Sport and Leisure

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Sport and Leisure

Early Irish sporting rituals sit easily within a broad human heritage: The stories in myth and legend, the etchings of ball and stick on tombstones and elsewhere, and the rough-and-tumble football matches of village against village find echoes across the world. The eventual organization of communal, casual sports into the highly regulated sporting bodies that now dominate the Irish sporting world was also part of a global phenomenon, although the distinctive regional variations offer a unique perspective on sporting traditions.

For centuries sport in Ireland has been influenced by divisions of class. Conspicuous displays of leisure were an integral part of the lives of the aristocracy. Often, these rituals involved bloodsports including foxhunting, which was introduced from England in the eighteenth century, though the sport hunting of other animals was already long established in Ireland. Later sports such as tennis and polo were somewhat more genteel and were as much about courtship ritual as competitive endeavor. Among the peasantry sporting activity often took place in tandem with fairs and markets. Drink and gambling were an ever present feature at almost all sporting activities. Bullbaiting and cock-fighting were popular (the latter until the twentieth century), as were feats of strength and athletic prowess, which play an important part in Irish folklore. Throwing weights, in particular, was a favored pastime of the rural poor. Irish throwers won numerous throwing and running contests at British championships and at the Olympics before 1920, and local competitions often drew huge crowds to see amateur and professionals compete. Later, Irish athletes enjoyed occasional international success, but limited resources and the inability of athletic organizations to cooperate has ensured that success has been borne of individual brilliance rather than systematic design; most leading Irish athletes sought to progress through the U.S. collegiate system.

There has also been a huge interest in boxing, with fighters such as Dan Donnelly in the early nineteenth century and Jack Doyle in the mid-twentieth century earning mythological status, owing more to bluff than to brilliance. Often, contests were organized secretly to avoid suppression by the police. Amateur boxing still retains a strong hold in various towns and cities, bareknuckle fighting is sponsored by the Traveller community (a separate ethnic group with a distinctive migrant lifestyle), and occasionally Ireland produces a world professional champion.

In sports such as horse racing the interests of all classes merged. The foundation by the wealthier classes of the Turf Club in 1790 was predated by steeplechase racing, which began in Cork in 1752. Permanent courses were built across the country, and Irish-bred horses have enjoyed success in England and continental Europe. The sport has a large popular following among all social classes, and it is both a major employer and a revenue earner for the state.

Before the late nineteenth century even sports organized by the gentry were unstructured. This was altered profoundly in the Victorian era. Widespread changes in popular leisure were most pronounced in sport, and the intimate links between English and Irish society were crucial to this process. Many games were brought to Ireland from England. Cricket was the most widely played sport in Victorian Ireland. The first recorded game in the country was in August 1792. Although it was spread mainly by army officers, public schoolboys, and the upper classes, cricket was also adopted by the peasantry. Irish teams played international matches beginning in the 1880s and toured Britain and the United States. The game declined in popularity with the spread of football games and the opposition of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Following the partition of Ireland in 1921, cricket was confined largely to the North and to middle-class enclaves in Dublin, although by the end of the twentieth century there were more than 100 active clubs.

Golf, on the other hand, has been popularized since its initial status as an elite sport. The first Irish club was established in Belfast in 1881, and although there were more than 150 courses by 1950, membership was limited by the costs involved. Increased average wealth and a proliferation of clubs to more then 350 by the year 2000 changed the golfer's profile—this was emphasized by the number of golf societies based in public houses. The huge volume of golfing tourists in the country is a testament to the quality of the courses.

Although there is little documentary evidence, most scholars agree that hurling and (Gaelic) football games were played across Ireland through the early modern era. Hurling was mentioned in twelfth-century manuscripts, the Statutes of Kilkenny, and the Sunday Observance Act of 1765. It received patronage from the gentry at least until the early nineteenth century but then fell into decline. Its early playing style was similar to that of hockey, and both games have enjoyed a presence on the island in their modern forms since the 1880s. Similarly, what has evolved as Gaelic football shared similar roots to other football games, including soccer, rugby, and Australian football.

Besides introducing games, the English influence was profound in terms of the organization of sports. The codification of field games in England in the latter half of the nineteenth century was replicated in Ireland. Between 1863 and 1875 soccer, rugby, and hockey associations were established in Britain; this formal organization was enmeshed in notions of education, puritanism, and the prosecution of war, all of which brought a justificatory philosophy, at least in theory, to the playing of sports. These ideas spread across Europe and the Americas in the second half of the nineteenth century as sports were codified, and Ireland was inevitably bound into this revolution of games. Associations similar to those in England were established in Ireland between 1870 and 1890. The GAA was established in 1884, initially focusing on athletics but later concentrating on field games. In an important move, the GAA developed sets of rules that enabled the traditional Irish games of hurling and Gaelic football to be played in enclosed fields and in urban areas. By providing open, fastmoving team sports to the masses, the GAA prospered and by 1910 was drawing 25,000 people to its national finals. Rugby and soccer also drew large crowds. The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) had been founded in 1879, provincial and interprovincial competitions were established, and internationals were played from 1875 on. Soccer matches were played in the north of the country from the 1860s, and the Irish Football Association (IFU) was founded in Belfast in 1880. Within two years a cup competition had been established and international games were being played. Following the spread of the game to Dublin, a league was established in the 1890s, and teams from all the provinces were represented in competition, though the game was largely restricted to urban areas.

