By Gerry Moran
Mention ‘champions’ and ‘Kilkenny’ in the same breath and one immediately thinks hurling. And understandably so. After all, Kilkenny is still top of the pile with 36 All-Ireland hurling titles, followed by Cork on 30, Tipperary on 28 with Limerick, the present All-Ireland champions, on 11.
However Kilkenny has more strings to its ‘champions’ bow’ than hurling.
Take for instance Michael Phelan from Castlecomer, County Kilkenny who left Ireland in 1824, aged four, to join his father in America and who became the world’s greatest billiards player and made popular the game that we now know as pool. He died in 1871, aged fifty-two, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Billiard Congress of America, somewhat belatedly, in 1993.
Or there’s James Mason, who was born in Kilkenny in 1849, and, aged eleven, emigrated to the U.S. where he became the chess champion of America. Mason was not his real name but one he adopted to avoid anti-Irish sentiment prevalent in America at the time.
James Mason not alone became the chess champion of America but in 1877, aged 28, was number one chess player in the world, a position he held on to for eleven months. Mason might well have held on to that position for longer but unfortunately he succumbed to the demon drink.
Mason became a distinguished journalist and wrote several books on chess the most popular being ‘The Principles of Chess in Theory and Practice’ first published in 1894 and still available to this day. Mason also gave his name to a chess gambit known as the Mason Gambit and claimed that he lost only one game while using it.
James Mason, real name Patrick Dwyer from Barrack Street in Kilkenny, died in 1905, aged fifty-five.
But perhaps the greatest Kilkenny champion of all was Mabel Cahill, who made history by becoming the first non-American, and the only Irish person, to win a U.S. Open Tennis Championship, 130 years ago, in 1891. She also won the Women’s Doubles that same year.
Mabel Esmonde Cahill was born in 1863, the 12th of 13 children, in Ballyconra House in Ballyragget, County Kilkenny. Her father Michael was a barrister and a man of means. Mabel’s mother died when she was twelve, her father remarried but it was not a happy union. He died within twelve months but left enough money to educate the family and give them a start in life.