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Homo Ludens

Sport in Ireland,1600-1840, by James Kelly, Four Courts Press, 384 pp, €39.95, ISBN: 978-1846824937

It is possible to live in modern Ireland and ignore sport, but it is not easy and it certainly requires a conscious effort. This is a singular statement of the importance, the vitality and the sheer scale of modern sport – a global phenomenon spiced with local passions. History has shaped Irish sport in many ways. The legacy of the past is most obvious in the great necklace of sporting facilities – from floodlit grounds to climbing walls and swimming pools – that bejewel the Irish landscape. Some are entirely new, built as interest in particular sports spread and the capital to develop facilities became available in recent decades. Others are built on sites where sport has long been played, often dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when modern sport enjoyed its most formidable period of expansion. Others extend still further back into history: to stand on The Curragh in Co Kildare and watch racehorses gallop in silhouette against the rising sun is to bear witness to something timeless and majestic where past and present stand as one. And then there are the traces of sports long disappeared: the bullrings of Drogheda and Wexford are now ordinary urban streets, with only the name surviving as evidence of their use as venues for the hugely popular sport of bullbaiting, which did not survive the dramatic changes in nineteenth century life.

The ubiquity of the sports ground is a consequence of the great expanse of sporting clubs and associations. The impact of associational culture on Irish sport began in the eighteenth century, flowered spectacularly in the late nineteenth and continues to bloom into a new millennium. There is no sense that this is a historical process that is losing momentum; instead the number of sports clubs in Ireland continues to grow, as does the breadth of their activities.

The scale of modern sport is evidenced also by its place in the communications revolution. Where once sporting events on television were occasional treats sparsely sprinkled across the schedule, they are now central to mainstream programming, as well as having a growing number of channels dedicated to their coverage. Combined with the rapidly expanding sports applications available on various devices from computers to phones, as well as the increased coverage on radio and in newspapers, there is no gainsaying the omnipresence of sport in the media. This is the ultimate example of the triumph of sport: there is now no event that cannot be tweeted or otherwise made accessible across the world, regardless of how small and insignificant it might appear to others. The relationship with the media is the key to understanding the monetisation of modern sport in all its aspects, from merchandising to ticket sales.

The importance of sport in the modern world inevitably means that the state has become increasingly involved in its operation. The relationship between the two remains an amalgam of achievement and failure, good intentions and rampant hypocrisy. There is much that is admirable in the attempts by states to use sport to improve public health. This is manifest in the dispersal of funds to improve local facilities and in campaigns to encourage people to exercise. The state seeks to do more than this, of course. It also seeks, among other things, to use sport to promote the nation. This too is a legacy of the nineteenth century.

The paraphernalia of international sport, with its anthems, emblems and flags is tailor-made for the union of sport, state and nation. When the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawn wrote that the nation could be most easily understood through its sporting teams, he was right – but only to a point. Ascribing motivations to men and women playing certain sports at certain times and under certain flags is no straightforward matter. The involvement of Irish sportsmen and sportswomen in international competition is a reminder of the complexities of the relationship between sport and politics, and sport and national identity. The rules around eligibility to compete on behalf of a country have been used by the Irish (and by many others) in such a way as to render ideas around nationhood redundant (where necessary) when it comes to sport. Sports people have long accepted the notion of making compromises that allow them to compete on a global stage regardless of birth or heritage. In rugby, for example, the ready application of residency laws facilitates the recruitment of players who are not Irish, beyond having moved to the country to play sport for a minimum of three years. Nobody can doubt the decency, the contribution or the commitment of these players – and it will surely be considered mean-spirited to offer any critique of the individuals involved – but it is hard to deny that the idea of international sport is undermined by this process of recruitment. All the same, for most people supporting the fortunes of a team, this is an irrelevance. They wish for Ireland to win and are not usually too bothered how this happens.

Debate around the idea of winning by whatever means necessary is something that flares occasionally into sight, always at the time of controversy and rarely in a reasoned way. The capacity of people to excite themselves is particularly acute at those very moments when their team has been the victim of an injustice, perceived or real. This is entirely understandable, but its credibility is somewhat undercut by the fact that sleights of hand (or random acts of violence) which benefit their team are willingly accepted as fortune finally shining on the downtrodden who have been too long oppressed but are now standing up for themselves. Generally, such controversies tend to obscure any debate around the purpose of sport. More precisely, does sport have a moral function? Certain sections of Victorian society certainly believed it did. Nonetheless, the notions of integrity and fair play that were wrapped around amateurism were too often front for thinly disguised snobbery and class control. More importantly, the supposed values of amateurism have not usually survived engagement with competitive sport. This is the case because, as the novelist Wilkie Collins wrote, far from teaching a man virtuous behaviour, sport taught him how “to take every advantage of another man that his superior strength and superior cunning can suggest”.

