Beyond the Garrison Game at PRONI, Belfast February 2017

Myself and Conor Curran are delighted to announce that on the 17th February 2017 at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast, in association with the British Society of Sports History, there will be a one day symposium to celebrate the publication of a special issue of Soccer & Society which we edited earlier this year.

The talks will take place throughout the day and the full timetable can be found here. The event is FREE but places are limited so be sure to register with eventbrite to secure your place for the day.


On the day the talks will take in a wide range of historical, economic and coaching related talks about soccer in Ireland north and south from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. The line-up is as follows:

Morning Session: The Early Years

9.55 am-10.15 am Paul Gunning (Independent Scholar): The ‘Socker’ Code in Connacht, 1879-1906: Association Football in the Shamrock Shire’s Hy Brasil
10.15 am-10.35 am Aaron O’Maonaigh (Dublin City University): “Who were the Shoneens?”: Irish militant nationalists and association football, 1913-1923
10.35 am-10.55 am Tom Hunt (Independent Scholar): Harry Cannon: a unique Irish sportsman and administrator
10.55 am-11.10 am Questions and Answers

Late Morning Session: The 1960s onwards

11.40 am-12.00 pm Cormac Moore (De Montfort University): Football Unity During the Northern Ireland Troubles?
12.00 pm-12.20 pm Daniel Brown (Queen’s University, Belfast): Linfield’s ‘Hawk of Peace’: pre-Ceasefires reconciliation in Irish League football
12.20 pm-12.40 pm Helena Byrne (Independent Scholar): How it all began: the story of women’s soccer in sixties Drogheda
12.40 pm-12.55 pm Questions and Answers

1.00 pm-2.00 pm              Break for lunch

Afternoon Session: Coaching and Developing the Game

2.00 pm- 2.20 pm Conor Curran (Dublin City University): The development of schoolboy coaching structures for association football in Ireland, 1945-1995
2.20 pm- 2.40 pm Seamus Kelly (University College Dublin): Pedagogy, Game Intelligence & Critical Thinking: The Future of Irish Soccer?
2.40 pm- 2.55 pm Questions and Answers

Late Afternoon Session: Supporters and Governance

3.00 pm- 3.20 pm Mark Tynan (Independent Scholar): ‘Inciting the roughs of the crowd’: Soccer hooliganism in the south of Ireland during the inter-war period, 1919-1939
3.20 pm- 3.40pm Robert and David Butler (University College Cork): Rule Changes and Incentives in the League of Ireland from 1970 – 2014
3.40pm- 3.55pm Questions and Answers
3.55pm- 4.15 pm Closing Comments

It promises to an interesting and enlivening day of discussion and isn’t to be missed. We look forward to seeing you there in the New Year!


Decies no.72 Launch


Over the weekend while visiting my home in Waterford, I spoke at two events. The first was Booze Blaas and Banter as part of the Imagine Arts Festival hosted by the Waterford Council of Trade Unions. The second event, also part of the festival, was the launch of the newest issue of Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society‘s journal, DeciesI spoke alongside Tom Hunt and The Knotted Chords, a Waterford two-piece who provided the music. Here is an edited text of my short talk:

I want to talk briefly tonight to you all about some thoughts I have been mulling over for a while and of which the article on family history in the current issue of Decies is a product.

The article has been a long time in the making. It began its life as a series of blogposts I wrote on my own blog, the sidelines of history, and evolved over time and thanks to Cian’s encouragement into what is in the journal as we have it before us. In the article I make case studies out of several people in my family who I learned about while doing my family tree over the past year or so. I tried to look at their lives and explain them in relation to more well-known themes from Irish history: the history of the revolutionary decade, from the view point of labour and also emigration history. I wanted to do it in part because I wanted to share what I thought were interesting stories from my family that have helped me to learn not just more about myself and my family but have taught me something about those major historical themes.

Among the ordinary people we often find the most extraordinary stories. A long time ago, in an interview I did for a local paper, I said that it was important for me that people should recognise themselves in their history and I still believe that. The world has enough – and will continue to have – the histories of kings, and generals, of the wealthy and the powerful. What marks the era since the middle of the 1900s as unusual is the interest we can take in the history of people like us – ordinary people who lived in and help make their own times extraordinary. We must not lose sight of the fact that this is an unusual and revolutionary turn in the focus of history. We must continue to write and research about the lives of ordinary people who may not have changed the world in the way we normally understand that idea – but who in their own lives and their own experiences of the world have something valuable to teach us about their time and about our own time. It is imperative, especially in the climate of the world at present, that the stories of ordinary people are not swallowed up, simplified, spat back at them and ignored.

