Had he been a Gaelic footballer, or even been in the slightest way Gaelic Minded James Cecil Parke would most surely have been the greatest footballer ever to emanate from Co. Monaghan. Gaelic Games, however, were only in their infancy, or even unknown, in many parts of Co. Monaghan during the Parke Era and James Cecil would hardly even have been aware of their existence. But his love of sport and the fact that he was ranked Fourth in the World in tennis, captained the Irish International Rugby team for two years and was an Olympic Silver medallist, would surely have prompted such a great athlete also to have a go at the Gaelic code, either in Gaelic football or in hurling, had he known about them.
James Cecil Parke was born in Clones, Co Monaghan on the 26th of July 1881 and was to become one of the most extraordinary Irish sportsmen of all time. Few of our great athletes can claim to have represented their country in a variety of sports, yet that is exactly what Parke did, representing Ireland internationally in five different sports - rugby, tennis, cricket, athletics and chess. He was one of the most outstanding international rugby players this country has ever produced, an equally brilliant scratch golfer, a first class cricketer and track sprinter, and a child prodigy at chess, but above all else, a universally renowned tennis star, ranked among the world's Top Four of his era, and winning an Olympic Games Silver Medal in the Men's Doubles of 1908. Described in a 1913 London newspaper as the world's best (tennis) player? he was certainly the most outstanding performer Co Monaghan has ever produced, and was probably the greatest all-round sportsman that Ireland has ever produced.
The Parke family originally came from Longfield Lodge in Co. Leitrim and James Cecil's father was William Parke (1824-1907) who came to live in Clones and later married Mary Pringle from the Emyvale area in the same county. They had eight children, including Maud Pedlow of Lurgan (whose grandson Cecil Pedlow later became an Irish rugby international and a British and Irish Lion) and James Cecil. His mother's family, the Pringles, were a very highly esteemed ascendancy family which had lived at Ballinahone, Emyvale from 1696 to the 1960s. One member of the family, James Pringle, was for many years an MP for South Tyrone.
While a student at Trinity College, Cecil Parke was first capped for Ireland in rugby in 1903 and captained his country in the three home international of the 1907-08 season. A superb centre-threequarter he won no less than twenty caps ... against England in 1904, 06, 07, 08 and 09, against Scotland in 1904, 06, 07, 08 and 09, against Wales in 1903, 04, 05, 06, 07, 08, and 09; against France in 1909; against New Zealand in 1906 and against South Africa in 1907.
Described by the Sport newspaper as a football genius, a great centre and a brilliant performer he was also a marvellous place-kicker and his record of five penalty goals in one international was to last as an Irish record up until 1927 when it was broken by George Stephenson. His last game in the green jersey was on 20th March 1909 when he scored five of Ireland's points - a drop goal and a conversation - in their magnificent 19-8 win over France at Landsdowne Road. He then retired from the game to concentrate on tennis.
In tennis, his favourite sport, he won the first trophy at Clones Lawn Tennis Club in 1900 at age 19. He then went on to win the Irish Men?s Singles title in 1904 and 1905, and then for six years in succession 1908-13. During that same period he won the Men?s Doubles five times - 1903, 1909, 1910, 1911 and 1912 and the Mixed Doubles twice, 1909 and 1912. He was European Singles champion in 1907 and Singles champion of Australiasia in 1912. He represented Ireland in 1912 and 1913 and was picked for the Great British and Ireland team for several internationals, playing on the Davis Cup team in 1909, 1912 and 1913. He was ranked world number six in 1914 and number four in 1920.
In later years he would write: - In 1909 I was again chosen to represent the ?Old Country and visited America as captain of the British and Irish team which consisted of CP Dixon, WC Crawley and myself. Following their victory in the Davis Cup Finals in Australia in 1912, in which he defeated the Australian No. 1 though he himself was ranked No. 2 he wrote: - My four-leafed shamrock pulled me through.
