The weekly fun and games that flows from RTÉ’s Ireland’s Greatest Sporting Moment programme is a timely reminder of the importance of athletics in Irish sporting history.
From Sonia on the couch talking about Eamonn Coghlan’s World Championship win to Derval O’Rourke on the same couch talking about Sonia’s own World Championship win, the way that running seizes the emotions is plain to see.
Athletics will be a part of each of the four decades-based shows and that cannot be said for many sports that simply do not feature at all.
It is true that Ireland is not some dominant power in modern athletics, but it is also true that enough successes have been achieved to permit it to be said that there is a tradition of athletic achievement on the island that is real and noble.
This tradition is captured in Tom Hunt’s new book The Little Book of Irish Athletics.
It is a glorious book, full of wit and charm and the sort of wonder that good history books carry lightly.
The story of modern athletics is the story of people finding a new way of doing the same thing. By that, what is meant is that people have always run and jumped and thrown things in friendly (or not so friendly) competition. The stories of Irish mythology, the epics and legends handed down from history, are laced with tales of athletic competition.
So the act of athletic competition in Ireland was in no way new when formal sports days started to be established in the modern way in the years immediately after the Great Famine of the 1840s.
This new way of organising athletic competition was initiated in Ireland by the British army. Drawing on the developing idea of structured programmes of events with standard distances and weights that was emerging in mid-19th century England, the first modern athletics meeting held in Ireland was in June, 1856. These ‘Curragh Encampment Garrison Races and Athletic Sports’ took place under the patronage of five senior officers of the British army stationed in Co. Kildare.
Advertisements in the Dublin press gave notice of a special train leaving for The Curragh from King’s Bridge station at 11am and returning at 6pm each day.
The athletics events drew thousands of spectators to see, among other things, sprints, hurdle races, weight throwing, and novelty events such as sack races and blindfold races.
Prizes were awarded for all winners and “the weather was delightfully fine, and all present seemed most heartily to relish the ‘diversion’”. Year after year, for the remainder of the century, the British army organised athletics meetings for its garrison in The Curragh and the sports days remained significant social events; it was something the army did all across the Empire. This idea of organising formal athletics meetings had originated in England over the previous decades and soon spread beyond army life in Ireland.
The year after The Curragh sports was held — 1857 — a crucial step in the creation of a modern sporting world of athletics in Ireland took place in College Park, when the Dublin University Football Club organised the ‘College Races’.
The meeting in College Park drew a massive crowd, including the most important British official in Ireland, the lord lieutenant.
It included foot races and miscellaneous events such as throwing the cricket ball and a cigar race, where contestants had to run while smoking a lit cigar.
The College Races quickly became a phenomenon in the city — an extraordinary social event which was so popular that it was soon extended to a two-day event and regularly drew crowds in excess of 20,000. It was considered by the local press “the most important and fashionable gathering for athletic purposes in the world”.
That may have been an exaggeration — written as it was by a graduate of the college — but it was nonetheless an extravagant occasion. The music was provided by regimental bands and, in the long tradition of giving free entry to those who need it least, complimentary tickets were provided to army colonels, naval commanders, judges, peers, and what the committee called ‘country swells’.
Special marquees and reserved grandstands were built for the elite who attended, but the races were attended by people from all across Dublin who were drawn to what became a huge open-air party.
This party was known to descend into drunkenness and riotous behaviour, and college students were often to the fore in this.
In 1878, for example, over 300 students rioted in Trinity on the second night of the races. The Irish Sportsman newspaper reported that, after dinner parties in the college, students had lit a bonfire using all the wood they could find. This included pulling down a lamp post and also setting fire to the college carpenter’s shed.
When the junior dean came to restrain them, he was drowned out in a tumult of horn and bugle blowing.
This event — and a later flour-bomb and fireworks attack on the lord lieutenant and a procession of police and bandsmen which spooked horses passing along College Green — led the college authorities to limit the number of tickets sold to 10,000, and ban students from holding luncheons in their rooms from 1880 onwards.
Naturally, students being students, a way was found around all of such bans and limitations and the College Races continued to be a great celebration of sport and sociability in the heart of Dublin.
This is a world that is recreated by Tom Hunt in The Little Book of Irish Athletics.
The book tells, also, the stories of the development of Irish athletics in all subsequent decades. It steps sideways to look at such aspects of the story as the USA scholarship scheme and the performance of Irish athletes on the global stage. And — of course — it charts the brutal splits that pulled the Irish athletics world to pieces (notably in the 1930s). What is clear is the undying love for running and jumping. It is something that almost everybody can relate to. Allowing for the fact that believing in the purity of modern athletics competition requires naivety or willful self-deception, there is still a desire there to see an athlete in an Irish vest rounding the last bend in an Olympic final.
This is a phenomenon that transcends time and one that has been brilliantly captured by Tom Hunt.
Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin.
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