As someone who is currently describing himself as a recovering academic, I have begun to think more and more about the function of history outside and beyond the academy. History for most of us is a deeply personal thing. There are often gaps between the personal histories we carry with us from our families and the official version of national or local history as we learn it in school. History is not just written by the winners, it usually written by those who can write. And those who can write, traditionally have been those who have had power. The battle is not always a literal one, but it is always a vital and a real one.

The great bulk of people crop up almost nowhere in the historical record. The powerful have a tendency to write about themselves and as long as history belongs to the powerful then our own, more common histories, will continue to be ignored and forgotten, yet more victims of the condescension of posterity. Of course, as my own article highlights, this is changing slowly but it’s a change we must be careful to to nurture. As anyone who has dipped their toe into the vast world of family history and genealogy can tell you, in our age of recording and tabulating – going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century especially – it is easier to find your relatives than ever before. The vast explosion in websites like ancestry and others like it has aided this process greatly as does the general process of the digitization of records like birth, marriage and death certs.

But if we are serious about genealogical history, about family history, being more than a mere pastime for people – if we want our personal family narratives, the ones which complicate and contradict the official strands of the historical record, to count for something then we need these things to be written about. We need to teach people more than how to simply find the name and birth and death date of their great-great-grandmother. We need to teach people how to think about the lives these people would have lived – to think more about the choices people were forced to make in the course of their lives so that you have ended up in this place and time in your life. Inside all of our family histories lurk the very things that drive “serious” history. If all the world is indeed a stage, and all the men and women in it merely players than we must give greater consideration of the roles they played. For it is the ordinary people of the world, who have and always will outnumber the powerful and the privileged, who have done most to shape the world even as they are told they have done the least.

So, here is my hope for my article – that by reading it, those people who research their own family trees and their own family histories will stop not when they have stretched back to their four-times-great-grandmother, and say the family history is complete. Instead, I hope my article will encourage people to ask questions about why their great-grandmother gave birth to twelve children only six of whom survived or why it was their great-grandfather went to work abroad for a decade or any number of the things which happened to these people as they lived their lives in their own times. Only by answering those questions can we really begin to write our own histories. Only by writing our history can we claim some power over the narrative. Only with the power that comes from knowledge of our own complicated version of the past can we begin to question the version of history which can look so unlike the one we experience.

Reading History: Preventing the Future by Tom Garvin


As this year’s budget is released in Ireland, I think it is timely to reconsider this book by Tom Garvin.

Garvin, a professor of political science at UCD for most of his professional career, wrote the book in 2004 at a time when – they tell us – we were all partying. Or at least, that’s what they would tell us once the hangover set in late 2008. I read this book while studying at UCC, and so far as I can recall, I didn’t read it until post-crash, sometime in late 2008, early 2009, in the final year of my degree.

The book, I recall, had an extraordinary impact on me at the time. Despite being written at the height of the boom, one reviewer notes that although “there is some discussion of later periods, this is not the place to look for an explanation of the “Celtic Tiger” era.” True enough, but that it was written in that era is not insignificant for how Garvin looked at the 40s and 50s, the period which receives the most sustained attention.

In essence, the argument of the book – and one which at base  I continue to think is nearly impossible to refute in most ways – is that the combined emergence of a new political elite from the revolutionary generation of the 1920s who were largely quite socially, economically and intellectually conservative combined with the rising power of the Catholic Church actively attempt to prevent the modernisation, and indeed secularistation of society in Ireland which was the hallmark of the postwar consensus across much of western and northern Europe. They were intent, as the books title suggests, to prevent the future.

And in some ways we live still with the success of their attempts to prevent the future, whether that be the future represented by the emergence of social democracy or something else entirely.

As the complainers on social media about a €5 increase to social welfare – miniscule in itself when we consider the same government just weeks ago sought to actively refuse €13 billion euro of owed taxes from Apple – indicate, Irish society sees social welfare safety nets not in terms of a collective responsibility to care for the vulnerable in our society. Emigration has rocked Ireland in the past eight years as it did during the period Garvin examines in Preventing the Future. Our homelessness crisis continues and looks set to continue as rent increases in our major cities show no sign of abating. The resistance to repeal the 8th amendment and finally provide women living in Ireland with the right to choose how to live their lives without fear of criminalisation and stigma remains. The idea that some are deserving of our sympathy and charity and others not persists. Ireland has yet to move beyond this.

