How sport opens a window on to Ireland in the 20th century

The film ‘Rooney’, released in 1958, tells the story of a binman, who shoots to a very Irish fame when selected for the Dublin hurling team which makes it to the All-Ireland final.

Last week, at the Irish Film Institute, Rooney was taken from the vaults and shown once again. For those, who haven’t seen the film — or who can’t remember it (it was released in 1958) — it stars actors such as Barry Fitzgerald and Noel Purcell, Muriel Pavlow and June Thorburn.

It’s central character, ‘Rooney’ is played by John Gregson, a leading post-war comedy actor in Britain, who starred in more than 40 feature films. It’s no classic, but it has charm as it unveils the story of James Ignatius Rooney, a binman, who shoots to a very Irish fame when selected for the Dublin hurling team.

Rooney lives in digs in the O’Flynn household in Rathmines, meets romance on the way and is almost sidelined by inadvertent thievery. And ends up a county hurling star. The most amazing things happen in the second half of the film. By the way of these things, Rooney’s Dublin team makes it to the All-Ireland hurling final.

The challenge for the filmmakers presented by this was a large one — in a pre-digital age, how could you plausibly generate scenes that might plausibly recreate an All-Ireland final? The question was answered in a most imaginative way: get Rooney to walk in the parade of the actual All-Ireland final and shoot the crowd scenes of the day itself.

And it works brilliantly. From the perspective of 2019, the idea that a famous actor should join and march with the teams in the parade before an All-Ireland final is an astonishing thing.

You would struggle to imagine Brian Cody or Liam Sheedy, or Jim Gavin (if it were football), or indeed any senior inter-county hurling or football manager agreeing to a request from a film director to allow such a thing to happen.

This feeling of astonishment that it did actually happen is tinged with a certain regret at what is lost. The modern game of hurling is wonderful — it has reached a level of skill and intensity that is only possible from the extreme dedication of the players of our age.

But there is a certain something that has been lost a little bit along the way. Hurling is certainly not as wild as it once was (which is no bad thing) — but at the very highest level it is now so self-consciously serious that it must be asked whether some of the joy of play has also been lost.

It maybe that to suggest this is to succumb to a sort of cloying nostalgia — or it might simply be entirely wrong. Against that, the absurdly pious reaction in too many quarters to a Dublin hurling selector catching a ball in a match against Kilkenny in the Leinster championship makes my point for me. Of course, he shouldn’t have done it, but is it not a little bit great that he did?

By the way, Rooney (John Gregson), walked in the parade behind the Kilkenny team in that 1957 final. There is no evidence that he was responsible for Kilkenny winning the match by a point. Presumably, however, he would now be blamed if they had actually lost to Waterford.

Either way, there is great joy to be had in reading the chapter on Rooney in Seán Crosson’s new book, Gaelic Games on Film: From Silent Films to Hollywood Hurling, Horror and the Emergence of Irish Cinema.

It is part of a book that begins by recounting the very earliest stories of how Gaelic games were captured on moving pictures.

The earliest surviving record of the film of a GAA match was from December 8, 1901, when a club hurling match was recorded at Jones’s Road (now Croke Park, of course). The film was shown as part of a ‘Grand Gaelic Night’ at the Rotunda in Dublin the following Wednesday. It is to be regretted that the film has not survived, but from that moment, for more than half a century, the cinema became increasingly important to Gaelic games.

The earliest surviving GAA footage is of the 1914 All-Ireland football final replay between Kerry and Wexford. There is also footage of hurling shot as part of the 1918 feature film Knocknagow. Foreign companies such as British Pathé then led the way in the 1920s and 1930s.

It’s most amusing now to listen to the mannered-Pathé commentaries. But, beyond the commentary, the footage of the players that survives is wonderful. Through these middle decades of the 20th century, cinemas were not just a place to show the film of matches, but also — on occasion — a place to witness the unique position in city and county that winning big matches accorded to players.

For example, the week after winning the 1936 All-Ireland hurling final, the Limerick players were invited to attend the Savoy cinema in Limerick city as special guests.

Many hundreds of people were turned away. The Limerick players were introduced to the crowd one after the next. When Mick Mackey was introduced to the crowd, there were scenes of ‘wildest enthusiasm’ as he showed off the Liam MacCarthy Cup to the crowd.

Mackey took up a microphone and said simply:

We won the All-Ireland final this year and we mean to do the same next year.

The crowd went wild. It is legitimate to ask whether this story has any meaning beyond itself? Does it matter that Mick Mackey was cheered in a cinema? Does it matter that there are Gaelic games in The Wind That Shakes The Barley or Michael Collins or in horror films or the work of John Ford? Indeed, it is legitimate to ask why any of this should matter?

The answer is that it absolutely matters.

And it matters because this is an area of study that is essential to any understanding of modern life. Two of the great social phenomena of modern Ireland are sport and cinema. Studies which examine both — and the intersection between them — offer a vivid insight into the lived experience of generations of Irish people.

Understanding how people acted in the hours between sleep and work — choosing how to spend such leisure time as they had — is essential to any thorough exploration of the past.

Seán Crosson’s book matters also because this is a history that has not ended. The films and the footage continue to be shown, continue to shape perceptions of Ireland and the Irish. This book offers a clear insight into how Ireland and the Irish were and are portrayed, both by ourselves and by others.

And the very idea of perception, itself, continues to matter at least as much as ever before — if not more.

Nations and institutions continue to seek to control how they are perceived. And as sports organisations increasingly become their own publishers and their own broadcasters, this attempt at control is being tightened.

In this instance, the Irish and in particular the GAA have proven exceptionally sensitive to how they are portrayed on film. This is understandable. But it can also be entirely overdone when devoid of perspective — indeed, the indignant Gael is one of the more amusing characters in Irish history. All aspects of this story are brilliantly captured by Crosson in Gaelic Games on Film.

It should also be noted in passing that this book marks the latest in Cork University Press’s expanding list of books on Irish sporting history. Beginning with Tom Hunt’s seminal study of the history of sport in Victorian Westmeath, and on through works by David Toms, Liam O’Callaghan, Cormac Moore, Pat Bracken, and Conor Curran on soccer and rugby to Seán’s book, it is a simple fact that no university press in the world has a recent list of books on the history of sport that can match that of CUP. It is a credit to them that this book is as beautiful as it is.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at UCD.

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