Athletes of the Rebel Country

Sport in Cork: a History by Donal O’Sullivan (The History Press Ireland, €17.99 / £14.99)

J. Anthony Gaughan

This is an account of sport in Cork city and county in the period from the 1880s to the 1930s.  The sports listed are Gaelic football and hurling, soccer, rugby, cricket, golf, tennis and rowing.  The author examines many aspects of these sports including the social and community backgrounds of those participating in them.

O’Sullivan begins with a survey of native games prior to the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association.  He notes the action of Sir William St Leger, Lord President of Munster, in 1627 banning the games of hurling and football deeming them to be “an uncivil kind of sport”.  Subsequently the author points to numerous references to hurling and football in the 18th and early part of the 19th Centuries.  In Cork most of these references were to hurling.

One of the initial group of seven who met at Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles in 1884 to establish the GAA was John McKay, a member of the staff of the Cork Examiner. Before the end of the year the Association was established in Cork. From the outset the Association in the county was split. A strong republican element, in effect, members of the IRB, saw the GAA as a vehicle for the separatist movement. Opponents to such a move, especially the clergy, objected to this alignment between republicanism and the Association. The result was a break-away county board with a Fr O’Connor as president. 

Later this rift was further exacerbated by the Parnellite split in the National Movement. Those who supported Parnell were those who backed the position of the IRB within the GAA.

'Imported sports'

After more than a decade the GAA in Cork re-organised. The management of matches at county board and referee level was vastly improved and therefore county and inter-county matches attracted huge attendances.

The author refers to soccer, rugby, cricket, golf and tennis as imported sports and so they were. Soccer matches in Cork were organised and played by members of the crown forces stationed in the Harbour area, the city and ‘garrison towns’ in the county. 

Eventually civilian teams took part in Leagues but even by 1911 the army and navy teams were dominant in the various leagues. Thus in that year in the First and Second Divisions of the Munster League the only civilian teams were Cork City and Church of Ireland, while the East Surrey Regiment alone fielded four teams. 

In the early years of the 20th Century rugby, cricket, golf and tennis in Cork were also very much the domain of the crown forces and were to remain so until after their evacuation in 1921. 

There was one notable exception to this. Rugby received a considerable fillip when in the late 1890s Presentation College and Christian Brothers College adopted the game and thereafter became acclaimed nurseries for Munster rugby.

Apart from the promotion of the ‘imported sports’ by the crown forces, class-distinction and religion also strongly influenced the games people played. The players and followers of Gaelic games were to be found in all walks of life. 

Those who attended soccer matches were from the working-class and those who supported the other ‘imported sports’ belonged almost exclusively to the middle-class. 

There was a corresponding divide with regard to religion with very few of those who were not Catholics participating in Gaelic games.

This highly informative book will be of interest to Corkonians and non-Corkonians alike.  It is the fruit of profound and widespread research and will be a valuable source for historians.