Whatever future might have been imagined for Ireland once, it is hard not to feel that any number of these futures have been prevented. In many cases, this has been a mixture of the active insistence of Irish elites that the country works just fine as it is, and the passivity of the population in general not to change its own habits in terms of voting. This has meant the continued acceptance that our elected representatives have more often than not completely failed us as a people in making the choices that will actively make Ireland a fairer, more equal society. That is “just how it is”.

It is further evident from the mean-spirited attitude of those who see the €5 increase as a sign that life on the dole is better than working that many members of the Irish population, rather than reflecting on the experience of the past eight years that has seen services slashed, emigration rise and homelessness reach unprecedented levels, they have swallowed the rhetoric that pits us against one another. The deflection away from the staid thinking of economic policy in Ireland, away from the continued failure to account for the fact the current generation of under 30s have inherited a social and economic mess largely not of their making but for which they have paid the heaviest price, suits those who continue to espouse the orthodoxies of the market as king. In other words, as they did in the 1940s and 1950s, those with power in Ireland continue to prevent the futures of many as those many had imagined it. The longer we continue to accept that that’s “just how it is”, then eventually we will be culpable for preventing our own futures.

Getting into the sea: a new view on Waterford’s past

As a child, summer to me always meant the seaside.  Tramore. Bunmahon. Benvoy. Woodstown. Dunmore. The Saleens. The Back Strand. Annestown. The Guillamene. Some beaches were for bathing, some for walking, some for cockle picking, some for swimming, some for spinning to in the car. Some were hardly beaches at all. The smell of sea salt. Salt and Vinegar. Fishing nets and boxes. Trawlers. A whole world of sounds and smells. I’ve always loved looking out at the ocean. Imagining what lay beyond the horizon.

Waterford city was established as a viking settlement early in the 10th century. A little earlier than that, there was, we now know, another important settlement at Woodstown. Waterford city has always been influenced by the sea. Things have long come in and out of the quays in the city be it people, goods or ideas. From Waterford you can draw lines to Denmark and Norway, to Britain, Newfoundland, and many more places, and in those lines trace the history of the city running north, south, east and west.

I didn’t really begin to think seriously about Waterford as a place connected to the sea until quite recently. Part of the reason why I began to think of the city, and the surrounding coastline as connected to something much bigger was driven by what I learned about the Atlantic world from reading Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many Headed Hydra. This book completely reshaped my way of thinking about how places on coastlines are connected by the history of sailing. In some ways, it was realising what I knew intuitively to be true, but I finally had, thanks to this book, a better idea how to express that same knowledge. It made the history of Waterford bigger, rather than smaller, by placing it into an even bigger context than a national history, placing it into an international history where the only barriers between places were ocean names. it is a part of a maritime history going in all directions.

I first encountered this way of organising history through that classic of twentieth century history, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel. But Rediker and Linebaugh’s work, a work of radical and revolutionary labour history  on the Atlantic in the early modern period, offered a very different way of understanding maritime history. I’ve since read many of Rediker’s books in particular, including The Slave Ship and Outlaws of the Atlantic.

This new frame through which to understand local, and indeed Irish history, has been extremely helpful to me. It’s also helped me to understand better some aspects of my family history, as you can see here. I’ve now moved to Norway, and it is through the sea which I am beginning to understand the history of this part of the world. I’ve just finished Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross: A new history of the Viking Age and am just about to move on to Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are.

Both books have provided invaluable (and occasionally overlapping) insight into how to think better not just of the history of the seas north of Britain and Ireland, but how to reorient yourself entirely when thinking of how life was organised in the past. As Pye himself writes early in The Edge of the World: “The sea could kill, and yet it was the easy route: the connection, not the barrier.” He goes on, a few pages later, picking the theme up again:

Since the sea was not a barrier like the land, the world had a different shape. We would it hard to recognize. Suppose you crossed from Domburg to the trading port at Ipswich on the east coast of England, newly opened in the seventh century, your cargo might be pots from the Rhineland or glass or the hefty lava quernstones used for grinding in mills. Stand on the banks of the River Orwell and look out at the world. If you think in terms of the time it takes to get to places, then Bergen in Norway is closer than York in England… The coast of Jutland is closer, and better connected, than an English midlands city like Worcester. You could be over the water and in the port of Quentovic, on the border between modern France and modern Belgium, in half the time it took to get to London overland…

Reading this, and attempting a similar reorientation – imagining that the sea was a shortcut rather than a roundabout way of getting places at a time when roads were very poor, suddenly the history of a city like the one I grew up in makes more sense. The settlement by Vikings early in the tenth century, the religious vestments which were made in the medieval period to a design from Bruges with silk from Florence, the trade with Spanish and Portuguese ports including Barcelona, Bilbao, Cadiz, Farrol, La Coruna, and Lisbon in the 17th century; the fishing trade links with Newfoundland in the late 18th century, and the continued trade out of Waterford port right up to and including the twentieth century. The next time you find yourself at a quayside, a river mouth or a beach, it might be worth thinking, wherever you are of the hundreds and thousands of shipbuilders, chandlers, sailors, fishermen, dock workers, and more characters besides over the centuries who lived lives determined by what in various poems of the past world were called whaleroads and who saw the sea as the connection not the barrier.

