A noble cause rediscovering Ireland’s proud sporting history

Whether you say it’s all bunk or it’s a nightmare from which you’re trying to awake, there’s one thing you can count on when it comes to history.

There’s never an angle lacking.

We were nudged towards history again last week when it was brought to our attention that Sports History Ireland is having its annual conference next month in Cork (September 15 in UCC). Nothing would do but to pick up the phone and call Richard McElligott, chair of SHI.

“There’s hardly anyone in Ireland who hasn’t been touched by sport in some way,” said McElligott, who works in UCD’s Department of History.

“Yet despite that, the whole area has been used very lightly by historians.”

They’re working to change that in Sports History Ireland. There are some very interesting talks on offer, from Mark Tynan’s The Dissemination of Irish Soccer in the Irish Free State to Pat Bracken’s lecture entitled Not quite yet on death’s door: Hurling 1840-1884.

Apart from the immediate impact of an interesting topic, there are all sorts of benefits for organisations which have relied on myths and legends to support themselves.

“The GAA has always portrayed itself — particularly in its early years — almost as an underground army participating in the revolutionary period, along with the IRA and IRB,” says McElligott.

“Its reputation was enhanced because it was perceived as being active in those events, a perception which was fuelled by events such as the original Bloody Sunday.

“The reality is much more complicated. To say that every member of the GAA at the turn of the century would have laid down his hurley and taken up a gun is completely overblown. People joined the GAA the same way they joined any organisation, and some people were no doubt disgusted and left the GAA because of its stance on nationalism.

“Part of the GAA’s identification with Irish heritage and how we see ourselves is wrapped up in the foreign games debates and gain, those debates have been overplayed — the notion that the GAA stood firm behind the ban on foreign games for years needs historical context.

“Right after the Free State was founded there were debates within the GAA that almost tore it apart, with people discussing why a ban on foreign games was needed, some saying that people should be entitled to play soccer or rugby or whatever games they liked.

“There are certainly historical narrative myths there, and behind those myths the reality is a series of shades of grey.”

It’s not just the GAA of course. McElligott points out that all sports could benefit from a rigorous historical examination.

“Taking the big three sports, what’s really missing are really detailed analyses of counties in the GAA — detailed accounts of the evolution of the GAA within counties — the social, political and economic climate for that development, the personalities involved and how those personalities interacted with other figures, the interaction of the GAA with other sports within the county.

“I’m writing a book for The Collins Press on the GAA in my native Kerry, and I’d hope that’ll be the first example of detailing the GAA’s growth in a given county.”

And the others? “Soccer is ridiculously under-researched. There is no definitive history of soccer in Ireland — how it grew from the 1880s, the split between the IFA and FAI, the organisation of the game. We have a session on soccer in the conference today because of that.

“The same goes for rugby. Apart from Liam O’Callaghan’s book on rugby in Munster, there are no comprehensive national histories of rugby in Ireland, particularly when you consider the growth of the game in the 21st century.

“The same could be said of athletics, and even cricket, which was a very popular game in rural Ireland before the foundation of the GAA.”

True enough. For more information email sporthistoryireland@gmail.com or type Sports History Ireland into Facebook.

While we’re on about the legacy of history, it just struck us: who’s going to dispose of all the yellow wristbands that everyone will be hiding from now on?

* contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie Twitter MikeMoynihanEx

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