The American Alexander Hamilton you will have heard of – you may even have seen the musical by now. But an Irish Alexander Hamilton, of slightly later vintage, is much less well known, although he was an important enough figure in his time and achieved at least one extraordinary distinction.
Hamilton was a Kilkenny man, from Inistioge, who in the late 1800s acted as estate agent for the big house there, Woodstock. He was also a locally noted cricketer, as were many members of his extended family. Hence his most remarkable achievement, which I am not sure has ever been repeated by any GAA club, when leading a team composed entirely of the same surname, all his relatives.
I owe this nugget to Michael O’Dwyer, who was prompted to write after the fall of Kabul in August, because the Hamiltons also have an Afghan connection, to which we’ll return.
O’Dwyer is the author of The History of Cricket in County Kilkenny (2007), itself an extraordinary tale of how a county now synonymous with hurling was once, and more recently that you might think possible, besotted with another stick-and-ball game entirely. The thrust of O’Dwyer’s book is that a little over a century ago, cricket was by far the most popular game in Kilkenny, while Gaelic Games were the poor relation.
Although described by one pre-Famine commentator as “foreign hurling”, cricket had spread far beyond the county’s big houses to be played in every town and village, by labourers and peasantry alike. At its 1896 peak, there were 50 teams in Kilkenny, even though the GAA was well established.
By contrast, in the place that would one day dominate the game, hurling was in a decrepit state. In 1887, a reporter noted that a game in Kilkenny city drew no spectators, proving “what little hold the GAA has taken”.
Rivalling the attendance figures that day had been the quality of play. “The hurling of both teams was, we believe, the worst and most spiritless ever witnessed on an Irish hillside,” lamented the writer. “It would break the heart of a Moycarkey or Galway Gael to witness such a contemptible perversion of the national game.”
There was no lack of spirit in the local cricket scene, meanwhile, and the Hamiltons had more than most. A 1899 report in the Daily Irish Independent, a Parnellite paper, recalled their heyday with fondness: "The family were ready to meet all of Ireland. A hardy race of athletes, good sportsmen every one. One of the brightest of these laughter-loving lads was the boy who afterwards fell at Kabul, keeping back the hordes that clamoured outside the British Residency."
That was Lieut Walter Hamilton, a 23-year-old son of Alexander and a victim of what Kipling called the "Great Game": not cricket in this case, but the long-running 19th-century intrigue between the British empire and Russia for control of central Asia.
Hamilton had been one of the guards on duty in 1879 when the imperial headquarters at Kabul was overwhelmed and the guns seized. As the Irish Times reported:
“Again and again the heroic survivors rushed on the Afghans with undaunted bravery. Kelly went down; Jenkyns fell fighting desperately. The fearless Hamilton gave them another lead [as they] cut their way through the savage mass and captured the guns. A terrible battle raged around the captured ordnance. Hamilton fell dead across the gun carriage, and around his body his faithful men made their last stand.”
Hamilton won a Victoria Cross for his doomed heroics. Another posthumous tribute was a sculpture (pictured) that used to stand in Dublin’s RDS, depicting him in full battle cry, complete with a prostrate, dagger-wielding member of the enemy at his feet.
Popular with Victorian viewers, this must have been less so in 20th-century Ireland. In any case, during the year of the moving statues, 1985, it too moved mysteriously: to a war museum in Chelsea. Quoting Irish descendants of the family, who had not been consulted, this newspaper reported the sculpture had been “spirited away”.
Lieut Hamilton was the focus of renewed interest by then, having been a lead character in MM Kaye’s epic 1978 novel The Far Pavilions, which sold millions and became a TV miniseries.
In 2005, it also spawned a West End musical. But alas, this Hamilton story was not to enjoy the success of the other. It closed early after mixed reviews.
In what may have been an unfortunate 21st-century echo of the events that originally inspired it, ticket sales had also plummeted in the wake of the 7/7 terrorist attacks.