A learned and readable study of sport and physical culture in Ireland


Hans Bolling
Independent scholar


Conor Heffernan
The History of Physical Culture in Ireland
280 pages, hardcover, ill.
London: Palgrave Macmillan 2020
ISBN 978-3-030-63726-2

In connection with Ireland losing to Luxembourg at home in the qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup at the end of March 2021, there was an Irish journalist who in an attempt to find a bright spot stated that he would in any case in future avoid getting annoyed at having to hear the phrase: “British teams are always hard to meet!” from visiting team representatives in connection with international matches. A casual mix of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland is not uncommon but can still be seen as bad form. It is at once both easy and difficult to understand since Ireland in the field of physical activity contains both unique features and great similarities with England and the rest of the United Kingdom. Hurling and Gaelic football, hammer and triple jump, have been mixed with, according to the Gaelic Athletic Association, “foreign and absurd” sports such as tennis, cricket and croquet.

In The History of Physical Culture in Ireland, Conor Heffernan tackles an often overlooked, but also more internationally impregnated part of the physical activity sphere in Ireland than the Irish and English activities mentioned above. In Swedish, the concept physical culture would be best translated as kroppskultur, body culture. Important to emphasize is that Heffernan makes it clear that it is not competitive sports he is interested in.

The first question that arises is: what is physical culture? Here the author makes it easy for readers, the first sentence of the summary which is conveniently placed first in the book states: “Physical culture is broadly understood as a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century phenomenon concerned with purposeful exercise.” It is thus a definition that is not too far from the official Swedish definition of body culture: “conscious development of the health and beauty of the (human) body”.

As can be gleaned from the title, and is also accentuated by the lack of a more defining subtitle, Heffernan’s perspective is wide-ranging. It covers half a century and the entire island of Ireland, during the interwar period two different states. Comparisons thus becomes a natural part of the study, which cannot be seen as anything other than positive. In concrete terms, this is a traditionally arranged study that consists of eight chapters, the first of which consists of an introduction and the last of conclusions. In between are six empirical chapters, divided into two time periods and three contexts for physical culture. Chronologically, it is about the island of Ireland from the last decade of the 19th century until independence, the partition, and Ireland and Northern Ireland during the interwar period. Thematically, the author studies voluntary physical education, military physical education and physical education within the school system.

This approach works well and the presentation is clear, albeit sometimes at a somewhat superficial level, which is a natural consequence of the comprehensive approach. More detailed case studies remain to be carried out, but now they can be done based on Heffernan’s research efforts.

A page from the Swedish Gymnastic Association Yearbook 1938. It reads: “Ireland. A number of Swedish certified gymnastic instructors have worked in Ireland, and they have been joined by instructors educated at such English institutions where Swedish gymnastics are taught. The pictures in this page have been submitted by Miss H. V. Svenner, who has founded a very popular institute in Dublin, The Ling Gymnasium Training College and Swedish Institute for Medical Gymnastics and Massage.” The caption for the top image reads: “Swedish exercise gymnastics for Irish ladies in Dublin.” The bottom image is captioned “A section of young, clever gymnasts at the Ling Gymnasium Training College in Dublin.” (Click to enlarge.)

Given the role nationalism has played in Irish physical activity, it is interesting, perhaps even striking, that Irish physical culture lacked clear local foundations in terms of both formation of the activity and ideology production; instead, the people involved turned to English, North American and even French magazines as well as to international educators and commercial actors not only to find inspiration but also to become part of an international physical culture community. In this matter, the specifically Swedish gymnastics also played a role in school and the military, although Heffernan cannot be said to be fully au fait with the state of research in this instance. This may well be the result of Swedish scientists having failed to properly highlight Ling’s creation in the English-speaking forums, but not exclusively. The feeling is that it is also because the author is more attracted to physical culture with connections to exercise for health than the more disciplined forms of physical education offered by school and the military. Fortunately from a Nordic perspective, Heffernan pays attention to both Hans Bonde’s Niels Bukh research and Niels Kayser Nielsen’s essay “The Cult of the Nordic Superman”.

The evidence that we are dealing with an international movement is also that the pronounced motive for promoting physical culture cannot be differentiated from the motives that were expressed in a Swedish context during that same time period: strong and well-trained people were also, or had all the prerequisites to be successful not only physically but also financially, socially and intellectually.

But it is also worth noting that exactly the same type of physical activity could be used in widely differing political and ideological contexts and thus to the highest degree become locally and regionally politically charged. The same activities were used by Protestants and Catholics, Unionists and Republicans. Activities that are not qualitatively distinguished thus had very different significance depending on the context in which they are exercised. It is a phenomenon that many sports history enthusiasts recognize even outside the political arena, most evident perhaps in the way in which the three perhaps most basic expression of physical activity – running, weight lifting and gymnastics – were constantly popularized in new forms in the second half of the 1900s, for example, as the fashionable novelties jogging, bodybuilding, and aerobics. We also recognize arguments about the individual’s obligation to be physically active and the concern expressed even by the ancient Greeks that emerging generations are about to degenerate. But Heffernan must be praised here, as he, besides the old common explanatory variables behind the emergence of physical culture – industrialization, commercialization and urbanization – also highlights the fact that many actually thought that exercise was great fun. The pleasurable has otherwise often been placed in the corner of competitive sports when it is set against conscious physically developing activities.

In summary, The History of Physical Culture in Ireland is not only a learned and readable book about a part of sport and exercixe that has ended up in the backwaters of the more spectacular and mediatized competitive sports, it is also an example of a well-conducted research effort. Part of the explanation for this may be that it is a doctoral dissertation that has been made available in book form, which guarantees that the reader can take part of a research from original sources. The whole presentation is also well rooted in the political and cultural development. All in all, a book well worth spending time with. Even the bibliography made this reviewer happy as it is set up according to the variant of the Oxford system that I learned when I started reading history in Stockholm anno dazumal.

Copyright © Hans Bolling 2021

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