An Irishman's Diary

 

THE Anglo-Indian Test cricketer KS Ranjitsinhji or to give him his proper title: His Highness Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, Maharaja Jamsahib of Nawanagar, would have been delighted to learn from a recent report by Michael Parsons in The Irish Timesthat his old home Ballynahinch Castle was hosting an auction of Irish art.

Millions of words have been written about Ranji’s cricketing and political and diplomatic life, and his Jubilee Book of Cricket is a publication still treasured and lovingly caressed by anyone who has every played or watched the game.

Little however, has been written about Ranji’s connections with Ireland.

When he took holidays, which he did every August, he took them in his Irish home, Ballynahinch Castle just outside Clifden in Connemara. For years it has been a top-class hotel.

One of the first things you notice when you enter its lobby is a huge painting of Ranji high on the wall as you head towards the bar.

And Ranji had such a love of Ireland and all things Irish that, even though he might only manage that yearly visit, he kept an entire staff on his payroll all year. He was adored as much by his Connemara workers as he was by English cricket lovers, indeed cricket lovers the world over. And with good reason.

His sporting claim to fame speaks for itself. Born in 1872 in India, he first came to public prominence in Britain when he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, devoting himself mostly to cricket. He was the first county cricketer to score 3,000 runs in a season and two centuries in one day. After Cambridge, he played for and captained Sussex and played for England 15 times, ending with a very respectable batting average of 44.95 or 56.4 depending on which set of statistics you wish to go with. (There was always a debate because he was a native Indian but based in England!) He more or less retired from first-class cricket in 1920 after a shooting accident resulted in the loss of an eye. The most important domestic competition in Indian cricket today is the Ranji Trophy in his honour.

His retirement from top-class cricket meant he could devote more time to Ireland and his other passion: fishing. A few years ago while on holiday in Connemara, I spent an afternoon with Martin Halloran, then the last surviving member of Ranji’s staff at Ballynahinch. Sadly, Martin died a couple of years ago, but the memory of that afternoon is still fresh – as were Martin’s memories of Ranji: “Everyone called him Ranji, even to his face. He didn’t mind a bit he was such a lovely, lovely man. He was a true gentleman. But, my God, he’d keep you out until dark and even into the next day with his fishin’, fishin’, fishin’! I know all about him and the cricket but it was the fishin’ he really loved when his cricket days were over. I remember one night there was a moon up shining at us like a searchlight, you could see everything and Ranji had been workin’ a salmon for hours, hours. I was upwind of him but his main ghillie was on a platform coaxin’ him and urgin’ to do this and that but in the end the fish got away”.

Ranji served in the first World War and then represented India at the League of Nations in Geneva. When he turned up in full regalia he was accompanied by another great English Test cricketer, his close friend and fellow cricketer, CB Fry. When the clerk saw them at the registration table he asked who Fry – who had also served in the war and was in uniform – was representing; the reply came : “India, but only as second to His Highness!” I can personally verify to this story because Jonathan Fry, CB’s grandson and a former chairman of the MCC-Marylebone Cricket Club – and a cricketing pal of mine told me the story when he gave me a present of his grandfather’s book which had been signed by the author. What a treasure!

Martin Halloran, like his fellow workers, looked forward from year to year to Ranji’s visits to Ireland: “In those days we had a railway station for the house (you can still see it to this day even though it’s now a gate lodge) – and when he left Galway in his own special train we’d put lighted candles along the track from about a mile outside the house to welcome him. No matter what hour, we’d all be out cheerin’ and clappin’. Even though it was hard work, everyone loved him and there was great fun when he was around. He used to give us a huge dinner and send a shooting-break to pick everyone up and take them home afterwards, what with all the drink. There were always three toasts: cricket, Ireland and the king. Well now, one year in the 1920s we thought it might not be such a good idea for Ranji to be toasting the king: there was some bad feeling, stupid in my opinion, about anything to do with England because of the Civil War between the Free State government and the de Valera people. So Ranji toasted cricket, Ireland and . . . The Emperor of India! Half of the fellas didn’t know that was the king, so Ranji’s diplomacy saved the night!” I have recently discovered that Ranji used that device elsewhere. In 1924 he arrived in Ireland on his way to his new home in Connemara. Fry was with him and they were surprised and delighted to be given a civic reception by WT Cosgrave who they had met at the League of Nations in Geneva. The Tailteann Games were about to begin and with two such supreme athletes they were invited to a State dinner. What a guest-list there was : Sir John Lavery, Tim Healy, GK Chesterton and many others. At the end most people seemed to have made short speeches. Fry’s consisted of a few words and then 30 lines in perfect Greek from The Frogsby Aristophanes. Ranji did his Emperor of India line and at the end it is reported that a waiter opened a bottle of champagne with the words: That’s what we need here in Ireland, more classical scholars like his Highness and CB.

Ranji died on April 2nd, 1933, but the news took a day or two to get through to Ballynahinch. Martin remembers hearing it with sadness and disbelief. “You’d meet people on the road crying their eyes out and we even convinced ourselves that he’d died on April 1st and one of the men said he was still alive and it was just his idea of an April Fool’s joke”.

Ranji never married, though Martin told me with a wink: “He always had a nurse with him”. The memory of Ranji should never be let go.