On the banks of the Royal Canal stands an inconspicuous white building. It’s a single storey, long in length, with one narrow black door that could be the door to your house. If it wasn’t for the black lettering on the right-hand side of the building that spelled out the words “CrossGuns Snooker Club”, it would be easy to assume that it was a retail warehouse or a storage unit.
Even the sign itself though has a quality that leaves you with the vague impression that this could be the type of shady establishment that Tony Soprano would be proud to run as one of his legitimate business fronts. Such notions dissipate however, once you step through the door and are greeted by the firm handshake of Fin Ruane, the third-generation owner of CrossGuns Snooker Club in Phibsborough.
The ceilings are low and the room is dark with that sturdy, reassuring smell of oldness that must come from the lack of windows, the wooden tables, the wallpaper, the carpet, which in the darkness all blur to a non-descript but fitting beige. Six snooker tables and two American pool tables sit snugly in the room. The club is open for twenty minutes but two of the tables are already taken, despite the rare bout of August sunshine outside.
Fin tells us it’s the oldest commercial snooker club in Ireland and the UK, possibly the world. (He’s been on to the Guinness Book of World Records about it, and is due to get in touch again soon to make his case.) Opened on Easter Sunday in 1958 by his grandfather, Christopher Carroll, the club was then passed to his father, Finbarr Ruane, who was a passionate player and advocate for the sport. He went on to become a two-term president of the national association of snooker (officially called The Republic of Ireland Billiards & Snooker Association, RIBSA).
Fin himself remembers falling in love with the game in his youth, spending his lunch breaks from school in St. Vincent’s in Glasnevin playing, often not making it back for the second half of the day. He played for the Ireland international junior and senior teams and on the professional/amateur circuit from 1989 to 1992, but always felt the pull of the club.
“Eventually my heart was in this place. I loved it and I wanted to work here.”
When Finbarr Senior became ill in the early nineties, his wife was going to sell the club. Fin was living in England at the time, and still playing snooker.
“My mother gave me an ultimatum, if you want to come home, take over and keep running it or else I’m going to sell it. I just couldn’t, I couldn’t see it [go]. So I was on the first flight home.”
He’s been running it ever since and to spend time in the club, to look around the walls or pick up a cue, is to take in the history of the game itself. The stories start with the tables.
Each of the snooker tables has been there since the day the club opened in 1958. One was made by the Burroughes & Watts Company in Soho Square in London and came from a hall that was bombed during the Second World War. One table, made from mahogany, came from Honduras, three came from Manchester, and the final one came from the Smithwicks Brewery in Kilkenny.
Underneath the baize is either Italian or Welsh slate measuring an inch and a half thick, while on most modern tables it would only be an inch thick.
“The tables have to be good, the equipment has to be good, and I take pride in the tables. They are serviced annually, and I don't think you'll find better tables in Ireland.”
On the walls, photos, newspaper clippings, signed posters, and memorabilia take up most of the space. From the programme of the 1974 World Amateur Championships which were held in the Crofton Airport Hotel (now the Regency Hotel) in Dublin, to the signed draw sheet from the year Ken Doherty won the World Professional Championship, or pictures of famous players like Jimmy White who have played in the club, or a rare original photo of Alex Higgins, John Pullman, Jackie Rea, and Ray Reardon; it's something to behold for any snooker fan.
Along with the tables being there from the day it opened, it seems that the much of the club has retained its essence from 1958.
“I’ve visited a lot of snooker clubs throughout the world and I try to take on board ideas, but essentially, I keep it as it is. And nothing much has changed bar the odd splash of paint, the tables get recovered, new carpet, that’s about it really. Nothing much has changed at all.”
But the club keeps ploughing forward into the twenty-first century too. Fin concedes that it can be harder to attract kids to a sport that is essentially defined by concentration, patience, and practice at a time when there are more distractions than ever available to them. He said he worries about the future of the game, wonders if Ireland will ever have another world champion, but in general he’s positive about it.
A few years ago he gained his RIBSA coaching certification and has been enjoying the new realm of passing his knowledge to the next generation of snooker players. He bristles with pride as he tells us the feeling he gets when one of his junior players makes great strides forward, or tells him they’ve made their highest break.
“It’s a big thing for me, it really is.”
He thinks that club owners and coaches, more so even than national associations and sponsors, have a role to play in promoting the game. He believes that professional snooker is getting better all the time and when tournaments are on the TV, he always notices a rise in the numbers coming in to the club.
A wide cross-section of people come to CrossGuns to play. With the club being in existence since the fifties, it’s no surprise that there are lots of older regulars such as three men who religiously play on Tuesday nights. Fin has dubbed them “Dad’s Army” and they play a serious game apparently. American tourists with an interest in snooker sometimes also call in and among some of the more familiar faces are a group of Chinese men who occasionally like to place a bet amongst themselves, some students from DIT, and a Romanian man who plays pool alone for a few hours at the weekend.
“[He likes] the peace and the quiet and he just gets on with it. He was telling me all about Romania, and I'm learning stuff from him.”
The prevailing sense you get from standing in CrossGuns and talking to Fin is not only the love of the sport, but the fierce sense of community that exists around it and the club. Like the tables themselves, this is also something that doesn’t appear to have changed with each of the three owners. Fin’s own history is inextricably linked to the game and the best man at his wedding and his three groomsmen were all friends he made in the last twenty-five years through snooker and the club. Ken Doherty is also a close friend, and Fin travelled with him for several years while playing. He occasionally drops by the club much to the surprise of unsuspecting players.
“He just walks in the door, and people are going ‘It’s Ken Doherty’ so I get a great buzz out of that.”
The club has never had memberships, which is something Fin feels strongly about, and along with his genial manner, probably goes a way towards explaining why players feel so comfortable there. At Christmas time and Easter, the community around CrossGuns expands again as emigrants return home and play a game in their old club.
“I have a room across there that has cues in it that probably haven’t been opened in twenty years but I wouldn’t take it upon myself to bin them or sell them or anything like that because God knows a guy could walk in here and say ‘Is my cue still in there? I’ve been away for twenty years.’”
There’s a gentle tug of back and forth between the old and the new in the club. The sign outside was only added last year, and although Fin noticed the difference in terms of new customers coming in, he initially felt reluctant to do it, enjoying the somewhat inconspicuous space the club occupies. He has never advertised and CrossGuns has always survived (and thrived) by word of mouth. The rates bill the club gets today from Dublin City Council is still addressed to “1 to 8 Flynn’s Cottages” (which stood in place of the club before his grandfather built it), and again this nod to the past is something Fin appreciates.
It was also only after a conversation with a friend in which Fin said people could find the club through The Yellow Pages if they needed to, that the friend insisted he needed to get a website and offered to create one for him.
For the future, Fin says he’s looking forward to continue welcoming new players, to getting his world snooker coaching qualification next year, and that he’d ultimately love to see a local player from the club make their mark on professional snooker.
When he isn’t showing us around the walls of the club, to the constant click-clack of games being played in the background, Fin stands behind the counter to talk to us. There’s three shelves with a stack of mars bars and snickers beside a small TV, a beaded curtain that leads into the back, and a leather office chair that Fin sometimes puts one foot on so he can lean forward on his bent knee. It’s that pose that makes you think of a sea captain up at the front of the boat looking out to see what’s coming.
As he talks with fervour about the club, the family who created it, and the friends and players who sustain it, Fin’s desire to honour the traditions of the past are striking but so too is his excitement about assuredly steering the club in whatever direction it needs to go next.
Written by Sinead Fox / Photos by Adam O'Keeffe / ©2015 Project Bowes