The tall tale of how the Irish really invented rugby

Does it matter if people make up their own history? 
The tall tale of how the Irish really invented rugby

Does it matter if so many sports autobiographies just don’t ring true? Does it matter if sports organisations simply invent the story of their creation — and seek also to erase those aspects of their past that no longer fit the present?

In pragmatic terms, usually none of this matters — the inventions and the omissions are usually harmless enough.

Allowing for this, it can still be fascinating to hold a sport up to the light and examine the history it has made up for itself.

The invention of rugby football is claimed to have taken place at Rugby School, a bastion of high privilege in the English midlands, where Shane Ross, Ireland’s Minister for Sport (hard to believe, but true!) went to school.

It is claimed that it was here that William Webb Ellis invented rugby in 1823 — and, of course, the trophy awarded to the winners of the Rugby World Cup is now named after Webb Ellis.

There is a plaque which sits in the wall behind the playing fields at Rugby School which reads:

‘This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game, A.D. 1823.’

The plaque was unveiled at a match played on the school’s rugby pitch on November 1, 1923.

The trophy given to the winners of the Rugby World Cup, named after Webb Ellis
The trophy given to the winners of the Rugby World Cup, named after Webb Ellis

An England/Wales selection played the pick of Ireland/Scotland to mark ‘the officially recognised centenary’ of the invention of rugby union.

It was a centenary centred on the slightest shards of reality. According to official rugby history, on a winter’s afternoon in 1823, up to 300 boys were indulging in their traditional, shapeless pastime of football.

Huge groups of youths were travelling the pitch, kicking the ball before them on the ground, pushing, shoving, wrestling. In these matches, scores were so rare that up to three afternoons might pass without any team registering one to their name.

Then, in an act of some genius on that winter’s afternoon, a young pupil at the school, William Webb Ellis, is reputed to have caught a ball kicked toward him, sprinted through a crowd while dodging tackles, before scoring at the opposite end of the field.

As legend has it, this was the first time the ball was carried in such a manner.

And, though it was against the rules, the rest of the boys were so taken with Webb Ellis’s audacious move that they radically altered the nature of their game to the point where, in effect, a new game was invented: the game we now know as rugby football.

Is this story believable?

Of course not — but it has been promoted as truth by those who have wished it to be true. For example, in the 1890s a sub-committee of the Old Rugbeian Society, established “to inquire into the Origin of Rugby Football”, used the William Webb Ellis story in its report.

The context of that inclusion is critical — that sub-committee had been established just as the rugby world was splitting into union and league through tensions over professionalism.

As the game was torn in two, the men who controlled union were determined to take ownership of the game’s history.

In effect, they were determined to prove that the genesis of rugby lay entirely on the playing fields of public schools. The old school tie network asserted that the game of rugby was their game — and theirs alone.

It should be noted, in passing that rugby — of course — is far from alone in its invented histories.

Every sport tells an official story of its own history — a sanitised, glorious fable of progress and virtue.

The big problem for rugby, however, it that the story told of its creation is singularly lacking in that most basic of ingredients: evidence.

Insofar as they could produce any evidence at all, the straw the Rugby School blazers clutched at was one offered by a near contemporary of Ellis, a man called Mathew Bloxam. Bloxam had left Rugby School in 1820, three years before Ellis was supposed to have changed the game.

Bloxam was a solicitor and an antiquarian who maintained a huge interest in all matters relating to his old school.

And so it was that in October 1876 and again in December 1880, he wrote to the Rugby School magazine, The Meteor, recording the story of Ellis and his “fine disregard for the rules”.

So where did Bloxam get his story from? It appears simply that he had heard the story of Ellis’s supposed heroics from an unnamed witness on an unnamed date. Basically, you wouldn’t want to be going to court with Bloxam as your only supporting witness.

As for his part, William Webb Ellis was unable to record his own thoughts on the matter. He had (helpfully for the sake of the myth) died in 1872 and was buried in the south of France, oblivious to his supposed invention of a game.

There is a delicious Irish twist to this tale.

In a spectacular display of opportunism, Irish rugby alickadoos claimed William Webb Ellis as one of their own. Ellis, it was said, was a son of Tipperary, born when his father was stationed there with the British army Dragoon Guards in the year of William’s birth (1804). In keeping with the spurious logic of this entire sage, it could now be claimed that it was actually the Irish who invented rugby.

But when you’ve entered the realm of the bizarre, there’s no point stopping while you can keep on spinning. And so it is that the GAA lurches into the story. It did not suit true Gaels to have the invention of a ‘foreign game’ accorded to an Irishman; the only sports suitable for Irishmen were considered to be those controlled by the GAA.

In the 1930s, General Eoin O’Duffy — Blueshirt, Fine Gaeler, and sports administrator — launched a stunning counter-attack. He wrote: “My theory is that the Tipperary lad was consciously emulating Gaelic footballers he had seen in his homelands and that rugby, like soccer, is thus another anglicised form of an Irish game.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin with O’Duffy’s thesis. Perhaps, it is enough simply to record that even had Ellis been born in Ireland — and there is no evidence for this — his father was only stationed here for the first 12 months of his life.

Not even the most bellicose of Tipperary men (and the world has known a few) could claim that by the age of one, their children are versed in local sporting habits. Nonetheless, O’Duffy was a mere footstep away from amending that charming sign that stood on the Dublin-Cork road to read: “Tipperary — the home of hurling and of Rugby.”

And if Ireland gets awarded the right to stage the Rugby World Cup in 2023, the official slogan could be ‘Rugby’s Coming Home...’

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