Monday 18 December 2017

Unravelling mystery of Irish stars lost in the mists of time

Sean Diffley

I've been on the prowl for two women and I've finally discovered them.

My search was for the first Irishwoman to win an Olympic medal, and the Irishwoman who became the first overseas winner -- male or female -- of a tennis event that is now part of the Grand Slam.

I refer of course to Beatrice Geraldine Hill-Lowe from Ardee, Co Louth and Mabel Esmonde Cahill, from Ballyragget, Co Kilkenny. Hill-Lowe took the bronze medal in archery in the 1908 London Olympics and all-conquering tennis player Cahill trounced her rivals in winning US Open singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in 1891 and 1892.

Now I know all about them and so now I will twirl my moustache and smile smugly, with an air of self-satisfaction in the vein of Hercule Poirot.

In fairness, the twirling of moustaches should only be accorded to our diligent investigators, Dermot Sherlock, the secretary general of the Olympic Council, and the indefatigable curator of the County Museum in Dundalk, Brian Walsh.

One thing our two supremely talented ladies had in common is that they both came from huge families. Cahill was one of five daughters and seven sons, and Hill-Lowe's family numbered eight children, all of which makes it exceedingly strange that their names and outstanding achievements have been so lost to our sporting memories.

Hill-Lowe (nee Ruxton) was born in Ardee House and her father was named 'gentleman and justice of the peace'. He was also involved in administration for the county of Cavan.

It is not clear how or why Beatrice Ruxton got involved in archery, but she was aged 40 and married when she won her bronze at the White City Stadium in 1908.

Her husband was the magnificently named Commander Arthur Hill Ommanney Peter Hill-Lowe and served in the Royal Navy. He died in Shropshire just two years after Beatrice had competed in the Olympics.

Some time later Beatrice got married again. Her new husband was named Thompson and they lived in Pembrokeshire, where our bronze medallist died in 1951 aged 83.

Mabel Cahill's father was Michael Cahill, 'gentleman landowner and barrister of law' of Ballyconra House, in Ballyragget. There is no knowledge of Mabel playing tennis at any level in Ireland, but she went to school in Roscrea.

She was 26 when she went to New York and among her beaten finalists when she won her US titles in 1891 and 1892 were two of President Theodore Roosevelt's first cousins.

Mabel returned to Ireland in 1893 where she kept a low profile. In 1904, aged 41, she died. In 1963 the Irish lawn Tennis Association tried to contact some members of her family to award her a gold medallion, but they could not get in touch with any of her relatives.

The US tennis body, who inducted her to their Hall of Fame in 1976, also failed in their efforts to make contact with any family.

Three of her brothers emigrated to California but there has been no contact with Ballyragget.

Irish Independent

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