Sport in Ireland: A History, by Paul Rouse, Oxford University Press, 375 pp., £30, ISBN 978-0198745907
Like so many Irishmen, I am a sports fanatic. I have played soccer and rugby and hockey and cricket and tennis badly, run marathons slowly and climbed mountains tentatively, but always with huge enthusiasm and affection. I have followed and bellowed my support to Irish teams and individual athletes at soccer and rugby World Cups, athletics championships and cycling classics in half a dozen countries. I have stood awestruck in the presence of great athletes like Paul McGrath and George Best and Willie John McBride and Ronnie Delany and Sonia O’Sullivan and Stephen Roche (for whom I once ghost wrote an Irish Times column). The sports of my upbringing were not hurling or Gaelic football, but I have also cheered from the terraces at Croke Park and Semple Stadium and Casement Park. If a fly climbing up a windowpane was wearing an Irish tricolour, I would back it against a fly with no such colours.
So I have to take my hat off to Paul Rouse for attempting the Sisyphean task of trying in one volume to capture the complex and contested history of sport in Ireland since hurling was first mentioned in the Statute of Kilkenny in 1366. He is a wonderfully meticulous historical researcher and a most fair-minded and balanced analyst, with a former journalist’s fluent writing style.
However in the end his book is a disappointing one. Perhaps I was expecting a different book, one that would appeal more to this late twentieth and early twenty-first century aficionado with an interest both in Ireland’s recent sporting triumphs and in the history and politics of Irish sport in the partitioned island of the past hundred years. There is some of that, but it is the weaker part. The strongest parts are in the early chapters, particularly those dealing with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Rouse lays the introductory foundations well. The tensions between British sports ‑ “wrapped in the flag of Empire” ‑ and the sporting dimensions of resurgent Irish nationalism “helped to perpetuate and indeed to foster divisions in wider Irish society”. Sport, as elsewhere, was always a “marker of wealth and status”, especially in hunting, horse racing and golf. But he rightly emphasises three things: the sheer joy of playing and watching sport, which at its best has united Irish people regardless of class or creed or income (as it has people everywhere), and the ways in which this love of sport has “developed as a shared culture across time and place”; and how people coming together in clubs and associations to play their chosen game or athletic pursuit led to the democratisation of organised sport in the modern era.
He then tells a hundred marvellous tales and uncovers a thousand fascinating facts about how the games we know today as modern sports emerged out of the athletic feats, horse racing and jumping, singing, dancing and courtship, faction-fighting, gambling, drinking and feasting of the ancient festivals and fairs. All sections of society enjoyed these uproarious occasions. The writer George Farquhar was one of several Trinity students involved in a riot at the famous Donnybrook fair in 1695. Over a hundred and thirty years later a French visitor called the same occasion a truly “national” event, where “the poverty, the dirt, and the wild tumult were as great as the glee and the merriment with which the cheapest pleasures were enjoyed”.
Horse racing was, then as now, Ireland’s premier sport for many. Charles II was sponsoring a King’s Plate at The Curragh as early as the 1670s. Seventy-one meetings were listed for Ireland by the English Racing Calendar in 1750, while the first 1000 Guineas race was run at The Curragh in the following year. Racing and its cousin, hunting, brought “a tremendous culture of pleasure” to all who attended, regardless of class or position. This was a world where “sobriety was frowned upon and excess was celebrated”.
In the eighteenth century hurling was not far behind, with a rich local culture that was not dissimilar to that of cricket in England. A local newspaper report of a match near Thurles in 1770 said the hurlers who would take the field –twenty-seven a side – would be “the most superior and elegant players in Europe”. If the contemporary reader thinks this was taking a liberty with a parochial Irish pastime, Rouse notes that hurling was being played in Paris in 1750 (where King Louis XV was among the spectators) and in New York in the 1780s. At home, great landlords like Viscount Desart in Cork and Lord Purcell in Tipperary were famed for their love of hurling and their prowess at the game.
