O’Connell was run mercilesslyfrom side to side.
“She responded bravely to the challenge, and did some really gallant retrieving, but the mistakes had to come, whereas over the two sets Mrs Moody’s errors could be counted on the fingers of one hand. As Miss O’Connell demonstrated on more than one occasion, the American is vulnerable to a drop shot, but she hits so few shots short of a length that the opportunities for playing drops are few and far between. Miss O’Connell made a good effort from 1-5, in the second set, picking up two games and having points for 4-5, but she just failed to force home her opportunity.”
The final score of Helen Wills Moody’s semi-final match against Patsy O’Connell was 6-2, 6-3; as already indicated, in the quarter-final the American had beaten Joy Myerscough 6-0, 6-0. On finals day, Saturday, July 9, the spectators at the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club were treated to an entertaining women’s singles final, although the Englishwoman Thelma Jarvis, like every other player in the tournament, was not in Helen Wills Moody’s class.
The “Irish Times” of Monday, July 11, 1938, featured the following report on the women’s singles final: “[...] With her lovely footwork, which enabled her to retrieve many apparent winners, and her firmly hit ground shots, Miss Jarvis kept the first set a tense affair. She was 1-3 down, but won the next game after about twenty deuces had been called; and after reacting in the next game to trail 2-4, she suddenly struck an absolutely inspired patch and fairly drove her famous opponent off the court to level the games at 4-all.
“However, Mrs Moody was as calm and unmoved as if she had not even heard the score, and proceeded with her stream of steady drives, capturing the next two games quickly for the set. Subsequently Miss Jarvis did not again threaten danger, for Mrs Moody won the first three games of the second set, and thereafter kept safely in front.” The final score was 6-4, 6-2. This victory would turn out to be Helen Wills Moody’s last win in a singles event. Indeed, the American would virtually retire from tournament tennis after taking part in the Irish Championships of 1938.
According to one source, Oliver Saint John Gogarty’s Rolls Royce was waiting at the gates of the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club on the final day of the tournament and, after Jack McCann, president of the club, had presented Helen Wills Moody with her prize, Gogarty drove her down to his country home in County Galway. In reality, the American is likely to have at least showered and changed after her match and, probably, to have collected her belongings from the Shelbourne Hotel on Saint Stephen’s Green before going down to County Galway with the Irish writer.
Oliver Saint John Gogarty was born in Dublin on August 17, 1878. He studied medicine at Trinity College in that city and later became a senator in the parliament of the Irish Free State. Gogarty was a contemporary and friend of poets and writers such as William Butler Yeats and James Joyce; his friendship with the latter was stormy in nature, and Joyce is said to have partly based the character of Buck Mulligan in his novel “Ulysses” on Gogarty. He married Martha Dunne, a native of Connemara, in August 1906.
It appears that Helen Wills Moody had read Gogarty’s recently published work “As I Was Going Down Sackville Street” (1937) and been flattered by a poem Gogarty had written for which she was rumoured to be the inspiration. The American had already met at least one other Irish writer of note. In her autobiography “Fifteen-Thirty: The Story of a Tennis Player” (1937), she writes of a weekend she spent at Cliveden, the country house of Viscountess Nancy Astor, in Taplow in the English county of Buckinghamshire. This visit occurred in July 1929, just after she had won the singles title at Wimbledon for the third time in a row.
According to Helen Wills Moody: “Early on Sunday I looked out of my window on the top floor, which was the nursery, to catch my breath at the beauty of the countryside. The freshness of the green trees and lawns, the sparkling of the dew upon the grass, the winding river with its faintly blue reflection of the sky, and the flat farmlands in the valley below dotted with trees partly veiled with the mist of a summer morning. I saw someone standing on the point looking at the scene. He was not only surveying – he was challenging nature to do her best for him. It was George Bernard Shaw! He was out for an early morning walk.
“A few days later I received his [play] ‘Saint Joan’, and in it he wrote: ‘Dear Helen Wills, I promised you this at Cliveden. You may remember stealing my heart on that occasion. G. Bernard Shaw, 19th July 1929’
“Of this occurrence I had not been aware. In fact, I thought I had affected him quite differently. He had announced after dinner the evening before as we were all sitting around the fire, that tennis should be played in the long grass in meadows in the nude, and then had glanced in my direction to see if I approved. I tried not to let a flicker of expression cross my face.
“At tea he had said, ‘You are not all American!’ I said that I was an American, even though I was half-Norwegian. He said, ‘I knew it!’ This led to a brief argument which would have annoyed me a little if I had not reminded myself that this was what he actually wanted. So it was that the arrival of ‘Saint Joan’ surprised me.”
Although Helen Wills Moody stayed only two nights with the Gogartys at Renvyle, their country house in Connemara on the west coast of Ireland, she appears to have enjoyed the visit. An accomplished artist herself, the rough, wild, wind-swept scenery of Connemara, a contrast to the softer natural beauty of Cliveden, would have caught her eye.
An unnamed correspondent from the “Irish Times” newspaper caught up with the American, Gogarty and another guest at the Renvyle House Hotel in Connemara on Sunday, July 10. His report was published in the newspaper the following day. It began as follows: “‘It’s just delightful to get down here beside the sea, it reminds me so my so much of my home in San Francisco,’ said Mrs Helen Wills Moody yesterday in an interview, which developed into an informal chat over a cup of coffee beside a cosy peat fire in the lounge of the Renvyle House Hotel, Connemara.
“She motored from Dublin on Saturday night with Dr and Mrs Gogarty, arriving in Renvyle at 2 a.m. yesterday morning. ‘It is my first time to see a peat fire,’ she said, glancing at the glowing embers, ‘and I love it.’
“Mrs Moody is keenly interested in modern Irish art and had hoped to visit the Dublin galleries, but could not find the time to do so during her present visit. She is also very fond of historical ruins and would love to have time to explore the old castles of Connemara [...]
“Mrs Moody intends to come to Connemara again next year. She hopes to land at Galway. She promised to recommend a holiday in Ireland to all her friends in America, and said that if it were sufficiently advertised in that country, there would be a rush of American visitors.
“Mrs Moody is returning to Dublin today, and is crossing to London tonight.”
Although Helen Wills Moody’s only known visit to Ireland was a relatively short one, there is no doubt that it was a successful one and one she enjoyed very much, and not just because of her victory in the singles event at the Irish Championships.
Last edited by newmark401; May 29th, 2013 at 03:54 PM.