The sporting life

Before this publication by James Kelly, the history of Irish sports, with a few exceptions such as the works of Liam P. O Ciathnia, generally fell into the categories of searching for dim and distant origins or beginning in the late nineteenth century. Instead, this book recreates the history of both individual sports and the collective sporting impulse in the centuries before the Famine. While the author does not delve very far into the origins of each of the sports, he does root them very firmly in the regional and social contexts of the Irish scene.

Sport in Ireland addresses five types or groups of sports: equine (horse-racing and hunting); blood sports (cockfighting and others); pugilism (boxing and wrestling); team sports (hurling, commons and football) and minority sports (from cricket to long bullets). What Kelly describes as a pyramid has horse racing at the top, organized with rules and regulations adopted first in County Down and the Curragh, and then dispersed throughout Ireland during the eighteenth century. Horse racing was national in scope, albeit with some regional concentrations (east Ulster, Galway and Kildare to name three). The maps of race meetings (found on pages 36, 38, 77, 100, 109 and 112) are an indispensable guide to the spatial spread and then contraction of the sport over the 140 years before the Famine. However, they need to be read with care or else the impact of wealthy enthusiasts, such as Sir Edward O’Brien of Dromoland, or of huge betting at individual meetings (400 guineas wagered at Bellewstown in the 1750s), might be missed. Race meetings often took place over several days, sometimes associated with fairs, but more often with dancing and with other sports enjoyed by the wealthier clientele, such as hunting or cockfighting.

The author usefully assigns periods to the development of horse-racing, from rapid growth (1730-1760), consolidation (1760-1790) and relative decline or maturity (1790-1830), where the numbers of race courses fell but the regulatory authority of the Turf Club and the Curragh grew. As noted above, hunting was closely associated with racing and shared many of the same aficionados and a need for significant wealth to operate at the highest level. Indeed, the necessity to stock game, keep packs of hounds, employ keepers, and own thoroughbred horses limited hunting, at least for deer and foxes, to the wealthiest gentry or, in the associational world of the 1740s onwards, to hunt clubs. These clubs, like the famous Kildare Hunt, were sometimes closely linked to a local patron of hunting but just as often came together to finance a pack of hounds.

The fortunes of other sports show how important this support of the gentry or middling sort was. Some sports and recreations were driven underground while other struggled to survive. For instance, hurling always carried an air of concern around it. Hurling games were proscribed in a 1695 Act (on “never on a Sunday” grounds) and by proclamation in 1719 on the grounds that “tumultuous meetings” were being held under cover of the matches. Much of the concern was not political but focussed on the links between hurling and violence (or what might be called “schmozzles” today). However, this seems to have been outweighed, at least at times, by an admiration, captured in Arthur Young’s writing, for “feats of agility” in the sport. This attracted the patronage of the elite, including their occasional playing of the game, in ways that did not happen for many other sports.

An example of how the withdrawal of support affected the fortunes of a group of recreational activities can be seen with blood sports. The first of these to be curtailed were bull-baiting and “throwing at cocks.” In part, this was because of the sheer brutality of either setting dogs on bulls or tying cocks to stakes and throwing objects at them. However, distaste at the sports was not enough, as Kelly shows. Both were predominantly urban recreations and were pursued in public spaces by the lower orders, albeit with some boisterous gentry support or betting on the outcomes. “Throwing at cocks” actually had its special day, Shrove Tuesday, while purpose-built bull rings could be found in around a dozen Irish towns in the eighteenth century (220). The reaction, coming in the shape of prosecutions, bans and newspaper condemnations at the end of the century, was swift. However, it was not decisive. What the authors calls a “struggle for cultural dominance” or a desire to end such impolite and aggressive activities by apprentices or others in the lower orders was to prove a battle that was hard to win absolutely.

This battle over the control of public spaces is sensitively portrayed as being critically important to the history of Irish sports, in terms of which ones were “popular” and which were not. With reference to fox hunting in the eighteenth century, legislation to control the killing of game, in order to restrict hunting to a definite social class, followed closely the example set in England. Kelly also points out that horseracing at the Curragh in the nineteenth century saw an infrastructural development which separated the hoi polloi from the elite. However, there was never a complete break. Even hunting remained something of a “country sport” followed by many rural dwellers of different classes. The Ordnance Survey memoirs of the 1820s and ballads and songs about champion horses remind us that these sports crossed the social divide. This history of cockfighting, too, shows how something now regarded as an underground activity had wide social support in the eighteenth century. Between the 1740s and 1790s, cockfighting was very popular in Dublin, Kilkenny and then predominantly in Ulster, according to over 300 newspaper reports of “mains” (or matches between teams of cocks). Gentry owners of cocks fought others of their class or county teams combated their rivals and mains took place over days with large amounts gambling. The structure of this resembled race meetings and indeed the two often coincided. However, in the early nineteenth century the rules of cockfighting were dropped from the Irish Racing Calendar, reflecting its fall from grace first in the capital and then, more slowly, throughout the country.

These regional variations are very important to sports in Ireland. What might be seen as the classic Irish sports–hurling, commons and football–all had their regional and rural concentrations. Commons, which may have had shared origins with hurling or shinty, was played north of a line from Sligo to Navan while, in the eighteenth century, football was concentrated in Dublin and north Leinster, although south Ulster gets a mention in Irish language sources. Hurling was to be found in what is now, in modern parlance, the “stronger” counties of Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway, Clare and Cork, while Wexford’s claim is not backed up by newspaper reports. The sources available for this research rely mainly on the newspapers of the time, supplemented by some poetry and song plus travellers’ accounts and the occasional mies and regulations governing a particular activity. Sport, even then, had a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with the world of print, seen in the “Sporting Intelligence” columns which appeared in Irish newspapers in the 1780s.

Being the experienced historian he is, the author is fully aware of the limitations of these sources, the negative coverage of some sports and the fact that it is impossible to tell how particular sports were played. However, he is right to conclude that the history of sport, as portrayed here, also allows a good insight into the balance of social power in Irish society before the Famine. Although sports not favored by the elite did struggle they were not given up without a fight and the book asks some fresh questions about just how deferential Irish society was. By writing this book James Kelly has not only done sports history in Ireland a great service but Irish history in general.

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