Cockfighting, cruelty, and Ireland’s history of bloodsports

The renewed growth of cockfighting in Britain is a reminder that the ways of the past are not easily shaken, writes Paul Rouse.

Cockfighting, cruelty, and Ireland’s history of bloodsports

A report from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals found evidence of 60 organised cockfights across England, an increase year-on-year across the previous five years.

Those fights took place in people’s kitchens and sheds and garages and fields, as well as in dedicated cockpits.

It is considered certain that many more cockfights took place without notice.

It is a number which is thought to have grown again over recent years.

Ireland, too, sees cockfighting enduring, its adherents in thrall to a sport which now lives on the margins.

That cockfighting continues in Ireland may come as a surprise to people, but setting birds and animals to fight against each other was a central part of Irish social life for many centuries.

For example, the tradition of baiting bulls and bears was widespread and hugely popular. This ancient sport involved ‘a bull being tied to a stake with a rope between 10 and 15 feet long. It was then baited — bitten, scratched, and savaged — by dogs, usually bulldogs or mastiff especially bred for the sport’.

Alongside the gory spectacle, the other great attraction of bull-baiting was the gambling that invariably attended it as spectators betted, variously, on the survival prospects of bull and dogs.

So popular was the sport that by the 18th century, bull-baiting professionals toured Britain with their bulls and charged those who owned bulldogs for the opportunity to pit their dogs against a bull.

This circuit extended to Ireland; evidence of bull-baiting is widespread across towns such as Drogheda, Wexford, Athlone, Tuam, and Naas. The bull-baiting in Carrickfergus, Co Down continued through the 18th century. It was a well-known practice in Belfast.

In the middle of the 18th century, Smithfield Market in Dublin was the prime location in the city for bull-baiting and the passion for the sport was such that for many years not even the threat of public whipping and imprisonment of its devotees could deter those who engaged in it.

In the 16th century bear-baiting became extremely popular in London and the bear pit at Southwark on the south of the River Thames was a principal attraction in the city. It is recorded that in 1575 Elizabeth I attended ‘a bear-baiting display featuring 12 bears’.

The popularity of bear-baiting extended to Ireland — it was ‘a common occurrence on the streets of Belfast’, while at a bear-baiting on the North Strand in Dublin in 1726, both a bull and a bear escaped and injured spectators. Indeed, the bear ‘seized one man by the leg and tore it to pieces’.

Of all blood sports, the most popular was cockfighting, loved for the pleasure it gave as a sport and as a forum for gambling.

Specially trained birds were fitted with steel or silver spurs and put on a scratch mark facing their opponent. The fight continued until one bird was killed or maimed. This was a sport that transcended class and was pursued in both dedicated cockpits and in informal locations.

Major contests were advertised in the newspapers and on posters, prize money was offered and great crowds attended. The attendance of the gentry at the Royal Cockpit, situated on Cork Hill on the south side of the River Liffey, was commonplace and there were cockfighting matches that proved a big social draw.

Cockfighting was staged in public houses, inns, and taverns, while dedicated cockpits could hold anything from 50 to 500 spectators. Eighteenth-century Limerick had at least two cockpits, including one at Cockpit Yard. In Tuam there was a cockpit around Dunmore Rd, operational in the 1760s, and another at an unknown location in the mid-19th century. There was also a cockpit on Cork Hill in Dublin at least in the mid-18th century.

In the 1770s a cockfighting match between Co Tipperary and King’s County brought nightly assemblies for the duration of the competition; similarly matches between Ross and Wexford in south Leinster, and Drogheda and Co Meath in north Leinster, brought assemblies that probably involved dancing.

Cockfighting was also a popular, localised pastime. It was, for example, a widespread practice across Ulster. It was often associated with other sporting events; in a practice that was to endure at least until the late 19th century, cockfights were organized in tandem with Irish horse-race meetings.

How did something so central to Irish culture in the centuries before 1800 essentially disappear or move to the margins of Irish life by 1900?

The years immediately after 1800 saw a series of bills introduced into the House of Commons in London seeking to outlaw animal baiting and, later, cockfighting.

