As part of the 75th Anniversary celebrations of the foundation of the Irish Table Tennis Association, it was decided to invite Tommy Caffrey, one of our greatest ever players, to share with us his memories of playing table tennis over the last 50 or so years.
Tommy began playing table tennis at the age of 9 and it was immediately clear to those watching him, that he would go far.
In 1957, at 14, he took part in his first Irish Close Championships in Drogheda, and after winning the Boys Singles, Men’s Singles, Men’s Doubles & Mixed Doubles, he became known as the Irish “Boy Wonder” of Table Tennis. Following that, Tommy earned the first of what would be 151 Senior Caps.
In 1963, he won his first Irish Open in Balbriggan, winning a second 4 years later in 1967. He continued to appear on the Irish senior team up until the early 90s and thereafter, continued as a leading light in Veterans table tennis, including a 10-year stint playing in the British veteran’s Table Tennis League.
The award for the outstanding player of the Interprovincial Championships, in which Tommy has participated in for over 50 years, is called the “Tommy Caffrey Award”.
Here, in his own words, is his story.
I was nine years old when I came out of a church in Stamullen, Co. Meath. I was standing with my back against a building wall and I could hear the constant bouncing of a ball inside. After about twenty minutes a man called Sonny Whyte came out of the building, I rushed up to him and asked if I could go in. He then asked me if I had any money on me, and he followed that by “Its members only in here”. I told him that I had none and he said “I’m only joking son, step in”. When I did go in I fell in love with everything in there. The long green shiny table, the net and its posts, the ball and most especially the bat. It was a magic place for me and I only left at closing time.
Straight away I knew this game was for me and I pestered the folks once I got home to allow me to join the club. That soon happened and I must say the members there were most kind by giving me lots of games. One member in particular called Eithne McCourt always brought along a box that I could stand on so as I could see over the net. It certainly helped. On a Sunday afternoon soon after I joined, there were so many members in the club that day that they decided to run a handicap competition. The members there could never even begin to know the excitement that aroused in me. It was the most wonderful feeling I could imagine and it would be very hard to forget that day of days in lovely Stamullen. I don’t remember how I got on in that competition, but that didn’t matter in the slightest as I learned that day that it whetted my appetite for the game and competition in particular.
Time quickly moved on and soon I was ten and growing. Members were talking to each other about my progress. I could sense they felt I was on my way to something big. I knew as well as they did that I was improving very rapidly. If anybody loved their sport as much as I loved mine, then I’m convinced that success at a very high level lies ahead. Stamullen Table Tennis club was experiencing a change. A change that they all liked. They now had a member they felt was way above average and in no time at all would be destined for the top in Irish Table Tennis. I’ll always love them there.
As the improvement in my game continued apace, my Father converted a workshop at the back of the family home in Gormanstown into a fully fledged table tennis hall. I will never forget the way he did it. It was beautiful compared with what it used to be. The colour scheme was class. The top was painted a lovely shade of green (which much later I called “German Green” as it was the same green as the German shirts at my first Worlds in 1959), and the plinth was black setting the whole thing off to a tee. It was the marker for wonderful days to come as I began to play day and night with my forever friend Oliver McKenna. He didn’t love it as much as me, but great pal that he was and is, he persevered unselfishly for me. The word got around the village about the table tennis hall. People started to arrive in the evening time to see what was going on. Shyness on their part soon disappeared and in no time most of them were picking up a bat and having a go. Boy, did they get keen! The whole thing mushroomed into something we didn’t see coming. Soon a club was formed and several teams were entered into the Fingal League. The hall was just seventeen feet long, so on match nights there was only room for the visiting team inside. The home team had to make do with looking in the windows to see how the match was going. Those days formed my youth and it’s almost too painful now to even write about it. It all ended when it was suggested that I join the Balbriggan Table Tennis Club.
