Pound for pound, a winner: Sport in Ireland, 1600-1840

Review: A terrific account of the sporting passions that captivated the Irish before GAA, soccer and rugby

Bout: Irish heavyweight Jack Langan (left) fights English boxer Tom Spring in 1824. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty

Bout: Irish heavyweight Jack Langan (left) fights English boxer Tom Spring in 1824. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Sport in Ireland, 1600-1840


James Kelly

Four Courts Press

Guideline Price:

In the globalised world of sport, events such as the World Cup finals in Brazil appear to take on greater significance. The early departure of leading European nations such as Italy and England, compared with the successful passage through the group stages of Algeria and Costa Rica, is taken to symbolise shifting geopolitical power.

Rising viewing figures, and the apparent excitement as crowds gathered in US cities, suggest that Americans have finally come to love and appreciate the world’s game they had shunned for so long. And the biting antics of Luis Suárez, and the global condemnation of his actions from all corners of the world, suggest we are still all tied together by some sense that we believe in fair play and a right way for the game to be played.

Ireland has enjoyed its moments in the sun at such global gatherings. Whether in the form of penalty heroics at Italia ’90, the rancorous divisions of Saipan in 2002 or the day when Katie Taylor confirmed her global dominance in the historically framed “manly art” of boxing, the Irish have been swept up in the drama that such megaevents offer. International competitions such as the World Cup or the Olympics are often cited as key moments in the construction of a collective national identity.

But Irish sport, and its historiography, have been dominated by a consideration of the local over the international. More ink has been spilled on indigenous sport, namely the games of the Gaelic Athletic Association, than any other Irish form of competition. This dominance of the GAA within the history of Irish sport, and its chronological construction as something that was modern – founded as it was, in 1884, to resist the spread of Victorian-era British sports – partly form the rationale for the work of James Kelly.

Sport in Ireland, 1600-1840 begins by acknowledging the growing body of scholarly work on Irish sport since the 1990s. This work is surveyed not as an antiquarian exercise in reassembling lists of great matches and iconic players but as a series of considerations of Irish sport that locates the games people play in the broader political, social and economic contexts of their lives. In reviewing what has been produced to date, Kelly asks the obvious question: what happened before the advent of modern sport?

Scholarly void
Although the question he seeks to answer is a critical one, Kelly is largely operating in a scholarly void. In our collective rush to understand Irish sport we have largely failed to explore the decades and centuries before modern codification, the dominance of associations that govern sport and the apparent shift of sporting practices from a largely elite group to all classes.

The period after the 1870s, during which Irish soccer, rugby and Gaelic games emerged in their modern forms, were readily reconstructed because of the availability of club and association archives and the vast coverage of sporting activity available in a print media that was servicing a largely literate population.

Kelly’s success is that he is able to reach back into the two and a half centuries before the Famine, when such records are often absent. In a period when the press was still emergent and its interest in sport minimal, Kelly uses a vast array of contemporary material and records to reconstruct the sporting passions that captivated the Irish.