Review of Sport & Ireland: A History, by Paul Rouse

 

This is the text of the pre-publication print of: Matthew L. McDowell, Review, Sport & Ireland: A History, by Paul Rouse, Irish Studies Review (pre-published 2017). There may be small textual differences between this version and the published version. Any reference made to this paper should refer to the published version.

Sport & Ireland: A History, by Paul Rouse, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015, 375 pp., £30 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-19-874590-7

Within the Anglophone academic historiography on sport, it is nowadays rare to find a book which is as ambitious as Paul Rouse’s 2015 volume Sport & Ireland: that is, one which purports to act, in any capacity, as a history of an entire country’s relationship with sport. It is telling that one of the main books Rouse makes reference to in his introduction – as well as Oxford University Press within their book jacket – is Richard Holt’s Sport and the British, a volume from 1989, and one of the few sport-focused which has managed to find its way into popular narrative history texts.[1] (This is a structural issue on this side of the Irish Sea, as the Research Excellent Framework – the UK’s primary research accountability exercise – arguably discourages such ambitious attempts anymore.) That Rouse’s book has flaws is perhaps to be expected: given its scope, some subjects receive shorter shrift than others. However, not only does it effectively synthesise a wide variety of academic books and articles, popular books, and antiquarian texts and manuscripts, but it also contains surprising depth in archival research – not something that this reviewer would have expected from a survey text clearly aimed beyond specialists. Rouse’s volume thus helps to draw something of a line under the pre-2015 historiography of Irish sport: in doing so, its most productive reference point might not be Sport and the British, but an upcoming special issue of Soccer and Society edited by Conor Curran and David Toms on the history of Irish soccer (both of whom have recently released monographs on the history of Irish sport).[2] The field is currently in rude health.

Rouse’s approach is a chronological one. Together with an introduction and a conclusion, there are four sizeable chapters which are split largely via political eras: 1) the pre-1800 period; 2) post-Union (1800-1880); 3) the creation of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in the 1880s and the run-up to the Easter Rising and the sitting of the Dáil Éireann; 4) partition, the Free State, and the Republic, just past the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy at the end of the 2000s. It is possible to find flaws in this specific approach: a more thematically-based organisation might have allowed for greater depth in some areas: the material on gender, for instance, could use a bit more emphasis. There is also the ever-present question of whether Rouse’s periodisation gets everything right: the birth of the Irish Free State is heavily intertwined with the ‘story’ of the GAA, of course, so it makes sense for there to be a sizeable discussion of it in his book. Nevertheless, sport is discussed less in relation to other relevant series of events, including the Great Famine, the Emergency, and the Troubles. (To be fair, Rouse discusses the periodisation conundrum itself. It will be familiar one to any academic author, so mentioning it in a review almost feels a bit obligatory.) There is some discussion of Ireland’s diaspora partaking in Irish sports abroad, but less about the diaspora’s continued dialogue with sport based in Ireland.

Within this chronological framework, however, Rouse does offer many different routes beyond what is generally discussed. The subsections within the chapters allow the author the opportunity to explore continuities within various topics. For instance, when discussing pre-1800 sport, there is a lively discussion about the influence of fairs and holidays – including their sports – on popular culture, including a less metaphorical account of a certain Donnybrook (whose terminology derives from the historic Dublin fair). Elsewhere in the chapter, in a section on popular animal bloodsports, there is a tale of bear-baiting gone awry in Belfast: crucially, though, this section connects to a discussion in the next chapter, whereby newly-built cockpits and bull-baiting stages in the early nineteenth century would come to comprise the banal civic architecture of towns like Kildare and Kilkenny, almost from the second these sports were banned. Meanwhile, the foundation of the GAA might be generally well-known to historians, but some of Rouse’s emphases tend to be less well-discussed, even in the specialist historiography: for instance, the GAA’s brief (and successful) cultural campaign against hurley (a variation of hurling in tune with British hockey, and based around Trinity College in the 1870s-80s), and its historicisation of chess as an original Irish pastime. For a book which makes a claim in its title to be comprehensive, there is still a sense of the human touch. Rouse’s discussion of the associational culture of banks in the post-World War II era shares the thoughts of one employee of the Bank of Ireland – based in Dublin but originally from County Cavan – who first came into contact with a thriving middle-class culture of golf, rugby, and cricket through the still deeply unionist world of the Irish banking sector.

The question for the readership of this journal is ultimately whether or not Rouse’s book is a good introduction and starting point for non-specialists to Ireland’s relationship with sport, while opening the door for scholars to explore further. The answer to that is undoubtedly ‘yes’. As with any volume this ambitious, there is a tension between the need to be comprehensive and leaving some stones unturned, but this is to be expected. And, as the above examples show, looking for one unified voice about the meaning of ‘Irish’ sport is ultimately fruitless: Rouse’s text is nuanced just enough to give these various meanings and interpretations room to co-exist. This is a book on the history of Irish sport which, thankfully, will interest those who do not keep score.

Matthew L. McDowell

University of Edinburgh

Bibliography

Curran, Conor, The Development of Sport in Donegal 1880-1935. Cork: Cork University Press, 2015

Curran, Conor and Toms, David. ‘Introduction to “going beyond the ‘garrison game’: new perspectives on association football in Irish history”’. Soccer and Society (pre-published 2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14660970.2016.1230344

Holt, Richard. Sport and the British. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989

Porter, Dilwyn. ‘Sports History and Modern British History’. Sport in History 31, no. 2 (2011): 180-196.

Toms, David. Soccer in Munster. A Social History 1877-1937. Cork: Cork University Press, 2015

 

[1] Holt, Sport and the British, Porter, ‘Sports History and Modern British History’.

[2] Curran and Toms, ‘Introduction’; Curran, Donegal; Toms, Munster.

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