In the Balbriggan club I met two wonderful people in Leslie Cashell and Freddie Harper. They pointed me in the right direction. Back then the Leinster League had twelve divisions. We were playing in Division 1A, the highest division in the land. Not alone did we win the League several times, but we also won the Cup Competition as well. Our team of Freddie Harper, Larry Caffrey (Brother) and me would die for one another. I always knew that Freddie wanted me to win so much, it made for great team spirit.
The major breakthrough came for me when at 14 I entered for the Irish Close Championships held in Drogheda in 1957. For a time after this tournament I became known as the Irish “Boy Wonder” of Table Tennis. I won the Boys Singles, Men’s Singles, Men’s Doubles & Mixed Doubles. During the Ulster Open that same season at halftime during a football match between Ards V Bangor, it was announced that Irish “Boy Wonder” Table Tennis player Tommy Caffrey was in attendance. To my amazement loud applause filled the ground, which left me with a warm feeling for a very long time.
I received my first International Cap after my performance in that Drogheda Tournament. It was to be my first of 151 Senior Caps. Soon after that I remember watching with brother Larry, the final of the English Close Championships on BBC television between English No 1 Ian Harrison and No 2 Brian Merritt. It was a thrilling match in which Brian Merritt beat the favourite. I knew I was due to meet the winner two weeks later in the home Internationals. All Table Tennis players are familiar with the saying “He hit him out of the Hall”, that’s exactly what I did to Brian Merritt in a packed Wellington Hall in Belfast. From love-all right to the end my attacking game was accurate and relentless.
The very next season that followed was a great one for me as well. At the European Championships in Zagreb, I won 12 out of 14 matches in the team event. It should have been 13 out of 14 as I thought I had beaten the East German player called Schnider.
We had shook hands and all at the end of the match only to be called back by the umpire who said the German’s ball had struck. No team member on either side had seen the “touch”, most of all the East German Team Manager who told me I was the “true winner” of the match.
On my way to the English Open in Brighton, Joe Veselsky told me that Victor Barna’s office was opposite the entrance in Victoria Station. Joe asked me to say “Hello” to Victor before I stepped on the train to Brighton. I did more than that; I asked Victor if he would play doubles with me in a tournament anywhere. He smiled and said “Maybe”. A year later I was back in Victor’s office asking the same question. “It’s fixed” he said. “I’m going to Cork later in the season, can we play together in the Munster Open”. I could hardly contain myself on the way to Brighton. If mobile phones were around then I’d have made a hundred calls!
The Munster Open came around and I wondered if he would arrive at all. He was in the hall before I was. There he was in white slacks having a knock with quite an audience around him. For once, the doubles were going to be more important to me than the singles. I was ready for it. I can’t recall the matches we played up to the semi-final, but I know we had a close call against Michael and Dessie Gibney. When they weren’t fighting with each other they could be extremely good. “Phew”, it was good to get that one out of the way.
Our opponents in the final was a partnership that had never played together before, despite that, were doing nicely. English No 1 Ian Harrison had teamed up with Irish International Wesley Pappin. Look across the net at Wesley Pappin and one word jumps out at you – Competition. He was every inch a competitor in the way he looked. He was probably the most stylish player I can recall in Ireland when I was a young international. I’d a huge respect for him. Victor Barna and I went on to win it. Much of the match is a blur to me, but win it we did. Victor was well past his best by now. Back then I was at an age when, believe it or not, it didn’t mean all that much to me playing doubles with 22 times World Champion Victor Barna, but now it means a huge amount to me. Victor was Head of Dunlop’s in England and his assistant manager was English International Michael Thornhill.
It saddened me greatly when I heard of Victor’s sad demise, which happened at Lima Airport in Peru. Victor, wherever you may be, thanks for the memory.
