PAUL ROUSE: A window into how sport changed over the centuries

Growing up in Offaly in the 1970s and 1980s, the annual sports days were a huge part of every year, writes Paul Rouse

Traditions can survive in the most pleasant of ways. For any child living in rural Ireland the local sports day is a tradition that is anticipated and celebrated with some relish. It is also a tradition that extends back across the centuries.

Growing up in Offaly in the 1970s and 1980s, the annual sports days were a huge part of every year. In Durrow, Co Offaly — on the road between Kilbeggan and Tullamore (not as the imposters who live in the Durrow, Co Laois that sits on what used to be the main road between Cork and Dublin) — it was a highlight in every year, a tremendous occasion. June 9 was the centre-piece of the summer.

For children there were running races, jumping events, sack races, egg-and-spoon and a whole range of novelty events. There were buckets of sweets and chocolate. For adults, there was a wheel-of-fortune, and hurling and football matches.

The best of all was the day off school, granted because the sports day in Durrow was no ordinary day. It was instead tied to the ancient tradition of Pattern Days. In the case of Durrow, this meant celebrating the life of St. Columba and the existence of a Holy Well and a High Cross down at Durrow Abbey.

That High Cross — a remarkable monument now open to the public in a restored setting — was down a wonderful tree-lined avenue.

We paraded down there as angelic altar boys after mass, behind banners and waited for the sports that afternoon.

The tradition of Pattern Days remains in some corners of Ireland, but other traditions with nothing to do with religion also survive.

In the far corner of north Offaly close to the Laois border is the small village of Cloneygowan. My granny lived there and a great event every year was (and remains) the Gooseberry Fair.

Just as in Durrow it was a big thing for people who left the area to come back on that day every year. The Fair and the Pattern is a great day out for local people, but is also a great way for people to return home.

That Fair, too, had the same athletic events and novelty games of the Durrow Pattern Day. It also had brilliant tug-o’-war competitions in the past — a feat of strength and teamwork for which Irishmen were famed and for which several won gold medals at the London Olympics of 1908.

The Gooseberry Fair in Cloneygowan was first held at the beginning of the 19th century and had an agricultural marketing purpose as well as including social and sporting events.

This link between agriculture and sport is a huge thing in understanding the development of Irish rural sports. The tradition of Irish rural sports was one which celebrated weight-throwing. This is typical of a society that celebrated physical strength as a badge of honour.

In the testimony of people from all over Ireland, the informal weight-throwing competitions organised at crossroads, on village greens and in country fields were hugely varied. From Cavan, for instance, came the tradition of tying weights to a rope and lifting it using only the teeth.

It is true that all of these sports days were changed by the spread of organised athletics meetings across Ireland between the 1850s and the 1880s which formalised and standardised weight-throwing competitions.

These meetings had originated in Britain and were first seen in Ireland in Trinity College and by sports organised by the British Garrison.

They were steadily adopted by Irish people to the point where every town and village worthy of the name organised its own sports day by the 1880s.

It is from this culture that so many of the 25 gold medals won by Irish athletes at the Olympic Games before 1924 can be found.

But, for all that the modern way of playing sport has transformed the way people play, there are still echoes of the old traditions.

It is in these echoes that a vanished world can somehow be discerned even now. Partly, the echoes are related to the days on which the sports days are held — and partly they lie also in the stories and local lore that survive across centuries.

The Cloghane Pattern in Kerry, for example, was held annually on the last Sunday of July. It was ‘the great assembly of the year in the Dingle Peninsula’. The day began at dawn up the 3,000 ft Mount Brandon. At the top of the mount stood a small oratory that had fallen to ruin by the modern period. Pilgrims prayed at the oratory, recited the rosary, and drank from the holy well. Finished with such penance, they went down to Cloghane village for a day of sport and carnival.

Sheep had been slaughtered in preparation and meat pies prepared, new potatoes were dug out, and fishing crews were made up.

During this rural festivity, sport played a prominent part: this was ‘a day of games, athletics, vaulting over horses, dancing, singing and courtship, of faction-fighting and feasting’.

This tradition of faction fighting — so derided and disapproved of by those who sought to change Ireland in the 19th century — was remembered with fondness and apparently engaged in with huge enthusiasm.

Song and stories celebrate such fights, including ones at Benaghlin in Fermanagh where the annual gathering ‘used to end by a challenge-fight with fists or ash-plants or blackthorns between two rival sections’. It was intimately bound into the tradition of the festival.

At Dún Briste in County Mayo — where a part of the cliff was cut off the mainland and stood like a great tower in the water at a remove of 80 yards from the Atlantic coast — on Downpatrick Head in north Mayo, crowds gathered on the headland where there was ‘singing and dancing and athletic sports, “standings” for drink and food, and faction-fighting’.

Another example of this — and there are many from all over Ireland — also comes from the west of Ireland, where, at Maumeen in the Maumturk Mountains, there were cudgel-contests between men, oiled by the poitin that was circulating freely.

Fighting was only part of the fun, however. These were days filled with great diversity. Football was recorded as being played in Cavan and Sligo, while hurling was played at various sites from Donegal to Clare and beyond.

In other places, the events were also shaped by the particular traditions and geography of the locality.

At Pulty in County Leitrim, there were athletics events and also various forms of stone-throwing and weightlifting and wrestling. Here was added a local variation: The assembly at Pulty was on the southern slope of Sliabh an Iarainn, where a mountain stream disappears into a fissure in the limestone. One of the great games here was to throw stones into that hole.

At Lough Owel in County Westmeath, the tradition of swimming horses in the lake was central to the day’s festivities. Part of the thrill of this sport was the danger that attended it: Horses unused to immersion were startled and prone to respond with terror, leaving only the most accomplished riders to survive.

A key to all this was the fact that the sports enjoyed were not merely competitive, but also recreational and indulged in simply for fun.

At Mullyash in Co Monaghan, for example, an annual sports was held involving competitions in running and jumping and a series of novelty games. These games included hitting a ball that was suspended aloft between two poles, and climbing a greasy pole set in a pool of water. All of this is recorded in the collections of the National Folklore Collection, held at UCD; it is an extraordinary treasure where centuries of oral lore are preserved for posterity. And in its ledgers lies to story of how much sport in Ireland has changed over the centuries — and how much that change is simply a case of people finding new ways of doing the same thing.


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