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.


“Under the Association rules”: Lismore v Mallow, 1877

Mallow V Lismore Small
Cork Constitution, December 4 1877.

This notice appeared in the pages of Cork’s premier Unionist newspaper on December 4th 1877. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the earliest recorded report of a game of football, played “under the association rules” in Cork, and possibly Munster, that was not a game played by military sides.

This notice forms the basis for the beginning of my book, Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937. In the course of doing some online promotion of my book, I noticed that the excellent Cork City Libraries website, Cork Past And Present, make mention of my find. The find was made in the upstairs room of the Cork City Library on the Grand Parade, during the course of researching and writing my book, so this is particularly nice.

I am doubly delighted that my small find is now a part of the soccer story in Cork, and indeed the wider soccer story of Ireland. As Paul Rouse has noted in his recent book, Sport & Ireland: A History, that while there is substantiation for the claim of soccer being a ‘garrison game’ in the 1880s and 1890s, it was “emphatically not just a ‘garrison game'”. Indeed, as Rouse notes, “sometimes it was spread by virtue of exhibition matches and the distribution of rule books; on other occasions, schools, army regiments, and businesses took on the game…”

This game which took place in Mallow in 1877 is a perfect example of this spread of the game by means other than the garrison. There are a few curious notes to be made about the game as reported in the Cork Constitution. First, you will notice that while it was undoubtedly a soccer game, it was played by “two Fifteens”, rather than the eleven players we are used to. It is likely too that whoever wrote the report, most likely the schoolmaster visiting, had a particular affinity for the Association game from their own youth in either an English or Irish public school. This we can discern from their passing remark that “it is pleasant to find, at a time when the fascination of Rugby rules enlists the sympathies of most of our young friends, that the beautiful game of foot-ball proper possesses such able  exponents as met in this match.”

Given the game ended in a draw, and was played with “the most un-broken good humour and hilarity prevailed throughout the whole contest”, it was clearly a first attempt by both schools to try this version of football. No report, that I could find, appeared of the return leg in Lismore. But, little did these thirty odd young boys know then that their game, played late in November of 1877, would form the backdrop to a much wider story – the story of how soccer came to be one of the most popular sports on the island of Ireland, and eventually, throughout the world.

John Patrick Toms, 1901-?: History, Genealogy and Commemoration

In case you weren’t already aware, we are currently living through the centenary of the so-called revolutionary decade in Ireland, 1913-1923. As such,  since 2013 there has been a raft of new books, articles, special issues, editions, tv programmes, documentaries produced providing new angles on this period of Irish history. Given that we are only into the third year – and into what for many will be the biggest year – of these commemorations, it can seem a little overwhelming and a little off-putting. While over many years now, but especially in the last three or four years, the history of the Irish involvement in the First World War has undergone a huge revolution – not least thanks to the growth in genealogy – it can be difficult for those of us not from Dublin to feel especially attached to the Easter Rising except as part of a national narrative we’ve been fed since our school days.

Recently, I have had genealogy give me an unexpected rebirth of interest in the Irish war of independence period, from 1919-1921. It has generally been a marker of my work as a professional historian to not be interested in the ins and outs of military conflict. I have typically sought the social angle of wars and conflicts in Irish history. I decided recently to undertake a major, if  largely personal, project: tracing my family tree. With my social historian’s instincts, I unexpectedly found myself researching armed conflict in Waterford. More than that though, it has given me pause for thought about the nature of history and genealogy – their differences and their similarities.

Approaching Genealogy As A Historian

As someone who studies, researches and writes social history I have always had a funny relationship with genealogy. As someone who by Irish standards as an unusual name I’ve always wanted to know the story of how my family, the only Toms’ to ever have lived in Waterford that I’m aware of, came here. And to know where they came from.

On the other hand, the thought of spending hours and hours – years really – on slowly filling out a family tree seemed almost a kind of madness. Names and dates. Endlessly. As I trained to be an historian, the idea of providing all of this detail but having it devoid of contextual detail went against every fibre of my being. History is not names and dates. That’s a chronicle and that’s fine as far as it goes. A family tree might tell me the names of every living soul I’ve been related to.

