James McKenna (Lahinch, Carrickmines, Portmarnock, Rossmore and Armagh)
Born Clontarf 1876 and truly one of the early pioneers of professional golf in Ireland. From the 1911 census we can see he was married in 1900/1901 to Anne and had four children: Patrick, John, Mary Agnes and Anna. On 1 April 1893 at the tender age of 17/18 when there was less than twenty clubs in Ireland he joined Lahinch as their first resident professional. Enda Glynn in his centenary of the club points out that this predated Old Tom Morris’ arrival by one year and that James supervised Morris’ recommendations for improving the course layout between 1894 and 1899.
McKenna eventually left Lahinch to join Carrickmines Golf Club, which was formed in 1900. During his time at these clubs he seems to have frequently travelled, helping, if not, initiating course designs. The evidence back then is somewhat sketchy but he is credited with the design of Ballybunion, Waterville, Killiney, Hermitage and the reconstruction of Lucan Golf Club.
Ballybunion in their history states the following:
In early 1897 an article in the Irish Times, headed The Golf Links of Kerry, dismissed Ballybunion Course with some contempt as “a rabbit warren below the village, where a golfer requires limitless patience and an inexhaustible supply of golf balls.” This provoked a tart rejoinder in the same paper in March 1897 from P McCarthy, General Manager, Listowel and Ballybunion Railway. The course, he claimed, was “quite first class and a sporting course, laid out by the professional who had laid out the links at Lahinch and Dollymount.” The Irish golfers guide of 1897 names this course designer as James McKenna, who did this work “at the instance of the Lartigue Railway Company.” It is interesting to note the connection with modern day Ballybunion as he was the grandfather of past Ballybunion Golf Club Secretary – Manager, Jim McKenna.
James McKenna as a nineteen-year-old played in the first Irish Professional Golf Tournament held at Royal Portrush on 12-14th September 1895 and while he was knocked out in the second round it would have introduced him to some of the golfing legends or soon to be heroes of the game including: Harry Vardon, William Fernie, Sandy Herd, Jack White and the Kirkcaldy brothers. In the first round James beat Samuel Jones the professional at Fleetwood by 2 & 1 and in the afternoon was beaten by George Lowe from St. Annes (Lytham) by 4 & 2. A founding member of the Irish Professional Golfers’ Association (June 1911) and appointed as one of the four professionals (Tom Hood, Alex Robertson and John Aitken) to take part in a joint committee for the purpose of drafting their constitution and a framework for the benevolent fund.
Irish International team who played Scotland for Springvale Bowl in 1907 prior to the inaugural Irish Professional Championship. (Front Row Centre)
A founding member of the Irish Professional Golfers’ Association (June 1911) and appointed as one of the four professionals (Tom Hood, Alex Robertson and John Aitken) to take part in a joint committee for the purpose of drafting their constitution and a framework for the benevolent fund.
Probably around 1920 James McKenna left Portmarnock to take up a position at Rossmore in County Monaghan before moving to Armagh Golf Club in 1924 (he may have remained attached to Rossmore for a few years as his name was still associated with the Club in the 1926/27 Irish Golf Directory), here he would remain for a further quarter of a century retiring in 1950 at age 76.
James’ son John would also turn professional having played most of his golf at Armagh and would eventually take up a position at Douglas Golf Club. Annie the daughter was described in the Armagh centenary book simply as: “one of the finest lady golfers the club has ever produced”.
While at the Armagh Golf Club the subservient position of a professional golfer at the time was very much in evidence as related by John O’Hare in the aforementioned centenary book. In 1931 his salary was reduced by four schillings per week, bearing in mind that in 1941 his salary was two guineas-a-week, this represented a not insignificant hit on ones take-home pay. In the same year his contract terminated and was re-negotiated for the lower amount and additional sums could be obtained for cleaning the clubhouse and maintaining the players clubs.
James McKenna: course designer, club and ball maker, teacher, professional golfer loved the game and left an indelible mark in the history of Irish golf.