All this was to change in the nineteenth century. As Ireland settled uneasily into being a semi-detached part of Victorian Britain, there was a new emphasis on manners, as the elite began to frown upon acts such as public urination and eating without cutlery and the often violent sports of the poor – such as cockfighting and animal-baiting – became less socially tolerated. This was combined in the minds of censorious Christians with strong disapproval of sports, notably hurling and other traditional Irish games that were played on the Sabbath.
The early nineteenth century also saw hurling losing the patronage of the elite who had supported it in the previous century, who switched their support in many places to that great British imperial export cricket. Limerick magistrates welcomed the fact that the “brutal practice of hurling was being superseded by the manly sport of cricket”. The regular violence that accompanied hurling matches was portrayed by the press, a new power in the land, as part of the moral weakness, indolence, drunkenness and general fecklessness of the peasantry, which was deemed responsible for the overwhelming poverty of so much of Irish society. In the aftermath of the Famine, the game was denounced too by Catholic prelates and priests seeking to reorganise the Church so as to replace traditional and sometimes over-exuberant religious practices – including patterns and wakes – with more tightly controlled devotional structures. The temperance movement was another dampener on a sport often associated in the public mind with excessive drinking.
There was even a moment in the late nineteenth century when it looked as if cricket might threaten the hegemony of the ancient Irish stick game. In 1875 the Irish Sportsman opined that cricket was “one of the few English importations with which the most sincere ‘Nationalist’ cannot find any cause of quarrel, and in which all classes and ranks may meet on equal terms”. By the 1870s every county had at least one cricket club and most had many more. Rugby was another recent import whose spread threatened to push hurling towards the margins.
However Michael Cusack, himself no mean cricketer and rugby player, would soon put a stop to that. In November 1884 he and Maurice Davin, along with five others, set up the Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes. Cusack’s original aim had been to establish a coherent body to promote Irish athletics, and one that would try to bring in unionist and nationalist alike under the unifying banner of sport. It was not to be: the GAA from its inception was passionately nationalist. “A slow burning commitment to promoting ideas of Irishness clearly changed Cusack’s thinking in the early 1880s”, the period of the early Gaelic revival, the Land War and the rise of Parnell.
The decision to integrate the two Gaelic sports (and initially athletics) into one multi-sports organisation with a mission to promote all things Irish proved to be a master stroke. The GAA’s rise was spectacular, with both hurling and the essentially invented game of Gaelic football rapidly becoming the games that Irish people, particularly outside the cities, loved to play and watch. It was their intensity ‑ “a tough, physical battle between two groups of men whose meeting was as much a contest of character and bravery as it was of skill” ‑ that drew so many to the games. The old cliché has a core of truth: the Irish love a good fight. But above all they loved a good day out, and from the beginning Cumann Luthchleas Gael offered Irish people “a unique cocktail of sport and drink and music and pageantry”. (You could say that almost exactly a hundred years later Jack Charlton’s soccer team was offering Irish people more or less the same cocktail – only this time with an international dimension – during Italia 90).
Alongside this extraordinary new phenomenon, the popular English sports of rugby and soccer were also thriving. The former was for the most part a homogeneous middle class game, outside Limerick, where Rouse – so good at sociological explanations elsewhere in the book – does not satisfactorily explain its popularity among all classes based on “a culture of parish-based junior rugby”.
Soccer was emphatically not just a “garrison game”. Its first heartland may have been around Belfast, but by 1910 the Belfast-based Irish Football Association had 420 affiliated clubs throughout the island. The international team had a disastrous record before 1900, losing forty-six out of fifty-seven matches and scoring seventeen goals while conceding 273. However the Belfast influence would remain strong and baleful for many years. In 1899, after the Irish team had conceded thirteen goals to England, a Leinster representative to the IFA said: “All this has come upon us because of the hidebound prejudice of five men who select the teams preventing anyone outside the close circle of Belfast being chosen to represent his country. Northern prejudice is the bane of Irish football.” These were ominous – even prophetic ‑ words on the eve of a tumultuous new century.
