Sunday 18 March 2018

Warning – he'll love this book

THIS BOOK should come with a warning. Do not give 'Our Sporting Past' as a stocking filler to anyone with an interest in the history of Wexford athletics or cycling.

Such an act will only lead to the recipient of the book abandoning their family for Christmas to concentrate on reading James Parle's latest epic.

With the distraction of the 600-plus pages at hand, the person who is lucky enough to receive this mammoth work will not be available to carve the turkey. To play Monopoly. To roast chestnuts on any open fire. Or to sit down with the rest of the clan to enjoy ' The Sound of Music'.

This book offers simply too much temptation. Better hold it back until the new year and then hand it over. Let the old sport fanatic then spend January cosied up with, to give the full title, 'Our Sporting Past, a History of Track & Field Athletics, Cross- Country, Cycling and Tug-'o-War in County Wexford ( 18771967)'. Wow, what a wonderful mouthful. Here is a cornucopia of knowledge that comes as a refreshing change from the norm, for James Parle is not of the internet generation. The contents of this book were painstakingly assembled by hand in the good old-fashioned way, over many years spent quarrying his material from the newspaper vaults of the Wexford public library service.

James is a great man for scrapbooks and much of this new work is laid out in the spirit of a vast scrapbook, with plenty of little nuggets on each page.

Your reviewer contented himself with looking at the initial section, dealing with the events of the late 19th century.

The 1880s and 1890s were a time when huge advances were being made in codifying the pursuits, pastimes and crowd pleasers that provided entertainment and exercise for the folk of Wexford. The GAA has chosen to concentrate in recent times on a couple of successful brands but the Parle masterpiece shows that the association had major ambitions on other sporting fronts in its early days.

The 'Athletic' of the title was not a dead letter by any means The book reminds us that the GAA staged national athletics championships in Wexford in 1895. This reflected the fact that many less exalted track and field meets were held under GAA rules. And there was a variety of other organisations and movements eager to be associated with such healthy activity.

The CYMS, for example, recruited the Catholic runners, while the YMCA was more Protestant in tone. Happily, the members of the two were happy to train together in a spirit of ecumenism. Temperance groups were also keen to promote sport. Athletics and cycling were regular crowd pullers, it is clear from 'Our Sporting Past', and organisers of various events went out of their way to attract zan audience. Bands played and donkey races were laid on to give added value while there was no stuffy issue with amateur status, as attractive prizes were put up in order to tempt the best performers to show up.

The book mentions sums of money, watches, rolls of cloth, alarm clocks, accordions and the like. Cycling was a major sport, with local interest likely stimulated by the involvement of local firm Pierce's in the manufacture of bicycles.

There was much discussion in the newspapers trawled by James Parle of the switch from safe, solid rubber tyres to the pneumatic alternative, while technological advances cut the weight of machines in half, helping the riders to generate more speed - and consequently more excitement. Bunclody, Davidstown and Killanne all had their own cycling clubs. Not many people know that, or at least they did not until James Parle erupted with 'Our Sporting Past, a History of Track & Field Athletics, Cross- Country, Cycling and Tug-'oWar in County Wexford (1877-1967)'. More power to him,

Who was ' the greatest athlete Wexford ever produced'? No, not John Joe Doyle or Tommy McElwaine. Sporting historian James Parle has no hesitation in giving the palm to John Mangan (1872-1916) who was master of the 56 pound weight.

James suggests that if Mangan's almost freakish natural power had been harnessed to modern training methods then there is no end to what he might have achieved. In his prime he was capable of chucking four stone of metal over a bar 15 feet high, setting world records in a discipline that has since become redundant.

A magnificent specimen standing at least six feet and four inches in his stocking feet, James Mangan hit the scales at 18 stone. His problem was that he tended to bloat out psat the 20 stone mark if he did not look after himself. What caused his death at the age of 44 is not mentioned but, in 'Our Sporting Past', we learn that the passing of the strongman shocked his many fans and prompted the erection of a magnificent Celtic Cross headstone at the graveyard in Killincooley.

Was it Shakespeare who asked 'what's in a name'? Well, what is a name? The question is stimulated by the recent refusal to accept 'MJ' as a legally acceptable name. He insisted that court documents must be in the form Martin Joseph and never mind the fact that the person in question is surely always called MJ. The early pages of 'Our Sporting Past' are full of initials. Whether it was easier for journalists, or maybe for typesetters, to keep names short, the newspapers of the 1890s certainly preferred to keep names brief. We may never know, for instance, the full Christian names of the stars of the St. Peter's College sports, 1897 - seniors, P Cardiff, M Newcome, R Butler, J King; juniors, J Barker, P Cashin and M Somers.