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The woman in the photograph: the mystery and tragedy of Mabel Cahill, a forgotten Irish star

The Kilkenny native won five US Open tennis championships – across multiple disciplines – in just two years. And then she vanished.

IT WAS A Saturday morning, the first day of August in 1936, when a notice appeared on page 17 of The Irish Independent newspaper. 

While there was substantial preview material pertaining to the following afternoon’s Connaught football final between Mayo and Galway, it was the upcoming Summer Olympics in Berlin that dominated the sports section.

The paper had sent a columnist to Germany and his first report detailed his voyage from Ireland’s west coast to the host city via Bremen. While docked there, he noted how the ship’s arrival had been greeted with much celebration by the locals, describing the ‘bashful young brothers in the inevitable khaki shorts of German Youth gathered at the quayside’.

Commenting on the general Olympic mood, he mentioned the bunting and decorations that lined the streets.

“Every private house flew its swastika flag, and so it was with each town that we passed en route to the German capital.”    

The eeriness continued further down the page. 

Buried at the bottom, alongside some tennis results from the Munster Championship event in Roscrea and under the headline, ‘Medal For Irish Woman’, was a brief call for assistance from the Irish Lawn Tennis Association.    

Will Miss Mabel E. Cahill, the winner of the Women’s United States Singles Championship in 1891 and 1892, or her representatives, kindly communicate with the hon. sec of the ILTA, 91 Merrion Square, Dublin, relative to a gold medallion which can be claimed on her behalf.”

Nobody ever picked up the gold medallion.

The award was the brainchild of the United States LTA who wished to recognise Cahill’s achievements and significant impact on the sport. But, unsure of her whereabouts, they contacted their Irish counterparts to try and find either her or a family member. Eventually, Cahill’s niece came forward but, by that stage, it was too late to claim it. However, she did receive a number of the trophies Cahill had earned for winning the US Open Singles, Doubles and Mixed championships in the 1890s.

And still, through the very public attempts to find her, Cahill remained a ghost. An international phenomenon and Ireland’s greatest ever tennis player, she’d seemingly vanished without a trace at the turn of the 20th century.

Unbeknownst to everyone, she had died – in tragic circumstances – in 1905. 

Throughout the subsequent decades, there were some vague, throwaway references to Cahill, that ‘mysterious’ tennis star. Then, in 1976, the latest inductees to the International Hall of Fame were announced in Newport, Rhode Island.

The shortlist boasted plenty of heavyweights: Rene Lacoste, seven-time Grand Slam winner. Henri Cochet, another seven-time Grand Slam winner. Jacques Brugnon, a six-time Grand Slam winner. Jean Borotra, a five-time Grand Slam winner. Dick Savitt, a two-time Grand Slam winner.

tennis-wimbledon-championships-mens-singles-final-henri-cochet-v-rene-lacoste Henri Cochet in action against Rene Lacoste at Wimbledon in 1928. Source: Barratts

There was one woman: Mabel Cahill, the Kilkenny native who, between 1891 and 1892, won five US Open titles.

Then walked away.

“The legend of Mabel Esmonde Cahill never fully developed and she remains one of the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s great mysteries,” says the award’s official website, while acknowledging Cahill’s ‘tennis history is thin, albeit prosperous’. Even the image accompanying her biography is one of only two surviving photographs.

The record books fill in some of the blanks.  

In 1890, shortly after arriving in New York, Cahill reached the semi-finals of the US National Women’s Singles Championship but had to retire because of injury in the third set against Ellen Roosevelt, a cousin of FDR, who would become the 32nd president of the United States in 1933. Roosevelt went on to claim the title but twelve months later, Cahill returned with a vengeance. In an earlier round, she beat Roosevelt’s sister, Grace, and then made no mistake when she faced Ellen in the decider. Partnering with Emma Fellowes-Morgan, she enjoyed further success over the Roosevelt siblings in the doubles final.

The following year, Cahill repeated the trick and saw off a 16-year-old opponent named Bessie Moore after an exhaustive five-set thriller. The New York Times later trumpeted Cahill as ‘the best player in the country’ and she tasted success once more by racking up another doubles win, this time with Adeline McKinley as her partner. But what made 1892 a particularly remarkable experience for Cahill was that the US Open finally granted championship status to a mixed doubles event. So, with Clarence Hobart alongside her, Cahill enjoyed a clean sweep, and got the better of Moore and Rodmond Beach in straight sets.

Now courting a degree of celebrity, she was the subject of media interest. One piece ran with a headline of, ‘The Champion Lady Tennis Player of the United States’ and offered this as its opening gambit. 

Miss Mabel Cahill, the champion lady tennis player of America, is a petite, attractive brunette, with short black hair, and the brightest of grey eyes, full of life and spirits. Although a champion of America, she is a daughter of Erin, born in Dublin. Her present home is in a pretty little house up-town near the park, New York having been her residence since leaving Dublin about four years ago.”
The article, which featured plenty of factual errors (Cahill was born and raised in Ballyragget in Kilkenny, not Dublin), went on to describe what made the champion so good on the court.  
Miss Cahill was too modest to admit that she defeats, with few exceptions, her male opponents. The principal feature of Miss Cahill’s playing is her activity. On the tennis court she seems to be everywhere at once and her opponents find it difficult to place a ball out of her reach. She has a remarkably powerful backhand stroke, which often carries confusion across the net. Those who have never seen her play can form no idea of the dash and spirit she puts into her game.”

