A genteel type of pastime of French origin was the temporary craze in those lazy days of the mid-1800’s. Dublin’s aristocrats and those not so aristocratic, young and old, men and women, disported themselves at bal-ballon. For some, though, the sport was not quite energetic enough. It did not altogether suit the volatile temperament. An alternative was sought.
“Some of the Young Blades of the time did not consider the game spirited enough and decided instead to try their hand at cricket,” wrote the legendary Bob Lambert when reminiscing about the birth of a club of which he was to become its most celebrated member. “Only a few isolated matches had been played, but once the Rathmines boys became interested cricket’s popularity was assured,” he recalled in later years, tongue in cheek.
So the Leinster Cricket Club came into being May 1st, 1852. According to the original minute book preserved in John Lawrence’s Handbook for 1865 “twenty five names were immediately enrolled as original members.” The first match was against Roebuck, who scored 52 and 44 to Leinster’s 62 and 24, and the first victory was not recorded until September when in the very last match of the season Kingstown were defeated “amid scenes of wild jubilation and celebration.”
The club in those early tentative years wandered about Rathmines … from Grosvenor Square, its original ground to Rathgar, opposite the end of Garville Avenue in 1853: the following year it moved again, this time to the vicinity of Palmerstown Park where it remained until 1860. The next move was to Emor Ville, opposite Portobello Gardens on the South Circular Road before finally coming to roost in the present location in 1865.
Lawrence’s Handbook relates that one A. J. Mahon “came forward and purchased a splendid piece of ground expressly for the purpose of securing its possession for his club, generously giving them a year’s time to determine whether they would become owners themselves or rent it from him at £60 a year.
“Leinster-like, they wisely determined on complete independence, and the result of the appeal from the committee to the club is shown in the list of subscribers, thereby securing the possession of as fine and conveniently circumstanced a piece of ground as could possibly be hoped for.
“The ground is held under lease for the lives of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, H.R.H. the Princess of Prussia, and Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. The proprietors receive five per cent of their money, the capital being secured by assurance, the total charge against the club funds being about £40 annually.” The appeal to club members for funds to help buy the ground raised the necessary £400, a huge sum in those days.
At Observatory Lane, Leinster grew from strength to strength and before long held a prominent position in the expanding cricket circle of sports-conscious Dublin. With a home of their own, the future was now secure.
The first pavilion, a wooden structure was the gift of a most generous gentleman named Robert C. Barbor, who also donated the then princely sum of £60 towards the purchase of the' ground. The pavilion was replaced in 1887 by a brick building which, two years later, was destroyed by fire. In a matter of months the brick building was reconstructed to the original design, and the red brick walls remain today as the principal feature of the present clubhouse.
The early playing members seem to have been nearly as durable as the bricks themselves! George Frith Barry, the toughest of them all, led the club from 1856 to 1890; S. C. Smith (1891-1909) and R. H. Lambert (1910-1934) were others in long spells at the helm who helped to bring fame, glory and stability to the emerging club. Barry, Smith and Lambert all played for and captained the All-Ireland XI.
Barry’s brother, Samuel, was also an early pillar of the club and with several other players of quality coming to the top, it was possible to challenge the premier club, Phoenix, for the first time in 1857.
Soon Leinster were moving in even more exalted circles, In 1869, with an innings victory over Phoenix to boost their morale, they embarked on their first Channel tour, boasting as their tour motto “cricket in its best form.” Then came the piece de resistance: W. G. Grace was asked to bring a side across to Rathmines!
In September of 1873 Leinster put 22 players in the field against Grace’s XI, which included his brother GF and nine professionals. The talent-loaded visitors struggled to escape with a draw. At the finish Leinster needed only 30 to win and had 14 wickets to fall.
As Grace had been enjoying his tenth and best season in first-class cricket, his performance at Rathmines was something of a letdown for the large and expectant attendance. He did not bowl in Leinster’s first innings total of 212 and then opening the innings his batting was uncertain and lacked sparkle. In the first innings he fell for 36 and made only four runs more on his second visit to the wicket. There were even suggestions that not only had he been caught behind in the early stages of each knock and given “not out” but that at other times Leinster fielders had flagrantly missed easy chances to catch him out.”
The two famous brothers came back again the following year when it was an altogether different story, WG making 153 and GF 103 in a grand total of 431, — the highest tally ever mustered against a team of 22 fielders. Leinster’s XXI1 aggregated 245 between them (W. G. claiming 8 for 88) and 34 for 3 in limited batting time in the second innings.
The only discordant note was struck by the honorary secretary who had to report that “although the attendance was considerable it was not at all what we expected it would have been; and we regret extremely to record that the expenses incurred were not covered by the receipts” -- seemingly because the match had a rival attraction in the Kingstown Regatta.
On the occasion of the Graces’ first visit the Freeman’s Journal saw much of merit in Leinster’s display. Their cricket correspondent commented: “Mr Grace’s play was an exception to his general style and though his score fell far below his customary figure, it cannot be attributed to any falling off of form. His being disposed of so easily reflects no small credit on the bowlers and if we may particularise, Mr Neill especially, off whose bowling he was missed ere he had scored a double.”
All of Ireland’s cricketers and fans of today must list W. G. Grace’s 1874 visit to Rathmines as the match they would have loved to watch had they been born a few generations earlier.