Paul Rouse: When this crisis ends, sport will spin again

Paul Rouse: When this crisis ends, sport will spin again
Fallow deer graze on the public pitches in the Phoenix Park while sporting activity is suspended following directives from the Irish Government and Department of Health to contain the spread of Covid-19. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

THERE is a path that runs in front of Áras an Uachtaráin, out along the perimeter of its grounds.

In the background, you can see across the beautiful gardens on through to the front of the house.

The buildings, the gardens and the path are protected by a low fence and a drain. The separation between the head of state and the public who use the park is as minimal as it could realistically be. It is exactly how it should be in a republic.

In fact, unless you are up close to the fence, you would not know it existed at all.

As the reality of Covid-19 began to settle, President Michael D Higgins, was out walking his beautiful Burmese mountain dog, Bród, along that path, inside the grounds.

The president waved and greeted any adults and children who wandered past on the grass track on the other side of the fence. It was nothing showy, nothing artificial, just profoundly normal — a man out exercising his dog and himself.

He paused in front of the wooden benches that look out across the great expanse of the park.

And all around that expanse, there were people trying to make the most of a beautiful sunny afternoon, the rain clouds having cleared on the wind.

Some were walking, just as the president was. But others were engaged in all manner of physical activity.

There were people running and cycling, nobody in big groups, just people on their own or in twos and threes.

There were two girls and a boy — all in their early teens or thereabouts — kicking and handpassing a football to each other. They were obviously from the one family and the gentle passing soon passed on to push-and-shove and then wrestling as they made a big heap of themselves on the grass. Their laughter filled the quiet.

Across from them, two boys hit a sliothar over and back, and a father and son threw a rugby ball to each other.

There were young girls throwing a frisbee and another went past on roller skates.

In this much at least, this was just as the Phoenix Park always is on a fine day when people are off work enjoying open air and easy play.

But, of course, it was — on another level — anything but ordinary. There were no formally organised sporting events taking place.

What makes this particularly striking is that the Phoenix Park owes its very existence to the idea of formally organised sport.

The general area was used as a hunting ground in the Middle Ages, before being officially designated as a Royal deer park in 1662.

Then, it was used for hunting, having been stocked with game.

After it became a public park in the 18th century, it consistently served as a venue for organised sport.

Cricket was being played in the park in the 1790s. There were cockfights and wrestling matches, footraces and boxing contests. Football was played here before even the modern codes were formed, drawing the attention of the police who tried to stop it.

As the modern games of football were invented, it became home to soccer and to Gaelic games. But before either of those two sports were played in the Park, it was home to Phoenix Rugby Club. One of the great forwards on the Phoenix team that played in the first ever Leinster Senior Cup match was GAA founder, Michael Cusack.

Later, the park became the venue for motor car racing. It was first used for car racing in 1903, and by the 1920s it had a full-length circuit of 6.8km, when it was home to the Irish International Grand Prix.

By then, the park had already been home to matches played by Bohemians FC and had staged an All-Ireland hurling final. Indeed, from polo to horseracing, and from athletics competitions to golf, there has been a great diversity of sport played in the Phoenix Park.

Now, the park is home to soccer and GAA clubs; it is used by athletics clubs to train and race. On every day — and especially at the weekend — the reach of modern sport is made abundantly clear in what people do and in the clothes that they wear.

From the goalposts on the 15 acres to the cricket nets and well-tended grass of the cricket fields to the cross-country track and the polo pavilion, the physical evidence of the park as a modern sporting venue is fundamental to its landscape.

But, in a way, the current absence of formally organised sport in the park is as if the last 200 years (and more) of the development of formal clubs and associations for organising sport had not taken place.

It is not that people did not engage in organised competitive sport before the modern era.

You need only to look at the Colosseum in Rome (and in other parts of the Roman Empire) to understand that essential truth.

Rather, it is that there was no network of regimented clubs and governing bodies with their rulemaking and record-keeping and deeply commercialised structures.

There is no turning back the clock on that now; when the current crisis ends, the sporting world will spin again.

BUT the activities that were on view in the Phoenix Park are a reminder that at the heart of all of sport is the idea of play. We may compete in a sport, but all the while we are playing a game. And, of course, it is something of a paradox that it is often when a person is lost in the playing of a game that they compete most profitably in a sport.

Getting lost in running is one of the great escapes from the world; there was an exhilaration to running around the Phoenix Park on that cold, bright afternoon.

That being said, there was also the considerable difficulty of keeping the mind off the labours of the failing body. The track that pushes you past the Zoo and the Polo Grounds and on up around the Áras is wet and heavy at the moment.

And the truth is that although the president was not moving at much speed, it was no straightforward matter to leave him behind.

Indeed, the thought was entertained that it might be an opportune moment to revisit the only conversation I previously had with him.

That was on the phone some 20 years previously, and for some long lost reason it drifted onto the subject of shopkeeper-graziers and land agitation in Ireland back in the 1890s.

My contribution to that conversation had been to listen — it was a masterclass. Then, as now, there was something about Michael D Higgins that just lifts the spirits.

In truth, no contribution beyond silence would have been possible on this occasion either.

As the old seanfhocail might have it: Is brúid í an triú ciliméadar (“The third kilometre is always a beast”).

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin.

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