Then, just like that – despite the success, the support, the adulation – she stopped. And that was the sum of her story. She disappeared and slipped into folklore until January 2016 when a man by the name of Mark Ryan opened up his computer, logged into his Tennis Forum profile and published a staggering account of Cahill’s life. Clocking in at over 15,000 words, it is an absorbing, enthralling and ultimately heartbreaking piece of research, which begins with Cahill’s upbringing in Kilkenny as the 12th child in a family of 13.

Her father was a barrister who had attended Stoneyhurst College in Lancashire and then Trinity College and the family home was Ballyconra House. Cahill received a full education and was a student at the Sacred Heart Convent Secondary School in Roscrea. But, by the time she left there at the age of seventeen, she was already an orphan.

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image Mabel Cahill, pictured on the left, alongside Emma Fellowes Morgan.

Still, her background as the daughter of a wealthy, respected member of the local community, ensured a particular social standing and with tennis proving an immensely popular recreational activity in Ireland, she began to dabble and get a taste of it. She competed at various local and regional tournaments and progressed to appear at the deeply-prestigious competition at Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square. But despite her love for the game, she was competitive rather than a prodigy. Which made the next period of her life all the more staggering.

According to Ryan, Cahill emigrated to New York in October 1889. And by the summer of the following year, she was already attracting media attention owing to her sporting prowess.

In a local newspaper feature, ‘Miss Cahill’ was described as ‘a young lady who has made her name famous as a tennis player’.

“She is a slight and rather delicate-looking girl, yet the severity of her play is the terror of opponents of her own sex,” opined the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 

She was already a member of the New York Tennis Club and, having reached the finals of both the women’s and mixed doubles in the club’s own tournament in 1890, began putting herself forward for national competitions, like the US Championship. 

Cahill’s talents aside, tennis boasted an irresistible and intoxicating social pull too. From a privileged background, she appeared captivated by the circles the sport placed her in, something that began back home and then continued, with interest, in Manhattan. 

“The most important event in which I contested abroad was the international tournament at Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin,’ she told one newspaper after her spectacular back-to-back triumphs in 1891 and 1892.

“Fitzwilliam Square is in the heart of the most fashionable part of the city, surrounded by aristocratic residences, and tournaments held there are always social events.”

In New York, Cahill had been a fixture at her local courts in Central Park and, as a result, was surrounded by an army of movers, shakers and social climbers. As Ryan’s research revealed, one known residence for Cahill during her time in the city was 3-7, East 62nd Street, which sits between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue. Nestled deep in the Upper East Side, it remains a salubrious address and has always appealed to a certain kind of tenant. In 1890, a seven-storey limestone mansion was built for John Drexel, grandson of the illustrious Philadelphia financier, at 1 East 62nd Street. In the summer of 2015, a four-bedroom, 5,000 square-foot apartment in the building – that had belonged to comedian Joan Rivers for 25 years – was sold for $24 million.  

people-bicycles-transportation-historical Cycling on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, circa 1894. Source: JT Vintage

Having inherited a sizeable amount of her father’s estate, Cahill easily fitted in to the smart set. But, with tennis an amateur sport, she needed another source of income. In keeping with the romanticism of her situation, she dabbled in writing and even landed a publishing deal. In 1891, her first novel was released: Her Playthings, Men, a commentary on aristocratic idiosyncrasies, didn’t make much of an impact though she did produce two other works. Still, her literary career wasn’t a lucrative enterprise and when she pulled back completely from the tennis circuit in 1893, it wasn’t too long before the money seemed to run out and her story began to slide towards a bleak conclusion.      

By April, 1897, Cahill had swapped New York for London but her circumstances had changed substantially.

Certainly, she was experiencing financial problems, as evidenced by a stint at the infirmary attached to the Liverpool Road Workhouse in Islington. She still continued to write, but also began a radically different professional path too and appeared in local music halls as a performer. Illustrating her monetary woes, she brought a case against a theatre producer in 1899, alleging she was owed £5 after a three-week stint as a chorus girl in a production of Aladdin in the Liverpool district of Bootle. Given it hadn’t been long since she’d been living alongside Central Park and busily immersed in the dizzying echelons of the New York social scene, she was now chasing pantomime producers all the way to a courtroom just to get paid. 

The decline was rapid.

Cahill eventually, and unsurprisingly, left London. But, despite her struggles and proximity, never seemed interested in returning home, though she got relatively close. She settled in the north-west of England, in the seaside town of Southport, a 45-minute drive from Liverpool and almost directly across the Irish Sea from Dublin. The relocation was possibly work-related, with Cahill’s new location close to the developing area of Blackpool and its burgeoning entertainment hub. But the move may also have been because of her deteriorating health.    

The details surrounding her death – expertly sourced and detailed by Ryan – are harrowing. In February 1905, she was just 41 years of age and had contracted tuberculosis of the larynx. Her final months were spent away from Southport, in the smaller nearby town of Ormskirk, where she had been admitted to the Union Workhouse, an inevitably distressing environment.

Ormskirk8 The women's infirmary at Ormskirk workhouse, circa 1900, where Mabel Cahill spent the last few months of her life.

Across from the female infirmary, where Cahill would have been, was a space reserved for ‘mental cases’ while the building also catered for ‘passing vagrants’ who needed a bed for the night.

Her death certificate listed her occupation as journalist and she was buried in the Anglican Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It remains a mystery if anyone was present for her funeral, other than the local curate. Considering Cahill’s circumstances, it’s likely she was given a pauper’s burial and laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

No headstone, no name, no trace and with her spectacular tennis achievements forgotten – along with her – for generations.  

Mark Ryan’s forensic and fascinating biography of Mabel Cahill can be viewed here.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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