But, I thought, it doesn’t tell me much about who they were. The kind of lives they lived. The world in which they lived. As a social historian, this is of vital importance to me. To know these things is to know why the people in your family tree might have married the person they did. Why they might have had as many or as few children as they did. Why there were infant deaths or long lives. But recently, I decided to start my family tree. Finally, I feel I have the time and energy to do so. It turns out that as a process, it is not tedious but compelling. After all, as Terence M. Punch has written, genealogy done well, like history can answer complex questions like “Was the family essentially a biological or an economic unit, or did this change from place to place, time to time, and if so or if not so, why did the evolution follow the patterns it did?” (Conrad (ed.): 2006, 134)

Elizabeth Shown Mills has written that genealogy, by showing not what people died of but rather what they lived of is an important bulwark against those historians who fear multiculturalism. Indeed, done properly, genealogy and family history can be a part of social history in the information age. As Shown Mills writes genealogy has the potential to remind us that “None of us can harbor prejudice against another group of people when we realize that, with the very next document we find, we could be a part of them.” (Shown Mills, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 2003, 277)

And indeed, as some have noted, there are in fact certain common causes that both genealogists and professional historians share, not the least of which is widening access to the increasing amount of archives and records now available digitally. Such things were things I had rarely given much thought to before.

But, now building my family tree, I am intrigued especially by the, as it were, new members of the family. Those whom I never knew even existed. Connections and lives that tell me something about life in Ireland’s past that my other research only hinted at. One such figure was John Patrick Toms.

New family, new-found interest

Before I began working on the family tree, what we knew about our unusual last name was this: The first man in our family to be called John Toms – there have been many more since – did not come from Ireland. We thought he came from Scotland. However, the statistical likelihood is that he came from Cornwall and Devon. In the hunt for him, I found his grandson. John Patrick Toms appears on the 1911 Irish census. He lived in Kinsale with his father, John (brother of my great-grandfather, George) and his mother Margaret. His father was a coastguard. In 1911 he was 10 years old. The intriguing thing about this boy was that he, unlike both of his parents, was listed as being born in Scotland.

As it turns out, he was. Neither his mother or father appear on the 1901 Irish census. Instead of Kinsale or their home of Tramore, Co. Waterford, they were in a small village on the Isle of Bute in Scotland: Kilbride. Here they lived with several others in the coastguard’s residence. Young John Patrick was just a few months old at the time. This young boy was born at a pivotal moment in Irish history. His story is emblematic of the period. Born in Scotland to two Irish parents, one of whom worked for the Royal Coastguard, John Patrick Toms would grow up in Kinsale and later Waterford at a time of huge social and political change.

In 1912, a year after they appeared on the census in Cork, John Patrick’s father died. He and his mother Margaret move back to Tramore, Co. Waterford. There they lived with Alice Toms, his grandmother, in her home on Queen Street. Just two short years after this move, and when John Patrick was only thirteen years old, the world went to war. So too, did Ireland after a major split took place in the Irish volunteer movement that had emerged. The vast majority of Irish volunteers listened to John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party’s encouragement to join the British Army as a show of loyalty to a United Kingdom that was set to grant Ireland Home Rule. In Waterford, the majority signed up because there were few other employment opportunities that might otherwise feed families. Waterford, for a place of its size, had a remarkable volunteering rate for the British Army during the first world war. Young John Patrick must surely have looked on imagining the adventure.

The war, and Irish involvement in it, did not of course yield the desired results for the Irish people. Instead its legacy was one of death. It meant a lifetime of invalidity for many wounded but still living. The Ireland they returned to had been radicalised by the experience of the war and the prospect of conscription. It had been further radicalised by the holding off on Home Rule as emergency powers and the war preoccupied the House of Commons. So too did a botched rebellion in Dublin.

When John Patrick was a fifteen year old, the failed and largely unpopular Easter Rising took place. It’s consequent impact on people was far greater than its immediate impact but for impressionable young men men like John Patrick it was one more example of a militarised world in which he lived but in which the action always seemed to take place elsewhere. This was to remain the case until 1919 and the outbreak of the war of independence. Now 18, John Patrick, the Scottish-born son of coastguard would be able to take part.

