Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Eithne Wall


When Keats wrote of the “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness” he captured, in one phrase, that time in life when the goodness and richness and promise of earlier seasons comes together in fruition. How often do we, in our daily lives, pass people in the street, see them in shops or offices or catch a glimpse of them across a garden wall and pass without knowing anything of the seasons that have made their lives and brought them to this time in their lives.
I was struck by this thought recently when I saw my subject for this week’s Eye on The Past doing just that, labouring in her garden, as she has done for many springs now, sowing what she will reap in the chillier days of late summer and early autumn. And I was struck by the fact that this woman, who travelled the world and moved in circles that most of us only dream of, has chosen to spend her remaining years among us here in Athy. It’s typical of the woman that she should want to give of her experience and expertise to her own community.
Many years ago, in a different century, this woman left Athy as a young girl. Having completed her education in Athy and Castledermot – where she is still fondly remembered for her jovial manner and sporting prowess at both an early form of basketball and meggars – she worked briefly in the legal profession.
Around that time she was involved in establishing a tennis club in Athy. This was a forerunner of the current club and had courts on the site which would later become the asbestos factory and then Tegral.  She was tireless in her attempts to establish the club and many Saturday nights found her travelling from public house to public house, rattling her tin and collecting what she could for the newly established Athy Ladies and Gentlemen’s Lawn Tennis and Meggars Club. The club was to produce few outstanding players, other than my subject. Her acumen on the court, however, saw her   play in a number of Wimbledon qualifiers in the glory years of the last century. It was her misfortune that year after year she seemed ill-fated in being drawn against some of the bigger names on the circuit.
With the arrival of the professional tennis ethos she withdrew from the game at that level, being quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying: “I believe sport is it’s own reward. I’m a sporty girl, I’m not in this for the money. If I wanted money I’d get a job.”
Returning to Athy, she crowned that year’s achievements by leading a team to the runners-up spot in a closely-fought local inter-firms league. Shortly afterwards the Tennis and Meggars club went out of existence and my subject was off again.
This time the lure of foreign fields and bright lights took her on a journey to the other side of the world. Arriving in an Australia only coming to terms with the twentieth century, she quickly established herself in the catering industry and worked in some of the finest hotels that continent has to offer. “Always a twenty-four hour girl,” is how one of her colleagues described her to me recently. “She worked, she partied and she was a big wow on the tennis court.”
It was on the same tennis-court that she was spotted by Peter Yeats, a distant cousin of the poet Wiliam Butler Yeats. Peter (or Yeats The Lesser as he was known in literary circles) was also a poet and this dashing Athy woman became the object of his affection and the subject of several of his poems.  Probably best known is his “Tennis Girl”, which has appeared in a number of anthologies. Space does not allow for the full quotation of the poem but here is a section that mentions Athy and my subjects roots.
“Tennis girl you come from another land,
where the waters of the gentle River Barrow
flow boldly across the plains on the one hand
and where the winding, overgrown narrow
lanes produce a girl such as you.
A woman of beauty with a smile that warms
the Australian night, turns the water blue
and calms this writer’s heart of storms.”
Yeats goes on to write of her tennis prowess, which brought her to his attention in the first place.
“Wimbledon’s loss was Australia’s gain (and mine).
I watch you toss, I watch you serve and smash,
I watch you as you stalk the service line.
I watch you as you run and weave and dash.
Your forehand is a thing of rarest beauty,
your backhand flick could set my heart on fire.
I write this poem not out of duty
But from the bottom of my heart’s desire.”
The poem goes on for another twenty verses in like manner, singing the praises of the young woman who had enthralled Yeats The Lesser.
But Australia was not to be our subject’s home and she journeyed on to America where she became involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement. When interviewed by Time magazine about her involvement she was, typically, self-deprecating.
“I did what had to be done. I did what anyone would do in my position. The movement was there and I joined it. I suppose you could say I’ve always been drawn to movements since my school days.”
But, again, the United States was not to be her home. Having been involved in Eisenhower’s election campaign she moved to London and, though past her prime (though only in tennis terms) she established the Billerickay and Arlington Ladies Lawntennis Society  which campaigned for a fairer deal for tennis players of a certain age. This campaign bore fruit when the authorities at Wimbledon introduced the Seniors’ Tournament into their calendar.
About this time, too, Patrick Monet (a nephew of the better known artist Claude Monet) painted a series of portraits of my subject and these pictures ( “Semi-retired Tennis Girl I- IV”)  were exhibited at the Billerickay  and District Amateur Artists Annual Exhibition. The local paper described the series of paintings as “challenging and interesting.”
But our intrepid Athy woman was not to be lured by the possibilities of life as an artist’s model and, instead, she began a career as a calligrapher. This was hardly surprising. Being descended from the renowned Norman calligraphers Eucretia Wallscribe and William Graffitus, who gave his name to our modern day art of graffiti, she found the calligraphic genes had worn well through the centuries.
When I spoke to her recently she told me that “calligraphy is a good pastime for someone of my age. It’s less demanding than tennis or hotel work. I find I can work at my own pace and, most of all, in my own place.”
Now dividing her time between Athy and her holiday home in the South East, and still gracing tennis courts in both places, this week’s Eye On The Past celebrates the life and times of adventurer, entertainer, tennis star, model, poetic subject and calligrapher  as she reaches that “certain age” and a comfortable time in her life. Athy is fortunate to number a talent such as Eithne Wall among its citizens. Carpe Diem.

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