Tale of Irish prisoners’ stomach footballs is judged off side

Tens of thousands of US children have been exposed to the bizarre claim that footballs were once produced from the stomach tissue of executed Irish prisoners.

The claim, which has circulated on the internet, where it even includes a date that the practice ended in 1908, was one of the “soccer facts” contained on a bookmark distributed by one of the country’s largest suppliers of children’s books and educational materials.

New York-based Scholastic, which had revenues last year of $1.7bn (€1.4bn) and is the sole distributor in the US of the Harry Potter books, appears to have lifted “facts” initially posted on the internet as a joke, then proceeded to produce and distribute them via the bookmarks. The company has stopped distributing the bookmarks, but said an estimated 20,000 were sent out over three months.

“The bookmark in question, distributed only in the US, is a rare example of a school supply that was determined post-production not to meet our high standards for young readers,” company spokesperson Anne Sparkman said. “We took the bookmark out of circulation because we were not comfortable that the fact in question came from sources that meet our usual high standards.”

The bookmark states: “Soccer balls have been made using the stomach tissue of executed Irish prisoners.”

A bookmark of incorrect football facts has been distributed to schools in the US.
A bookmark of incorrect football facts has been distributed to schools in the US.

This is a slightly abbreviated version of a claim that appears to have first popped up on the internet around 2013 and has been repeated by various sites and bloggers since.

With minor variations, they claim: “Until 1908, soccer balls were made from the inflated stomach tissue of executed Irish prisoners.” The origin of the “fact” appears to be a joke list that others picked up and posted.

The list includes the claims that it developed among handless inmates at Newgate Prison in London who wanted a game they could play with their feet and that Queen Elizabeth, in her teenage years, enjoyed a game near Buckingham Palace, in disguise.

And the bookmark contains another claim on that list, that soccer, was banned in the state of Mississippi until 1991.


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