Then came the biggest one of all! The Irish Open in Balbriggan in 1963. I had the jitters leading up to this one. So much was expected of me in my home town. For the very first time I was nervous. When I arrived for finals on the Saturday evening, there was a queue going down the Main Street. There was another queue going up Skerries Street and around onto High Street. People failed to get in. I’ve never seen the town Hall so packed before or since. They were even sitting all along the front of the stage with their legs dangling down against the wainscoting. Oliver Adamson being one. Along came the quarter-final and my opponent was Scottish No 2 Ian Barclay. I was afraid, but I played really well to beat him in three straight sets. In the semi-final I came up against New Zealand No 1 Alan Tomlinson. He was on a European Tour. I had a three sets to one win against him. Then I was afforded the comfort of watching the other semi-final between Johnny Leach and Brian Wright, both from England. What a wonderful match this turned out to be. The former World champion Johnny Leach coming back from a near impossible position to beat English No 2 Brian Wright. People were able to see how Leach captured the World title on two occasions. Experience and a whole lot more helped win this one. The final was due to be umpired by local man Jim Corcoran, but it seems the occasion was too big for him and asked the organisers to find a replacement for him. In stepped a Dublin man Joe Kirwan. I think Joe at the time was a member of the famous Crofton Club. I always considered Joe to be a most professional umpire. It would be nice to see him back again, but it would take a good one to entice him back. He is now very involved with Boxing. I felt quite at home with Joe now in the Umpire’s Chair. He was always a top Ref and had a lot of common sense which calmed me more than a bit. Joe got the final underway and I must have surprised everybody in the Hall. I was rampant right from the off. I could hardly miss. I found a new confidence in my game not unlike the way I handled Brian Merritt in the past. I was unstoppable and what’s more, I knew it. That feeling could not have come at a better time. Johnny Leach had simply no answer. He was a great champion of the past and I had to respect that. It could have been so easy to get carried away. I didn’t let that happen and was determined not to. But I will say this. It was unforgettable.
I got a second Irish Open four years later in Omagh. In the semi-final I beat English No 2 Tony Piddock and in the other semi-final our own Jim Langan beat another English International player in Bobby Stevens.
In the final Jim and I had what I can only describe as an elongated first set which I eventually won 32 – 30. As is usually the case, I ran away with the next to win my second Irish Open. It felt great to get a second Irish Open, but as I said earlier, Balbriggan was unforgettable.
There are other finals that come to mind. One being the Leinster Open played at the wonderful Abbey Lecture Hall. For me, this venue was unique, right in the heart of Dublin’s City Centre on Lower Abbey Street. In the Semi-final here I beat Hungarian International Joe Zamoggi. Michael Thornhill, the English International player, was already awaiting the winner of this “Semi” in the final. At one point in the final during a prolonged rally, Michael fell through the surrounds catching Mrs James Marsh with the handle of his bat, causing a deep gash above her left eye. She bled profusely from her wound and was taken out of the hall for treatment. Mrs Marsh recovered well in the days that followed. I went on to beat Michael in the final by three sets to one.
Another of which was the final of the County Antrim Open in Ballymena. In a packed Town Hall, I had a thrilling victory against Belgian No 1 Norbert Van de Walle. He was one of the best defensive players in Europe at the time, and we sent the spectators’ home happy that Saturday night with everything you could want to see from a final with an attacker and defender battling it out over five close sets.
I’m going back now to the European League days, one of the highlights for me was an away victory for Ireland against Switzerland in a little town called Zug. I took both my singles matches as well as the Men’s and Mixed Doubles to clinch the match by four games to three. We were without Jim Langan for the match and a win for Ireland was not expected without his services. If that was one of the highlights, then one of the most depressing nights came against Luxembourg. This was a home match played in Crossgar in which everything looked good as we led by three matches to one, only to lose out in the end by four matches to three. I far from enjoyed the meal afterwards. It was as low as I ever felt after a table tennis defeat. I remember looking up at a clock as I drove home through Drogheda and the time said 5.20 am. I had to catch a train at 7.20 am for work in two hours time. What madness!