In 1920, John Patrick became a member of ‘D’ Company of the 5th Battalion, Waterford IRA, 1st Southern Division. The IRA’s biggest engagement in the Tramore area during the war of independence was the Pickardstown ambush. A group of around 50 volunteers took part in the ambush. As Nicholas Whittle, director of elections for Sinn Féin in 1918 put it in his Bureau of Military History Statement, this action was “the first major action in our Brigade area and I had long looked forward to it.” The ambush was undertaken because

At this stage [January 1921] there were only four rural police stations still occupied by the RIC in the brigade area – Portlaw, Tramore, Dunmore East and Passage. Portlaw could be ruled out since a military relief force could come from either the city or from Carrick-on-Suir. Waterford Harbour severely restricted possible withdrawal routes from the vicinity of Passage or Dunmore East – a key consideration in the event of an ambush plan going wrong. This left only Tramore as a possibility for a feint attack. (McCarthy: Decies 2006, 180)

The outcome of the ambush was not good for the local IRA. Here’s McCarthy again:

The British forces had suffered only two minor casualties. One policeman, Constable Bryant had been slightly wounded during the feint attack on Tramore Police Barracks. One soldier was slightly wounded during the firing at the ambush site. The IRA discovered this when the wounded man went to a solicitor’s office to register a claim for compensation. The clerk who took the details and who discussed the ambush at length with him was Dennis Madden – East Waterford Brigade Intelligence Officer! In this, their first major operation, the East Waterford Brigade had suffered a major defeat. The City Battalion had suffered three casualties out of twenty men engaged and the Dunhill Battalion one while inflicting only two minor wounds on the enemy. The questions now were how would the British forces follow up and how would Paul rally his men for further action. (McCarthy: 2006, 185)

While I have checked various Bureau of Military History witness statements for a potential mention of John Patrick, I have so far found none. However, given the sheer number of men involved in this operation, it is unthinkable that he was not involved. Despite this setback, the Waterford IRA continued to fight despite the fact that, as McCarthy’s work has shown, Waterford’s IRA suffered from a lack of strong political acquiescence in turning a blind eye to their activities and poor financing.

When a truce was declared between the IRA and the British government on 11 July 1921, a roll call was taken of IRA men around the country. According to records held in the Irish Military Archives, in the roll call provided by Jack Walsh for the East Waterford IRA, John Patrick Toms (listed simply as John Toms) was then a prisoner in Portobello Barracks in Dublin.

When a truce was declared and the Anglo-Irish treaty signed in December of 1921, Ireland was divided. John Patrick Toms, from his prison cell, like the majority of former IRA members, surely took the news as a sign of progress. This we can infer from the fact that on the 5th June 1922, just three weeks before the outbreak of the civil war, John Patrick presented himself and joined the 2nd Southern Division of the National Army, popularly known as the Free State Army.

He would serve in this force for two years. At first he was an infantryman, but was later reassigned as a military policeman in Dungarvan in 1922. His occupation when he joined up was labourer, putting John among the ranks of the many ordinary men who made up the bulk of the IRA’s membership. His time in the new Free State Army ended on 22 March 1924.

As the Irish Free State changed to Éire and then the Republic of Ireland, John Patrick continued to live in Dublin. He married Agnes Mulhern of Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal in 1938, and had three children between 1939-1950. He was predeceased by his wife Agnes in 1981, when she died suddenly. John Patrick, like many Irishmen of his generation, brought up in a militarised atmosphere, locally, nationally and internationally, when a chance came to join the fray, he took it. When that same chance presented itself again as civil war broke out, he again took the opportunity.


The story of John Patrick Toms is, of course, just one among hundreds that I could potentially tease out from my family tree. Each one would in its own way, teach me something about the social history of Ireland at a given moment in time, from a given perspective. However, John Patrick Toms’ case is also instructive in a number of ways about how some ordinary people make the historical record and how others do not. As such it is instructive also about the value of records and the reliance in both history and genealogy on paper records.

While most people will probably have their birth or death recorded somewhere, few enough people leave behind the kind of paper trail which John Patrick did. This is worth bearing in mind because, in contrast, his wife, or his mother, by virtue of their lack of interaction with some aspect of state bureaucracy – be that the courts or some other thing – on account of being women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Ireland, have left less of a trace. Nonetheless, there own stories are as valuable as that of John Patrick’s. As such, we are left at the mercy of what those in the past thought worthy of recording. Many of the people in my family tree will have been illiterate, or perhaps able only to read. Thus their chance to put down anywhere their experience outside of official records is largely absent. Finding them, telling their stories, while difficult, accounting for their absence from the written record of the past, is also imperative. We are still a long way from recovering many in our past from the ever present condescension of posterity.

Jan Hus: radical proto-protestant, martyr, or nationalist myth?

Alfons Mucha’s painting of Jan Hus preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel.

In the formulation of the national and nationalist narratives that were such a part of nineteenth century European political and state formation, most countries sought to reach back into their disparate histories and to pluck from them figures who it might be politically expedient to present as being as being harbingers of a nation later to emerge. Jan Hus is one such figure from Czech history and since today is his day, I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the ways Hus has emerged as a figure of the Czech nation.