These bills had their origin in growing opposition from those within society who viewed such sports as cruel; this opposition was not new in Ireland. Indeed, around 1750 ‘A Gentleman of Dublin’ wrote a book entitled The Tricks of the Town Laid Open in which he advised all ‘people of class’ to avoid such entertainments since they were a hotbed of sharpers and scoundrels: ‘I can’t imagine where the diversion, or felicity, can be to see a kennel of deep-mouthed ruffians (standing around a pair of foolish creatures) hollering, cursing and blaspheming, whilst they mangle one another to death’.

And yet many people — drawn from every class — had no difficulty imagining, and also experiencing, the fun involved.

In fact, those who championed ending what was now beginning to be posited as ‘cruelty to animals’ were usually ridiculed and attacked for their views in the 18th century.

Allowing for that, there was a shift under way and emerging codes of behaviour placed a new emphasis on manners: Cultural change within the elite frowned upon acts such as public urination or eating without cutlery.

Caught in this changed understanding of what was now socially tolerable was sport — and, in particular, violent sport — as condemnation increased of the casual brutality that particularly attended animal-baiting.

Central to the spread of these ideas was the expanding world of newspapers. It was in the newly formed Freeman’s Journal in 1764 that a letter-writer described cock-fighting, bull-baiting, and throwing-at-cocks as ‘inhuman entertainments’.

In the early years of the 19th century, such views gained much greater currency and were supported, in particular, by a whole range of Christian reformers who sought now to attack ‘blood sports’.

This attack was rooted in a range of different beliefs. Partially, it was an echo of earlier Puritan demands that the sabbath should be observed as a day free of all non-religious activity.

A Sunday Observance Act had been passed in 1625 but lay in abeyance in the early 19th century. Campaigners now sought to give substance to that law, however, and the establishment of the Lord’s Day Observance Society in 1831 led to a series of campaigns and legal actions against those who sought to stage, watch, or participate in sporting and recreational events on a Sunday.

Further motivation came from the evangelical notion that sport was a pit of vice where all manner of indulgence was facilitated: Time and again traditional sports were challenged by those who considered them immoral. Methodists, in particular, took grave exception to the drinking and gambling that was an integral part of cockfighting.

Crucially, the impact of ‘cruelty to animal’ reformers was to change public perceptions — or at least the perceptions of some — as to what was appropriate in a civilised society in terms of the sporting activities of animals.

For example, cockfighting had long been patronised by the elite of British and Irish society, but that now changed. A key moment in this process was the establishment of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824 — from 1840 it became the RSPCA with ‘Royal’ added.

The society was driven by deep Christian and humanitarian impulses: The anti-slavery campaigner and evangelical Christian William Wilberforce (1759–1833) was one member who professed himself particularly appalled by the practice of bull-baiting.

What also motivated members of the society was what it perceived to be the related ambition of protecting animals and civilising the poor.

Between 1800 and 1835, 11 bills were presented to parliament seeking to outlaw bull-baiting. The first was Sir William Pulteney’s in 1800 and was lost by just two votes.

The narrowness of the defeat signalled that the tide had turned and with it eventually flowed legislative change.

Firstly, the Cruelty to Animals Act, 1835 was used to improve the conditions of working animals, to regulate their slaughter, and to suppress sports such as bear-baiting and bull-baiting.

There was inevitable resistance to the move, but bull- baiting and bear-baiting ceased almost immediately.

Cockfighting proved a much more difficult sport to ban. Key to opposition to baiting sports was the growing sense that it was grossly unfair to animals. While a tethered animal might face inevitable death, however, a cockfight allowed for a contest in which one competitor could live.

Despite protests and the withdrawal of patronage from certain quarters, there remained widespread devotion to cockfighting — this devotion was not simply to disappear in the face of opposition.

Cockfighting had been listed as a misdemeanour under the Cruelty to Animals Act, 1835 and the following years brought prosecutions and the closure of cockpits. The subsequent Cruelty to Animals Act, 1849 pushed cockfighting further to the margins.

The campaign to outlaw bull-baiting and cockfighting had been driven by a small elite: ‘Sports that people of all social ranks had enjoyed for hundreds of years had been cast out of the realm owing to the changing values of a small, but powerful, minority who no longer took part.’

