Exercise in Rinkmanship – Frank McNally on contrasting figures who did the skates some service

An Irishman’s Diary

An observant reader of yesterday's column has wondered at the contrast between the notoriously dour Earl of Clanrickarde (1832-1916), as described, and the fact that in the accompanying caricature he is carrying a pair of ice-skates.

And right enough, it does seem odd now that this Cromwell of the Land War – a joyless, anti-social miser in his later years – should also have been in the habit of doing something so frivolous as skating, even if that was a popular recreation in the London of his time.

But it seemed odd even then, apparently. Here is the Washington Post, in a 1906 profile of Clanrickarde, marvelling at the contradiction: “His appearance is as little calculated to arouse good will as his manner and reputation, and his thin lips, scanty gray whiskers, thin, aquiline nose, parchment-like cheeks and peculiarly-arranged hair, are quite in keeping with his harsh, hard voice, and his appalling egotistical utterances.

“He has but one fad, namely skating, a pastime in which he still excels in spite of his 73 years. He presents an extraordinary appearance on the ice […] His costume [comprises] three or four Cardigan knitted jackets of undetermined hue and great age, over which is worn a remarkable short tweed jacket, of extraordinarily loose cut, to give room to the layers of knitted waistcoats underneath.


“His hat is a genuine old-fashioned ‘stovepipe’ of ancient vintage, perfectly flat to the brim, and perfectly straight up and down for the crown. He speaks to no one on the ice, being wholly absorbed by the work of cutting figures and letters with his skates.”

I found that and other quotations on a US skating blog which includes a short history of the sport in Victorian/Edwardian Ireland. It's a short history, I suppose, because the history was short. But it mentions another London-based Irishman of the period, WB Yeats.

It was while exiled on the Thames that Yeats wrote The Lake Isle of Innisfree, about his wish to return to Sligo and building an island cabin on Lough Gill. There were times then, however, when he could have skated out to his new home.

In the freezing winter of 1881/2, as later recalled by Lily Yeats, he and his sisters had practised there: "For the first few days we just stayed on the river near the shore and floundered about and fell […] I remember Willy's long legs whirling in the air and seeing that he wore red socks. But in a few days we could all skate and away we went, up the river, through the narrows, and out into the lovely lake with its wooded islands."

The US blog surmises that ice-skating never took off in Ireland because the weather was too mild here, even by comparison with London.  Indeed, in the same year the Yeatses were on Lough Gill, a young man drowned in Lough Derg, while trying to rescue a female friend who had fallen through thin ice.

That was at Portumna, headquarters of Clanrickarde’s vast estate. The thin ice may have been an omen for his own relationship with Ireland. But whatever about London waterways, there was no danger of him falling into Lough Derg, then or later. As the Washington Post wrote in the 1906 profile: “He would not dare to show his face in Ireland, for fear of being murdered by those whom he has driven to desperation . . .”

But to return to skating, and the subject of serious historical figures doing things that now seem frivolous, the form of the sport that did take off for a time in early 20th-century Ireland was the roller variety. And I have mentioned here previously (An Irishman's Diary, April 15th, 2015) the extraordinary fact that Joseph Mary Plunkett, of Easter Rising fame, was before that for a time a champion skater, at home and abroad.

More specifically, I suggested then that circa 1911, he won a roller-skating competition in Algiers, where he had been travelling for health reasons, although details were scant.

But while trawling the skate archives now, I have also just found a piece in the Clonmel Nationalist from 1956, on the Rising's 40th anniversary, that also mentioned a trip Plunkett once made to Egypt and said this: "While in Egypt he was offered a post as teacher at the largest skating rink in Cairo. He had just won a skating exhibition there."

Maybe the Nationalist was conflating the Algerian and Egyptian experiences. Either that, or one of the architects of the Rising, a founding father of the Irish Republic, had only a few years earlier blazed a trail of glory across the roller-skating rinks of North Africa.