As that twentieth century dawned, politics and sport were starting to reflect the divisive brew that would be a feature of Irish life for much of the next hundred years. There was a new generation of GAA officials who were zealous in their belief in the transformative power of the association as part of a project of national liberation. A 1901 annual congress resolution spoke of a “struggle to crush English pastimes” and a “patriotic effort to make young men more thoroughly and essentially Irish and self-respecting”. Between 1901 and 1911 the GAA introduced rules which prohibited members from playing or attending the “foreign games” of cricket, hockey, rugby and soccer (this prohibition would remain in force for most of the next century); banned British soldiers and Irish policemen from GAA membership, and outlawed attendance at “foreign dances”. However Rouse is at pains to point to the continuing friendly relations between some local GAA clubs and the Protestant gentry. He warns that “the infinite connections and complexities of life in small-town Ireland meant that neat divisions based on sport were not easily achieved … Against all the talk of rivalry and identity and the political function of sport, there was no moving away from the simple truth that sport was prospering in Ireland because people loved to play and to watch others play.”
This complexity was there up to and into the First World War. While rugby and hockey players joined the British army in huge numbers (164 from Three Rock Rovers hockey club in Dublin alone), the GAA also lost men to the war – although GAA historians have usually ignored this fact or denied that it had happened. Many GAA men who were Irish Volunteers obeyed John Redmond’s call to enlist. Several members of the Clare team that won the 1914 All-Ireland hurling final joined up. It was reported that many of the most prominent teams in Antrim, and notably in Belfast, were “going weak” because of recruitment.
On the other hand over three hundred GAA players from fifty-three Dublin clubs fought in the Easter Rising. Then, in November 1920, in an act of revenge for the shooting dead of fourteen British military undercover operatives on Michael Collins’s orders, the British army and the police shot dead thirteen spectators and Tipperary player Michael Hogan at Croke Park, turning that stadium into “martyred ground”, the central point of the bloodiest single day of the War of Independence. This murderous act was to cement the links between the GAA and advanced Irish nationalism in perpetuity.
At this epochal moment, with the bloody birth of the two states of Ireland, Rouse’s narrative appears to speed up. There is a lot of sport and politics to fit into the final eighty-six-page chapter – “Sport on a Partitioned Island”. At times the pace becomes a gallop and the story suffers as a result. It is an easy thing for a reviewer to say, but it might have been preferable had the author ended his book in the early 1920s and then written a second volume to bring the reader up to the present day.
As it is, the balance between telling more stories about the sheer joy of outstanding Irish sporting achievements – of which there were many in the following ninety-five years – and the difficult detail of the many politico-sporting controversies largely brought about by contested national identity and partition is an unsatisfactory one. Rouse devotes a detailed eleven pages to the politics and organisation of the 1924 Tailteann Games, envisaged by its founder, the first postmaster-general, JJ Walsh, as a kind of Olympic Games for the Irish race (and a few others). The games limped into a third, reduced version in the early 1930s but were abandoned under Fianna Fáil. Whether this inter-war oddity, “a gathering together at set intervals of tens of thousands of men and women of Irish blood whose contact with the cradle of their birth is an essential to racial solidarity”(in the words of its organisers), deserves so much space is doubtful. JJ Walsh ended his public involvement in the 1940s with the foundation of a short-lived political party that saw itself as forming the core of a collaborationist government in the event of a Nazi invasion of Ireland.
The long line of controversies brought about by rows over which athletes and which association and which flag should represent a partitioned Ireland at the Olympic Games and other international sporting events receives patchy coverage. Maybe Rouse deemed them too fiendishly complicated – or possibly even too boring ‑ for the average reader, although one might argue that an Oxford University Press history of Irish sport should be just the place for such an in-depth examination. The rows led to such absurdities as three warring athletics and cycling associations on the island in the 1930s; Irish soccer players turning out for both Northern Ireland and the Republic in the 1940s (sometimes in the same week); top twenty-six-county athletes at the 1948 London Olympics being refused recognition by their thirty-two-county Olympic committee; regular rows over whether the country’s Olympic designation should be Ireland or Éire; Britain forcing Irish swimming teams out of the games because they contained Northern Irish swimmers; and a thirty-two-county National Cycling Association team barred from the Olympics but turning up anyway to disrupt the 1972 Munich road race.
