PAUL ROUSE: One man’s idea of ‘sport’ is another’s idea of outrage

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The word ‘sport’ is an interesting one. It is commonplace, part of the everyday conversation in the great majority of households on this island — and yet it is hard to define, writes Paul Rouse.

So what does it actually mean?

Much of what constitutes ‘sport’ is easily accepted: Football games and stick-and-ball games and athletic contests and horse races, and so on.

At the margins, however, defining what constitutes a sport, and what does not, is complicated.

Is chess a sport? Or darts? Or synchronised swimming? Or gaming? Or bridge?

Valid arguments can be made, either way, but even when you make a decision on the merits of the inclusion of a particular sport, it opens up a series of interlinking questions.

For example, if you include chess, do you also include other board games, such as Ludo? After all, Ireland has hosted the European Ludo Championships six times since 1930 and the World Championships twice.

What is it that would make chess a sport, but not Ludo? Or Snakes and Ladders?

What about hunting? There are people who are repelled at the idea that hunting is a sport, regarding it as a cultural abomination that is cruel to animals. That cruelty renders it outrageous to consider it a sport.

One man’s idea of ‘sport’ is another’s idea of outrage

Yet, for centuries, it was hunting which colonised the very meaning of the word ‘sport’.

This is revealed most clearly in the books that were written between the 18th and early 20th centuries detailing ‘sporting life in Ireland’. All — or almost all — of these books focus on hunting and shooting and fishing.

A tremendous example of such a book is one that was written in 1923, by Bernard Edward Barnaby Fitzpatrick.

As soon becomes clear in the book, its title of ‘Ego’ could hardly have been more appropriate.

Fitzpatrick went by the title of Lord Castletown and — having been born in 1848 — lived a life of privilege as a landlord, army officer, member of parliament, ‘sportsman’, and adventurer. His home base in Queen’s County (later Laois) was at Granston Manor and, both there and on his travels around the world, he hunted everything he possibly could.

He was introduced to shooting at an early age and quickly displayed a natural aptitude with the rifle, despite a mishap, when he shot one of his father’s servants.

As a teenager, he was the whip to a pack of otter hounds, spent many hours hawking and fishing, and kept his own harriers. He eventually hunted with his own pack of foxhunters, the Queen’s County, and he joined with great relish many other hunts across Ireland.

It was abroad, however, that he really excelled in his taste for hunting.

Fitzpatrick’s escapades were clearly not confined simply to the parameters of the British Empire; instead, they were emblematic of the culture of wealth in that empire where men (and sometimes women) travelled widely to hunt.

This is where Ego comes in. It reads as an almost parodic account of the privileged lifestyle of the era.

He was sent to school in Eton and then went to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he studied law and modern history. While there, he developed some notable eccentricities: He kept a 14-foot, tame python in his rooms until, one afternoon, it almost strangled his chambermaid, who was saved only by his early return.

As a soldier, he was decorated for his heroism when serving with the British army in Egypt, before suffering severe sunstroke chasing Arabs up the pyramids. In the first Boer War, he was again decorated for valour.

He regretted being too old to fight in the Great War, but was a vigorous army recruiting agent in Ireland.

All the time, he was devoted to sport — or at least to what he considered to be sport. Fitzpatrick’s passion for travel and talent for shooting combined in a series of comic-strip adventures that saw him traverse the globe in search of the hunt for big game.

He shot reindeer in Lapland, bull elk in Norway, and bears in the Rocky Mountains. In the Rockies, he had laid bait at the top of a hill and at dusk an old she-bear appeared. She began tearing at the bait. 

The bear saw Fitzpatrick and headed for him:

I fired from my hip and luckily killed her stone dead… We skinned the bear and, next day when we came back to cut off some meat, we found the two cubs making a feast off their mother.

Later, on that same trip, he shot a big cinnamon bear: “He was a magnificent specimen – a good 7ft. 6in. long — and is now in my hall at home, a very fine trophy.”

He also travelled through Africa, Russia, Asia Minor, the Ottoman Empire, and Persia, where he stayed with the shah, who allowed him to hunt on his lands.

In Persia, he travelled by pony through sub-tropical forests and along breakneck passes across the mountains, where caravans of camels and donkeys were the only traffic. He heard the roar of the long-haired tiger and — although he never had the opportunity to shoot one — admired the skins that were on display at Resht.

He hunted pheasants and deer and a type of wild goat known as the ibex.

With a sort of Boris Johnson-style imperialist lack of self-awareness, he wrote: “The Persian peasant is a great liar, but harmless, and certainly no soldier; I should say that all he wants is to be let alone and allowed to till his land in peace.”

Having moved on to India, he rode on an elephant while using a hooded cheetah to hunt bucks.

In all of this, hunting was always — for Fitzpatrick — a sport and he wrote that his ambition in the book was to open this world of sport to others: “Stories of sport in many lands serve to bring home to those who may not have had the good luck to go big-game hunting, the risks and vicissitudes of that fascinating pastime.”

The very notion of shooting and skinning a bear for sport will disgust many, but hunting continues and remain for some a favoured pastime.

So, do we accept it as a sport? Or, if we deny that it is now a sport, can we accept that it was a sport at some point in the past?

The meaning of words can change at any time. They shift and evolve and can be redefined by the context of their usage.

Of course, defining ‘sport’ is about much more than working out what the word means. It is also, in part, the delineation of what is acceptable to society as an activity. The drift away from hunting and almost every blood sport over the past 200 years cannot be denied. It is reflected in legislation and in popular habits.

Yet, if the great majority of people decide that something is unacceptable, does that mean the views of a minority can be disregarded?

In this instance, hunting is as acceptable to a sizeable minority as it was to Bernard Edward Barnaby Fitzpatrick.

Is ‘sport’ expansive enough to include this minority?


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