Book Launch: A Social and Cultural History of Sport in Ireland


Next week, just before Ireland prepare to take on Italy in their final group game of Euro 2016, a new book will be launched in Boston College on St. Stephen’s Green. The book, A Social and Cultural History of Sport in Ireland, edited by Richard McElligott and David Hassan brings together some of the most up-to-date research on the history Irish sport from a social and cultural perspective. I am just one of the many contributors to this excellent volume. So, if you want to make a whole evening of that final group game, why not go along if you find yourself in Dublin!


Early forms of football in Munster: 1865-1885

Football – today, it means many things to many people. It is played with oval balls and round balls. Fifteen-a-side, eleven-a-side, five-a-side and six-a-side. Under floodlights. On Friday night, or Saturday or Sunday mornings, afternoons and evenings. It is a summer game. It is a winter game. It can mean rugby union, rugby league; it can mean soccer, Gaelic football, Australian rules, American football, Canadian football and other points in between.

Much ink has been spilled on the emergence of various forms of football in the late middle and late nineteenth century in Britain. There were folk games with long histories, going back into the mists of time there was versions of football played in Britain’s elite public schools. There was great local variation in sizes of teams, lengths of time that games lasted, what constituted a score and so on. When you see football notices in the newspapers around Munster in the period 1860-1880, things were no different. In the period before the GAA, the IRFU or the IFA, football was a highly localised affair with many variations. Historians, myself included, have traced the move from these various disparate forms of football into their respective codes. The work of Conor Curran, Liam O’Callaghan, Neal Garnham and Paul Rouse, among others, has done much to aid our understanding this process in the Irish context. In this blog post though I wanted to take a look at some of the early reports of various football matches – where rules were unspecified and highly localised – to give you a flavour of what football in Munster was like before the rules were firmly established.

The highly localised nature of the game, and the fact that various kinds of football were all reported under the heading “Football” make it difficult to say just what these games might have looked like. Very often though they were two teams of anywhere between ten and thirty men playing from one end of a field to another with the aim of scoring a goal – getting the ball across the goal-line of the other team. The games were often messy affairs, with no clear winner emerging frequently.

There is evidence that football matches were used a means to cover up Fenian meetings as well in the 1860s. Take for instance these descriptions from the Cork Examiner:

Cork Examiner, August 21 1865.
From a case examining Fenians in Midleton. Cork Examiner, May 11 1866.

As well being used as a cover for Fenian organisation and drill, football was sometimes a cover, or an excuse for faction fighting, as this report of the police attending a game of football in Coachford suggests:

Cork Examiner, March 26 1877.

As the 1860s gave way to the 1870s and rules were set for rugby and the association code, rugby began to make an appearance more and more in Cork and Limerick, and by the early 1880s in Waterford as well. In Cork, the Cork Football Club were the main driving force behind the emergence of the rugby code in the 1870s. They make their first appearance in the pages of the Cork Examiner in late 1868.

Cork Examiner, November 14 1868.

Rugby would take a firm hold in Cork in this period, with teams including the Cork FC, Knickerbockers, Montenotte, Queen’s College Cork and Rushbrooke  all making regular appeareances. Indeed, a first inter-provincial game between Munster and Leinster would be played in late 1878.

Football in Waterford was similar to Cork in that there was local variation in the 1870s. Consider this game of football which took place in 1876 in Riverstown in Tramore, which was twenty-a-side and contested between married and umarried men:

Riverstown football
Munster Express, January 29 1876.

In 1878, this game which took place near Kill, was like the game in Coachford, put on the radar of the authorities:

Munster Express, March 1878.

Previously, I had put the earliest reported game of rugby in Waterford as one between the Waterford Boat Club and the Waterford Bicycle Club in 1884. However, with the expansion of the Munster Express archive online at the Irish Newspapers Archive, I have been able to find new evidence of rugby being played in Waterford, centred chiefly around a city team and a team from Tramore in 1882.


Munster Express, January 7 1882.

The Waterford team also took on the  Carrick Athletic, Cricket and Football Club. This club had been established in August of 1879 and had among its members future co-founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Maurice Davin. This club organised their first athletics day in November, which saw an estimated 3,600 people turn out to watch, according to the Munster Express. Among the prizes for the various races were a claret jug, a butter dish, silver lockets, a champagne knife, a breakfast cruet, a silver pin, an asparagus helper and a silver ring. When they played the Waterford FC, it was noted that while it was the Carrick men’s first time having a go at the rugby game, the Waterford players, despite their “juvenile appearance” next to the Carrick men, when it came to rugby they “had few superiors in the south of Ireland.”