This has lent itself time and again to the use of sport as a glib metaphor (for life and for war to give the two most prominent instances). It has also facilitated the construction of easy assumptions about the character of sport and the capacity to judge the civilisation of a people by virtue of the sports it plays and how successfully it plays them. Perhaps this reflects the perception of sport as a marker of apparent human progress: breaking records suggests ineluctable progress and the understood corollary is that the very history of sport must itself be a story of progression. The shortcomings of that understanding are everywhere visible. The sordid underbelly of modern sport – the cheating, fixing, drug-taking, violence, greed, exploitation and narcissism – leave no room for naive adulation.

The opposite approach to sport is also taken and is equally misplaced: the belief that the present sporting world cannot hold a candle to that which has passed. This nostalgia for lost and lamented sporting nirvana is no new thing. In 1733 – with the modern sporting world in the very early thrusts of its conception – a huntsman wrote: “Perhaps there is no greater demonstration of the degeneracy of the present age, than the neglect and contempt of this manly exercise. Those useful hours that our fathers employed on horseback in the fields, are lost on their posterity betwixt a stinking pair of sheets. Balls and opera’s [sic], assemblies and masquerades, so exhaust the spirits of the puny creatures overnight, that yawning and chocolate are the main labours and entertainments of the morning.” Ever since, the sporting world has filled with nostalgia, expressions of loss and longing for a past, a golden era of greats involved in acts of heroism the likes of which will never, can never, be seen again.

Undue respect or disdain for the past risks missing the point that, in modern sport, people are basically finding new ways to do something that people have always done. James Kelly’s book Sport in Ireland, 1600-1840 offers a fine insight into the sporting culture of Ireland before the emergence of modern organised sport. The book opens with a remarkably detailed account of the rise to pre-eminence of horseracing in Ireland through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is an extraordinary piece of research which documents the slow, steady expansion of racing in Ireland through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the point where it can legitimately be presented as the most successful sport in Ireland and the first “to make the transition from an occasional, into a structured, and identifiably modern, recreational activity. It was also the only sport, other than hunting, to achieve a truly national profile.” The scale of Kelly’s endeavour is apparent from even a cursory glance through footnotes that are awash with scores of references of horseracing drawn from the burgeoning world of the press. Central to the spread of horseracing were the country’s landowners, while municipalities and corporations also promoted racing as a way of advancing their area. This is not, of course, a story of unfettered growth; political and economic upheaval brought setbacks and a “variegated pattern of regional rise and decline” but horseracing by 1800 was “the island’s most popular and best-organised recreation”. This was sport that also allowed around it the development of other social activities, from balls (just as in hunting) to drinking. Kelly quotes Amhlaoibh Uí Súilleabháin’s description of the Kilkenny Races of 1828: “There were plenty of tents and huts for eating and drinking there. The trick-o’-the-loop people were there and the thimble-riggers, sweep-stake bookies and wheel-o’-fortune men, jugglers and lottery-bag men, and a hundred other tricks not worth mentioning.”

Almost as popular (for a time) as horseracing was cockfighting, and the two sports were bound together in several ways. First, they were patronised by an elite and spectated on by people of all classes. Second, cockfights were often held in conjunction with race meetings. Most famously, Charles II’s attendance at the royal cockpit in Newmarket during the annual spring race meeting was further evidence of royal endorsement of the sport. The respectability of cockfighting was lent further weight by a body of literature that stressed its antiquity as a sport and emphasised the gladiatorial nature of the competing birds. The spread of cockfighting in eighteenth century Ireland was of such a scale that it evolved into matches between teams of cocks, some of which were fought at dedicated venues such as Crofton’s Cockpit Royal on Cork Hill, near Dublin Castle. So great was the engagement with cockfighting that teams said to be representing counties competed against each other in front of large crowds and, just as with horseracing, stakes and gambling were everywhere to be seen. As Kelly notes, explaining the subsequent decline of cockfighting is no straightforward matter. What is clear, however, is that “respectable opinion” was moving against the sport by the last decades of the eighteenth century and in 1835 it was proscribed. Even after that, it retained a hold in certain areas into the twentieth century, albeit as an underground activity.

