- Born 1838 Dormstown Castle, near Navan, Co Meath
- Died Second quarter 1927 Dormstown Castle, Co Meath
- Educated Middleton College, Co Cork; Dublin University
- Occupation Gentleman Farmer
- Debut June 1858 v Birkenhead Park at Phoenix CC
- Cap Number 36
- Style Right hand bat; slow right arm round arm
- Teams Dublin University; Phoenix; Navan; Louth; NICC; United Ireland XI
John Roberts was a useful batsman and occasional change bowler who never fully justified himself in representative cricket, several of his matches however were played against very strong opposition. He came from a family background steeped in history. His birth place, and life long residence, Dormstown Castle, a 15th century tower house which still stands today, had once been the home of Elizabeth I's ill fated favourite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and had been acquired by the Roberts family in the mid 18th century. They were of Welsh origin and claimed descent from the 12th century Prince Owain, self styled King of Wales.
Addicts of detective fiction may recognise him as a real life character who features in the Brother Cadfael novels of the late Ellis Peters. It might be said here that as the Prince had two wives, four mistresses and more than twenty children, he may well have had many other descendants! John himself was to marry into a family claiming descent from William the Conqueror, another prodigious parent when the boundaries of legitimacy were crossed. Dormstown also had a sporting history. Its 515 acres of rich Meath pasture boasted some spacious lawns upon which the first croquet match in Ireland is said to have been played. John would have been about 18 at the time so may well have been a participant.
He was educated at Middleton College in Co Cork where cricket was well established. The "postage stamp ground" was shortly after his time there, to see the scoring of one of the two triple centuries recorded in Ireland. He was the College's first Irish cricket international, other, more recent, notable sportsmen from Middleton have included rugby referee John West, himself a doughty left hand opener, and Irish batsman/ wicket keeper Gerry Murphy.
John entered Dublin University in June 1857 and was in the XI the following two summers, winning his colours both years, though no details of his performances are available. His team- mates included the future bitter academic rivals - and Irish cricketers JP Mahaffy and Anthony Traill as well as master underarmer Arthur Samuels and international batsman Robert Gordon. Also playing for Phoenix, John did enough to gain selection for Ireland against Birkenhead Park in 1858.
For almost twenty years he was in demand for club and wandering sides throughout the country. He began this peripatetic career as a member of Charles Lawrence's United Ireland XI, founded in imitation of the professional travelling elevens in England. it brought the top Irish players- and some English ones - to various parts of the country, but never realised the financial rewards that Lawrence, an important figure in both Irish and Australian cricket history but a naive businessman, appears to have thought that it would. John was not one of its most successful members. He made only two double figure scores in six innings. His best effort was 20 against XVIII of NICC at Ormeau in 1861. Batting at No 3 he made the second top score, before being stumped. He also hit a second top score of 14 in an innings of 84 against XVI of Clydesdale, when Lawrence took his charges across the seas, the first time an Irish side had made such a venture. John's four other innings, all played high in the order against bowling of variable strength, included two ducks.
He also made several appearances for different clubs against visiting I Zingari sides. His best effort with the bat in such matches came in 1868, playing for Phoenix and batting at 10 in a team of eighteen. He was undefeated on 11 at the end. In the second innings he made 1 run out, a form of dismissal which he over frequently suffered. His last recorded match of any type was for an NICC side against I Zingari in 1877. He was one of several imports but did little to justify his inclusion, being out for 6 and 1.
As mentioned above he made his debut for Ireland against Birkenhead Park at Phoenix in 1858. This match was played for Lawrence's benefit but was not a financial success. John made 2 in each innings, he was not to show much further improvement in his 12 matches, 7 of which involved more than eleven players on at least one side, so will not be found in his statistics on this site. In all matches he aggregated only 86 runs at 4.52. His best match was a 12 a side contest against IZ at the Vice Regal Ground in 1866. His bowling came to the fore for XXII of Louth v I Zingari in 1868, a match which the visitors won with some ease. Coming on at the end of each innings John was able to wrap up the tail, taking two wickets in the first and three in the second. On both occasions he accounted for Hugh Richard Dawney, Eight Viscount Downe, a cricketer whose play was as undistinguished as his name and title were long, and FT Fenner, a bowler of whom little is known but who did well for IZ on the tour. In the first match v Lord Fitzwilliam's XI at the Vice Regal Ground, Fenner had taken the wicket of that belligerent batsman - and later belligerent politician - Charles Stewart Parnell.
This game was played in poor conditions, the ground, which had been little used for several years and was under prepared. IZ suffered the worst of it and had little answer to the bowling of Mahaffy and an Army officer CC Oldfield. John, batting at 7 made 10 in his first knock, before, perhaps inevitably, being run out. It was the third such dismissal in Ireland's innings. He was reported to have batted well but was missed once by the future MCC Secretary Bob Fitzgerald, who dropped him in the deep, through tripping over the guy ropes of one of the numerous marquees which surrounded the ground. In the second innings John's top score for Ireland, 21, was a knock of two distinct parts. He began very carefully, as, despite Mahaffy's remarkable bowling, Ireland were in some danger. Not out 15 at the start of the last morning he then had to throw his wicket away, as declarations were not then allowed and Ireland needed time to finish the match. They did so successfully, recording their first victory over the Zingaros by the convincing margin of 151 runs. There were two tragic postscripts to this match. Less than a month after its conclusion, Henry Awkright, the visitor's fast bowler and often a scourge of Irish club and national sides, died in an avalanche on Mont Blanc. The following April the 20 year old Lord JHT Butler, who had made his debut for Ireland in the match, died of brain fever.
It has to be said that John's other matches were far from successful. Apart from 15 in the second innings against IZ in 1860, he made no other double figure scores and collected five ducks, though four of these were against the All England XI, facing some of the leading bowlers in the game. His nadir was the All England match of 1868 when he recorded a pair something he had also suffered for Phoenix v IZ nine years earlier. The All England bowlers concerned were RC Tinley who could bowl either fast round arm or slow lobs being a leading practioner in both modes and John Oscroft a fast round armer from Nottingham. John's destroyers in the Phoenix match, incidentally, had been Awkright and James McCormick, himself one of Ireland's leading cricketers.
John devoted most of his life from the 1870s onwards to the care of his Dormstown estate. Describing himself as a "Gentleman Farmer", he was also a Justice of the Peace, continuing in this role until 1923. His wife and two sons predeceased him, his daughter was still living at Dormstown in 1911, but nothing else has been discovered about her. He died at Dormstown in the spring or early summer of 1927. Any further in formation concerning this or his exact date of birth would be most gratefully received.
Edward Liddle, January 2010