Tricks & treats as The '68 hits fifty
Reporter David Medcalf joined members of the '68 Bridge Club in Arklow for a few hands as they marked the club's fiftieth birthday. He found good company and plenty of skillful players gathered around the card tables
The game of bridge has found the ideal home for its Arklow adherents in the hall adjoining the Presbyterian church in the town.
The cards are dealt there four nights each week in a space which is roomy without being cavernous, and cheerfully warm throughout the year.
On bright evenings, the extensive window offers as fine view out across the reed beds over to the church towers of the town.
It was here that the members of The '68 Bridge Club gathered recently in celebration to remind themselves that it is 50 years since their foundation.
Yes, the '68' in the title refers simply to the fact that the club was founded in the year 1968, exactly half a century ago.
The surroundings have changed over the decades before the shufflers and dealers finally came to roost in these smart, clean surroundings.
Now they gather at 7.30 p.m. sharp each Wednesday evening to practise their skills in
They began in a back room behind Paul Doyle's newsagent shop. Many of the current membership recall when their weekly session was staged at the Arklow Bay hotel.
Then there was a stint when they had to climb the stairs to a room above John Joe's pub.
Current '68 Bridge Club president Sandra Hall was to the fore in identifying the current venue beside the Dublin Road as ideal for the purpose.
She is a member of the Presbyterian parish, well placed to broker the arrangement about seven years ago.
The church complex also hosts a variety of activities including the youth club, 'Women of the World' meetings and a pre-school.
This still leaves space on the roster for the Asgard Bridge Club on Mondays, the Arklow Bridge Club (longest established of the lot) on Tuesdays, the '68 Bridge Club on Wednesdays and the Apollo Bridge Club on Thursdays.
A Tuesday morning session has taken root at the town's golf club, so popular that a waiting list of those wanting to join has had to be introduced.
Many enthusiasts play two or three times a week, often with a different partner on each of the different days.
None of the originals from 1968 are on the books now in 2018, though several remain active bridge players elsewhere - Lilian O'Carroll, Helen Barrett and Alyse McCarthy
Danny McLoughlin reckons that he has been a member of The '68 for the past thirty years and he retains his enthusiasm for the sport undimmed.
Or is bridge really a sport? Efforts to have it recognised as such have prompted much debate, sometimes heated, sometimes technical, and sometimes philosophical.
One thing certain is that men and women gathered in the hall the night your reporter came to test his skills do not really qualify as athletes.
They - myself included - will not be giving Usain Bolt or Mo Farah a run for their money any time soon, or any time at all.
This was a gathering where the typical participant was of pensionable age and many of those present were widowed and/or retired.
Though not in the first flush of youth, they were all sharp as tacks with 13 cards in their fists, exuding a wealth of experience and anecdote and character.
It is no coincidence that some of the packs of playing cards used by the club carry advertisements for the Home Instead senior care organisation, where the marketing department is clearly on the ball.
Mamie Quirke declined to state her age but admitted being old enough to have children who have finished college while a third is in final year.
She was the second youngest person participating, the youngest being Pauline Louth, Mamie's kid sister. No teenagers here. No twenty-somethings either.
With youth so notably absent, perhaps bridge needs to take a self-critical look at an image which so off-putting to many members of the younger generation.
The reality is that anyone capable of playing as hand of whist - tricks and trumps, remember - is capable of enjoying bad bridge.
After mastering the rudiments, it is then simply a question whether to continue splashing around in the shallows or to wade into the more complex depths of the game.
Those who pass by without dipping their toe into the water probably tend to be put off by talk of conventions and discards, of ruffs and reneges.
The style of bridge on Wednesday nights, the members tell you earnestly, is 'five card majors, with variable no trump' - the sort of jargon which sets off alarm bells in the uninitiated.
Suggesting that the Tuesday night game is the best bet for anyone who might prefer to play ACOL as an alternative does nothing to suppress incipient panic.
Then there is the impossibly complicated scoring system which looks to novice eyes as easily memorised as a logarithmic table or calculations of pi to 17 places of decimals.
Also intimidating is the fact that bridge must be the only card game which people feel they must first take lessons before taking their place at the table with any confidence.
At least Arklow has been lucky in having the very best of teachers, as a quick word with some of he '68's stalwarts soon revealed.
Danny McLoughlin: 'I started playing in Arklow. A lady called Margaret Cahill was very much into bridge….'
Tadhg Garvey: 'I am playing for twenty years. I started when I retired. Margaret Cahill was the teacher - and a very kind teacher she was.'
Pauline Louth: I am playing for 13 or 14 years. I started at the Asgard because it was known as a beginners' club. I got lessons from Margaret Cahill.'
Mamie Quirke: 'Margaret Cahill - she is great.'
Sean Crowley: 'I was too busy as a young man in Cork playing Gaelic and soccer. I have been involved in bridge for 25 years. I learned the game from Margaret Cahill.'
Margaret remains very active as an accomplished player of the game but nowadays, anyone seeking lessons may have to travel as far as Gorey.
So, what is the appeal?
Tadhg Garvey: 'Taking up bridge was the best thing I did for my retirement.'
Elizabeth O'Brien: 'I would be dead only for bridge. It gets me out two nights a week.'
Sean Crowley: 'I was going to retire and was told I needed a hobby. Learning bridge was a good move. The appeal of the game is meeting people and getting out. I never drank, you see.'
Mamie Quirke: 'I love the game. It's the best value there is for a fiver.'
Sandra Hall: 'It is such a social night.'
Elinor Byrne: 'I could be out drinking - better to be playing bridge instead. You get to meet people.'
Elinor is 20 years a member here, though her husband Des does not play anymore. He discovered that Arklow bridge is far too noisy, with conversation breaking out between hands.
He comes from a sterner tradition where the game was played in absolute silence, allowing total concentration on the cards.
Elinor, with her swashbuckling style of play, does not mind the chat.
Besides, she does not feel it is a good idea for husbands to team up with wives, so she is happy to take the visiting reporter under her wing for the evening.
Together we bluffed our way through 18 hands of cards and met six other pairs over the course of two and a half most enjoyable hours.
She reported that, while she lived in Mullingar, a school there taught bridge to fifth and sixth year students, giving them a skill they can use just about anywhere in the world.
Maybe the time has come for the organisers of the game in County Wicklow to consider a similar youth-friendly initiative.
'We should have brought bridge into the schools years ago,' she opined. 'We need some young blood.'
They could also benefit from a few more men, with only three males among the field that night, plus the visitor.
These days at The '68, the results of the weekly competition are calculated on a computer programme, since Sean Crowley retired from the job of making the returns up in his immaculate handwriting.
The tournament director, hustling everyone to hurry up and relaying the right cards to the right tables, is usually PJ Sheehy but Mamie Quirke filled in as he was absent this evening.
There is no bar in the Presbyterian hall, but the kettle is available in the kitchen for anyone who wants to make a cup of tea.
The club is all set to stage a charity night late this month when the money raised will be passed on to Aware - card players like a good cause.
'Bridge is a super game,' mused president Sandra Hall. 'It should be taught to transition years - but the screens have taken over!'