By Stephen Gleeson
The hope of a return to the playing fields of Tipperary in the summer of 2020 has been met with joy across the county. However, the last three months have given a flavour of what life was like before the GAA and other sports thrived. Looking back at the events of yesteryear, the belief among many is that sport in Tipperary began in 1884 with the birth of the GAA in Miss Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles. That wasn’t the case. Sport existed in Tipperary, albeit in a much different way.
Historian Dr. Pat Bracken’s recent book focuses on what went on in the Premier County before the time of organised hurling and football. It spans the frame of 1840 right up to 1880. From the time of the Great Famine to the birth of the GAA as we know it essentially. The book titled “The Growth and Development of Sport in County Tipperary 1840-1880,” gives a glimpse into a fascinating time in history.
Back then, similar to other counties, the population of Tipperary declined for decades in the aftermath of the Great Famine. Sport was more unregulated than today and was, most likely, the reserve of the rich. Pat takes up this point: “One of the things I wanted to look at was to find out if there was any hurling prior to 1884. We know that there was hurling in the 18th century where you could have a team from Loughmore playing a team from Urlingford in the Barony names. There were hurling matches taking place. Nowadays a Junior B match would be reported in the paper but back then a crowd of fellas would meet up and go play a game of hurling. We don’t know what their literacy levels were like, nobody might have been able to write, so they didn’t send anything into the paper. The problem with the hurling was, and this might have been tied back to the Napoleonic War and the Act of Union, that it wasn’t easy to get land to play on. A lot of landowners might have been upset and weren’t as keen to give space. Patronage was suppressed and taken away.”
To find out more about our national game and a sport that wasn’t reported on in the newspapers of the time, Pat went up to Dublin to the National Archives to find other sources of information. The Magistrates Courts, which came in around the 1970s, replaced an earlier form of court known as the ‘Petty Sessions’. These Petty Session reports were a source Pat Bracken accessed to see if he could find out more: “Breach of the Sabbath meant that you couldn’t play sport or any game, even cards, on a Sunday. If you were caught and penalised you were brought before the courts. This wasn’t unique to Ireland. It was all part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
“Fellas were brought before the courts for playing hurling on a Sunday.”
“I have a number of references from Bansha and Fethard where fellas were brought to court. Some of them were named because they were playing on the fair green or playing somewhere on a Sunday. They might have played the other six days of the week if they had time. That’s only surmising because a lot of them were tenant farmers and whatever else, and may not have had time. If they had time, there was no law broken if they played on the fair green the other six days. But that is unknown.”
Continuing, Pat says, “The other one was a case of trespass. Again, a lot of boys were brought before the courts for trespass onto land to play hurling or to go looking for a ball they lost through playing hurling or playing on the street. It was a crime to play any sport on the public highway. That was the case not alone in Ireland but in England, Scotland and Wales. There was often reports in Clonmel that these ball sports were a notorious nuisance and the mayor was urged to see that they be stopped as soon as possible. Boys and men were brought before the courts for playing hurling and that’s what it was.”
While hurling was played in Ireland at the time, the same access wasn’t there for women who wished to participate and compete in hurling or other sports. Position in society played a role in dictating what sports one chose and gender played a role too. Options existed among a certain class to participate and thrive at sports, but women who wished to take part in different sports had obstacles to overcome. Pat emphasises that they didn’t have the same opportunities in the Ireland of that time: “I know we have a lot of top female sports stars today like Aishling Moloney, but that opportunity just wasn’t there back then for women. It was to an extent, where you find them in the reports of the hunt meets where ladies would go follow the hunt, but it was a rare enough occurrence. But in archery, Lucy Quinn was very good and Lena Rice from Marlhill. They excelled and were probably some of the leading sports women of their time.”
Lena Rice went on to excel at tennis too, and later won the famed Wimbledon championship in England – a story for another day!
Pat Bracken, who is a Staff Officer at Tipperary County Council Library service, explains his initial reason for looking at this time period: “I was doing some research at the International centre for sports, history and culture in the University in Leicester and we had a fair idea of what went on in Tipperary, sporting wise, from 1884 to the present day in GAA, rugby, horse racing and so on. But prior to 1884 there was this void, so to speak, as if 1884 was the big bang in sporting growth and development so I wanted to go back further to see how did we get to 1884.
“I also wanted to embrace the famine to see did anything happen during the famine period or did everything just come, as during Covid-19, with everything shutdown. I started in 1840 and went up to 1880 because it was doable and I also had two newspaper sources to work from – ‘The Tipperary Free Press’ from Clonmel started around 1829 and ‘The Nenagh Guardian’ started in 1838. I had both ends of the county covered and I knew I would have primary source material to work on.
“A lot of the reports were sent in by people who participated themselves or by a friend of a friend who was there because there was no sports journalism as such. It wasn’t until the latter half of the century, particularly with fox hunting. There was a fella who signed himself off as ‘Larky Grigg’, who would send in reports of the hunt meets. He was well connected with the hunt and he travelled around Tipperary following, primarily, the Tipperary Foxhounds. He would also have reports from other hunt meets and would send those in. The hunt community was one community which was very strong in Tipperary, not even in the 19th century but from the 18th century. It really took off in the 1840s when the Marquis of Waterford gave it his patronage and his blessing. He developed a hunting lodge where Rockwell College is now but the hounds were poisoned there and he moved over to Fethard and the hunt community carried on from there. The hunt grew and blossomed and became one of the leading hunts in Tipperary.
“What struck me doing the research was that prior to the Land War,” Pat explains, “I expected that the hunt would have been really under pressure with hostilities, but there was phenomenal growth in the mid-1860s up until the 1880s. In terms of the hunt community, I looked at reports that were sent into the press where they give a list of hunt meets for the next five to ten meets. Sometimes they’d meet twice a week, sometimes once a week. Tipperary hunt could meet three times a week! Over the years I looked at, the Tipperary hunt went out 1,759 times! There could be more but those were the ones I came across. The hunts were right across Tipperary; the Nenagh Harriers, the Thurles Harriers and the Cahir Garrison Harriers. The military and people living in the country houses and estates were very much central to all of that. They had a lifestyle and a means to be able to go out and hunt.“
“The military officer’s class were central to sport in Tipperary. They had the time and they had the connections and they brought the games ‘ethic’ with them from England. Anglo Irish families were also involved in it but then you also had, in the Tipperary hunt, some tenant farmers who were supportive of it. There was a whole economic background to it too. The saddles, the farriers, the harness makers, the clothiers who provided the jackets were all involved. If you look at the adverts for Templemore, Thurles, Clonmel and Nenagh, all these trades were there. The saddle maker, the harness maker, the blacksmith and so on were able to keep small families going and it was passed on from generation to generation.”
Next week we will look at the history of horse racing in county Tipperary.
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