The development of “an environment that was not just unsupportive, but positively hostile” towards popular blood sports left it “remarkable not that they died out but that they survived for as long as they did”. Kelly has rightly pointed out the hypocrisy and inconsistency which allowed “official and respectable opinion” to depict bullbaiting, throwing-at-cocks and (later) cockfighting as barbarous, while not applying a similar logic to hunting. Ultimately, the outlawing of certain blood sports at precisely the moment that hunting was prospering was one more victory for power and wealth.

The world of sport illuminated by James Kelly extends across bowling, tennis, athletics, handball, long bullets (road bowling), pugilism, wrestling, cricket and pitch-and-toss. As Kelly asserts, “the shards of evidence that have been located sometimes fit poorly together and the resulting reconstructions can be more than ordinarily incomplete”. Indeed such sources as do exist are much more revealing of the sporting tastes of the New English; the games of other sections of the populace are less easily discerned. Allowing for that, the similarities between sport in Ireland and sport in England are striking. Bowling and tennis, for example, “were introduced into the kingdom by the New English as part of the process of intensified linguistic and cultural anglicisation they pursued during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”. Nonetheless, the point is repeatedly made throughout the book that there is an “evidential deficit” and this means that “it is not always easy to identify how a particular sport was played, organised, and still less to establish with certitude the social background of those who participated as organisers, players, spectators and, in the case of gambling sports, as punters”.

This is apparent in the chapter that deals with hurling, commons and football. Here, Kelly writes that hurling and commons were stick-and-ball games that may have possessed a common origin, but that they “constituted two distinct sports” by the late early modern period. Crucially, he writes that they “possessed different geo-spatial distributions. The most complete historic map of the sport not only suggests that commons was exclusively practised in the northern half of the country, but also that the area of possible overlap was so minimal as to imply that the two sports existed independently of each other.” This is unconvincing. So definite a distinction between hurling and commons does not withstand scrutiny. Any acceptance that the game played in the north of the island was a winter game that involved the use of long narrow sticks and a hard ball, while the game played to the south was a late summer one that used flatter sticks with a wider bas at the bottom that was used to hit a softer, bouncier ball must accommodate evidence which does not fit into such a neat divide. For example, the soft, hair-hurling ball used for the “southern” game has been found as far north as the bogs of Sligo, while in the 1840s men were imprisoned for “playing at commons” in Dublin and in Borris-in-Ossory in Queen’s County (modern Co Laois, beside the border with Tipperary). The words hurley, hurling, commons, camán and shinty appear to have been used interchangeably in a variety of sources, further complicating the situation. Crucially, the evidence which can be drawn from reports of stick-and-ball games does not allow for a clear understanding of many of the games played or of the particular rules by which they were played. For instance, when the men of the Blasket Islands played a stick-and-ball game every Christmas, what type of game did they play? When Galwaymen played with sticks and balls on the roads, what game was this? Further still, any study of the geography of hurling must take into account of the playing of hurling in London through the second half of the eighteenth century. This, in itself, is a timely reminder that exchanges of culture are so often multidirectional. In this chapter, the absence of reference to the work of Dónal McAnallen, Angela Gleason, Eoin Kinsella, Conor Curran and Maighréad Ní Mhurchada (notably her landmark article “Two Hundred Men at Tennis: Sport in North Dublin 1600-1760”) is surprising. In general, the strength of Kelly’s work lies in the scale of primary sources revealed, while its weakness is the limited engagement with the existing literature on sports history.

Nonetheless, this is a valuable book, one that brings a fresh perspective to the study of the history of sport in Ireland and opens up numerous questions worthy of further explanation. One of these questions centres on the reasons why certain sports lose their popularity. By 1840, for example, hurling had greatly declined from its high point in the eighteenth century and Kelly observes that the manner in which sports rise and fall during the early modern period is evidence that “what is popular in the sporting realm today may not be popular tomorrow. There may, in other words, be a day, when the contemporary public obsession with team games will be no more and the great modern stadia will stand empty – like the Roman amphitheatres – as monuments of a bygone era.” But, even if that were to happen, “the sporting impulse” would “assume a form that reflects the mood, attitude, and cultural language of the people then living, just as it did in the late early modern period”.

