Where we sported and played brought back to life

BOOK REVIEW: N OEL O’REILLY on a new record of our sporting playgrounds that not only informs and educates, but is hugely entertaining…

BOOK REVIEW: N OEL O'REILLYon a new record of our sporting playgrounds that not only informs and educates, but is hugely entertaining to boot

THERE’S LITTLE doubt that Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney, as the Archbishop of Cashel observed upon its official opening in 1936, can claim to be the “finest playground in Ireland”.

It may have many rivals for the title around the country, but when the sun beats down in mid-summer on the assembled masses of Kerry and Cork on Munster final day, with the Macgillycuddy Reeks sneaking a look in over the southern stand, it’s easy to conclude that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.

Yet if today’s players were asked to tog out in the rickety lean-to that the Munster greats of yesteryear were obliged to use (pictured right), they might form a different view of just how special the place is, irrespective of how impressive the view beyond the grimy window.

It’s undeniable that our sporting arenas, be they large or small, have changed utterly, moving with the times, embracing change, constantly updating. They’ve had to. The evidence is all around us, from the local club ground with the sepia-tinged memories hanging on the walls to the vast national cathedrals at Croke Park and Lansdowne Road.

But the sites that these spaces occupy, while evolving, have kept their essence, the qualities that made them special in the first place. And it is these sites, and the role they have come to play in Irish society, that Mike Cronin and Roisín Higgins examine in their new book, Places We Play – Ireland's Sporting Heritage.

Fitzgerald Stadium moved on, of course, the most recent redevelopment in 2009 incorporating yet more new dressing-rooms. They even found room in the €5 million budget to improve facilities for the gentlemen of the press. Supporters, no matter how great the emotional attachment to a particular ground, shed few tears when crumbling edifices are torn down and replaced with shiny new structures.

Cronin and Higgins are not so much concerned about the bricks and mortar. This is a book about the spaces themselves and how they have woven themselves into the fabric of Irish life.

Places We Playmight be considered the third instalment of a trilogy that has been a rare treat for Irish sports fans, following on from The GAA – A People's Historyand the more recent The GAA – County By County.

Cronin, academic director at Boston College-Ireland, wrote the first two in collaboration with Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse and has now widened his scope with Higgins, another colleague from the Dublin-based College, to bring us a work that not only looks at where we play our sport, but the journeys we have taken to get there.

At its core this is an academic endeavour, and it makes no apologies for being so, a sort of public service broadcasting transmuted onto the page. Cronin’s skill is in weaving all his themes together in a way that not only informs and educates, but is hugely entertaining to boot.

From the time when sports began to organise in this country, heavily influenced by the presence of the British Army (cricket was the most widely played team sport for many years, regardless of class or creed), to the expansion of a rail network that was inextricably linked with our sporting venues, the role of sport in our heritage is charted in great detail.

From Ireland’s only real tennis venue, sitting unused and unloved on Earlsfort Terrace, to the country lanes of Cork and Armagh where road bowling still thrives, this is a book that takes us around the highways and byways of Irish sport. The likes of Croke Park, Lansdowne Road, Windsor Park and the Curragh all feature prominently but the real treats are to be found further down the sporting food chain.

Such as the magical switch in the bar at Woodbrook Golf Club in Bray, that once pressed ensured the next passing locomotive would grind to a halt alongside the 18th fairway and afford the departing fourball a lift back into the city. The practice, so uniquely Irish, continued right up until 1956.

Or the tale of the “Wicked Earl” of Belvedere Hunting Lodge in Westmeath, Robert Rochfort, who kept his wife under lock and key for 31 years and was responsible for the construction of the most spectacular folly in the country, a gothic construction that became known as the Jealous Wall, which obscured the view of his brother’s neighbouring, and more impressive, mansion.

The book recalls the Gordon Bennett race of 1903, long since consigned to history with only the odd road sign now marking its route, but perhaps the biggest sporting event of its kind in the world at the time.

When Bennett, the playboy promoter and editor of the New York Herald, chose Kildare, Laois and Carlow to stage the world's first closed-circuit motor race it's safe to assume the surprise with which his name would become associated resounded around the three Leinster counties.

Ireland, at the time, was home to somewhere in the region of 300 automobiles. The race, a 372-mile jaunt around the Pale, was to be the highlight of a two-week festival that attracted some 1,500 motorists from across Europe and beyond to these shores. Such was its scale, there were genuine fears that the country’s petrol stocks would be unable to cope.

Motor racing would grow and thrive in the country and while the 100,000 crowds that regularly attended Irish International Motor Races in the Phoenix Park may be a thing of the past the North West 200, despite a distinct lack of coverage in the mainstream media in the south, remains the country’s largest sporting event.

Spawned from sprints on the beach at Magilligan Strand, up to 150,000 people now line the route along the public roads of Derry and Antrim each summer.

Places We Playalso tells of sites we have loved and lost, such as the playing field in Donnybrook that played host to the first All-Ireland football final, a low-scoring affair won by Limerick's Commercials, which now lies buried beneath a fleet of 46As at the bus depot.

On a grander scale Baldoyle racecourse, the most popular and state-of-the-art course of its day, dominated the scene in the early 20th century, but gradually fell out of favour and into disrepair until racing was discontinued in the early 1970s.

The speculators moved in and housing estates now occupy much of the site, although work has stalled in recent years.

“Beyond the new houses lies a wasteland of open ground,” note the authors, “as well as a few walls of the racecourse that have become a haven for graffiti artists.

“In none of the plans for the area, nor in the naming of the housing estates, has there been any attempt to commemorate what was once the lifeblood of Baldoyle.”

Places We Playby Mike Cronin and Roisín Higgins is published by Collins Press and priced €24.99.