Reinterpreting the academic historiography of Irish sports history

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Conor Curran
Trinity College Dublin


Terry Clavin & Turlough O’Riordan (eds.)
Irish Sporting Lives
396 pages, paperback, ill
Dublin: Royal Irish Acdemy 2022
ISBN 978-1-911479-85-7

This book draws on sixty entries on the lives of Irish-related sports men and women from the online Dictionary of Irish Biography. These have been narrowed down from an overall total of 540 entries on sports people (of a grand total of almost 11,000 entries). As joint editors Terry Clavin and Turlough O’Riordan highlight in their editors’ note at the beginning of the book, to qualify for entry one must have already died, been born in Ireland and had a career in Ireland; been born in Ireland and had a career outside Ireland; or been born outside Ireland and had a career in Ireland. An exception was made for Brede Arkless, a rock climber and mountain guide, ‘who had a non-Irish career but was raised in Ireland and whose birth abroad was entirely fortuitous’ (vii-viii).

Therefore, the book contains pieces on some well-known faces within Irish sporting circles such as Alex Higgins, George Best, Jack Kyle, Christy Ring, Jim Stynes and Kevin Heffernan, along with raising attention to the careers of those who previously did not receive as much public acknowledgement, such as Molly Seaton. The inclusion of females is an important and path-breaking part of the book, with seventeen recognised throughout, although strong cases could also have been made for Oonagh Pim and Kathleen O’Rourke, pioneers in the promotion of physical education north and south of the border, respectively.  There is a wide variety of sports covered, ranging from those dear to many in Irish society such as Gaelic games to those catering for more elitist interests, such as croquet and aviation. This publication is generally entertaining throughout with strong assessments of flawed characters such as Dick Fitzgerald, Jack Doyle and Vere Goold guaranteed to elicit interest, along with interesting tales of those who enjoyed more stable private lives.

That many key publications have been almost completely ignored in this book, which was commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, no less, is extremely disappointing.

However, this book is not without its major faults. The main one is the distinct failure to engage with much of the academic historiography of Irish sport, especially that written over the past twenty years. There is no clear rationale for this. The responsibility for writing the book’s Introduction was handed over by its editors, Turlough O’Riordan and Terry Clavin, to University College Dublin professor of Irish history, Paul Rouse. This in itself hints at a lack of familiarity with the subject on the part of the editors. While Rouse discusses the book’s contents in a lengthy piece, which, at eighteen pages, is longer than some of the entries, he fails to reflect on the growing body of academic publications on the history of Irish sport and its relationship with society. As any student writing a history essay should know, adding even a brief assessment of the historiography of the subject strengthens it considerably, if only to identify where the gaps are. This omission is astonishing at this level.

This absence in turn has a knock-on effect in terms of contributions to the book. While it may be argued that entries to the Dictionary of Irish Biography are voluntary, as stated in the book, six pieces were commissioned (vii and p. 370). Despite this, almost inexplicably, there is no place for many of those who have made major contributions in placing Irish sports history on a firmer footing within academia. These include Mike Cronin, Dónal McAnallen, James Kelly, Tom Hunt, Richard McElligott, Cormac Moore, David Toms and Conor Heffernan. Cases could also be made for Mark Tynan and Julien Clenet in penning entries. The book would surely have been much richer had they been approached directly with a view to writing pieces.

Yet another life in Irish sports. From SE Systems Cork Camogie Senior Club Championship: St. Finbarrs v Ballygarvan, July 26, 2019. (Shutterstock/D. Ribeiro)

In addition, the lack of context is clear in a number of the entries, particularly regarding soccer. We learn of the achievements of Irish footballer William McCracken in the early twentieth century (pp. 227-32), through Jim Shanahan, but how exactly did this fit into the careers of other Irish-born football migrants at that time? How unique was he in moving to English league football? Some context could easily have been gained through a basic reading of the growing literature on the history of Irish soccer migration. There are also some schoolboy errors in this book which a closer proofread would have eliminated. For example, in Paul Rouse’s own entry on Jack Charlton (pp. 49-57), the former Republic of Ireland manager’s brother Bobby, one of the most famous footballers of all time, is bizarrely twice referred to as ‘Bobbie’ (p. 50), while the Republic of Ireland did not play England at Wembley in 1992 (p. 56).  Between them these two authors have contributed to over a quarter of the entries within the book.

Overall, this is an interesting book which is well-illustrated, accessible, and reasonably priced and will be attractive to many sports fans, but it could have been so much better.  It has done very little to promote the cause of sports history within Irish universities. This comes despite the efforts of Sports History Ireland, which ran annual conferences at various locations in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland from 2005 until 2017, and in turn was a significant help in giving many aspiring Irish sports historians a forum to share and discuss their work, through conference papers which often led to later publications. Many of those who attended went on to have their work published in leading Irish history journals such as Irish Historical Studies and Irish Economic and Social History, in international journal publications including those in the United States of America such as Journal of Sport History and, closer to home, in British journals such as Sport in History, as well as peer-reviewed monographs and edited collections. Securing permanent academic positions remains difficult, however, as this genre of history is generally still ignored as a subject worthy of teaching in many Irish universities and colleges. A number of those historians mentioned above have since sought careers in other more secure and practical occupations. That many key publications have been almost completely ignored in this book, which was commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, no less, is extremely disappointing. One would expect that volume two, if it should come to pass, will be a much better planned out and inclusive edition, and will reflect more thoroughly the major developments in the writing of academic sports history in the early twenty-first century.

Copyright © Conor Curran 2023


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