If we think of hurling as something quintessentially Irish, then cricket is seen as something quintessentially English.
But how true is that and could the exact opposite have happened?
In 1880 — before Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin had even conceived of the GAA — cricket was everywhere in Ireland.
Put simply, it was the most important field game in Ireland.
The main nationalist newspaper in the country – the Freeman’s Journal – had no doubt as to its future: “At present, it is no exaggeration to say, cricket is known and played all over the island. We may take it for granted that the youth… will establish it permanently.”
The enthusiasm for cricket demonstrated by the Freeman’s Journal was re-iterated in The Irish Sportsman, a weekly newspaper dedicated to sport in Ireland. An editorial in that paper in 1875 considered that cricket “is one of the few English importations with which the most sincere ‘Nationalist’ cannot find any cause of quarrel, and in which all ranks and classes may meet on equal terms.”
It was also seen as a game in which Irishmen could develop a talent to such a point where “we may be able to show John Bull we can beat him, or, at least, hold our own well against him in his national game”.
Ultimately, cricket was something, the press said, that might be considered ‘a national pastime’.
Entirely the opposite happened, of course, and instead cricket became denoted as a ‘foreign game’. This was a process that was a product of the politics of the time, with a rising sense of nationalism — both political and cultural — entwined with a land ownership revolution which saw the transfer of the ownership of the farms of Ireland from landlords to tenant farmers.
It was this process which saw Michael Cusack turn away from being an ardent cricket lover, who in 1882 called for the establishment of a cricket club in every parish in Ireland, to one who set about the revival of hurling.
In a different context, however, the predictions of the Freeman’s Journal could easily have been made real and, maybe with it the sentiments of Neville Cardus, esteemed as one of the greatest cricket writers of them all, could have extended across the towns and villages of Ireland, as well as that of England. Cricket, wrote Cardus in 1945, was not merely a game, but an institution that sat at the very heart of English life. This institution “holds the mirror up to English nature”, and in it “we see the men, the originals, the characters, all sorts and conditions, in a cavalcade of English character that travels down the years”. For Cardus, the cricket field and its surrounds created a particular atmosphere and a way of life which was seared onto the nation’s consciousness.
More than anything, cricket offered a space where men (and he only wrote of men) could reveal themselves, while its phrases — such as ‘play a straight bat!’ and ‘it’s not cricket!’ — assumed an almost liturgical significance in wider society.
That cricket was adopted by people across the Empire meant it became associated with much more than just Englishness. It became something special to Indians and Australians and South Africans and, in that something special, beating England assumed central importance.
The same thing might easily have happened in Ireland and, if we can consider that it is possible to imagine that cricket should have established itself as central to Irish sporting life, so it is also possible to imagine that hurling could have become quintessentially English.
This is a story that comes from the 1750s and rests on a piece of land in London called the Artillery Ground. This land — which was previously used for army manoeuvres — was by the 1740s owned by a man called George Smith, who also was the landlord in a pub beside the ground called the Pyed Horse.
Smith was the first great cricketing entrepreneur. He encouraged teams from Kent and Surrey and Sussex to come to his ground — where a cricket club was also based — to play matches. It was a crucial moment in the making of modern cricket.
Smith advertised the matches, charged admission fees to the grounds and sold refreshments (lots of alcohol!).
In respect of the cricket matches, money was put up for teams who won the matches, these teams began to pay the better players to join them. Sometimes, the players were paid by the patrons and nobles who took them on in their estate, other times they were paid retainers by local clubs.
The thing is, he did exactly the same for hurling: Hurling in the 1740s was played in many parts of Ireland and drew huge crowds to matches.
he game was also played in London and George Smith charged people in to watch hurling matches which he organised at his Artillery Ground.
For example, the Daily Advertiser in London reported in October 1747 that there would be a hurling match at the Artillery Ground between the hurlers of Munster and Leinster.
It was to be the last match of the season and admittance was to be cheaper than for cricket, standing at 3d.
As Eoin Kinsella and John Bergin have written, hurling matches in London continued through the remainder of the 18th century and into the 19th.
Sometimes, the games were played between ‘gentlemen’ domiciled in England; on other occasions, they were played by Irish emigrants living in the London enclaves of St Giles and Wapping.
The very fact of these matches reminds that the exchange of culture between England and Ireland was not one-directional.
Further, it opens up the obvious possibility that the game of hurling might have taken hold in England outside of Irish communities.
Even more remarkably, there is a tradition that hurling was played in the public parks of Paris in 1750 and, later, in the 1780s, in New York, where it was advertised in the newspapers.
In the case of Paris, it was claimed to have “created a sensation among the Parisians”, and to have attracted “the whole city of Paris, the king and his court, nobility, gentry and artisans, all to see this specimen of the peasant games of Ireland”.
So it is that an alternative history of hurling could conceivably have enjoyed a geography that extended beyond the shores of Ireland in ways that have been long forgotten.