PAUL ROUSE: From wife-carrying to faction-fighting: Sporting success comes in many shapes and sizes

Finnish pair Taisto Miettinen and Kristiina Haapanen compete during the Wife Carrying World Championships in Sonkajarvi, Finland.

What are the limits of the sporting world? Where does sport begin and end? The difficulties in answering those questions are manifest whenever you move beyond the mainstream that dominates the sporting media in the western world, writes Paul Rouse.

For example, Andrew Keh recently documented the weird and wonderful world of Finnish sport. It is true that mainstream sport thrives in Finland, where ice hockey, motorsport, soccer and athletics are all hugely popular.

But there is another sporting world which is gloriously strange. Finland is home, for example, to the Wife Carrying World Championship (the winner receives the weight of the wife in beer), the Mobile Phone Throwing World Championship (Finland is the home of Nokia) and the Air Guitar World Championship (‘It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it.’).

The World Sauna Championships were held in Finland for more than a decade until they were abandoned in 2010 when one of the competitors – a Russian named Vladimir Ladyzhensky – died of third-degree burns.

Then there are the 50 acres of swamp that host the Swamp Soccer Championships. This swamp – near the town of Hyrynsalmi – has hosted the championship which now draws 200 teams who play six-a-side matches.

How do you explain the extraordinary diversity of these sports?

Clearly, it is partly entrepreneurial: the swamp soccer tournament was devised by people in Hyrynsalmi as a tourism festival which annually doubled the population of their town. Partly, the explanation may lie in the extended winters of a country which pushes into the Arctic Circle. And there is also the fact that the Finnish are documented in European surveys as being more physically active than almost every other country in Europe and have a more intimate relationship with the landscape than more urbanised societies.

The problem with these explanations is that they suggest a sort of ‘Finnish exceptionalism’ that does not really stand up to scrutiny. Can what happens in Finland really be said to be that much more weird than some of the things that happen in Ireland?

History shows us that the world of sport in Ireland has traditionally accommodated the tastes of all-comers? Alongside all the ball games and animal sports, people have always found ways to make sport out of the everyday. The sports they created were often specific to their area (even as variations of universal play) and were shaped by its geography.

Traditionally, this play was most in evidence at festivals held across Ireland.

These were days of music, dance, drink, fighting and play.

Hugely popular were dancing competitions for the prize of a cake: the prize was awarded not to the most aesthetic dancer, but to the one who lasted the longest.

Less aesthetic still was the fighting. Ultimately, the tradition of fighting – either men fighting individually with cudgels and fists, or in units as part of a faction fight extended to every corner of the island.

By the second half of the 19th century it was a tradition that was bitterly condemned by the union of British state and Catholic church that despaired of the pastimes of the peasantry. Accordingly, they sought at every turn to suppress it – and largely succeeded.

But faction fighting was remembered with fondness and apparently engaged in with huge enthusiasm.

Many songs and stories celebrate such fights, including ones at Benaghlin in Fermanagh where the annual gathering ‘used to end by a challenge-fight with ash-plants or black-thorns between two rival sections’.

Another example of this – and there are many from all over Ireland – 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.

Violence was only part of the story. At Pulty in County Leitrim, there were various forms of stone-throwing and weightlifting. At Lough Owel in Westmeath, the tradition of swimming horses in the lake endured into the late nineteenth century at least.

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.

At Mullyash in Monaghan there was a long tradition 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. In other places, also, much fun revolved around activities such as leapfrog and other games that were well- known all across England.

Indeed, the parallels with what was happening in rural England were obvious and the great example of this was the Cotswold Games – also known as the Cotswold Olympick Games. These Games – revived in the 1950s and still in existence – began in the 1620s and were a great day out which drew people from all across the Cotswolds and beyond. The sporting aspect of the day fitted in around the carousing and featured such tremendous sports as ‘Shin-Kicking’.

In this sport two contestants attempt to kick each other on the shin in order to force their opponent to the ground, or to make the opponent shout ‘Sufficient’.

The modern contestants in ‘Shin-Kicking – who compete for a World Championship where the finals draw thousands of people – are allowed wear only soft shoes and are refereed in the modern way.

All across the world, evidence of alternative sports extends from this millennium way back into history. They are driven by the desires of entrepreneurs to make money, of civic societies to draw people to their areas and of people to have fun.

And all across Ireland, every year, the enormous variety of popular pastimes lives and breathes beyond the suffocation of its field sports. From tug-o’- war to churn-rolling, the passion for fun and for competition – mixed in whatever weightings as suit the individual – offers something a little different.

And in a week where Ireland has suffered a series of reverses in its major field sports that has to be no bad thing.

Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin.


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