This minority coalesced around the RSPCA and what remains undeniable is the monumental hypocrisy that lay at the heart of its campaigns.

The RSPCA raised funds and hired constables to prosecute those who indulged in cockfighting and bull-baiting.

But all the while, some of the most prominent members of the society were devoted to hunting. Richard Martin, for example, sponsor of an act of parliament against animal cruelty, hunted with passion on his extensive estate at Ballinahinch Castle in Galway.

Other colleagues included the chair of the inaugural meeting of the society, Fowell Burton, who was reported to have killed 500 birds in a week for a bet.

There was simply no answer to Robert Peel’s straightforward question posed in the House of Commons in 1825: ‘Why were the sports of the poor to be put down, and those of the rich to be left unmolested?’

Ultimately, it was difficult to shake the notion that what was really driving change here was the desire for social control and the wish to prevent the gathering of disorderly crowds — something that was rendered much more possible for the state in Ireland following the proper organisation of the police in the 1830s.

As one contemporary writer put it, the people who loved bull-baiting were ‘part of the very lowest, and most abandoned orders of people, the very scum and refuse of society’.

In respect of cockfighting, it remains a fact that generations of Irish people have continued to patronise the sport since it was banned in law in the middle of the 19th century.

Every decade since the Famine has seen people from across Ireland gather in backfields or in factories, drawn by their love of this illicit sport.

It is a tribute to the hold that a love of cockfighting has held in Ireland, that the years after independence saw the sport thrive and thrive. In an article in the New Hibernia Review in 2016, Brian Ward set out the history of cockfighting during the Irish revolution and into the early years of partitioned Ireland.

During the bitter divides between Orange and Green, cockfighting could actually see both sides unite around a pit, as two birds set at each other.

In Killeshandra, Co Cavan, for example, Unionist and nationalist members of Volunteer Forces marched together to a cockfight and ‘the best of good feeling prevailed’. This uncommon fellowship was on display in the dog days of June 1914, as the Home Rule crisis hurtled onwards towards mayhem and the world stood on the cusp of war.

What is notable from this time also is the extent to which magistrates were lenient with those found responsible for cockfighting. Indeed, cases brought to court often drew great fun in the court-room. The great tradition of people attending court as a form of entertainment brought them as witness to the leniency of judges who were willing to err on the side of leniency.

A scene from the RTÉ show ‘Newsbeat’ in 1967 in which ‘Charlie’ says that cockfighting is not cruel.
A scene from the RTÉ show ‘Newsbeat’ in 1967 in which ‘Charlie’ says that cockfighting is not cruel.

By the 1960s, cockfighting was still thriving in Ireland. The RTÉ reporter and broadcaster Cathal O’Shannon made a piece for the Newsbeat programme in 1967 in which he talked to a man named ‘Charlie’, who was intimately involved in all aspects of cockfighting.

He explained to O’Shannon how the fights were organised and how they operated. He denied that they were cruel, noting: ‘A cock can run if he likes. He can quit fighting.’ ‘Charlie’ tells O’Shannon how the news of a cockfight being held in an area is spread by word of mouth, often with less than 24 hours notice.

Into a new millennium, cockfighting continues in Ireland. It is clear from the ongoing campaign against cockfighting led by the Irish Council Against Blood Sports and by the League against Cruel Sports that there remain enough individuals who are sufficiently engaged with it for it to continue.

Indeed, it is suggested that almost every weekend sees small cockfights taking place on both sides of the Irish border — although not necessarily in border areas.

Footage from Monaghan, Fermanagh, and Derry in 2013 revealed cockfighting as well as police investigations that extended across several locations involving the seizure of a number of birds.

At the cockfight in Monaghan, at least 60 men, women, and children are gathered around a makeshift cockpit in a country field. At the one in Derry, there was even a catering van selling burgers to spectators.

It should be noted, in conclusion, that the lust for cockfighting is one that extends across the world.

This year has seen the

discovery of a massive cockfighting operation on a ranch in California, while across Latin America and Asia, cockfighting thrives and is often legal.

It is a passion that, from past to present, crosses class and gender, drawing people together to gamble, or just to spectate, at a sport which continues to be organised.

Whatever its morality or its cruelty, that reality stands undeniable.

More in this section