'Sport and Ireland: A History' debunks what you thought you knew about our favourite games

Carson played hurley, but not hurling, cricket was once a national sport, and the GAA regarded chess as a gaelic game, as Michael Moynihan discovers in an account of the games people played both on and off the field.

IT’S funny that in sport, one area of endeavour based more savagely on binaries — win/loss, first/second — than almost any other sector, myth and legend can be so tenacious.

 Or perhaps that’s just how we operate: Beyond the result and the scoreline an entire world of conjecture and rumour can be shrouded in mystery. 

Motivation and prejudice can blur the picture even further, and misconceptions about events often outlast participants.

Because of that, Sport and Ireland: A History, is more welcome than would normally be the case. 

Dr Paul Rouse of University College Dublin has a long record of engagement in matters historical and current — witness his focus on the GAA’s broadcasting deal with Sky Sports — but this book is on a different level entirely, and it is already difficult to envisage its absence from the shelves of any serious sports fan.

By what we would now call ‘rigorous checking’ — or ‘proper research’ in old money — Rouse has nailed more than one sports myth, often by little more than offering the facts of the matter rather than extrapolating fanciful syntheses.

For instance, it’s a comfortable assumption, long circulated, that arch-Unionist Edward Carson played the quintessentially Irish game of hurling while in Trinity College.

Not so, unfortunately — Rouse proves categorically that Carson played a game called hurley which, despite the similarity in name, owed a great deal, with its offside rule and hitting off one side of the stick, to the game of hockey with which we are familiar.

Likewise, though the popularity of cricket is no myth — in 1875 the Freeman’s Journal was confident enough to say that the sport was “known and played all over the island.  We may take it for granted that the youth... will establish it permanently” — Rouse skewers the notion that the GAA helped to permanently erase the game, pointing out that internal issues within cricket didn’t help, such as the failure to organise a governing body which might have unified the sport and helped it maintain its popularity.

Rugby and soccer also came under suspicion in a new nation eager to establish its cultural bona fides. Both enjoyed stronger administration and better organisation than cricket and they flourished as a result.

None of which is to say that Rouse absolves the GAA of the time for at least partial blame for cricket’s decline — “vicious words” were used, in his phrase, to attack those playing the game, and many of the small regional cricket clubs were eventually folded into the burgeoning GAA clubs in the same areas.

Rouse sets his stall out early in this regard, pinpointing a key element in the development of modern sport in Ireland — the British influence. 

The growth in team sports in the 19th century in Britain was always linked to Victorian notions of manhood and the imperative of improving the colonies — the self-effacing Corinthian ethos so beloved of muscular Christianity — so it was hardly a surprise when those sports were brought across the Irish Sea.

However, as Rouse points out, there was an interesting twist to the import — in Britain the gentleman amateur was a beloved stereotype (even if, as Richard Tomlinson’s recent and excellent biography of cricket icon WG Grace shows clearly, those stereotypes often didn’t stand up to close scrutiny) but in Ireland “ideas around amateurism were turned on their head”, says Rouse.

“In the Gaelic mind, professionalism was associated with Englishness (focusing on soccer, all the while ignoring the amateurism of rugby and other sports), while GAA players were presented as being motivated by patriotism.”

Any such history would have to pay due attention to the GAA, and Rouse pays close attention to the origins and struggles of the organisation. 

For instance, it would hardly come as a surprise to observers that while the GAA took off like a prairie fire early on, it “responded to its early triumph by tearing

itself apart. Indeed, the GAA essentially collapsed in the early 1890s”; for those who read their Ulysses, and its thinly veiled description of GAA founder Michael Cusack — or maybe their Ivy Day In The Committee Room — there may be a grim irony in the fact that it was the Parnell scandal in the early 1890s which almost finished the GAA, with huge internal divisions over supporting the Chief when he was named in the O’Shea divorce trial.

The organisation’s survival and success is evidenced all around the country now, of course, but Rouse has done us quite the favour by revisiting some of Cusack’s wilder notions (“brilliant, learned, eclectic and argumentative” is Rouse’s description of the GAA’s founder).

Take Cusack’s early suggestion that Gaelic football, hurling, and handball might be joined by a sport not quite as physically demanding: “We cannot hurl very well when night sets in, but we can then cultivate our minds, and we know of no game of skill better calculated to do this than the peaceably war-like game of chess.”

Cusack was one of those who believed that chess had been invented in Ireland in the Middle Ages because of the enduring power of the term fidhcell, which we now know as ficheall, the Irish word for chess — Rouse shows, however, that the term was adapted from an old Irish game and transferred to denote a new game, which we now know as chess, rather than maintaining a constant meaning down the centuries.

In some ways this is one of the most interesting parts of the book, and one which reveals the serious scholarship without, if you like, forcing the reader to feel the effort in the heavy lifting.

For instance, what the 14th century treated as sports were often activities which would revolt a modern sensibility — take the variations on cockfighting, for instance, one of which, practised in Wales, involved throwing stones at a cock in a pit until it was killed.

Yet these were social occasions rather than furtive, backstreet activities. Rouse points out that in the 18th century the attendance of the gentry at the Royal Cockpit in Dublin — it was to be found on Cork Hill, south of the Liffey — was “commonplace”, and this was replicated around the country. What’s more, the tradition of running cockfights in association with large-scale race meetings, for example, lasted until the late 19th century.

Bull-baiting didn’t survive as long — as the name suggests, it involved tying a bull to a stake and setting dogs on it, with a good deal of interest in gambling on the performance of those involved.

It was massively popular — Rouse points to the number of rings set permanently in British cities, such as Birmingham, and adds that even the threat of public whipping couldn’t deter fans from flocking to places such as Smithfield in Dublin to watch bull-baiting.

The circuit was so well established, he says, that professionals toured Britain with their bulls and charged the owners of bulldogs for a chance to fight their bull.

There’s a great deal of this kind of parallel history, for want of a better term, in the book — rather than a dry accounting of the waxing and waning of pastimes, Rouse gives a sense of what it was like to be present at these events. 

For those reasons and more his new book is a masterpiece.

Sport and Ireland: A History

Paul Rouse

Oxford University Press, £30


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