It is this idea of the manner in which sport has exercised and entertained men and women that is the key to understanding its importance in the modern world. This importance comes in many forms, sometimes including the absurd. Witness the manner in which the Irish soccer player Roy Keane left the Irish international team in the days before the 2002 World Cup Final. Keane’s relationship with the team manager, Mick McCarthy, degenerated to the point where the player returned from their training base in Saipan to his home in Manchester. What ensued was an extraordinary spectacle as the public, politicians and the media convulsed on one side or the other. Sane and sensible people said and wrote ridiculous things as they recast the dispute as a battle between a “new” Ireland, unready to accept second best, and an “old” Ireland, happy merely to be asked along at all. Those who sought to portray the event as some sort of Greek tragedy seemed actually to believe what they were claiming. Or did they? How much was sincerely felt, or how much were people simply revelling in the great absurdity of it all? In general, it was as if – having already experienced the pleasures of attending two World Cups – the Irish needed now to find a new passion to make the competition worth the bother. In the process, they once more revealed the national talent for hysteria and melodrama.

It also revealed three other vital aspects of sport: the communal, the competitive and the emotional. The manner in which sports can bring people together – even if it is to argue or to fight – serves a critical function in the modern world. A simple question: what is it that people talk most about in the hours when they are not working or not sleeping? There is a very significant section of modern Irish society for whom the answer to that question is sport. The communal nature of sport blends into its competitive dimension. Sport provides a platform for people to dream. Every season, every game, every passage of play leaves even the most unlikely of competitors diseased with hope that this time, finally, will be their time. This, in turn, leads on to the manner in which sport wraps itself like bindweed around a person’s emotions. Sport can provide a person – any person – with joy, even in the most seemingly banal of games. The Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon has written of “the rare moment of transcendence that might be familiar to those who play sports with other people; the moment, arising from the chaos of the game, when all your teammates occupy an ideal position on the field; the moment when the universe seems to be arranged by a meaningful will that is not yours; the moment that perishes – as moments tend to do – when you complete a pass. And all you are left with is a vague, physical, orgasmic memory of the evanescent instant when you are completely connected with everything and everyone around you.” Mostly – almost always – sport does not seem like this. Instead, it is often laced with struggle, disappointment, rejection, disillusion, even anger. Even the most mundane of sporting events carries the capacity to provoke extravagant emotions – good and bad – that somehow seem proportionate at the time, even when they are clearly not at all so when later considered.

It is with this capacity of sport to seize the emotions that it finds its meaning. It is an essential part of modern life, a vital presence. But its importance lies usually in the fact that it is something that is also inessential, something that people pursue out of love and leisure. People’s passion for play is at the heart of what attracts them to sport and is what goes a considerable distance to explaining the ubiquity of sport in modern Ireland. The organisation of sport has profoundly changed over the centuries – that is abundantly clear from James Kelly’s work. A seismic shift in sporting culture has obviously occurred and this reflects the changes from pre-industrial to post-modern society in Ireland. Nonetheless, the human emotions that continue to drive sport in this new millennium remain essentially the same. This love of sport is not, though, a simple matter of escapism, an attempt to beat down the walls of “real life” and find joy in an experience that exists outside normality. Sport, instead, is utterly real, a normal part of everyday life for millions of Irish people. It is something they do and something they think about. What makes it all the more potent is that it is also something they can imagine. It is this capacity to make people dream, even as they do, that allows sport to transcend the mundane. It is what will ensure that, regardless of commerce or of the shifting fashions of society, sport will always be played in Ireland. Ultimately, the story of the Irish sporting past is the story of people finding new ways of doing the same thing. The essence of this is a love of play, a love that seizes the mind as well as the body, a love that has seemingly endless capacity to reinvent itself. Nobody has captured its simple glory more brilliantly than Seamus Heaney in “Markings”. Heaney writes of four jackets laid on bumpy ground for goalposts, teams picked and, then, a game under way:

Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
As the light died and they kept on playing
Because by then they were playing in their heads
And the actual kicked ball came to them
Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard
Breathing in the dark and skids on grass
Sounded like effort in another world …
It was quick and constant, a game that never need
Be played out. Some limit had been passed,
There was fleetness, furtherance, untiredness
In time that was extra, unforeseen and free.


Paul Rouse is a lecturer in the School of History and Archives in UCD. He has written extensively on the history of Irish sport



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