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

Sport in Ireland, 1600-1840
Sport in Ireland, 1600-1840
Author: James Kelly
ISBN-13: 978-1846824937
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Guideline Price: €39.95

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.

The book is divided into a series of chapters that detail the sports played during the period. They include considerations of horse racing, hunting, cockfighting, various blood sports, ball games, pugilism, wrestling and what he terms “minority sports”, namely bowling, tennis, cricket, athletics, pitch and toss, handball and long bullets.

What is obvious from Kelly’s work, given its encyclopedic reconstruction and dense coverage of sporting activity in the period, is that the 17th- and 18th-century Irish were not passively waiting for modern sport to arrive fully formed. Rather they, as well as those English migrants who arrived during the period, were fashioning a sporting world that captivated and entertained them. It may not be sport as we now understand it, with its 24-hour media coverage, but sport it was. And in those practices the Irish before 1840 evolved a sporting world that was full of the same ethical, economic and access issues that occupy our minds today.

By far the strongest chapter in the book is that which details the growth of horse racing across Ireland. The chapter is a model of how an in-depth analysis of a wide range of sources can be used to reconstruct a fascinating and multilayered history. Kelly reveals how the sport grew through elite patronage and how it came to function as a business. With increasing numbers of meetings through to the mid 18th century – almost a racing mania – the sport would mature and consolidate in the early 19th century. It provided employment for workers connected with the horse trade, brought purpose-built racecourses into being and laid the foundations for the bloodstock industry that is still so important to the economy.

The chapter, as indeed much of the book, is well illustrated, with portraits of the leading men involved in racing, contemporary maps that show course locations and pictures of the impressive trophies that were awarded for various races.

What horseracing during this period shows is that for sport to thrive there was a need for elite patronage. Sport, of whatever form, needed to have a degree of fashionability and for the event to be supported by a wider sense of sociability in the form of meals, music and dancing. Evolving sports did not stand alone but were part of the wider evolution of associational culture and a multifaceted consumption of leisure practices.

Hunting, and those who supported it, were closely associated with racing, and it is no surprise Kelly notes that these two sports were the most “securely anchored in the Irish recreational landscape”. But while the elite practised hunting as an unproblematic blood sport, they contested the embrace of blood sports by the lower classes. Cockfighting, throwing at cocks, bull baiting and other blood sports were highly popular in the 18th century. By the start of the 19th century they had largely been eradicated. Concerns about social order, especially in expanding urban areas, caused such blood sports to be condemned: they were deemed undesirable, and their associated debauchery – drinking, gambling and so on – challenged the maintenance of social order.

Throughout the book Kelly does a good job in outlining how the rise and fall in popularity of certain sporting forms were part of a wider debate about respectability and the desire of those who led society to control popular gatherings and those spaces where they came together.

Sport during this period was not necessarily imbued with those positive values that were a core part of the late-19th-century emergence of modern sport. At this time sport was more likely to be viewed with suspicion, not for the practice itself but for the types of people and activities it wrapped around itself.

The book closes with an assessment of the sports – ball games, pugilism and wrestling, and athletics – of the pre-Famine period. As Kelly notes, many of them were in far from robust health by the 1840s, but they were later adapted and refined to re-emerge as popular modern sports. In accepting this later transition of these sports a problem at the heart of the book is also revealed.

For all of the research, and the clever contextualisation of 17th- and 18th-century sport as part of wider Irish society, too much here seeks to see the development of sport as a linear process. Yes, there is a welter of sporting practice in Ireland between 1600 and 1840, but it does not follow that what exists as hurling now is what Michael Cusack would codify in 1884.

Wonderful reconstruction
Kelly's work is a wonderful, scholarly reconstruction of how sporting practices, and in particular its organisers and patrons, functioned. It would have been interesting to see it bring to life sporting events and the way games were played. To truly understand the ruptures and changes that would create modern boxing out of 18th-century pugilism, for example, is to understand how a bout was fought, how fighters responded to their experiences and the ways in which crowds, gamblers, the authorities and social fashion would shape and inform the nature of the sport they wished to see.

In Kelly’s book we can observe the primordial soup from which modern sport in Ireland would emerge. Kelly recounts the story of Tom Molyneux, a leading black pugilist of the early 18th century, who, despite some impressive victories, would die young, in August 1818, in Galway, having chosen the life of “the dandy, the boozer and the lothario” over that of the athlete.

The reality is that sportsmen of the period were largely shaped not by scientific ideas of what it meant to be an athlete but by the unstable and ever-changing world in which they lived. In this sense sport was a largely marginal activity.

The questions asked about the value and purpose of sport today are different from those asked during the 17th and 18th centuries. Then the very desirability of sport and its future in society were regularly questioned, and highlighting these complex issues is one of the strengths of this encyclopaedic book.