If July 6th is Jan Hus day in Czech Republic, a notoriously atheist country, then many who are unfamiliar with the country, will also be surprised to learn that the day before is also a national holiday, for Ss. Cyril and Methodius, thought to have played a significant role in the emergence of the Czech language. In both cases then, Cyril and Methodius on the 5th and Hus on the 6th, the primary reasons for celebrating these men is not religious but instead national.

To understand Hus as a figure of nationalism first, it might be best to start with Alfons Mucha’s extraordinary series of paintings, Slovanská epopej (The Slav Epic). This extraordinary cycle of over 20 paintings was completed between 1910 and 1928, and tells the story of the Slav people’s from their mythical prehistory to the apotheosis of the foundation of the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1918.

The eighth painting in the cycle, “Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel” is subtitled “Truth prevails”. In the painting, at the top of the post, we can see Hus almost rapturously revealing the truth to those congregated. Hus was appointed to the chapel from the Prague University and was deeply involved in the debates around the various ideas of Oxford theologian, John Wycliffe. As Peter Demetz notes of Hus:

[Hus] was surely a man of quiet decisions, and he was far from being a belligerent radical, even though he looked like one to many. He grew with the events, in which schismatic popes, legitimate and illegitimate kings, comfortable prelates enjoying many benefices and ascetic theologians, the church’s legal establishment and the resolution to live in the truth of Jesus Christ, conservative Bohemian patriots and early defenders of the idea of a nation based on language rather than territory – all these were chaotically pitted against each other.” (Prague in Black and Gold, 132-133).

This, it might be fair to say, is an attempt to strip back from Hus the national connotations which he gained as a proto-protestant, national hero figure from the time of Frantisek Palacky’s five-volume History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia (1836-67). As Mary Heinemann has noted:

A Moravian Protestant, Palacky took a particular interest in rehabilitating the reputation of Jan Hus, whom he presented, in the first volume of his History to be written and published in Czech, as at once a proto-Protestant and a proto-nationalist martyr. This view was to have a profound influence upon – among others – the man who was eventually to found the first state ever to to be named for the Czechs and the Slovaks: lapsed Catholic and fellow Moravian Tomas Masaryk. (Czechoslovakia: the state that failed, 13).

Heinemann’s observations are especially astute on Hus, who she sees as being moulded in the following way in order to help legitimate the initial claims for what eventually became the first Czechoslovak republic:

The Czech-speaking Bohemian priest and activist Jan Hus (John Huss), presented as a sort of Martin Luther, becomes the chief symbol of Czech resoluteness and independence; while the Taborite (radical Hussite) Jan Zizka, a kind of Oliver Cromwell figure, is cast in the role of proto-nationalist and primitive socialist. (Czechoslovakia, 3).

And this is not just Heinemann’s view, which is stridently myth-busting in her approach, but is also backed up by other scholars looking at how the myth of the First Czechoslovak Republic, led by Masaryk and Benes, was cultivated. As historian Andrea Orzoff notes of Palacky’s famous nationalist history, for Palacky – and thus for Masaryk et al. – Hus and his followers were not merely engaged in a discussion over church doctrine but became

freedom-loving, democratic, tolerant, egalitarian, morally righteous, and pacifistic until unjustly attacked. These were the qualities permanently bred into the Czechs by their national history, Palacky implied. (Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914-1918, 27).

This view of Hus and the Hussites was reinforced in paintings like Mucha’s Slav Epic and also in the staggering art nouveau statue of Hus which dominates the heart of historical Prague, Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square), designed by Ladislav Saloun and erected there on his 500th anniversary in 1915, three years before the foundation of the first Czechoslovak republic.

The Jan Hus Memorial in Old Town Square.
The Jan Hus Memorial in Old Town Square.

Jan Hus,the Hussites and also Jan Zizka and the Taborites, all have come to represent in the Czech Republic, a kind of ant-authoritarian resistance – whether it was Hus preaching the words of Wycliffe to his congregation, or the view of Czechs as a Protestant “nation” crushed and controlled by a Catholic empire – they have all come to represent something closer to the vision of Palacky than their real historical personages or that their own contexts could possibly have allowed. National identity and myth are built on such figures, however remote they end up being from the person who once lived, breathed and preached.

Reading History: George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier

wigan pier

I can still remember it well. In history class in St. Paul’s Community College, we came to a section in our textbooks (Dermot Lucey’s Modern Europe and the Wider World for those of you interested) on the Great Depression and the changing political situation in Britain. Here was the Jarrow Crusade in vivid detail, with the most extraordinary of photographs. And along with it there was a quote from a book by George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier.

