Interesting case study, rich in detail, of sports of yore

Connie Ann Kirk
Writer and Independent Scholar

James Kelly Sport in Ireland, 1600-1840 384 sidor, inb. Dublin: Four Courts Press 2014 ISBN 978-1-84682-493-7
James Kelly
Sport in Ireland, 1600-1840
384 sidor, inb.
Dublin: Four Courts Press 2014
ISBN 978-1-84682-493-7

Promising a chronicle of 240 years of a nation’s sport history in a single volume is a pretty tall order, even for the most ambitious and zealous of authors. After the almighty task of conducting the necessary research, how does one synthesize and then organize so much material? Kelly begins by dividing his book into five parts: “Equine Sports,” “Blood Sports,” “Team Sports,” “Fighting Sports,” and “Minority Sports.” Each part is then further divided into major chapters for the more prevalent sports or activities in the nation’s history and smaller sections for less popular, durable, or influential “diversions” (21). This way, the reader can turn to chapters on “Horse Racing” or “Hunting” or to sections on oddities such as “Bull-baiting, Bear-baiting and Other Animal Blood Sports,” and trace that activity’s chronology within that section for the period of the seventeenth century up to the time of the Great Famine.

Other sports or activities addressed in the book are: Hurling, Commons (another stick and ball game), Football, Pugilism (boxing), Wrestling, Bowling, Tennis, Cricket, Athletics (running, etc.), Pitch and Toss, Handball, and Long Bullets. In addition to these chapters or sections of chapters, the book also contains a Preface and Introduction, several tables, maps, and illustrations with a table of contents for these, a listing of abbreviations for frequent sources used, and an extensive bibliography and index.

Arguably, this volume may be more of a browser than a cover-to-cover read. If finding information on a particular sport or “diversion” in Irish history from this time period is the reader’s aim, then the organizational tools provided will make that search easier. However, for historian Kelly, there is a narrative here, one of various sports’ or activities’ lessening or growing in dominance in Ireland with a corresponding emergence of civil society. He writes in his “Introduction” that the goal of his work is “first, to identify the main recreational sports that were pursued in late early modern Ireland; second, to describe their main aspects and characteristics; and thirdly, to locate them in their social, political and economic contexts, and thereby to embrace sport within the expanding field of historically-informed social enquiry in Ireland. Its object, in short is to excavate ‘the sporting culture of Ireland’ before the emergence of modern organized sport, for the simple reason that it has … aroused ‘little to no interest’ to date” (20–21). He indicates that this period, while not without written record, is one lacking in a more comprehensive treatment, and that his effort at uncovering and pulling together scattered documents, etc. was one of the most challenging aspects of the project.

As the reader may suspect, horse racing occupies a dominant space in Kelly’s study. He writes that, although other treatments of perhaps the most identifiably enduring Irish sport pre-date his text, most do not cover the time period of this book, and what is offered thus far, he argues, is “less securely anchored than it might be” (21). Those interested in the history of horse racing in Ireland, in fact, will likely find this book of particular value. Here, for example, Kelly argues that the documentation he researches in this time period is enough “to sustain the conclusion that horse racing was the kingdom’s first truly national sport” (21). He also contends that “it was also the most organisationally sophisticated” (21). The sport occupies the first and longest section of the book with sub-divisions of “Emergence, c. 1630–1730;” “Development, 1731–60;” “Consolidation, 1761–90;” and “Maturation, 1791–c. 1840.” The popularity and relevance of Kelly’s study to today’s readers can be gleaned from the book’s ranking on the day of this review’s writing in the Top 100 books on Amazon in the subject of Horse Racing. In a subject category that includes books on Seabiscuit, Secretariat, and such titles as Picking Winners: A Player’s Guide, a scholarly history of the sport in pre-an Gorta Mór Ireland appearing in the Top 100 is particularly noteworthy.

Reflecting the time period of this study, there is a lot here about human beings using and abusing animals for “recreation,” and not always without bloodshed. The closest rival at that time, in fact, in popularity to horse racing, Kelly maintains, was cockfighting. Though horse racing was the “favoured sport of the elite” (157), cockfighting was widely popular for six decades, though it did become illegal, despite its perceived “respectability” (207) at the time. Throwing at cocks and bull-baiting (“emphatically plebian recreations,” writes Kelly on p. 207), and other animal blood sports, interestingly, were deemed illegal not principally due to a moral objection to the obvious cruelty to animals, but instead as the result of a grab for “social power” (208). The latter activities took place in public spaces, so the question became not one of moral ground but ground of the physical variety, a “contest to determine who controlled the streets and public spaces on the Irish urban landscape” (208).

If one can abide an active queasiness in reading about horrific treatment of animals [warning of what’s to come here for the sensitive reader on this subject], there are some interesting asides in the book. One, for example, concerns Kelly’s arguments about the origin of throwing at cocks. Most likely not originating in Ireland but instead imported from England, he argues, the “diversion” involved tying a bird to a post or stone pillar and throwing sticks and other things at it until it died, then claiming it as a prize. Kelly informs the reader that the most pervasive theory of the origin of this cruelty was religious-based, in particular, “a religiously motivated desire for revenge on the cockerel because of its role in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus” or the “cockerel’s use as a symbol of Pontius Pilate” (208). He also notes, however, with marked, perhaps-tongue-in-cheek restraint, that “since religion was not appealed to in the public discussion of throwing at cocks that took place in eighteenth-century Ireland, it is improbable that its Irish practitioners rationalized their actions by reference either to the life of Christ or to scripture” (209). The public space argument about these “plebian” activities, he argues, most specifically referred to the bullring areas set aside for bull-baiting – something of a cross between a bullfight and a running of the bull. The practice entailed tying a bull to a stake with a five-yard long rope and encouraging bulldogs and mastiffs to tear it to pieces while it fought for its life, goring and kicking at them. The practice was thought to “relax and tenderize meat thereby making it more suited to human consumption” (219). Apparently, butchering, then hammering a filet with a mallet afterwards was not thought sporty enough.

Kelly’s book spends less time on sports from the study era that are predecessors to other sports still practiced widely today, or to other sports imported from England in the time period. Boxing and wrestling receive less than 30 pages’ treatment together in the book, a fact perhaps those who are interested in that topic may find a bit disappointing. One of Kelly’s assertions is that, unlike other perceived “plebian” activities, these “fighting sports” survived based on their later embracing of a national champion in a time of growing nationalism as well as their agility and capability of changing the rules to become less barbaric as Irish society as a whole became more refined (311). About team sports, Kelly notes that these were not as pervasive in this time period, but of those he writes about, hurling was the most popular. About football, he writes, it “was not an indigenous game, but a lowly-valued cultural offshoot of the English presence in the kingdom” (273). A less-known but growing rural activity, now in the States often promoted as a one-day event for charity and called “Irish Bowling” by Americans, was actually a rural Irish game from this period called “Long Bullets” (340). Cricket, he writes, “was the most iconic English sport that failed to take root in Ireland during the eighteenth century” (325); from his research, he then outlines reasons why. And so it goes with sports and activities deemed less popular in the Ireland of 1600–1840.

For readers looking for a history of Irish horse racing or other sports and activities of the Emerald Isle, there is much to find in this book. For others interested in a more general study of how a society as a whole makes choices – economically, politically, and socially – about what it deems acceptable and not in terms of sport and recreation, as well as what factors and forces act behind and surrounding such choices in a nation’s sport history, James Kelly’s Sport in Ireland offers a detailed and interesting case study.

Copyright © Connie Ann Kirk 2015

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