One of the great chroniclers of Irish life, the playwright John B Keane, was once asked how he wished to be remembered. Rather than pointing to his body of work and its impact on the literary landscape, his response looked to a specific split-second in his life when he was 23 years old. He answered he “only wanted to be remembered as the player who scored the winning point in the North Kerry intermediate football final against Duagh in 1951”. For Keane then, and for many other Irishmen and women, it is perhaps playing or watching sport that has defined much of their lives. Sport is a central part of Irish life. It is big business, a national obsession and, whether in the form of the GAA club or the team dressed in green in international competition, a force that binds socially diverse groups of people so that they become, albeit for the length of the match, a single, unified force.
Despite the social power of sport, and its seeming omnipresence, it is a subject that is strangely absent from the school or university curriculum in Ireland. Yes, children and students are encouraged to play sport, but rarely are they encouraged to consider in an academic or analytical fashion one of the most significant practices that has obsessed modern society since the mid-19th century. The work of Paul Rouse has been central in recent years in filling this lacuna. His newly published Sport and Ireland is the culmination of over two decades of work on the subject.
It is a landmark publication for a number of reasons. It is not a book of great games and famous players but rather a beautifully written book that offers social history at its best. It is the history of the island and its people through the lens of sport. If we accept that in Irish history sport has been the passion of the masses, then to understand the Irish is to explore those leisure-time hours that they have devoted to their games and pastimes. This book is more than simply a history of sport: it is a scintillating history of the nation.
The quality of Rouse's work is also evident in that the book is only the second national history of sport that Oxford University Press have published since its 1981 release of Richard Holt's magisterial Sport and the British.
The book charts the emergence of sport as a bodily practice from the 16th century, and then assesses how it was modernised in the 19th century around such major sports as cricket, football and athletics. In telling these stories, Rouse always has a keen eye on the wider context of how Ireland was changing and developing. The narrative constantly telescopes away from sport to take in political upheaval, religious identities, the development of class, the slow modernisation of the economy, processes of urbanisation and the emergence of commercialisation.
The second half of the book tackles a series of key themes from the 20th century and includes assessments of how the world of sport reflected gender politics, the emergent and transformative nationalism of the period and the years of war from 1914 to 1923. Rouse excels at teasing out the ways in which societal changes were reflected in and transformed the world of sport. His research, across a vast range of archival material and a dizzying array of national and regional newspapers, means he is able to explore large-scale historical trends through personal stories. This brings colour to the book and populates it with individuals, some familiar and many obscure, whose relationship with their games is contextualised against the background of an ever-changing country.
Many of the sports players and administrators Rouse quotes are aware of the power of sport and the wider place it has in society. He quotes Cáit Ní Dhonnchada, for example, a camogie player who wrote in 1911 that the game was important and whose sole object “under that of national emancipation, would be the raising of the sex from the slough of a false and foreign civilisation”. While Ní Dhonnchada was aware of the power of sport in advancing the cause of women, Rouse also teases out the complex relationship between sport and those political choices made by individuals in the 1914-18 period.
While many Irish sportsmen fought and died on the Western Front and at Gallipoli, others chose the path of radical nationalism. Seán Etchingham of the Wexford GAA was one such man, and he proposed in November 1914 that the GAA establish rifle clubs so that members could defend Ireland. A speaker at the meeting expressed concern that the weather might not be suitable for rifle training. Etchingham was infuriated and responded: “Do you want special weather for war? This opportunity – the like of which you have not had for a century – may pass; an opportunity that may not occur again.” Ultimately, it was men like Etchingham that won the day, and it was the men of the GAA who came to dominate the sporting landscape after the years of war and revolution.
The final section of the book explores the post-revolutionary decades and the complexities of partition and how the process of dividing the island challenged the sporting world. There is also an exploration of Irish sport in recent decades as it faced the years of boom and bust, and also an analysis of the relationship between sport and the State.
Rouse excels when dealing with recent international successes by Irish teams and athletes, and, alongside his commentary on the links between the GAA and its communities, he makes a strong case for the central role of sport in creating and sustaining collective identities in the modern world. Such identities, shared as they are through sport, are essential in a small country existing in a globalised world.
At a time when there are few social forces that bind people together, sport works as an intermediary between individuals who otherwise have little in common. Rouse captures the historical and contemporary value of sport brilliantly throughout the book. He also remembers that playing and watching, despite whatever importance we give to sport, should be fun and something to love.
For supporters it isn’t always joyful as their team can’t always win, and perhaps this is why sport is so captivating. As Dermot Bolger said of being a fan after the recent Irish soccer victory over Germany: “It isn’t about happiness, following Ireland in football – it’s an affliction, like premature baldness. You can’t do anything about it, it’s just always in your life.”
Mike Cronin is the academic director of Boston College in Ireland and the author of Sport: A Very Short Introduction(OUP)