Munster Express, March 25 1882.

By the middle of the 1880s, while most games are still being reported under the general heading of “Football”, the distinctions between the games being played is a good deal clearer, as this notice of the Carrick-On-Suir Athletic, Cricket & Football Club annual sports day shows in 1883, even before the founding of the GAA. There is a distinction between the “Irish game” and the “rugby union” code.

Munster Express, March 17 1883.

And then we have this game in between Callan and Ballyneal which explicitly states itself as being held under GAA rules in 1885.

Munster Express, May 9 1885.

And so it was that in Munster by the middle of the 1880s, a much clearer picture of the various codes of football that would be played emerged. Within twenty years football in this part of Ireland, as in the rest of the country, had changed from an amorphous, highly localised affair into various organised sports with distinct rules and organisations to help them develop.


The GAA, The Premier League and Masculinity

Yesterday afternoon much of Ireland was rightly enraptured by what sounded like one of the greatest All-Ireland hurling semi-finals in a long time between Galway and Tipperary. Increasingly, as one follows the action live on television, you might cast a cursory glance at your twitter feed to see live reaction to the game. I like doing this, especially to get a sense of a game I’m not watching. As many watched the hurling, I followed it on twitter, while watching the Manchester City and Chelsea game on a live stream here in my apartment in Prague.

One of the tweets which came to my attention during the matches was this one:

When it was flagged I briefly mentioned that this sort of attitude had been around pretty much since the start of the GAA, which was only partially true. As an attitude its been especially strong since the formation of the Irish Free State, and has been increasingly prevalent in what we now must shame-facedly call “the Premier League era”. The great irony here being of course that the Irish love affair with English football has only deepened in this period, even if we have apparently contracted something of the distaste for the way “foreigners” are ruining the game with their diving.

There are several masculine ideals competing here at once – on the one hand an appreciation for what we might designate home nations masculinity of hard tackling “proper” football best expressed in the exultation of the classic hard-man centre-back and centre-midfielder of the 1980s and early 1990s. On the other, the distinctly Irish masculinity set in opposition to English softness and the apparent lack of physicality in English football (England here welcoming in its effete foreign national footballing migrants for the purposes of Irish exceptionalism).

While it might seem a touch unfair to spend time unpacking a tweet – something which by its purposefully ephemeral nature should not be taken overseriously, nonetheless the attitude expressed in this particular tweet is indicative of a general viewpoint held by some that has long roots in the anti-foreign games mentality of the GAA of old that only Gaelic games, and especially hurling, are truly representative of a hypermasculine ideal of Irishness that is exclusive in its very formation. This tweet was a 21st century version of what one newspaper columnist who wrote in the 1920s felt when writing:

‘Rugby and Soccer’, says another ‘are played all over the world.’ Even were this so, were they played in also in a score of the nearest planets it would be no reason for their encouragement here. But they are not. Outside ‘Mother England’ these games are cultivated only where the Colonial mind prevails, and elsewhere by little coteries of Anglo-maniacs only . . . The only consistent side the advocates of secession show is their abject devotion to the aim of Anglicisation.

The length of space may be different, but the ideas are much the same – whether it’s “dying” for your county, or escaping a “colonial” mindset, it seems in this case that past and present are not such foreign countries after all.

Bloody Sunday: November 21 1920 – Representation and Legacy

As we wend our way through the next decade of commemorations great and small, sometimes with a sure footing, sometimes without, Fintan O’Toole has written that ‘the decade that is being marked is not only about violence and conflict but it is undeniably steeped in bloodshed, animosity and disastrous division. History should not wallow in these swamps, but it cannot stay clear of them either.’[1] Violence and sport are age-old bed-fellows – whether on the pitch or in the stands – violence, and the threat of it, forms part of the frisson of sporting endeavour. However, some forms of violence enacted in sporting contexts are utterly unexpected. Violence doesn’t tend to form as strong a part of Irish people’s conception of their sporting history as it does say in England, where violence at football in particular has been absorbed into its narrative particularly in the last forty years. Largely this is because the same phenomenon, hooliganism, hasn’t received quite as much attention in an Irish context – except by a sensationalist press – and because it happened on a much smaller scale. There is an exception to this: one violent act does loom large in Ireland’s sporting history.


