With a fantastic social scene and unlimited opportunities to get involved competitively, socially and organisationally, the Dublin University Croquet Club (DUCC) is, in many ways, a gem hidden in plain sight. Often seen having fun on New Square in the afternoons (Mondays and Thursdays from 2pm to 4pm for those already interested), the club exudes a loveable charm, with frequent trips to play in international competitions, as well as hosting prestigious international opens. DUCC even hosts its AGM in Dicey’s. What’s not to love?
DUCC was founded in the 1960s in the midst of a surge in the popularity of the sport at Trinity, with record numbers of members signing up in the club’s earliest days. In the following years, the club endured a fluctuating existence – surges in popularity and membership before inevitable declines to the edge of the abyss of forgotten sports clubs, only to be saved once more for another few years. Recently, however, that is beginning to change, according to current Club Secretary and Croquet Association of Ireland (CAI) Secretary Liam Ó’Broin.
Ó’Broin, a charismatic and enthusiastic second-year history student, is the man charged with continuing the club’s current rise in fortunes. Since the start of the decade, DUCC has seen a steady increase in membership, before an explosion of new members joining throughout the most recent Freshers’ Week under the stewardship of Ó’Broin and the rest of the DUCC committee. Interestingly, Ó’Broin himself is a relative newcomer to the sport. A testament to the inclusivity of the game, the man who holds roles in DUCC, Carrickmines Croquet Club and the national croquet association only took up the sport in his first year at Trinity.
“I knew about it [the sport] because I used to play tennis competitively in Argideen Vale, I knew there was a croquet lawn there”, he tells me of his experience of croquet prior to coming to Trinity, “but I wouldn’t have known much outside of that”. Quite the meteoric rise for the Cork native then, who regales me with fantastic stories and insights from the minute we begin our chat in the Dining Hall.
Many of us are guilty of having preconceptions about the game, and Ó’Broin is keen to set the record straight. “Many people will see the sport as being of British origin”, he explains, “but it is actually an Irish game. It was created by Irish monks back in the 5th century AD, in Maynooth”. To my own surprise, he tells me that croquet was “actually one of the most popular sports in Ireland up until World War I”, before explaining how the sport was replaced by tennis in the post-war years as many of the lawn keepers and proponents of the game died in the fighting abroad.
Ó’Broin also takes aim at the vision of the game as an aristocratic sport: “Croquet is a sport for everyone. Regardless of one’s income or cash flow, if you’re willing to work hard to reduce your handicap, then croquet is the sport for you.”
This brings us to a discussion on the rules of the game. There are two main forms of croquet: association croquet and golf croquet. The Trinity club mainly focuses on the golf form for newer members and for social play, with its format being much more understandable for newcomers to the sport. Association croquet is the home of the competitive players in the club. Players are assigned a handicap of 20, similar to the system operated in golf, and this can be reduced to any negative number. This handicap system affords weaker players extra turns to make them more competitive. The instrument of choice to strike the ball is a mallet, a long wooden club with a cylindrical base. Players crouch over the ball, facing their target, before swinging the club swiftly and smoothly through their legs, sending the ball rolling across the lawn towards the hoop.
In the golf form, players aim to stroke their ball through each hoop in a predetermined order. When a ball passes through the correct hoop, a point is scored. Once a hoop has been “run”, or scored, all players now turn their attention to the next hoop and the process is repeated. The game is often played in a best-of-13 format, and so the first player to run seven hoops is deemed the winner. The game is accessible for newcomers, but still remains strategic and tactical enough to challenge even the most accomplished of players.
In the association form of the game, however, far more strategy and thinking is involved. Ó’Broin describes it as somewhere between billiards and golf – players are allowed to target other players’ balls, making their opponent’s shot more difficult in what is known as a “roquet” shot. Additional turns are allocated for running a hoop or for hitting another player’s ball. With a whole host of interesting rules and potential strategies, this form of the game is often popular with strategic thinkers and problem solvers from the disciplines of science, maths and engineering. Players who take up the sport for such reasons often go on to achieve success on an international stage, according to Ó’Broin, who references Trinity alumnus and former world number seven in the individual croquet world rankings, Danny Johnson, as a prime example.
What’s involved in the international game then? Ó’Broin explains that playing at international level is incredibly feasible for newcomers to the game: “In the four years that [former DUCC committee member] Simon Williams was here, he reduced his handicap from 20 to 4, and went to Egypt to represent Ireland not too long after that.” While warning that the sport has an endless amount of techniques to master, from the way that players grip the mallet to the movement of their shoulders during a stroke, he maintains that, for the persistent and the patient, opportunities to play at international level very much exist.
The story of the croquet club is an incredibly interesting one. Ó’Broin litters our conversation with anecdotes detailing many of the club’s adventures and, indeed, misadventures. Current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar found himself wound up in a New Square game under strange circumstances – a club member was so enthusiastic about giving the Taoiseach the chance to try the sport during a visit to the college, that he chased the former Trinity man with his mallet firmly clasped in his hand. After a brief misunderstanding with Varadkar’s security detail, the Taoiseach was eventually persuaded to participate. Despite Ó’Broin’s insistence that Varadkar didn’t quite manage to master the basics of gripping the mallet, the Dublin-based TD still ran the hoop much to his delight and to the surprise of club members. The club is no stranger to interest from political figures, with President Michael D Higgins applying for lifetime honorary membership in the past year.
For those with a similar desire to try the sport out, the club’s winter golf croquet league starts soon, which offers the perfect opportunity for people of all skill levels to get involved. Meanwhile, The Peter Browne Cup, last played in 1994 and recently revived by Ó’Broin, is due to take place soon – the trophy handed out to the winner of a challenge game between DUCC and the Carrickmines club, a fixture that promises plenty of good-natured and friendly, yet intense rivalry. The club frequently makes trips abroad, with a visit to Sheffield planned for the second term.
Attracting new members remains a priority for the club, which is increasing its social media efforts for the coming year, asking anyone with an interest in the sport or in having a bit of fun on New Square to approach the club at any time. Croquet may often be smeared with the stain of snobbery, but for Ó’Broin and his clubmates, the goal is to make it the game of the people.