Jonah Barrington – Mr. Squash By Paul McElhinney
In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, he was known as Mr. Squash. He had helped drag a sport which had mainly been the preserve of the English public school elite and the British Empire, firmly into the post-colonial era. With his emphasis on fitness training and on the importance of winning, he managed to transform a sport of the leisured classes into a rigorous modern one. His dynamic, determined personality helped in driving this transformation – to have attended one of his clinics was to have witnessed a master class in the psychology and tactics of the sport. Not only was he a master of the theory of the game, but he managed to reach the position of No. 1 in the world game, vying on and off during the 1960’s and 1970’s with the great Australian, Geoff Hunt for the top position.
I had the great honour of meeting Jonah during a tour he made to Zambia and Rhodesia in the late 1960’s. At that stage, he was at the height of his career. He travelled with a useful English player, Mike Corby who played exhibition matches against Barrington and against the local talent. Our family were living in Zambia at the time when he arrived up at the Lusaka Club to play a series of exhibitions. I recall his match against local hero, Storr Hunter, a Rhodesian émigré living in Lusaka. Hunter took quite a pummelling but managed to disport himself well against the best in the world at the time. I managed to see the match throughout but my father, who was a former Irish international, had to leave early on account of my younger brother not feeling well.
I remember very well the clinic he gave after his match. He had a sort of mesmeric, wizard like quality as he regaled the crowd with anecdotes and advice. Dark and brooding with a strong, fixed stare, he had a charisma that held the crowd in the palm of his hand. He also recounted the encounter he had some years previously with the great Pakistani player, Nasrullah Khan. Short and pot-bellied, Khan appeared a walkover to a young fit Barrington until Khan started to serve. Khan was able to lob his serve so that it hugged the wall throughout its trajectory down the court. Each time Barrington came out to return it, he crashed his racquet against the wall. Khan won the first game 9-0 purely on his serve! Barrington also asked the great master for his advice on ways to cure a problem he had in regularly hitting the lower tin. Khan’s advice was : ‘Hit ball higher’. For about an hour, we were treated to a display of wit and wisdom from Barrington. He took his game seriously and was imparting his insights to an audience eager to know what the secret of his success was.
After the match, my brother Karl and I managed to get into his changing room afterwards – how we did, I’m not quite sure. We were just on our way to Ireland to attend a prep school in Co. Wicklow, we told him. It emerged that he had also gone to a school in Avoca – an immediate connection. It was quite a thrill to meet the best squash player in the world as a boy of 11 years and for him to have been so open and friendly. This was an encounter we dined out on for many years after!
Jonah had an interesting pedigree. He came from an old Anglo-Irish family with significant landed interests. One of his ancestors, Sir Jonah Barrington, established an estate in County Limerick, ‘Glenstal’ which was eventually sold in the 1930’s to a group of Belgian Benedictine monks. These monks established a boarding school which I attended in the 1970’s – another interesting connection. Jonah’s aforementioned ancestor was also responsible for introducing rugby to Limerick (not long after William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran at Rugby School). He organised teams of working men and farm labourers from his estate to play the game and established a tradition in Limerick of rugby among working class communities. Teams like ‘Young Munster’ carry on this working class tradition even to this day. In this respect, the city stands out in Ireland where the sport has very much been a middle class sport. His Limerick ancestors were steeped in folklore, much of which we heard when we attended Glenstal. During Ireland’s War of Independence, the then Lord Barrington’s daughter was ‘stepping out’ with a British army officer billeted in the area. On her way back from a day out, they were driving up the avenue of the estate in an open-top vehicle when an IRA sniper took a potshot from the nearby woods aimed at the officer. Instead, the shot hit the young lady and she died instantaneously. It was said that after her death, her ghost haunted the castle where the schoolboys dormitories were situated. The matron swore that she had witnessed the ghost on a number of occasions and it was one of the first stories I heard when I joined the school. It all added to the glamour and mystery of the place. What an intriguing family!
Jonah spent some time as a pupil at Headfort School in Co. Louth which I believe, was the only prep school in Ireland that had its own squash court. Clearly, he was able to hone his skills from an early age, the key to excellence in any sport. From Headfort, he went on to Cheltenham College, a public school with an imperial and military tradition together with good facilities for squash. After Cheltenham, he entered Trinity College, Dublin. Dublin and Trinity in those days were very relaxed and by all accounts, Jonah had a fairly relaxed passage through Trinity. At that time, Jonah was a very average journeyman player playing at one of the lower slots on the first team. He also had a very active social life which probably interfered with achieving his best at squash. It would have been hard at that time to see Jonah becoming the outstanding squash star of later years.
Accounts differ, but it seems Jonah reached some form of conversion after he left college. He started to get fit and develop his skills, mental and physical, at squash. By the mid 1960’s, he was ascending the world ladder and by the end of the decade, he was vying with Geoff Hunt for the top position in world squash. He was bringing squash to a whole new audience, communicating its skills and attractions in a compelling and stimulating way. No longer was squash simply a leisurely upper middle class sport, but now a modern, dynamic and more democratic one.
The next time I met Barrington was at a Squash Ireland event organised in Clontarf in 1975 when I was a first year student at Trinity. Being the pushy teenager that I was, I approached him after his game and reminded him of our meeting in Zambia many years earlier. His memory was not as good as mine, but that is not surprising. I recall that the event was being covered by the media as the sport was gaining in popularity at the time, not least due to the efforts of Barrington. Frank Delaney was covering the event for RTE, I think, and standing on the other side of Jonah from me, referred rather witheringly to my youthful intervention. It taught me a lesson in Irish culture: the dangers of being the tall poppy. How that attitude has held Ireland back in so many ways for so many years! By contrast, Barrington represented an Irishman who became the best he could be through hard work and determination. I know which approach I prefer.
During my Trinity years, Barrington’s memory among the squash fraternity was often intoned. He was a bit of a legend in the College given his illustrious career and ‘favourite son’ status. Stories about his exploits did the rounds, many no doubt embellished. I often used to think that he also played on the same dilapidated courts as I did. These were there since the middle 1930’s, had a huge capacity to attract dust and although not of top grade, were reasonably serviceable. Indirectly, Jonah played a role in developing the sport in his old college as he did in the wider world. Having an illustrious former alumnus like Barrington, inevitably casts a positive glow.
In 2011, the 75th anniversary of the Trinity College Squash Club, I almost had another chance to meet Jonah. He was invited by the organisers but unfortunately, he had to cry off in advance due to other commitments. Although it turned out to be a great night in the elegant surroundings of the College Dining Hall, it was a little like Hamlet without the Prince. Indeed, I knew a few former members of the club who decided not to come because Jonah was not going to be there! Despite this, Jonah was spoken about with great reverence on the night – his spirit was certainly hovering around proceedings that night.
Barrington has to be credited with so single-mindedly taking a minority sport out of its class-bound cobwebs and bringing it to a wider audience. By force of his personality, he inspired an interest in the game that had never been seen before. He was certainly a heroic figure to me as an 11 year old boy when I met him in that Lusaka changing room – what we would now call a ‘role model’. What’s more, he was also Irish. His physical health has not been great in recent years due to the effects of injuries sustained earlier in his career, but in his late 60’s, he surely has many years to go yet. From Avoca to Headfort to Cheltenham and Trinity College Dublin, he reached the pinnacle of international squash with a sense of commitment and determination which is the hallmark of all great sportsmen.