St Patrick’s Day 1923: my family connection

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When I was a child, I had a Grannie, Aileen Maltby. When she came to see us, she would sit at the kitchen table drinking tea. And as she did so she smoked, non stop. She didn’t even take the cigarette out of her mouth while she was speaking, it would balance precariously on her lip. A drift of smoke would curl upwards into her grey hair, which had developed a tobacco-coloured stripe at the front. Her conversation with my mother, sitting at the opposite end of the table, was often about her old hockey friends: redoubtable women with names like Peggy, Dorothy and Marjorie, always dressed like her in sensible tweed suits.

As a child I always knew that my grandmother had played hockey for England, and was later an international selector. In the 1960s, long after her playing days, the England women’s hockey team were given one Saturday each year when an international match was played at Wembley, and old internationals and selectors like her would get free tickets. As we lived in Gerrards Cross, much closer to the stadium than my grandparents’ cottage in Northamptonshire, she would arrive by car for a break on her way to the match. 

But what I did not know, until I came across my grandfather Ettrick’s diary in the early 2000s, was that her first international cap for England was against Ireland, and that the match was played in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day one hundred years ago, 17 March 1923. By then she was a mother of two, a daughter Audrey born in 1915 and a son David, born 1920. Ettrick’s diary records that he took her up to London to catch the boat train to Ireland, driving up together from their home in Hastings. 

His diary says nothing about what was going on in Ireland at the time, which makes me wonder how much was being reported in the English press. For 1923 would mark the first St Patrick’s Day celebrated by the new Irish Free State, and facing the challenge of a bloody Civil War. The first two weeks of March 1923 had already seen the deaths of six National Army soldiers, the execution of 16 Republicans and three grisly episodes in Kerry where anti-Treaty Republican prisoners had been tied to mines which were then exploded. 

St Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday, but there was no let up in the number of incidents in the capital over the weekend. ‘Irregulars’ were arrested in Phibsborough and Manor Street and shooting incidents took place in Gardiner Place and Westmoreland Street. 

Did this trouble the English hockey players as they turned up in Sandymount on the Saturday afternoon for their match? The Hockey Field and Lacrosse magazine reported that there were some worries about the wisdom of a trip to Ireland, but it would seem the players themselves were not too bothered. According to the Irish Times, the day had dawned cold and bright, and the pitch was in perfect condition. England’s Miss Newell scored after ten minutes, following a ‘clever dribble’ and a pass by Miss Northwood. Two more goals quickly followed. In the second half, the Irish forwards made several breaks but couldn’t press home their attacks, and my grandmother, the goalkeeper, was ‘never really tested’. The match finished 3–0 to the visitors.

Next to the press report are two photographs. One is an action shot, excitingly captioned ‘An English attack checked’. The other shows the England team, but on a grainy microfilm I was unable to identify which one is Grannie. Two are wearing blazers over their pinafores, and I guess that, as the goalie, she must be one of these – but I can’t tell which. 

International hockey wasn’t the only sporting attraction taking place that day in Dublin. Reporters had attended a range of events where ‘sunshine gilded every view’. There was horse racing at Baldoyle, cross country in the Phoenix Park (won by the ‘Clonliffe crack’ HB Bingham) and a long list of matches under the heading of ‘Gaelic pastimes’ (one of which pitted the Civic Guards against the Grocers). Most exciting of all, however, was the light-heavyweight world championship boxing match at the Scala Theatre between the French champion, the Battling Siki, and Irish challenger, Mike McTigue.

Unfortunately, the fight – over 20 rounds – did not turn out to be an example of boxing at its best. ‘There was an almost total absence of those thrills and exciting incidents one is wont to associate with contests of such importance,’ says the report. This may not have mattered to the excited home crowd when McTigue’s ‘magnificent display of ringcraft, generalship and resourcefulness’ meant that he was declared the winner on points. 

As soon as the result was declared, the fact was conveyed quickly to the ‘huge crowd that had to be kept back out of Prince’s Street by barriers and the police. Cheer after cheer rent the air while inside the theatre enthusiasm reached almost ungovernable bounds.’ The police and barriers were necessary because during the fight there had been an explosion nearby in Henry Place. A group of insurgents were apparently unable to reach the Scala, so had detonated their mine outside the Pillar Picture House, damaging two heavy doors.

Within a few minutes of the fight ending, news of the result had also reached the Shelbourne Hotel where the industrialist Sir John Irwin was addressing the annual banquet of the Companions of St Patrick. Although they had passed through troublous times, he said, there was one thing that he believed they required as Irishmen: ‘to learn the art of compromise and to practise the doctrine of toleration towards one another.’ Surely they could all agree in matters of the common good, and ‘unite as brothers in carrying forward this old country to the peace and prosperity that awaited her.’

As his speech concluded it was announced that McTigue had won, whereupon the Companions drank his health, sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ and gave three cheers.

While the Companions ate their dinner, the two hockey teams were having supper nearby, at the Bonne Bouche restaurant in Dawson Street. Apparently, the land mine going off just half a mile away was not noticed by the players and officials. ‘Fortunately we were making enough noise of our own to drown the explosion noise,’ says the Hockey Field and Lacrosse reporter, adding matter-of-factly: ‘There were two more in Blackrock on Sunday night.’

Explosions, audible or not in other parts of Dublin there might have been, but they didn’t rate an entry in my grandfather’s diary, which is sparse at the best of times. He is also silent on the subject of his wife’s return. Even her later international career, and she won a total of eleven caps, don’t always get mentioned. Her 1924 season ended in the spring, and soon after she became pregnant again. My mother Jean – their last child – was born on 30 December that year.

Some 40 years later, in 1961, my grandmother sat in our Buckinghamshire kitchen, wreathed in smoke as usual, on her way to Wembley to see the match against Ireland. It would be nice to think that her mind went back to that earlier visit. Did she recall the excitement of playing for her country for the first time? Given the difficult circumstances, were they applauded onto the pitch just for turning up, like the England rugby team was in 1973? And did she remember the greatest satisfaction of all for a goalie, that she kept a clean sheet?


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