One of the stand-out sequences in Neil Jordan’s biopic Michael Collins are those depicting the events of November 21 1920, more commonly known as Bloody Sunday. One of the most arresting aspects of Jordan’s portrayal is the Gaelic football match between Tipperary and Dublin in Croke Park. As with much of the film, Jordan took some liberties in portraying this retaliatory event, though having read some contemporary reports, there seems little need since the reality strikes me as being sufficiently shocking. Two of Jordan’s key changes, partially for the purposes of narrative drive but also for visual impact, was firstly to have the shooting done by Auxiliary Forces rather than the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), and secondly to have an armoured tank come on the pitch to do the shooting, but this did not happen, rather the tank was outside the ground firing into the air. Sean Crosson, discussing the scene in an article on representations of the GAA on film says this scene was one of the most controversial on the films release in Ireland, in November 1996. According to Crosson ‘Jordan has defended his use of armoured cars as he wanted this “scene to last more than 30 seconds”‘.[2]

“A Thrilling Game Expected!”: A Challenge Match

Due to the disruptions to normal life caused by the war of independence, there were serious knock-on effects for sport too. Matches were less frequent and competition difficult to compete. It was in this context that a challenge match was arranged between Tipperary and Dublin to be played in November 1920. An ad in the Irish Independent the day beforehand let us know a thrilling game was expected between the challengers and the Leinster champions.[3] Somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 people turned out to witness the game. What few of the spectators would have known was that morning, some 14 British intelligence officers were shot around various parts of Dublin (according to Ferriter several were not in fact intelligence agents at all and one was a cousin of Michael Davitt).[4] FSL Lyons wrote that ‘this multiple shooting spread a wave of horror through both England and Ireland’ but, he continues on ‘the horror was redoubled by the revenge of the Black and Tans’, where in Lyons’ words they ‘fired indiscriminately on the players and the crowd.’[5] Not long into the match, shots rang out as according to some armoured vehicles were parked at each corner of the ground. Amid the confusion, 13 civilians – some of them children – were killed and one player, Tipperary captain that day Michael Hogan, was shot in the mouth as he scrambled to duck from the firing.  Mike Cronin, Paul Rouse and Mark Duncan’s The GAA: A People’s History wrote of it that ‘of all the bloody days of the War of Independence, this was the bloodiest of them all – at least in terms of its impact on the public psyche.’[6]

Press Reporting

In the days and even weeks following this event, the newspapers were full of reports of the events as more and more of what happened slowly came to light. The thrilling match that had been advertised turned out to be something rather different. Rather than a tale of sporting exploits, the headline in the Irish Independent that Monday read starkly:

Irish Independent, Monday 22 November 1920
Irish Independent, Monday 22 November 1920

The newspaper reported ‘terrifying scenes’ when the RIC, military and auxiliaries made their appearance. They reported too that there were ‘most painful scenes’ as the dead and injured were picked up and brought to hospital for treatment.[7] The Freeman’s Journal wrote about a priest who ministered the last rites to the injured and dying.[8] The same issue of the newspaper carried an official statement from Dublin Castle to say that the RIC and other personnel had gone to the grounds on information of finding some particular suspects.[9] The Freeman’s Journal a few days later reported that Sir Hamar Greenwood in response to a query in Parliament about the matter that ‘the firing by the Crown forces was fully justified in the exceptional circumstances of the situation Sunday last.’[10] The Irish Times reports were the only ones to acknowledge that there was some ambiguity to the exact sequence of events, and conflicting reports. Given the papers political stance, the front page next Saturday led with the murder of the famous ‘Cairo Gang’ but their front page also had this as a follow on from that story:

Irish Times, Saturday 27 November 1920
Irish Times, Saturday 27 November 1920


In the aftermath of the event, Hogan was buried in his Tipperary jersey, his coffin draped in the Irish tricolour. In their people’s history of the GAA Mike Cronin, Paul Rouse and Mark Duncan write of Bloody Sunday 1920 being ‘for the GAA… an entirely new aspect to the place of Croke Park in the story of the Association. This was now more than merely a playing field: it was martyred ground’. It was, they write ‘the place where people had been shot because they attended a Gaelic football match.’[11] Echoing this, John Sugden and Alan Bairner described the event as one ‘etched in the consciousness of Gaels’ and argue that ‘events like [Bloody Sunday] rapidly accelerated the alienation felt between the authorities and the Irish people’, thus ‘undermining the basis for continued British rule in Ireland.’[12]

