Groundbreaking study of the history of Irish physical education

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Björn Sandahl
Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, Stockholm


Conor Curran
Physical Education in Irish Schools, 1900–2000: A History
512 pages, paperback, ill
Oxford, Oxon: Peter Lang Publishing 2022 (Sport, History and Culture)
ISBN 978-1-78997-842-1

Sometimes one comes across scientific studies that bring back memories from the good old days when scientific results were presented, not as a short article in some journal, but in the form of a hefty monograph. Conor Curran’s Physical Education in Irish Schools, 1900–2000: A history is just such a study in which the end product in form and weight could be mistaken for a brick.

Irish physical education sport is the object of study and in no less than five hundred densely written pages we get to follow this phenomenon and its development during the 1900s, at least as far as primary and secondary schools are concerned. Apparently, this is the first comprehensive attempt to analyze the development of school sport during the period in question, as also shown by the Curran’s initial review of previous research. The book is based on written material in the form of government reports and newspaper articles, but also on interviews with a number of teachers active during the period.

The disposition is classical, in which Curran, after an introductory section containing starting points and methodology, goes through the history of Irish physical education in chronological order. Worth noting, however, is that it is not the Republic of Ireland that is the object of investigation, but the island as such. Consequently, the book initially deals with physical education during the time when the island belonged to Great Britain. After that, the story takes two different paths where the reader gets to follow developments in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland in parallel.

The approach, which is probably a consequence of the object of inquiry itself, is also interesting as a working method, as Northern Ireland indirectly becomes an object of comparison for the Irish development, thereby making its specific features clearer. The disadvantage of this way of organizing the book is, of course, that Ireland and Northern Ireland belonged to different education systems with different regulations and different timing for important reforms. For this reason, the chapters that touch on each area also have different timelines to the 1970s.

The absence of the state in the running and development of schools thus opened for other actors in the form of the schools themselves, but also, for example, the Catholic Church.

Despite the chronological disposition, there are also some well-defined lines in Curran’s presentation. These are also summarized in the concluding chapter. Without spoiling the tension too much, the main thesis can be summed up roughly as follows: Irish school sport is portrayed as largely neglected in the first half of the 1900s. This applied to everything from trained teachers to premises for teaching physical education and school sports. The absence of the state in the running and development of schools thus opened for other actors in the form of the schools themselves, but also, for example, the Catholic Church. Connor shows, for instance, that many schools took it in their own hands and found time for physical activity in the form of competitions, often with other schools. Beginning in the 1960s, incremental improvements for the development of the subject can be found, mainly driven by international influences. However, these occurred slowly and at the end of the period under study the situation was still described as unsatisfactory in several areas. Instead, the development that has taken place has largely depended on energetic individuals within and outside the school system who have engaged in the issue of the development of physical education.

Even so, several observations in the book suggest that the turn of the millennium was something of an epochal shift for Irish physical education and that much has happened since then in the area, in terms of state involvement but also of modern trends that have changed the conditions for teaching the subject. If this is the case, it may certainly be considered appropriate that the study ends when it does, but as a reader one wonders whether it might not have been desirable to extend the study’s end point further.

Staff and some pupils in the gymnasium at the Royal School Portora, Enniskillen, during the 1907–8 school year. Image from the cover of Curran’s book, published courtesy of Robert Northridge.

Comments of this kind may, however, be regarded as overkill in this context. Initially, I hinted at a paucity of monographs of old, and Curran’s study certainly allays this concern, at least temporarily. The great advantage of this type of study is precisely that they can place events and development patterns in a wider setting. In that way they create context for individualities and are able to create structure in things that in a narrower perspective are difficult to explain. With this, Curran also succeeds. While these choices may also lead to relatively shallow analyses of several issues, studies of this kind must be regarded as valuable basic research, which in turn can provide the foundation for new scientific questions. The presentation is well organized but also contains a number of different perspectives, from the conclusions of the state reports to the efforts of individuals. The wide use of sources contributes meritoriously to this.

Overall, Physical Education in Irish Schools, 1900–2000: A history must be seen as a significant addition to the state of knowledge of physical education and school sports in general and particularly Irish physical education. It should also reasonably be a natural choice as reference literature for those interested in the general development of physical education from an international perspective.

Copyright © Björn Sandahl 2022


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