A Forgotten Occupation: Ireland’s Billiard Markers

Last weekend (1st and 2nd March) I attended a conference as part of UCC’s Studies in the Irish Revolution series on the 1913 Dublin strike and lock-out. This post is inspired by the work I heard over the weekend.
As times change, so too do the jobs that are in demand for people to work in and, as times have changed so too has the expectations around children working. Until relatively recently in Ireland, i.e. well up to and including the 1960s it was quite normal for children to work and have their own spending power. Legislative change and increased access to continuing education have changed but a century and more ago, it was quite normal for children to have a full-time job in their early teens, indeed in many households it was an economic necessity. Among the jobs that young people could do then is a job that no longer exists. That of the billiard marker.

Billiards was an extremely popular game in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Ireland and into the early part of the twentieth. The game, played in dedicated halls, in pubs, hotels, or just as often in the club houses of other sporting or associational organisations, required someone to keep score of the match and to keep the drinks fresh. It was an ideal job for, especially, young teenage boys. A look at the online census returns reveals some interesting results. For instance, in the 1901 census there were 197 people employed in the country as a Billiard Marker, and  52 of those 197 are between 13-18 (26.4%), while 104 of them are range in age between 13-21 (52.8%), making up as it does the bulk of those working at the job. Perhaps unsurprisingly the vast bulk of those working in the job can be found in two of Ireland’s most urban and industrial cities with 37 of the 163 are employed in Antrim, and largely Belfast (21.5%) and 30% of the total working at this job to be found in Dublin.
The numbers employed in this way drop a decade later. From the  1911 census  there was a total of 179 employed this way.The ages ranged widely again from 14 all the way up to 75. However, as had been the case a decade earlier, the bulk of those employed this way were between the ages of 14 and 21. According to the census returns online, there were 49 billiard markers working aged between 14-18 making up 27.3%. Extending the age group again, we can see that 77 of 179 were aged between 14-21, 43% of the whole, worked at this job. Again a huge proportion of those who found employment in this way came from counties with bigger urban areas like Antrim (20.1%),  Dublin (34%), and  Cork (8.3%).
Freeman's Journal, 7 April 1900
Freeman’s Journal, 7 April 1900
At the start of the last century in 1901, the youngest person recorded to work at this job was Thomas Kirkpatrick of Banbridge, Co. Down the son of James Kirkpatrick, a 44 year old bleacher who is a father of six children while the eldest working as a billliard marker was 64 year old Peter McGahen of St. Anne’s Ward, Belfast – a widower father to two daughters and a son – his daughters worked respectively as a servant and a paper bag maker, while his son was a boot and shoe maker. By 1911 the youngest employed as a billiard marker  is 14 year old Denis Callaghan of Mallow, Co. Cork the son of a painter, while the eldest is John McGaghey, a 75 year old who could not read. Billiard Markers, as well as being a regular feature of the classified pages of Irish newspapers before the First World War, were also occasionally to be found in the court pages; sometimes, as above, their occupation having little enough to do with their criminality, but on others, as below, their occupation being central:
Irish Independent,  1 September 1905
Irish Independent, 1 September 1905
Irish Times, 16 January 1904
Irish Times, 16 January 1904

On this occasion the judge felt the case a difficult one and decided to defer judgement. Another court case involving a billiard marker in 1904 was part of what the Irish Times was calling the ‘Grand Canal Mystery’, where a woman’s body had been found in the canal and her husband, a billiard marker, was the prime suspect. Bridget Devereux’s body had been found by a policeman on duty in the Great Brunswick Street area and it transpired according to some witnesses that she had had a row with her husband Edward Devereux, outside of the Workingmen’s Club on Wellington Quay in Dublin. For two weeks the Irish Times covered the story, before the judge decided the case required to be tried by Grand Jury because it was difficult to place the accused anywhere near where the body had been found, but when this was challenged the case was dismissed. Other examples of criminal behaviour involving billiard markers – in petty robbery and assault are below:

Weekly Irish Times, 28 November 1908
Weekly Irish Times, 28 November 1908

Weekly Irish Times, 22 June 1912
Weekly Irish Times, 22 June 1912

Such instances of criminality indicate a lot to us about the social position of those young men who took up the job of billiard marker, but of course can’t be the whole story of the billiard markers of Ireland. Census data can be illuminating, but the occupational divisions of reports can hide away specific jobs undertaken, as in this case, by dozens; thankfully through wonderful resources like our online Census Archives of 1901 and 1911 and digital newspaper archives, we can find the people who worked at these jobs, and bring their stories to life; remembering a forgotten occupation.

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