Tipperary Celebrating International Women’s Day

“I am Generation Equality; Realizing Women’s Rights”

International Women’s Day is held annually on Sunday March 8th; celebrating the women’s movement and their struggle in gaining equality. On this date, women from all different backgrounds and cultures worldwide and where possible, band together to raise awareness in their need for gender parity and women’s rights.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2020 is “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights”

International Women’s Day (IWD) has a rich history dating back 108 years and is dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements, especially in the spheres of sport, Education, economics, culture and politics.

Lena Rice, Co. Tipperary – Queen of the Tennis Court

In celebrating International Women’s Day, let us today resurrect the now slowly fading achievements, by one Co. Tipperary born woman, namely Ms Helena Bertha Grace Rice.

Ms Helena Bertha Grace ‘Lena’ Rice.

Latter entered this world on June 21st 1866, and who passed away 41 years later, on her birthday, June 21st 1907. The cause of her death was that infectious disease, which back in the late 19th and early 20th century, killed up to seven thousand Irish people every year; known as Tuberculosis, (TB).

Better known to her public as, ‘Lena’ Rice; she was born the second-youngest of eight children to Mr Spring Rice and his wife Mrs Anna Rice (Gorde). The family lived in a two-storied Georgian style house at Marlhill, situated approximately a half mile west of New Inn, Cahir, in Co. Tipperary.

Her father died when she was just two years old, in 1868, (also as did Lena Rice his daughter, aged 41 years), leaving her mother to struggled somewhat, in the management their household affairs.

Lena first learned to play tennis with her other siblings, in their rather large garden at Marlhill, and Lena and her sister Anne, latter three years older, continued their love of the sport, eventually joining the membership of Cahir Town Lawn Tennis club, in Co. Tipperary. Here both sisters honed their ever-developing skills, by playing not just other local resident club members, but also by competing with a steady flow of competitors from a nearby stationed army camp.

As Lena’s competitive skills and confidence grew, she now sought to compete nationally and beyond the borders of her native mid Co. Tipperary.

In 1889 at the tender age of 23 years, she ventured up to our nation’s capital, Dublin, and to in Fitzwilliam Square, to take part in the Irish Tennis Championships. Despite reaching the semi-finals of the single’s event, she was defeated by the English player Ms Blanche Hillyard, but succeeded in winning the mixed doubles title, with her Kildare male partner Mr Willoughby Hamilton, (no relation), latter himself to later become a Wimbledon winner.

Six weeks later, both Rice sisters then travelled to England to participate at Wimbledon, which in 1889 attracted just six entrants in the ladies’ singles event. Lena again made it to the finals but here she was met once again by Ms Blanche Bingley Hillyard, the very same woman who had kept her from victory in Dublin. Again she was defeated, with Ms Hillyard securing the title 4-6, 8-6, 6-4. But, despite her defeat, Ms Rice had already made history, in becoming the first Irish woman ever to reach a Wimbledon final.

Ms Rice, (who by the way never married), now returned to Ireland to further advance her training. However, her weak backhand was now renowned in tennis circles. She was described in the book entitled “Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad” as “a wonderful player with a terrible ‘Irish’ drive and a powerful service”.

The following year, in 1890, a now determined Ms Rice returned to Wimbledon. This time Ms Blanche Bingley Hillyard did not compete, as she was expecting her first baby. With Ms Hillyard no longer competing, Ms Rice; having formulated a new style, the ‘overhead smash’, and with only four entries in the 1890 tournament; reached the final with ease, beating Ms Mary Steadman 7-5, 6-2, to take her place at Centre Court, opposite Ms May Jacks.

On July 4th Ms Rice; dressed in the tennis attire of the time, i.e. a knee-length skirt, blouse tightly cinched at the waist, a tie, leather shoes and a straw boater hat, stepped onto the court to take the winner’s trophy 6-4, 6-1.

Using her twenty-guinea prize money, she purchased an emerald and diamond ring, which we understand she later left to her grand-niece.

There is no known record of Ms Lena Rice ever played in public again, but almost 130 years later, today, she remains the only Irishwoman ever to have won a Wimbledon Singles Final.

Following her early death, Wimbledon Singles Champion Ms Lena Rice was buried beside her parents in a small Protestant cemetery in New Inn, Cahir, Co. Tipperary.


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