Fives in Wales and Ireland
This article was written by Peter Knowles and first appeared in the Eton Fives Association Annual Report in 1991/92
Little, if any, fives is played these days in either Wales or Ireland but it was not always so. A Welsh team has competed in the International Tournament and there are Eton Fives courts, though sadly not in use, at Rydal School in Colwyn Bay.*
In "A Description of Caernarvonshire 1809-11" Edmund Hyde Hall says of Welsh sports, "Quoits and skittles I have sometimes, though not often, observed: but fives may be almost termed a national pursuit, in which both boys and men very generally and eagerly engage. To this sport the churchyard is commonly resorted to and on this account it is that the windows of the churches are to be so frequently secured with shutters. The history of the Parish Church at Llansilin, Clwyd states, "Ball games such as fives and quoits used to be played against the north side of the church and the evidence is shown by the dull red mark". Richard Halstead and I confirmed this in a visit last summer but neither of us would be too keen to play a game on that court - I have seen many more suitable church walls than this one for a game of fives!
Glamorgan was well known in the last century for the sport of 'chwarae pel' (literally ball playing), played originally against the church wall on Sundays, later against a blank wall of a house but in its most developed form on a specially built three walled court, not unlike a squash court without a rear wall. One such court still survives in Nelson and several other sites have been identified in the county. Fives, which was similar in origin but with different rules and techniques, became incorporated in England into the recreational activities of the public schools and it was through this association that fives courts came to be built in the nineteenth century in Welsh schools such as those in Pengam, Cowbridge and Llandovery as well as St David's College, Lampeter. Does anyone know if any of these courts remain or whether they were Eton or Rugby courts?**
The game of fives never seemed to have reached the same degree of popularity in Ireland that it did in England and Wales but according to essayist William Hazlitt the most famous fives player in the world was John Cavanagh who died in London in 1819 but came originally from Cork. From Hazlitt's obituary of Cavanagh it is clear that the game he played and the courts in which he played must have had little in common with the fives of the present day. A nineteenth century description of the lives of the landowning class (of English descent and Protestant) in Wexford in 1817 includes, "The children coming from their private school in Cloughbawn shot marbels on the road, played hunt the fox and occasionally repaired to the fives ally of Clonroche and enjoyed some exciting games in its arena," There is also a reference to "the spacious fives alley" in the demesne of the 8obinson family in Stone Pound north of Taghmon.
However, around this time it seems that the game of fives in England became more and more divorced from the handball game in Ireland and both games developed independently, Court handball is still very popular in Ireland and Tom O'Connor, who is handball coach at University College, Dublin, is currently researching the early years and different versions of the game in Ireland. Much of the material in this article has come through him for which I am very grateful. In T. J. McElligott's 'Story of Handball in Ireland' we find that in one of Ireland's few public schools, St Columba's College, Rathfarnham. Fives continued to be played until fairly recently. The court was built in 1855 by an Old Etonian, Warden Williams, with money provided by Archbishop Beresford. The game existed side by side with handball and Mahaffy on his rounds of inspection of Irish grammar schools in 1879 commented on the excellent racquet court and two Eton Fives courts to be found there. It seems fives was played there up to 1960 and there has also been a mention of fives courts at St Columba's College, Dublin. I wonder if any of these are still standing today!
*Editor's Note: Rydal Penrhos School is now happily a flourishing Fives centre with 4 courts and lots of players. There is also a court at Hawarden Castle, Hawarden, Clwyd Wales (Home to Sir William Gladstone, Bt) which is just about still standing but is in a very poor state of repair and wildly overgrown.
The Hawarden court in 2014
**Editor's Note: The courts at Pengam and Cowbridge are pictured below. Pengam is clearly a handball court; Cowbridge looks more Rugby Fives shaped.
The Fives courts at Pengam (L) and Cowbridge (R)