I often thought of writing something about my time in the game with Jim Langan and then I thought, it’s no good, you do it all or not at all. But here I’ll give two contrasting stories about him. The first was a European League Match in Holland. I remember on the night an English player called Judy Williams came to the Hall to say “Hello” to us and wish us well. She had gone to live permanently in Holland and told us she wasn’t staying to watch the match as she wanted to watch a domestic football match on television in her apartment. We thanked her and said goodbye. The Irish team comprised of Jim, Karen Senior, myself and Joe Veselsky was non playing captain. The match was about to get under way. The first match on court was Jim against Dutch no 1 Bert Van Der Helm. During the first set a member of the audience started to sound a bugle and I could see Jim wasn’t too happy about this. When the first set ended, I saw Jim approach the umpire and talk with him at length. Then he came over to Joe Veselsky and it was clear that all was not well with him. Jim asked the umpire if he would talk with the member of the audience and ask him to stop sounding the bugle as it was upsetting him. The umpire came back with a message for Jim. The member of the audience told him that the bugle was part and parcel of sport in Holland and that he could sound it as often as he liked. Jim then told the umpire that each time he sounded the bugle he (Jim) would break a table tennis ball.
This is how it ludicrously continued. The person would sound the bugle and Jim would put his thumb through a ball. In the first minutes this was a form of amusement for the audience, but then it turned sour. The audience were all seated on tiered seating on the same side of the hall and started to look decidedly unhappy. They then started chanting “Crazy Irish Boy”, “Crazy Irish Boy”. The match had come to a stop. In stepped Judy Williams once again. The football on television was interrupted saying there was trouble at a Table Tennis International Match between Holland and Ireland and that ugly scenes were ensuing. It was just the most awful situation imaginable. The crowd were starting to rise up from their seats and surge forward toward Jim. It was boiling point. Then in the nick of time a gentleman grabbed a microphone and persuaded the crowd to return to their seats. This man was the hero of the hour. It seemed he acted on his own initiative and succeeded in defusing a really scary situation. The match was abandoned with the points awarded to Holland.
This other facet of Jim is the one I much prefer. We had just eaten a meal in a restaurant in Hannover and had come out onto the street. I’m sure there were few colder places in Europe that night than the streets of Hanover. The icy wind was as cold as I ever experienced. Just to the side of the entrance there was a man sitting on the ground with his back against the wall of the restaurant. Jim made his way over to him and said “stand up there, boss”. The poor man I’m sure had no English and stayed sitting. Jim succeeded in lifting him to his feet and balanced him with his back against the restaurant wall. With that Jim took off his overcoat and put it around the man’s shoulders and said “you’ll feel warmer now, boss”. That was Jim at his very best. He had a Heart of Gold.
Of course, I am still playing! It would be hard for me to forget one night I was walking out of the hall at IWA when Tony Martin called me back and asked me if I’d be interested in playing in the British veteran’s table Tennis League. Veterans Table Tennis was just getting under way in Ireland then and I jumped at the idea of getting back on the road again. It would be great I thought, going to battle again against all the familiar faces of England, Scotland and Wales and the unfamiliar ones of Jersey, I.O.M and Guernsey. In the blink of an eye, that journey has ended too. I gave it ten wonderful years.
In that time I took trains to all kinds of places after landing at East Midlands, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Stansted, Bristol, Leeds/Bradford and Gatwick. I know we rave here about Killarney and rightly so, but the British Countryside is much underrated.
My very first trip I flew to East Midlands Airport and made my way by train to Derby. I made my way to hotel Peregrine and was just about to see Crosbie, Stills and Nash on television when the alarm bell sounded, which meant everybody out to the fire assembly area. Eventful enough for starters! With me on the trip were Norman Nabney and Kieran Burke. My greatest achievement in the British League was winning all ten matches on that Saturday and Sunday. It took a bit of doing and I remember being as nervous in the very last match I played against Eddie Herrity as I was all those years ago in Balbriggan’s Irish Open. In those ten years, I gave it everything and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to Norman Nabney, Kieran Burke, Kariem Sabir, David Pemberton, Pat O’Brien and Oliver Adamson who shared the journey with me.
All in all, happy memories of olden days, with, hopefully, more to come for me in the future.