The politics of polo – An Irishman’s Diary about surprising links between polo and the GAA

The Phoenix Park Polo Grounds were once on the front line of Ireland’s political divide

The Phoenix Park Polo Grounds were once on the front line of Ireland’s political divide

 

You may remember a furore in 2009 when Croke Park had to be resurfaced after U2 concerts and it emerged that the new turf came from England, causing at least one Kerry politician to express consternation that future All-Irelands would be played on “British soil”.

Less publicised then was the question of where the Ould Sod (as it were) would be going. So I was belatedly amused the other day to learn that some of it ended up in the Phoenix Park Polo Grounds. Or so I was told last Sunday, during my debut visit to the All-Ireland Polo Club bar, which overlooks the grounds.

This cross-plantation of turf is an amusing turn of events, historically, because there was a time when the Nine Acres – as that part of Phoenix Park used be known – and polo were on the front line of Ireland’s political divide: a sporting version of the Land War.

As early as the mid-1880s, with the GAA still only a rumour, the use of the Nine Acres for polo was already controversial. It was raised in the House of Commons in 1885 by the nationalist Tim Healy, who wanted to know by what right “officers of the Dublin garrison” had erected signs warning people off the polo pitch.

In reply, the chief secretary quoted the commissioners of public works saying the signs were designed only to prevent “accidents”. But Healy was implacable: pledging hostility to “the snobs and swells of the Dublin Garrison” if they continued to encroach on public property.   

This provoked shouts of “Order, order!” and demands that he withdraw such unparliamentary language, which he did eventually, albeit in silence. According to Hansard, pressed by the speaker, Healy “took off his hat and bowed”.

Almost 20 years later, the issue still festered. We know this because it features by proxy in Joyce’s Ulysses, via the real-life Dublin Evening Telegraph of 16th June 1904, which reported it being raised again in parliament the previous day, this time by Joe Nannetti MP.

The GAA was well up and running by then. And according to the report, Nannetti wanted to know why “the members of Slough-na-hÉireann” (whoever they were) could not play gaelic games on the Nine Acres, while polo continued.

The official reply was meaninglessnessly bland, and the main effect of the news item may have been to earn Nannetti a cameo in the original Bloomsday.

Two world wars later, during both of which the Polo Grounds were commandeered as allotments, the front line of Ireland’s sporting wars had shifted. But perhaps due to its popularity with British royalty, polo continued to be seen as the antithesis of gaelic games.

Myles na gCopaleen

Hence the outrage with which this newspaper’s Myles na gCopaleen once affected to feel when the Encyclopedia Britannica claimed that hurling (and also possibly golf and cricket) derived from polo. “The latter was called hurling on horseback in Ireland,” he quoted the EB saying, “but historically, hurling is polo on foot”.

I say Myles affected outrage, because he was no fan of the GAA and would happily have used polo as a mallet to beat it with if the occasion suited. He had elsewhere delighted in telling readers that “polo” was a word or Tibetan origin, meaning ball, and that it probably shared Indo-European ancestry with “peil”.

In any case, he now wrestled with the possibilities that either (a) “the GAA has been playing a foreign game all along” or (b) that the “Indians, Tibetans and British are Gaels of a kind”. Then he learned [as I also did last weekend] that polo’s global governing body is the “Hurlingham Association”. With that, he rested his case.

It now appears that the GAA has become even more embedded in the foundations of Irish polo. But I should note in passing that the reason I was in the clubhouse on Sunday had nothing to do with the game. I was there instead for the debut of a brilliant new Joycean-themed musical by the “Misses Liffey”, who hope to perform it regularly elsewhere over the summer (see songsofjoyce.biz).

And while I’m at it, I should also mention a Myles-themed show now also running in Dublin. Called Flann’s Yer Only Man, by Val O’Donnell, it opened to acclaim at Smock Alley Theatre last week and continues nightly (and afternoonly on Saturday) until May 13th. After that it heads for Newbridge and The Naul in June, before reaching a Mozartian climax in July at the International Flann O’Brien Conference in Salzburg. More details at barebodkintheatrecompany.com.