The  naming of a stand after the Tipperary player who died, Michael Hogan, four years later attests to this – it is indeed hard to sit in a seat in the Hogan Stand and not, even briefly, cast your mind back to the event and so to the surrounding events. This stand was built in time for the 1924 Aonach Tailteann, a project for promoting the newly independent state to the world via the medium of sport.[13] Brian Hanley informs us the events of Bloody Sunday were being used in the mid-1960s in an United Irishman newspaper article on the ban on foreign games where the journalist insisted that on that day in 1920 the Black and Tans “knew where to find the Fíor Gael” and that was at Croke Park and not at Lansdowne Road or Dalymount.[14]

A ticket from the Bloody Sunday match, recently sold at auction. Image Source:
A ticket from the Bloody Sunday match, recently sold at auction. Image Source:

Former President of the GAA Peter Quinn (1991-1994), reflected that when the GAA was during his tenure considering the redevelopment or building of a new state-of-the-art stadium that the management committee decided that ‘tradition, history, the symbolism of Hill 16, the memory of Bloody Sunday and a myriad of other factors’ dictated against a new ground and instead the redevelopment of Croke Park as it then existed.[15] According to an Irish Examiner report, a ticket from that match (pictured above) was sold at auction in Co. Clare in 2012 for over €5,000. The same article notes that another ticket from the match had a few years previously, in 2007, sold for around the €7,500 mark. The Irish Examiner article places this March 2007 sale in the context of the opening of Croke Park to foreign games.[16] The event was a central part of the Queen’s visit to Croke Park as part of her visit to Ireland in the summer of 2011, where according to a report on then President of the GAA, Christy Cooney, while making reference to the tragic events of Bloody Sunday 1920 said that

We also know that in our shared history there have been many tragic events which have inflicted hurt on us all.

While acknowledging the significance of the past and honouring all those that have lost their lives, including those that died in this place, the Gaelic Athletic Association has consistently supported and helped advance the peace process in Northern Ireland.

This use of the event stands in stark contrast to that which Brian Hanley noted in the 1960s in the pages of the United Irishman. This particular articulation of the event, as being part of a shared history, is in keeping with the more conciliatory role the GAA has been seen to play since the 1990s, and noted by both Bairner and Sugden in their work on sport and sectarianism in Ireland. Of all the legacies, tributes, and modes of commemoration, one stands out most. The most poignant tribute made to Hogan was the one when Tipperary would play Dublin for the title of 1920 All-Ireland champions in 1922, and upon winning, the Tipperary players gathered at the spot where Hogan was shot to hear the music struck up by the CJ Kickham band.[17]

[1] Fintan O’Toole, “Beyond Amnesia and Piety” in Horne, John and Madigan, Edward, Towards Commemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution, 1912-923, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy 2013, p.158

[2] Seán Crosson, “Gaelic Games and ‘the Movies’”, in Cronin, Murphy, Rouse (eds.) The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009, Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2009, p.119

[3] Irish Independent, 20 November 1920

[4] Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000, London: Profile Books 2005, p.235

[5] FSL Lyons, Ireland Since the Great Famine, London: Fontana Press 1985 edition, p.419

[6] Cronin, Duncan, Rouse, The GAA: A People’s History, Cork: The Collins Press 2009, p.154

[7] Irish Independent, 22 November 1920

[8] Freemans Journal, 22 November 1920

[9] Ibid.

[10] Freemans Journal, 27 November 1920

[11] Cronin, Duncan, Rouse, The GAA: A People’s History, p.154

[12] Sugden, John and Bairner, Alan, Sport and Sectarianism in a Divided Ireland, London: Leicester University Press 1993, p.33

[13] Cronin, Mike and Higgins, Roisín, Places We Play: Ireland’s Sporting Heritage, Cork: The Collins Press 2011, p.96; See also Mike Cronin, “The Irish Free State and Aonach Tailteann”, in Bairner, Alan (ed.) Sport and the Irish: Histories, Identities, Issues, Dublin: UCD Press 2005, pp.53-69

[14] Brian Hanley, “Irish Republican Attitudes to sport since 1921”, in McAnallen, Hassan and Hegarty (eds.), The Evolution of the GAA: Ulaidh, Éire agus Eile, Dublin: The GAA 2009, p.179; Interestingly though, one of the Tipperary players that day – James McNamara, had less than ten years previously won trophies playing soccer with Cahir Park Football Club, see Paul Buckley, Cameos of a Century, Cahir: Cahir Park 2010, p.9

[15] Peter Quinn, “From Tigh Mór to Croke Park”, in McAnallen, Hassan and Hegarty (eds.), The Evolution of the GAA, p.48

[16] Irish Examiner, 15 February 2012

[17] Cronin, Duncan, Rouse, The GAA: County by County, Cork: The Collins Press, pp.362-3