Sticky wicket: Frank McNally on Ireland’s love-hate relationship with cricket

Perhaps somewhere, in an Irish political heaven, the Derry man is discussing this with another great former leader of nationalism

As a former “handy spin bowler” from Derry’s Waterside Cricket Club, John Hume would have enjoyed Ireland’s thrilling win over England on Tuesday. Not just for the achievement itself but also for the symbolism, with the day’s key partnership formed by a Belfast man and a Dubliner, who both scored centuries to set up a victory sealed with the last ball but one.

Players from both sides wore black armbands in honour of the great departed. But had he been still around, he might – like some of us – have been tempted to remind the nearest available English supporter that their highest score, the game’s only other century, was also by an Irishman: Eoin Morgan.

In any case, the reminder in his obituaries that Hume played cricket, followed so closely by such a dramatic win, may be another step in the sport’s long rehabilitation on this island, where even now it is still seen in certain places as a preserve of the lesser-spotted “West-Brit”.

Perhaps somewhere, in an Irish political heaven, the Derry man is discussing this and related points with another great former leader of nationalism; although – since the case for Éamon de Valera’s canonisation is still not nearly as advanced as Hume’s – their conversation may have to happen in one of the transit lounges.


Cricket’s uneasy position in post-independence Ireland is illustrated by a story about the same Dev from the 1940s. The then British ambassador was in the habit of organising cricket matches in Trinity College, a convenient distance from Leinster House. So one day, the taoiseach took a stroll down during a game for an informal chat with the envoy.

“As they circled the boundary,” writes journalist and cricket historian Ger Siggins, “Dev picked up a bat and played some air shots, recalling his youth at Blackrock College.” A photographer from the Irish Press, meanwhile, readied his camera, “but as soon as Dev saw him, he hastily dropped the bat”. As Siggins adds, there were “no votes in cricket for a Fianna Fáil taoiseach in the 1940s.”

Like Hume, De Valera knew a bit about spin – in every sense of the term. By the 1940s, it suited sporting nationalists to see cricket as a foreign game that no true Gael would – or perhaps even could – play. Nobody cared to challenge the verdict of Leopold Bloom when, also in the neighbourhood of Trinity but 40 years earlier, he dismissed Irish cricketers with a glib: “They can’t play it here. Duck for six wickets.”

Whatever their ability, even some of the most militant founding fathers of independence had a love for the game that didn’t fit with the later, GAA-dominated narrative of Irish sport. One of the better Irish players of Bloom’s time – a man called Charlie Burgess then – personified the subsequent reinvention.

A good all-round sportsman, he led both the batting and bowling for his school team, Belvedere College, and in 1891 took four wickets for the Workingmen’s Club against the toffs of Trinity. This tended to be forgotten a generation later after, as Cathal Brugha, he died in a hail of Civil War bullets.

Thomas MacDonagh was another enthusiast. He spent part of the actual Easter Rising updating his cricketing skills. In Jacob’s factory, which didn’t see much fighting, he passed some time by getting a captured British officer to demonstrate the “Googly” – a recent innovation in spin – using a tennis ball and a bat improvised from floorboards.

Even Pádraig Pearse was enough of a sports ecumenist that, in St Enda’s school, where children dressed in kilts while recreating the glories of ancient Irish legend, he also gave them a free vote every summer on whether they wanted to play hurling or cricket.

Back in John Hume’s Ireland, this week, the international at Southampton was a mere one-day game. The sport’s classic format is the test match, usually over a maximum of five days. It took until 2017 for Ireland to finally earn test status alongside the game’s big powers and the first match against England was marked not by any expectation that they could win but by the hope that they could at least drag it out a few days before losing.

I wonder if that idea wasn’t also in the thoughts of some of the cricketers, good and bad, who fought in 1916. They hardly expected to win either, but the crucial thing was to hang on long enough to make the Monday morning declaration of a Republic respectable. As it happened, they lasted the full five days. Then, in a term MacDonagh must have known, they “carried their bats”.