Tom Hunt, Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland: the case of Westmeath (Cork University Press 2007, 357 pp.). ISBN: 978-1-85918-415-8
OF THE several academic histories of Irish sport in the nineteenth century, its formative period, this deeply-researched work is the first to take a local history rather than single-sport approach, and all the more valuable for that. Based on his doctoral thesis, it examines sport in the county of Westmeath, in the Irish midlands, chiefly between 1850 and 1905. Originally a Waterford county footballer, but now teaching in Mullingar, Dr Hunt has the double perspective of being both outsider and insider.
Fox-hunting in the county began in the late seventeenth century and Ireland’s earliest subscription pack was formed in Westmeath in 1854; hunting became the centre of gentry social and sporting life every winter. Since Westmeath had a large number of recreational horses, racing naturally developed too, aided by the railways that brought racegoers to the courses. The atmosphere of such events is well evoked, with their fashionable ladies, card sharps, brass bands, and exotic fairground entertainments. Hunt is equally at home in the elite world of polo and lawn tennis parties to which the wealthy retreated as tenant farmers and their sons took up hunting and cricket.
Hunt begins to present more surprising results in Chapter 4, dealing with cricket, where he overturns the conventional wisdom, principally by means of research in local newspapers. Around 1880, when the Land War was supposed to have dealt it a death-blow, cricket was becoming the most popular participatory sport in the county, growing vigorously in the last quarter of the century. It became the only sport involving members of all social classes.
Hunt shows that what he calls ‘the embryonic' Gaelic Athletic Association had limited success in the county, mostly at the eastern end. He argues that ‘the GAA, as it initially developed in Westmeath... was in essence a sporting movement devoid of a political agenda’, and that local disagreements over rules and organisation, and what they saw as unfair treatment by Mullingar men, were what caused the T. P. O’Connor’s club to switch from Gaelic to association football in 1893. The emergence of a strong soccer culture in Athlone followed a few years later. Thus Hunt challenges another myth about Irish sport, although throughout the book he does show how the army had played a role: providing opposition, bands to entertain the crowds, and in other ways.
He implies that the traditional picture of GAA development is oversimplified, so far as Westmeath is concerned. It was only from 1900 that cultural nationalism brought Gaelic games to the fore; campaigns against foreign sports and military involvement began then. Football was dominant; hurling had to be introduced from outside the county and never took strong hold. Hunt argues that cricket did not entirely disappear, because it catered for social class D (mostly unmarried farm labourers) who continued to practise the game because they found themselves largely excluded from the more middle-class GAA.
In chapter 8, sport from the point of view of the spectator rather than the participant is examined. Hunt finds evidence that before the Famine traditional recreations were already severely in decline, similar to the situation R. W. Malcolmson claimed in his book on English pastimes to 1850. That book has undergone severe criticism in recent years but (for different reasons) perhaps the ‘great divide’ between traditional and modern sports was more real in Ireland.
The question of Westmeath exceptionalism evidently arises; as Hunt says in his conclusion, further county studies are needed to form a basis for comparison. Much of Westmeath was graziers’ country, with fields suitable for sports and unaffected by the fall in corn prices that hit farmers hard in some other areas. Farming differences cannot account for the decline in cycling in the county by 1900 (except among the RIC) at the very time when Brian Griffin has found it largely expanding, as in other countries; some explanation is required for this.
There are some quibbles. Table 6 (page 91) is unclear for two reasons. Comparing Westmeath natives and non-natives in 1904, Mullingar’s golf club had 55.17% to Athlone’s 36.36%, but given Athlone’s position astride the Shannon, with part of the town and much of its hinterland in Roscommon, it is unclear what this proves: were westsiders counted as Westmeath natives? The religious breakdown is problematic too. The Westmeath County Club had 21 Catholics to 20 Protestants and 3 ‘other’ while Athlone Golf Club had 8, 14 and 3. Clearly there is a difference in composition, but are we meant to infer that there were six Jews in these clubs? This seems unlikely, and elsewhere (pp. 136 and 174) Hunt carelessly uses ‘Protestant’ as a synonym for Church of Ireland, which may upset Methodist and Presbyterian readers.
The emphasis is on sports that led to the formation of associations. It is likely there was also much angling, billiards, and hare coursing in Westmeath, but we hear little or nothing of these, probably because they left little trace in Hunt’s sources.
Notwithstanding these points, this is a valuable contribution to sports history and Irish history, and deserves to stimulate new debate.
Reviewed by Timothy Harding PhD, Dept of History, Trinity College Dublin.
(This review was originally written for a student publication that never appeared.)