The great American tennis star S Powell Blackmore wrote that he was an ardent admirer of Parke and said that it had always been his secret ambition, from he was a mere fifteen years of age, to play against the great Irishman. Describing Parke's style, Blackmore wrote: - James Cecil Parke has a slight Irish brogue and a big Irish heart. His shots are rather pushed out at you if he is standing still, but once Parke gets on the run, he hurls himself at the ball and you get a hot return, and Parke will go on hurling himself at the ball even at a time when things seen hopeless.
In the world renowned Wimbledon tournament, Parke reached the semi-finals (6th round) of the Men?s Singles in 1910, defeating Beamish in the 5th and again in 1913 when he beat Watson in the 5th only to lose to the eventual winner on both occasions. He did even better in the Mens Doubles, reaching the finals of 1911 (with Hardy), 1912 (with Beamish) and 1913 (with Beamish again) to win the runners-up titles. His greatest achievement here was in 1914 when, partnered by Mrs Larcombe, the Ladies Singles champion, he won the Mixed Doubles title, which had only been inaugurated the previous year, thus becoming the only Irishman ever to win a Wimbledon championship.
His Olympic career was relatively short, but highly successful, first competing in the 1908 Games in London and winning the Silver Medal along with MJG Ritchie, with whom he reached the Men's Doubles Final. In Men?s Singles he got a w.o in the first round, defeated Toth of Hungary 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in the second round, and then met Froitzheim of Germany in the third. This was described in the official Olympic Report as the match of the whole Olympic Tournament. Parke had advantage four times during the match but let it slip. Both players were accorded a standing ovation at the conclusion.
Along with Ritchie in the Men's Doubles he defeated a Hungarian pair in the 1st round, an Austrian pair in the 2nd round, and then Decugis and Germot of France in the semi final. But they were beaten 9-7, 7-5, 9-7, by Hilliard and Doherty in the final. The report stated that Ritchie did not play up to the standard of Parke, but the Olympic Silver Medal was still his.
His greatest ever performance in tennis was in 1913 when he defeated the USAs No. 1 and the ?Daily Chronicle? of 26th July 1913 reported: -
After one of the finest matches ever played at Wimbledon, JC Parke defeated American?s champion, ME McLoughlin, by three sets to two ... in a five set match that was crowded with thrilling incidents, McLoughlin was beaten by Parke 8-10, 7-5, 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.?
The same paper, in its issue of 29th July 1913, wrote: - ?Within the last six months he (Parke) has beaten Norman Brookes, the Australian champion; AF Wilding, the all-England champion; and American?s first and second players, McLoughlin and Williams. On that record one might almost say he is the world?s best player.?
This great Monaghan sportsman joined the British army at the outbreak of WW1 and held the rank of captain when wounded at Gallipoli in 1915. Promoted major in 1917, he was back on the tennis circuit after peace was restored. In 1920 he again reached the Wimbledon?s Men?s Double Final with Kingscote, but lost to Williams and Garland. In Singles he reached the 5th round but then lost to Tilden, the ultimate winner. His last major title was the Singles title at Hythe, also that year.
Parke is best described by S. Powell Blackmore in his ?Lawn Tennis Up-to-Date 1921.?
?He is one of the world?s greatest fighters, not on account of his cunning, but because of his daring strokes when concerned. Parke is most dangerous when his opponent thinks a shot has beaten him. It is not tactics, it is sinew, superlative nerve and the heart of a big sportsman.?
Following the end of WW1 Parke lived at Llandudno in Wales where he practiced as a solicitor up until his death on 27th February 1946. He had retired from the tennis game in 1925, a sportsman of whom any county should feel extremely proud.
Many of Parke?s lovely trophies were passed on to his niece, later known as ?Mrs Dr. Killen? who lived in Aviemore House in Monaghan town. Some years before her death, Mrs Killen donated these trophies to Monaghan County Museum where they are currently on display and should be visited by all Monaghan lovers of sport. What a pity he couldn?t have packed in a Sam Maguire Cup in the middle of them at some stage!
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