Claremont Road: Reflections on summers well spent

As YMCA CC is threatened with extinction after 112 years at Claremont Road came to an abrupt end this year, lifelong member James Fitzgerald takes a personal look back at his time playing at the ground and some of the people he met along the way.

The first time I saw the cricket ground at Claremont Road was through tears. I was six and sulking in the backseat of a Peugeot 205 as my 11-year-old brother was being dropped to Sandymount for the first training session of the 1981 season. I desperately wanted to stay and play also but the youngest team YMCA Cricket Club put out at that time was under-11s so Mother Fitzgerald put her foot down, much to my chagrin. However, in a moment of weakness and in an effort to appease me somewhat, she said I could join the following year, if they would have me.

James Fitzgerald enjoying his cricket on the YMCA first team, 2006

At regular intervals throughout the following 12 months, I reminded her of her promise so there was no reneging and the excitement built as May 1982 slowly rolled around. I didn’t care that at seven I was much too young for the under-11s; nor that the pads, gloves and bats in the club bag were all miles too big. I just knew Claremont Road was where I wanted to be. And so began a love affair with cricket and those few special acres of playing fields in Dublin 4 that endures to this day.

I recall those early years fondly. Team-mates of my age grade, Alan Taylor, Andrew Pedlow, Angus Fleming (yes, the Merrion legend used to be one of ours), Glynn Murphy, David Webb… some of the names escape me, but for the summer months we were pals and would exchange notes on the best grip for a Duncan Fearnley ‘Extra Cover’ bat or how to make the ball swing through the air. We hung on every word of our learned coaches, the likes of Alec Dunlop, John Murphy, Ernie Webb, Albert Rance and Cecil Metcalf, men I always continued to admire and respect.

As I moved into my teens, occasionally, I would be invited to play with some of the older lads and would nervously take the field with Stuart McCready, Stewart Taylor, Mark Vincent, Jason Kilroy, Stephen Rance, intimidated by their superior skills and happy just to be in the same Claremont Road dressing room. But the best was when Cecil would call you during the week to pass on the good news that you had been picked for the fifths. I opened the batting with the late Donnie Thompson in those days and I owed him a lot. He taught me never to give my wicket away cheaply – I don’t think we were the most dynamic opening pair but a solid platform was essential for the team, he told me. He also bought me my first Smithwick’s (after beating Man-o-War in the cup) which, like cricket, is another habit I haven’t been able to shake.

In those days, Claremont Road was magical. Grass tennis courts where the car park is today, grass hockey pitch-cum-youth cricket field where the apartments now stand, two dodgy net lanes in a western corner by the garage where the tractor was parked, and of course the pavilion roughly where today’s changing rooms are located. It felt like this ramshackle wooden building was falling down long before it finally did in 2004. It had an unmistakable smell – a combination of damp wood, fresh cut grass and stale tea, mixed with the tears of a hundred golden ducks. It was where you sat to visualize your next triumph with bat or ball and where you slumped to contemplate what might have been.

The showers were a death trap, the Burco took hours to heat up, hidden splinters lurked everywhere, and the less said about the toilets the better. But it was ours. The cracks on the walls were hidden by dozens of old photographs, teams featuring famous YMers, like Derry Gill, Victor Dobson (uncle of RTÉ’s Bryan), Ian Lewis, Freddie Wolfe, Arthur Beatty and even my own grandfather, William Carson, who captained YM in 1938. These black-and-white giants offered silent inspiration as you strode out to bat.

As a youth, I loved playing in the adult teams, alongside men who seemed impossibly old and who never ran out of funny things to say. Ken Latimer, David “the Raver” Gray, Trevor Denner (a wicketkeeper with a bad limp from childhood polio), Ian Kirk (I won’t say what his nickname was but if you know, you know), David Cooke, John Ridgeway, Fred Brady, Trevor Freeman, Jimmy Cleland, Heatley Tector, Derek Dockrell, Alan Rowden and many, many more. Those long summer days at Claremont Road flew by as I listened to stories and chased leather.

Growing up, YM had the best team in Ireland. I looked up to those first teamers as they won leagues and cups with apparent ease. I admired Burns, Nulty, Dunlop, Garth, Masterson, Haine, Bailey, but my hero was DA Lewis. A permanent grin revealed impossibly white teeth, and with his reliable tendency to deliver on the big occasions, I assumed there was nothing Lewy couldn’t do. So, when I eventually became a regular in the first team in the early 2000s, it was a thrill just to be around someone who played 121 times for Ireland and did so with an infectious positivity that inspired everyone within his orbit.

A family club, the author loved to bring his kids to Claremont Road

While I did play for couple of seasons on the ones, I was really more comfortable on the second team and that is where Claremont Road witnessed whatever limited on-field success I did enjoy. The twos was where I scored a few runs and had the most craic. It helped that my cricket pals were there too. Warwick Armstrong, Mucker McCoy, Officer Dible, Ehtesham Ahmed and Neel Bhandari were mainstays for years. Youngsters like Steven Walsh, Ross Johnson, Marcus Miller and Harry Harrison provided fodder for the relentless slagging that went on, as we yo-yoed between the leagues, up to Senior 2 in good years, down to Middle A in others. One constant throughout was Claremont Road. The ground was reconfigured and upgraded in 2004, albeit with the loss of the grass hockey pitch and tennis courts, but it retained that sense of community for those of us who (only slightly) ironically called it the Home of Cricket. Unfortunately, it seems the process leading to the new ground woke the beast as the YM Association developed an interest that had lain dormant for about 100 years. Looking back, that was probably the beginning of the end for our ground and our club.

The mismanagement of YMCA Ireland is well documented at this stage (having spent 10 years as honorary secretary, I know what they did and I do not have the inclination to list it all here). It strikes me as a pity that the new owners of the land, Lansdowne RFC, another sports club with a long and storied place in Dublin 4, could not find a realistic way to accommodate YM within its future plans. 

One of the best squares in Ireland, it is heartbreaking to think that after 112 years, cricket will never again be played at Claremont Road 

Anyway, I am out of it now and no longer involved. Living in Canada, I am physically detached if not emotionally – I still feel an acute sense of loss as this long story unfolds. Without cricket there, I don’t think I will be able to go back to Claremont Road in years to come. As much as I love rugby, a scrum packing down on one of the best squares in the country would seem sacrilegious, like walking across a freshly mopped floor in muddy shoes. No, I will leave the Lansdowne lads to their egg-chasing and instead remember it as it was – a little patch of heaven that I was lucky enough to frequent during my formative years and many more beyond. 

What happens to the club itself is anyone’s guess. Hopefully, it can survive somewhere else but to think Claremont Road is lost to cricket seems unspeakably cruel. Not for me, really. I’ve had my time. I grew up there and now I live abroad with no skin in the game, except a sentimentality and a memory of summers well spent. It saddens me that now others may not know what I know, make the friends that I made or hear the stories that I heard. 

It isn’t easy to let it go, mind. The first time I saw the cricket ground at Claremont Road was through tears. All these years later, I feel just the same.

James Fitzgerald is the former Cricket Correspondent of The Irish Times and author of 100 Ireland Cricket Greats (with Gerard Siggins). He subsequently worked for the International Cricket Council, World Rugby and now lives and works in Canada.