To that point, all I knew about Orwell was Animal Farm and 1984, neither of which I’d yet read. But this quote jumped out at me – something about the condition of working-class English people in this period resonated with me. Curiously, this was around 2005 or 2006, during “the good times”. I was completely enthralled, and in what I am nearly certain was my first ever Amazon purchase, I sought out this book and began a relationship with the writing of George Orwell that has scarcely altered since. While I may be more circumspect about some of his writing now, at the time I was utterly dazzled by it. And with The Road to Wigan Pier, I was struck by its sense of justice. It’s sense of what was unjust and what might change it.

I have re-read the book several times since, but have not now read it for many years. Like with other books I’ve written about for this little series, The Road to Wigan Pier exists as part of my mental furniture on several different levels: first, as a book which I devoured and when I had read less books than I have now, thought it unsurpassable. Second, and more importantly perhaps, it exists as a reminder to me of the kind of work I one day hope to write; it is a book moreover which encourages me to constantly think about the value of not alone what write, but about what use writing can be for at all. If by writing we cannot affect change, then what are we, as historians, social commentators, or even bloggers writing for, exactly?

And one might ask, what use reading, if not to have a similar effect? This was a question posed some time after by Richard Hoggart in his classic The Uses of Literacy. Hoggart’s was a book which I only read for the first time during my PhD, having been introduced to it by a friend. Now as I look at my decade old, Penguin  Modern Classics edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, I note that it is Hoggart who penned the short introduction that prefaces Orwell’s text. Perhaps most astutely observed by Hoggart is this (the introduction was written in 1989):

it is easy to see why the book created and still creates so sharp an impact; so much adverse notice on the one hand, so much grateful fellow-feeling on the other. Above all, it is a study of poverty and, underlying that, of the strength of class divisions. Orwell notes with contempt how in 1937 it was fashionable to say that class divisions were fading in Britain. Twenty years later I published a book which made similar points, and was told by some reviewers that I was grievously mistaken, that class feeling was virtually dead. Thirty more years on and the same things are being said. Class distinction do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves. Orwell’s stance in this matter is completely up to date. Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty. (vii)

Hoggart here fixes upon something which makes The Road to Wigan Pier timeless in many respects. Orwell’s ideas as expressed in it, are still vital to someone who wishes to understand the real social impact of unemployment and who wants to really understand the ways in which class functions. Take this for instance:

In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole. Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagance… In such circumstances you have got to cling to your gentility because it is the only thing you have; and meanwhile you are hated for your stuck-up-ness and for the accent and manners which stamp you as one of the boss class. (115-117)

Here we have Orwell discussing what in many ways has been and continues to be a defining feature of class formation in the post-industrial age: what Pierre Bourdieu identified as social and cultural capital. And in this single passage we also see why Hoggart in his introduction is able to say that the book is a study of “the strength of class divisions”. It is not just an antagonistic working-class who make themselves distinct from other classes but also the downwardly mobile middle-class (a growing constituency today) who make sharp distinctions between themselves as people with superior social and cultural capital. This is especially the case when their actual monetary situation is no better, and perhaps even worse, than working-class counterparts. Orwell would undoubtedly recognise the anxiety of today’s downwardly mobile middle-class easily. Consider this passage on the real impact of unemployment:

When you see the unemployment figures quoted at two millions, it is fatally easy to take this as meaning that two million people are out of work and the rest of the population is comparatively comfortable… This is an enormous underestimate, because, in the first place, the only people shown on unemployment figures are those actually drawing the dole – that is, in general, the heads of families. An unemployed man’s dependants do not figure on the list unless they too are drawing a seperate allowance. A Labour Exchange officer told me that to get the real number of people living on (not drawing) the dole, you have got to multiply the official figures by something over three. (69)

Not only was Orwell able to distinguish the difference between an individual living on a means tested dole, but the impact this would have on their dependants, in a passage that followed immediately after, he was able to pinpoint the reality of being underpaid – in contemporary discourse, precarity:

…in addition there are great numbers of people who are in work but who, from a financial point of view, might equally well be unemployed, because they are not drawing anything that can be described as a living wage. (69)

Thus, Orwell in writing this book, though written many years ago and in a very specific context has provided anyone who reads this book with an extraordinary weapon: an ability to critically analyse a situation, to empathise with but also distance oneself critically from people and assess the material conditions in which they find themselves. So we find a critique of class distinction, of means testing, of precarity, of a failure to provide a living wage all in words that ring true today, first penned in 1937.