The GAA, the IRFU, and the IFA did not enjoy harmonious relations. Interpretations of this have invariably focused on the supposed split of these associations along political lines—a split that, crudely put, sees Gaelic games as national and Irish, and all other field sports lumped into the category of "foreign games." This is a gross simplification of matters. The GAA was not as intimately involved in the struggle for independence as is often suggested, and its role in preindependence Ireland was often similar to that of other sporting bodies. Furthermore, the development of the various sporting organizations in preindependence Ireland was more profoundly shaped by social and economic factors than by political ones.

Notwithstanding this, the partition of Ireland did have a significant impact on Irish sports. After unsuccessful attempts to remain united, soccer divided along the border, with separate domestic competitions and national teams representing North and South. Soccer enjoyed greater international success in the North—Northern Ireland reached the quarterfinals of both the 1958 and the 1982 World Cups (and thereafter fell into a slump). Its domestic league suffers from the tradition of players emigrating to play professionally in the English and Scottish leagues because local bodies are unable to maintain well-paid professional clubs. The domestic league in the South suffered from a similar inability to provide for squads of full-time professionals, though this began to change in the 1990s. The Republic of Ireland qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1990 and reached the quarterfinals, then also qualified for the 1994 and 2002 competitions. In North and South, the Irish game has traditionally suffered in comparison to the English league, whose clubs enjoy huge support across Ireland. Every weekend, thousands of fans cross the Irish Sea to support English teams. A further dimension is added with support for Rangers and Celtic in Glasgow, given their traditional associations with Irish Protestant and Catholic emigrants, respectively.

Rugby sides continued to represent Ireland on an island-wide basis, but with the exception of Limerick city, it remained a minority sport for the middle classes. This lack of a broad playing base undoubtedly contributed to Ireland's failure to win more than the one grand slam it has achieved in the Five (now Six) Nations Championship. Although rugby internationals emerged as a popular social outing, it is only since the mid-1990s with the advent of professionalization that the game has come to enjoy widespread support through the involvement of the provinces in the European Cup.

Gaelic games (hurling and Gaelic football) were organized on thirty-two–county basis, but in the North they remained the preserve of the Catholic minority. In the South such games were intimately associated with notions of an Irish Ireland, and the GAA was cited alongside the Catholic Church and Fianna Fáil as part of the Holy Trinity of orthodoxy in independent Ireland. It is the largest sporting organization in the country and has a presence in almost every parish. For many its value is as much social as sporting, and for many decades it offered one of the very few leisure opportunities in rural Ireland. The GAA was prominent in the Tailteann Games,, "the Irish Olympics," held in 1924, 1928, and 1932. These were the first official events organized by the Irish Free State, embracing sports from Gaelic games and athletics to shooting and handball. Conceived as a celebration of the Irish spirit and physique, they attracted foreign competitors before being abandoned because of lack of finance.

There are many sports which enjoy significant minority support in Ireland. Handball has been played in Ireland for more than 200 years and was exported by Irish emigrants, particularly to Australia and the United States. At one point it was the subject of large wagers and had many professional players, but now it is an amateur sport played by more than 3,000 players. From 1968 on, the purpose-built Mondello Park in County Kildare offered a focal point for motor-racing enthusiasts. In the North, motorcycle racing enjoys huge popularity; the country's roads host the Circuit of Ireland car rally. Greyhound racing began in Ireland in 1927 and marks the adaptation of coursing to urban life. Tracks have been established across the country, and betting and breeding represents a significant industry.

The Victorian sports revolution and its aftermath are perceived as a mostly male affair, but as sports were codified, women became involved at various levels, and in the 1890s Ireland won several Wimbledon titles through Lena Rice. As tennis was traditionally associated with the wealthier classes, this suggests middle- or upper-class involvement. Similarly, women of those classes were involved in hunting and horse-riding, and in hockey, tennis, swimming, and camogie (hurling) clubs. Often, sporting activities for women were connected to schools, and female participation frequently ended at school-leaving age. In the latter decades of the twentieth century women's participation in sport grew enormously. Women's Gaelic football was the fastest growing of the field games, with soccer and rugby in close pursuit. Women's hockey also attracts many players, especially in Dublin, Cork, and the North. The Irish Ladies' Hockey Union was formed in 1894. In track and field Sonia O'Sullivan won a number of international titles, as well as a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics.

Just as in England, so too in Ireland, the understanding of sport has evolved from a narrow range of the bloodsports of the elite to an ever-expanding, eclectic assembly of pastimes. The number of sports organized in the country is growing, while traditional sports have largely retained their hold. Everything from ballroom dancing to bobsledding falls under the umbrella of sport, and the economic importance of sport—apart altogether from its emotional hold—continues to grow. Its symbiotic relationship with all forms of media gives it a central role in modern Irish life and expands its meaning and importance.

SEE ALSO GAA "Ban"; Gaelic Revivalism: The Gaelic Athletic Association; Transport—Road, Canal, Rail


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Paul Rouse