An Irishwoman's Diary

 

One of Alice's adventures in Wonderland was playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts, writes Melosina Lenox-Conyngham. Her ball was a hedgehog which would unroll itself to fight and crawl to the safety of the other side of the pitch, while her mallet was a resentful flamingo. Alice found it was "a very difficult game indeed".

I can agree with her, even without having an animated croquet set. My mallet may not twist "itself round and look me in the face with a puzzled expression", but my partners often do and they yearn for the authority of the Queen of Hearts so as to be able to give the command: "Off with her head!"

I do not know if there will be much call for decapitation, except in their hearts, from the women competitors who are taking part in the World Women's Golf Croquet Championships, which open today in Dublin and run until next Monday. Forty competitors from nine different countries will battle it out at the Carrickmines Club and at the Herbert Park Club. Egypt has dominated all previous championships and the current world champion will be here defending her title. She is Nahed Hassan, a practising lawyer married with two children, who has been playing since 1974.

Golf Croquet is a modified version of the traditional game now known as Association Croquet. In Golf Croquet, a turn is a single stroke and a point is scored by the side whose ball is first through each hoop, while in Association Croquet extra strokes can be gained by hitting other balls and when a ball goes through a hoop. The winner is the side which first hits through all the hoops. Golf Croquet, which was devised before the first World War, is growing rapidly in popularity, perhaps because it is more interactive than Association Croquet and the rules are simpler.

Although a crude form of croquet was played in France for centuries, the game in its modern form was devised and first played in Ireland - in 1834, by the Macan family at a house called Greenmount near Castlebellingham, Co Louth. Denis Kirwan from Castle Hackett, who was courting and eventually married Anne-Margaret Macan, was so enthusiastic about it that he took it back to his home in Galway and later introduced it to the palace in Tuam, where the Protestant bishop and his family became keen players. Soon afterwards it was taken up in the big houses of Co Meath, where George Pollok founded the Oatlands Croquet Club. The first Irish croquet championship was held in 1871.

Given its Irish roots, croquet should really be one of our national sports - the hallowed stadium in Dublin 3 could possibly have been Croquet Park! There was a time when the game was played at Lansdowne Road, which, when first laid out, featured a croquet lawn as well as a rugby ground.

The game quickly spread round the world. In fact one might say it changed the world. In Russia, Trotsky was returning from a game of croquet when he found his father had confiscated a cow from a wretched peasant; this event converted him to socialism, even though his father returned the cow to the peasant. What would have happened to the revolution in Russia if Trotsky had not been croqueted? In the United States, the 12th president, Rutherford Hayes, was very fond of the game and spent $6 of government funds purchasing some good quality croquet balls. He was later criticised for this outrageous expense and told he should repay the country out of his own pocket.

Tolstoy viewed it as a game of romance. Anna Karenina went to a croquet party in hopes of seeing Vronsky. Alas, he was at home doing his accounts and Anna never did get to play, in spite of saying that she enjoyed the game. The other players were two ladies and their adorers, one of them, Stremov, is described "a most amiable man and a devoted croquet player".

My father took up the game at the age of 80. Ignoring the indignant squeaks of his family, he turned our tennis court into a croquet lawn. He played summer and winter, hail, rain or shine, and anyone who was staying in the house was expected to play with him. Through constant practice and natural talent he became a good, but ferocious player, terrorising any timid opponent into cowering in the bushes pretending to look for their ball, which had been smacked off the court. There was no question of leniency to a beginner. He had many similarities, now I think of it, to the Queen of Hearts.

After a few years, he thought his game could do with some improvement and went off to a hypnotist in Dundalk. We questioned him closely as to what had happened. The hypnotist had never heard of croquet, but decided after some discussion that it was much the same as golf. He had not been able to put my father into a trance, but told him it would be just as effective if he completely relaxed and concentrated his mind on success.

My father told us that, though disappointed not to be hypnotised, he thought meditation was probably as good. We hoped that from then on we would see him sitting in the lotus position on a mat among the croquet hoops doing a bit of meditating, but he seemed to think one session had done the trick and I have to say I reached the same conclusion after my father had defeated me eight times in a row.

He would have enjoyed going to watch the women's world championships in Carrickmines, where he would have hoped to pick up a few hints on future tactics to further intimidate his opponents.