Ashton Hockey Club was formed in 1924 when a group of ladies chose to form their own team, not wishing to join any of the clubs which were in existence at that time. Ashton’s first match was played at a field on Church Road, Blackrock, near the grounds of Blackrock Hurling and Football Club. A journey that far out of Cork was quite an adventure in those days. On the way to their first fixture, the team discussed what they might call themselves. Near the African Missions Church on Blackrock Road, young Josephine Guisani noticed the name on a wall outside a row of tall houses, and suggested that they call themselves after that name. The rusted sign for Ashton Place can still be seen on Blackrock Road more than 75 years later. Jo Guisani (in later years known as Mrs. Jo O’Sullivan and who lived to a great age) was one of the founder members of Ashton, with Adeline Moore. Going by team photos, she probably played for 20 seasons.
The women who founded the club had to defy social conventions of the day in order for the club to survive because polite society approved of young ladies playing sport only so long as they remained single. So in the early years of the club, as members got married, they had to concoct some alibi for their husbands’ benefit each time they stole out to play. The club was so short of players on some occasions that certain members played during pregnancy. The phenomenon of the pregnant Ashton player lasted until the 1980s at least, when one current member of the club unknowingly took to the field on several occasions in the safety of the womb.
An early fund-raising effort, a whist drive in the Arcadia, raised £40 for the club. Miss Jo Guisani resisted efforts to use £5 of this money to sponsor a club social evening, insisting that it be for hockey only.
A year after Ashton was formed, another new club came into being when the ladies of Dowdens on Patrick Street formed Harlequins. In those days ‘Quins were no match for Ashton, who included in their ranks the formidable Audrey Murphy, who was mother and grand-mother to the great sporting family of Murphys. Audrey came up from The Spa near Tralee to Cork, and was attracted to join Ashton in preference to the other more established clubs of the day. She became a stalwart of the club in the early years, so much so that many people believed that she was a co-founder.
One of the regular fixtures in the 1920s was against the Mallow Ladies. It was a considerable journey from Cork, which was usually undertaken by train. The pitch was some distance from Mallow railway station and on one occasion nobody came to pick them up. Versatile as ever, and eager not to slip into boredom, (this was the Roaring ‘20s after all) the Ashton ladies had great sport on the luggage trolleys on which they raced each other along the platform until railway officials hunted them away. The Mallow Ladies eventually provided transport to the match in one motor car and the whole team managed to squeeze in. Motor cars were so much roomier in those days!
In 1929 the club won its first major trophy in its fifth season when the Senior Ladies team were victors in the final of the Munster Senior Cup. Mrs. Jo O'Sullivan, Adeline Moore and Audrey Murphy played on that winning team. The club denied that some of the players were married and so averted a minor scandal.
From the beginning the club lacked a permanent home. Throughout the decades, with no place to call home, Ashton had to endure many changes of address. In the 1970s, the Club was training in Mayfield and playing matches in the Dog Track on Western Road. At that time UCC were also training at Mayfield, as it was an all weather surface, and the College pitch at Glasheen was grass. Brandon were using Mayfield for their matches at that time. Players cycling down from Mayfield had to be careful not to get their bicycle wheels stuck in the train tracks as they crossed Brian Boru Bridge.
For years, Ashton had two great “nurseries”. Audrey Murphy taught hockey at Miss O’s School, and was followed by Maeve O’Byrne. Several members of the club played their first hockey there before joining Ashton. The other great nursery was the Speedwells Underage Girls training, which was supported by Marion O’Sullivan and other former players from Ashton and other clubs members who have passed on their skills generously over the years.
By the 1970s, the club was at a crossroads. The formation of Brandon, a new mixed club in the city, attracted enough players to form four sides within two seasons, while Ashton remained an all Ladies club with a stagnant membership. In 1976 Sylvia Good, Roz Jacob and Audrey Murphy saw the need for the club to have a Men’s Section. They were assisted by Honor Gamble (now Honor Casey) to recruit and encourage a number of men to switch codes and play hockey with Ashton. A side was soon formed and their first fixture was a Peard Cup match against Belvedere in Tower on grass. Robbie O’Higgins was captain. With five minutes remaining on the clock, Ashton were six goals down. Belvedere did the decent thing and allowed Ashton to score. The whole team did a lap of honour around the pitch, much to the amusement of onlookers.
The Cork public came to see Ashton as a club that took its social life seriously. The male membership flourished, many marriages were made and future club members began to be born. Within two seasons a second team was entered in the Men’s Munster Senior League. By the start of the 1980s, the Men’s Section confounded critics and started to play good hockey and the possibility of a third team was discussed. Players continued to join the club.
In the late 1970s, Daisy Corrigan of Regina Mundi College helped the club by offering the use of the new All Weather surface at Castletreasure. The club was to spend the following 20 years there, never able to invest in property which was not theirs, but appreciative that they had a stable home. Despite many attempts to set up a permanent base, something always managed to go wrong. Without a club base, Ashton was not able to attract people to stay involved after their playing days were over. This caused a constant turnover of membership, with the result that the pool of people with management ability and fund-raising skills was always small. However, the club always enjoyed a reputation for its social life, and at different times in its history it hit peaks of performance on the field as well. It boasted a long list of international ladies players over the years, and the club was seldom out of the honours at Inter-provincial level.
A constant stream of players joined the Ladies Section having been coached as Speedwells at underage level. In the mid 1980s, the Ladies Section fielded two Minor sides, two Junior teams, and a Senior team. The mid 1980s Frank and Anne Dorgan and Dave McCarthy started a youth’s section and a large number of younger players flooded into the club paving the way for a men’s fourth team to be fielded for one season, in 1988.
Many players from both sections of the club were lost to emigration in the late 1980’s. One year alone saw the departure of the three Men’s captains of the previous season. This had a devastating effect on the men’s section but spirits were kept high by the strong showing by the ladies section which fielded five full international players plus two more at under-21 International level over an extraordinary two year period. In spite of successes from the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s, many players left to join other clubs, not only because they had their own facilities, but because one after another Munster hockey clubs built plastic pitches. As a tenant of Regina Mundi College, Ashton could not make such an investment in Castletreasure.
In February 1996, the club announced that it planned to enter a partnership with Ashton School. Almost from that date, the loss of players was reversed and already a number of former members have rejoined the club. There was a period of committed fundraising during which the club had to raise money against a background where it had no club house, no recent history of fundraising, and no guarantee that the members would benefit. The achievement of the £50,000 target was due to a great extent to the remarkable leadership of Jean Forde and Mark Stockil. While the fundraising was progressing, Fran O’Donoghue and Paul Davies negotiated a grant of £125,000 with the Department of Education and Science. As this money could only be drawn down by a school, it was agreed that Ashton School would be the beneficiary, as it had been agreed that the development of their Astroturf surface was also for the use of Ashton Hockey Club. The development of the Astroturf pitch was eventually not achieved within a Partnership relationship with the school. Nevertheless the club has a 40-year agreement with Ashton School which is a major milestone in the club’s development, and was a fitting event to mark the first 75 years of the club. By coincidence, the new Astroturf is only yards away from the spot where the club was named. By further coincidence, the official opening of the pitch in 1999 took place 75 years after the first match played by Ashton, almost to the day.
Contributed by David McCarthy