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Rubber-soled shoes squeak on the wooden floor. There’s the hollow bounce of plastic balls on painted plywood, as table-tennis players run, slip, hit, and holler.
Tonight, there are 13 people hitting balls around here inside the sports hall of Terenure Sports Club. Some play friendlies. Others, league matches against a neighbouring club.
The club sets up three tables twice a week for people to come down.
But fewer come to play the sport these days, says Sharon Brien-Gibbons, a long-time table-tennis player and member of Terenure Table Tennis Club.
The club’s membership includes about 12 adults and 20 juniors, she says. “Even if you compare that to 2000, when it could be argued that we were slowing down, we had about 100 members plus 50 youth players.”
“This is quite a lot,” says Anna Thiel, 15, who is one of only two youth players among the group gathered tonight. “Usually there are 10 people max.”
In the Past
Dave Pender started to play in the late 1990s, he says. At the time, he reckons there were about 18 teams at this club: 14 for men, and four for women. Now, there are three, total.
“Because there were so few players, a few years ago, they amalgamated the men’s and women’s teams,” he says.
There is still a great sense of community, says Pender. “It’s always a social event.” But there have been a lot of changes.
“I left for a year in 2003, came back in 2004 and didn’t know anybody,” Brien-Gibbons says.
“And I’ve been here for a very long time.”
Terenure Table Tennis Club was founded in 1966 by Noel Lennon and Brendan Nolan.
Sean Moran joined just a couple of years after the club was set up, he says. “We were one of the top teams in the country during the 1970s and ’80s.”
He remembers how committed he was. One night, he played out of Drogheda, and didn’t get home until 1:45am and was up for work at 4:15am, he says. “That just shows the dedication that we had back then.”
Terenure Table Tennis Club isn’t an outlier. Other clubs have seen drops in members, too. There are just 17 active clubs and 135 affiliated players in Dublin at the moment, according to the Irish Table Tennis Association. Of the 135, 110 are men and 25 are women.
“The interest has seemed to fade,” says Moran, as he rallies with Thiel.
St Bernard’s in Cabra is gone, says Theresa Delvany, who was a gold medalist in the Veterans World Championships hosted in New Zealand in 2014.
St Kevin’s on Harrington Street folded in the late 1970s, Glenalbyn Table Tennis Club in Stillorgan closed in the late 1980s, and Sacred Heart in Tallaght has also shut.
Glenalbyn had 50 or 60 members at its peak, says Geraldine Greene, who was one of them. Several of Ireland’s greats played with them, including Colum Slevin.
“He would have been number one in the whole country,” says Greene, who now coaches table-tennis players for Special Olympics Ireland. Greene’s sister, Anne, was a national champion too, she says.
In the 1970s through the 1990s, some businesses and factories ran their own table-tennis leagues, where staff would compete.
June Parsons says she played for the Glen Abbey factory on the Belgard Road. “We would practice in the factory canteen,” she says.
They’d play teams from Gallagher’s, Johnson & Johnson and Glaxo, she says. “When people started to leave or move on from the company, not enough people had interest in joining and I think it just fizzled out.”
Why the Decline?
“You have to build a foundation for any sport,” says Theresa Delvany. “The grassroots and extending clubs into areas where there are lots of children is a must.”
Pender says that junior sections have gone over the years. Now, there are more specialised academies for kids. “So what’s happened is that they don’t have an affiliation towards a club,” he says.
When boys and girls hit 17 or 18, and discover drink and nights out, that’s the end of it. “They don’t have anything to fall back on because they don’t have ties to the local club,” he says.
Says Greene: “I think it’s a combination of lack of promotion, and a lack of interest from the kids when they hit a certain age that has not helped table-tennis.”
“It’s a shame because it’s an absolutely great sport for all ages,” she says.
Although clubs have folded, and membership has declined, there’s still interest in playing table tennis.
In 2007, Roman Pszonka founded PingZone at St Benildus College. It originally consisted of three tables in a small hall downstairs.
Since then, it has moved upstairs, to a larger hall. “We moved here four years ago when it was getting more and more popular,” says Pszonka while sitting in a storage room packed full of nets, bats, and other equipment.
PingZone has about 100 members, who can come in and play five days a week, Pszonka says. “Every evening we have 15 tables out, it’s usually full. We would have 40 to 50 people an evening with people coming and going throughout,” he says.
Unlike many other clubs, PingZone doesn’t just take members, but also pay-as-you-go players. “Many people don’t want to commit to a yearly membership anymore so that was another incentive for us,” he says.
Pszonka says that he wanted to attract beginners to the sport. “So they can come down, start at zero and learn a new hobby,” he says. They also run tournaments for the top players, too, he says.
“We have some players over 80 years old here. The oldest guy is 84 and he’s here three or four times a week,” Pszonka says. “So it really is for everyone.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated on 20 December at 10.44am. Glenalbyn Table Tennis Club was in Stillorgan, not Fairview. Apologies for the error.