Reading History: Tom Hunt’s Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland

Moving on from my last ‘reading history’ post, I’ve decided to speed forward a little in time to a book I read in my first year as an undergraduate in University College, Cork. This book has had a profound influence not alone on me, but on my field of specialist research since it was first published in 2007.

The book, Tom Hunt’s Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland: The Case of Westmeath, first came to my attention when I was in secondary school and several months before it was ever published. In my final year in secondary school, I was part of the first cycle of Leaving Certificate students nationally who, as part of their requirements for Leaving Certificate history had to submit a 1,500 word research project by March of their final year. I decided that I would do my research on the foundation of the Waterford and District Football League in 1924. When asking a teacher who was not, but previously had been, my history teacher about potential and possible sources, he suggested I keep an eye out for this book that was coming out. Memory has a way of playing funny tricks on you, because I could have sworn that I bought this book while still in secondary school.

Yet, on the inside of my hardback copy of Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland, as I look at it now, it’s there, plain as day, ‘First publised in 2007’. At that point I had already begun studying Arts in University College, Cork having moved up in September 2006. Nonetheless, I can clearly remember buying the book, and what’s more, finding it impenetrable. Previous to this, the only books I owned  and read at that point which had substantial footnotes were the Penguin Classics edition of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, Tim Pat Coogan’s Michael Collins, and John M. Hearne and Rory T. Cornish’s Thomas Franics Meagher: The Making of an Irish American. The sheer density was overwhelming then, while now I marvel at the work that must have gone into making it so.

I can’t be sure how much of the work stuck on initial reading, but having gone back it to dozens of times since, used it an initial framework for my own PhD research, and quoted from it countless times in articles and in my own forthcoming book, I can safely say that few works have burrowed as deeply into my historical understanding as this one. It certainly made me realise that the history of Irish sport could be about a good deal more than just Gaelic games, and that in many ways, it needed to be about more than that alone.

It is worth reiterating the world into which this book was born in terms of the history of Irish sport from an academic standpoint. Up to 2007, the number of substantial titles on Irish sports history written by academics was miniscule. The work of Mike Cronin, Paul Rouse, Alan Bairner, John Sugden, Bill Mandle, Neal Garnham and a few others notwithstanding, such a monograph as that which Hunt produced – a detailed, in-depth history of the emergence of sport in an Irish county in the Victorian era was scarcely imaginable. Less so one so watertight in its scholarship, that asked about the potential to and provided a roadmap for doing the same kind of quantitative research in practically every county in Ireland, a point echoed in Paul Rouse’s review of the book from July 2008.

Ireland’s cricketer’s have once more being making waves at the current ICC Cricket World Cup following their outstanding victory in chasing a score of over 300 against the West Indies. In a recent article in the Irish Independent, Dion Fanning argued that the plan to reduce the numbers at the next cricket world cup to ten, a decision which would affect associate members like Ireland, was a mistake. In building his argument to give greater recognition to the quality of Irish cricket contemporaneously, Fanning quoted from Hunt’s book extensively on the history of cricket in Westmeath. This attests to the power of this book as a history book to inform not just academics, but contemporary Irish sporting life.

One of the first academic history books I spent my own money on, not for a course, or any good reason as such, other than recognising it in the bookshop, when finally, months after I first heard of it, it was published, Tom Hunt’s Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland: The Case of Westmeath remains a foundational book in my development as a sports historian.


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