One must ask what effect this had on Irish sport in the international arena. It certainly was not a benign one. In the past eighty-four years ‑ since Pat O’Callaghan and Bob Tisdall won double gold in Los Angeles in 1932 ‑ Irish track and field athletes have won just three Olympic medals: Ronnie Delany (who nearly wasn’t sent because of lack of funding) winning gold in Melbourne in 1956, and John Treacy and Sonia O’Sullivan winning silver in Los Angeles in 1984 and Sydney in 2000. Compare this with the years before independence when – even allowing for lower standards and fewer competitors – it is an amazing fact that Irish athletes competing for Britain (often very reluctantly), the USA, South Africa and Canada won no fewer than twenty-five Olympic medals (thirteen golds) between 1900 and 1920. They were particularly dominant in the throwing and jumping events – always traditionally strong in Ireland – where Irishmen won gold in every Olympic Games in that period, led by Martin Sheridan with four gold medals in the 1904, 1906 and 1908 Olympics in the shot put and discus and John Flanagan with three gold medals in 1900, 1906 and 1908 in the hammer, both competing for the USA. Why did these spectacular performances decline to almost nothing in the sixty years after independence?
Maybe it had something to do with the shenanigans of egotistical and/or politically motivated sports administrators, of which we have had more than our share in this country (the GAA, in contrast, has been blessed, at least in recent years, with top class administrators). It is notable that boxing has been able to negotiate the minefield of partition and clashing national allegiances rather successfully, with sixteen Olympic medal winners; fighters like Wayne McCullough of Belfast’s Shankill Road being happy to fight under an Irish banner and Barry McGuigan from Monaghan to compete under a British one. It would have been fascinating to have had Paul Rouse’s informed view on this.
The second major weakness of his final chapter is that it falls seriously short when it comes to the truly great performances of modern Irish sport. Thus the Republic of Ireland soccer team which became the first overseas team to beat England on its home soil in 1949 does not rate a mention. Ronnie Delany gets a single line. Jack Kyle, Ireland’s most brilliantly talented rugby player before Brian O’Driscoll, is not deemed worthy of inclusion (neither is O’Driscoll, come to that). Probably the finest Irish soccer team ever, the Northern Ireland side which reached the quarter finals of the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 – beating Italy, Portugal and Czechoslovakia along the way – gets two lines. Stephen Roche’s triple triumph in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and World Championship in 1987, which I believe was the greatest performance by an Irish sportsperson in the twentieth century, is not specifically mentioned. The nation rejoiced and was amazed when Ireland destroyed England at rugby in Croke Park in 2007 and beat England at cricket in the 2011 World Cup – but they too go unmentioned. Also omitted is Henry Shefflin and the brilliant Kilkenny hurling performances of the early years of the twenty-first century, particularly the 2009 all-Ireland final defeat of Tipperary, rated by many commentators as the finest hurling match of all time. It was a timely tribute to one of the world’s most thrilling and wonderfully skilful field games, and to the GAA as perhaps the world’s most successful organiser of non-professional and community-based sports.
This reviewer agrees with Paul Rouse’s conclusion that in Ireland “for most people the politics of their sports and their supposed relationship with national identity were usually an irrelevance, at least most of the time”. It is a pity that in his final section he did not examine more rigorously the significant number of instances when this was not the case, and analyse if and how Irish sport suffered as a result. It is also regrettable that the author’s patrician English publisher, with all its huge resources, could not find a few photos of some of the Irish sporting triumphs listed above rather than the extremely poor selection used.
There are all kinds of people in sport, as in all human activities: athletes of genius alongside clumsy plodders; corrupt administrators alongside passionate partisans; soccer hooligans alongside calm cricket crowds. However at its best sport transcends all human division and strife. I have a vivid memory during a particularly nasty episode in Northern Ireland of meeting the senior RUC officer who was the father of rugby international Trevor Ringland (later to become a strong advocate of all-Ireland rugby as a model for all-Ireland reconciliation). Instead of peppering him with the usual questions, this Dublin-based journalist engaged him in a long and friendly discussion about the merits of his son’s fine try against the English a few weeks earlier. There may have been violence and hatred outside in the streets, but in this small room in a Co Antrim police station, two Irishmen were united by a deep mutual love of sport.
Andy Pollak was the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and is a former Irish Times journalist.