Thursday 14 December 2017

Tommy Conlon: Foreign hurling almost became our game of choice

The Couch

Tommy Conlon

It might be unthinkable these days but there was a time when Kilkenny hurling was apparently in a wretched state.

The problem was cricket, although it wasn't seen as a problem at the time. Cricket was the British empire at play in its many foreign fields. In pre-famine rural Ireland the landed gentry educated locals in its mystical skills and civilising protocols. They were pushing an open door.

There had always been hurling, and versions of Gaelic football, but cricket filled a vacuum on summer Sundays where previously there hadn't been organised pastimes. Its attractions were as much social as sporting. The landlord hosting a game would lay on food and drink; there would be music and merriment and boys and girls mingling.

An 1869 report from The Kilkenny Moderator describes a scene that is as much garden fete as sporting competition. A team from Urlingford arrived to take on neighbours Johnstown in the "picturesque" demesne of a local landlord. Marquees had been erected and when the Urlingford gallants arrived, "a warm welcome was truly afforded them in large bumpers of mountain dew, in its unadulterated purity, while Smithwick's superior XX went round in profusion." And that was just before the game. Afterwards "the cricketers then once more found themselves seated under the canvas where a splendid dinner awaited."

With the prospect of a good feed and strong liquor, it's hardly surprising that the game took off in many parts of the country.

Cricket in Ireland is a neglected tale despite its rich political and social history. The television documentary Batmen – The Story of Irish Cricket, shown on Setanta Ireland last week, was a lovely piece of work and a useful primer on the subject. But it needed far more time to do justice to the story in all its historical abundance. There is a treasure trove of material waiting to be mined for a future series that would have the necessary budget to treat it comprehensively. One such source is a book published in 2006. The History of Cricket in County Kilkenny, as the title suggests, covers one county only, and yet it contains a wealth of detail.

Its subtitle is The Forgotten Game, and it is aptly chosen. Written by local historian Michael O'Dwyer, his research reveals just how popular cricket in Kilkenny actually became. And it leaves the reader pondering a question: would cricket have become Ireland's sport had the GAA not entered the national culture in 1884?

It was already making inroads 50 years earlier. In 1835, a chronicler from Callan wrote that there "exists two types of hurling, to wit, Irish hurling with a camán and ball, and cricket, that is foreign hurling."

In 1880, a local newspaper carried the following comment: "There is no game held in such high esteem at the present day as cricket amongst every class, from the peasant to the nobleman and all love it."

By 1896, the number of cricket teams in Kilkenny was no less than 50. The game had long percolated down to the grassroots; it had become the people's game.

Such was its popularity that in 1895 a local citizen wrote to The Kilkenny Journal requesting local cricket clubs to turn to Gaelic football and hurling during the off-season. "Why not give our 'grand old national games' a chance?" The letter-writer was evidently fond of cricket. But, in a sign of the then rising nationalist climate, he appealed for the preservation of indigenous games. "Heaven knows we are sufficiently Anglicised already. We have lost our language and most of our old customs. We at least will not let slip our national games if our young men do their duty."

One of the prominent figures in the nationalist revival was Michael Cusack, founder of the GAA. Cusack established a newspaper in 1887 called Celtic Times. In April of that year it carried a report on a hurling match in Kilkenny. It must surely have dampened his ardour. "There were no spectators – a fact which proves conclusively what little hold the GAA has taken in Kilkenny. The hurling of both teams was, we believe, the worst and most spiritless ever witnessed on an Irish hillside. It would break the heart of a Moycarkey or Galway Gael to witness such a contemptible perversion of the grand old dashing game of hurling."

They obviously got their act together in the years that followed. And ultimately the GAA swept all before it, cricket included. The decades before and after 1900 were the hinge on which everything turned, sports included. Lory Meagher became one of Kilkenny's early hurling legends. His father Henry had been a distinguished cricketer in the 1880s and 1890s with a Tullaroan team. The Fennelly brothers of Ballyhale became one of the county's most famous hurling families in the 1970s and '80s. Their father and many of their uncles had played cricket in the 1930s. And Gowran, the parish that would produce another modern hurling great in DJ Carey, had a cricket club that lasted from 1842 to 1958.

Cricket eventually disappeared in Kilkenny and barely clung on in tiny pockets elsewhere. A game that had been swept in on the tides of history was swept out by another tide over a century later. The halcyon days of "unadulterated mountain dew", splendid dinners and Smithwick's superior XX were replaced by pious tea and the omnipotent ham sandwich.

Something was gained; something surely was lost.

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