IRELAND AT PLAY
By THOMAS E. HEALY,
Editor of “Sport,” Dublin.
On the face of the earth there is no nation in which the love of clean and wholesome sport is more strongly developed than in the Irish. Against us it cannot be urged that we take our pleasures sadly. We enter into them with entire self-abandon, whole-hearted enthusiasm, and genuine exuberance of spirit. There is nothing counterfeit about the Irishman in his play. His one keen desire is to win, be the contest what it may; and towards the achievement of that end he will strain nerve and muscle even to the point of utter exhaustion. And how the onlookers applaud at the spectacle of a desperately contested race, whether between horses, men, motorcars, bicycles, or boats, or of a match between football, hurling, or cricket teams! It matters not which horse, man, car, cycle, boat, or team is successful: the sport is the thing that counts; the strenuousness of the contest is what stimulates and evokes the rapturous applause. At such a moment it is good to be alive. Scenes similar to those hinted at may be witnessed on any sports-field or racetrack in our dear little Emerald Isle almost any day of the year. All is good fellowship; all is in the cause of sport.
No one can question that in some departments of horse-racing Ireland is today supreme. The Irish devotion to the horse is of no recent growth. Everybody knows how, in the dim and distant days when King Conor macNessa ruled at Emain, the war-steeds of the Ultonians neighed loudly in their stalls on the first dramatic appearance of Cuchulainn of Muirthemne at the northern court. Cuchulainn’s own two steeds, Liath Macha, “the Roan of Macha”, and Dub Sainglenn, “Black Sanglan”, are celebrated in story and song:
Never hoofs like them shall ring, Rapid as the winds of spring.
To read of the performances of Cuchulainn and his war-horses and his charioteer and friend, Laeg macRiangahra, at the famous battle of Rosnaree, and again at the last fight between the Red Branch Knights and the forces of Queen Medb of Connacht, does truly, in the words used by Sir Philip Sidney in another connection, stir the heart like the sound of a trumpet.
As time went on, the Irish war-horse became more and more famous, and always carried his rider in gallant style. Stout was the steed that, bestridden by Godfrey O’Donnell at the battle of Credan-Kille, withstood the shock of Lord Maurice Fitzgerald’s desperate onslaught, and by his steadiness enabled the Tyrconnell chieftain to strike senseless and unhorse his fierce Norman foe. More celebrated still was the high-spirited animal which Art MacMurrogh rode in 1399 to his ineffectual parley with King Richard the Second’s representative, the Earl of Gloucester. The French chronicler who was a witness of that historic scene tells us that a horse more exquisitely beautiful, more marvellously fleet, he had never seen. “In coming down,” he says, “it galloped so hard that, in my opinion, I never saw hare, deer, sheep, or any other animal, I declare to you for a certainty, run with such speed as it did.” Edmund Spenser, the poet of The Faerie Queene, writing in 1596, bears this striking testimony to the Irish horse-soldier and inferentially to the Irish horse: “I have hearde some greate warriours say, that, in all the services which they had seene abroade in forrayne countreys, they never sawe a more comely horseman than the Irish man, nor that cometh on more bravely in his charge.” The feats performed at the Battle of the Boyne, in 1690, by the Irish horse-soldiers under Hamilton and Berwick were really wonderful, and well-nigh turned disaster into victory on that memorable day which decided the fate of nations as well as of dynasties. And surely those were fleet and stout-hearted steeds that, on August 12, 1690, carried Sarsfield and his chosen five hundred on their dare-devil midnight ride from the Keeper Hills to Ballyneety, where in the dim morning twilight they captured and destroyed William of Orange’s wonderful siege-train, and thereby heartened the defenders of beleaguered Limerick.
Writing in 1809, Lawrence, in his History and Delineation of the Horse, said: “From Ireland alone we import [into England] many saddle horses, as many perhaps as 1,500 in a year; upwards in some years. The Irish are the highest and steadiest leapers in the world. Ireland has bred some good racers, and the generality of Irish horses are, it appears, warmer tempered than our own; and, to use the expression, sharper and more frigate-built.”
It is not to be wondered at therefore if in such a country there developed an ardent love of the noble sport of horse-racing. The Curragh of Kildare, the long-standing headquarters of the Irish Turf Club, was celebrated far back in the eighteenth century as the venue of some great equine contests; and to this day, with its five important fixtures every year, it still holds pride of place. There are numerous other race-courses all over the country, from Punchestown, Leopardstown, Phoenix Park, and Baldoyle in the east to Galway in the west, and from The Maze in the north to rebel Cork in the south. Horse-racing has not inappropriately been termed the national pastime of Ireland. The number of people now giving their attention to it has called for a notable increase in the number of race-meetings, and stake-money is being put up on a more generous scale than at any previous time in the history of the sport. For example, the Irish Derby, run at the Curragh, was in 1914 worth £2,500; and there are besides several stakes of £1,500 and £1,000. The result of this forward policy is that increasing numbers come to our race-meetings and that the turf has never been more popular than it is today. Men and women of wealth and position find in the national pastime a pleasant method of employing their leisure, and in expending their surplus wealth in its pursuit and in the raising of horses of the highest class they realize that they confer a real benefit on the country.
It is, of course, now universally known that Ireland has an international reputation as a country eminently fitted for horse-breeding. If proof were needed, it would be found in the extensive purchases effected by English, French, Italian, German, Russian, and American buyers at the great Dublin Horse Show held in August every year. Horses bought in Ireland have seldom failed to realize their promise. The English classic races and many of the principal handicaps on the flat have been often won by Irish-bred horses, such as Galtee More, Ard Patrick, Orby, Kilwarlin, Barcaldine, Umpire, Master Kildare, Kilsallaghan, Bendigo, Philomel, The Rejected, Comedy, Winkfield’s Pride, Bellevin, Royal Flush, Victor Wild, Bachelor’s Button, Irish Ivy, and Hackler’s Pride. If only a few of the star performers are here set down, it is not from lack of means to continue, but merely from a desire to avoid the compilation of a mere string of names. In France, too, the Irish racer has made his mark. It is, however, in the four-and-a-half miles’ Liverpool Grand National Steeplechase, the greatest cross-country race in the world, the supreme test of the leaper, galloper, and stayer, that Irish-bred horses have made perhaps the most wonderful record. The list of winners of that great event demonstrates in an unmistakable manner that we are second to none in the art of breeding steeplechase horses. Among many other noted Irish-bred winners of this race there stand boldly forth the names of The Lamb, Empress, Woodbrook, Frigate, Come Away, Cloister, Wild Man from Borneo, and Manifesto. In fact, it is the exception when another than an Irish-bred horse annexes the blue riband of steeplechasing.
Closely allied to horse-racing is fox-hunting, and fox-hunting, as well as the hunting of the stag and of the hare, has flourished exceedingly in Ireland for a long time past. A great deal of needed employment is one of the results. Dogs are specially bred and trained for each of these branches of sport. Irish foxhounds, staghounds, harriers, and beagles have a high reputation. More native to the soil, and so interwoven with the history of the country that it is often used as one of its symbols, is the Irish wolfhound. This is probably the animal to which Aurelius Symmachus, a Roman consul in Britain, referred when, writing to his brother in Ireland in A.D. 391, he acknowledged the receipt of seven Irish hounds. The wolfhound played a sinister part in the Irish history of the eighteenth century, for, as Davis says in his poem, “The Penal Days”:
Their dogs were taught alike to run Upon the scent of wolf and friar.
The Irish wolfhound is now very scarce, and a genuine specimen is a valued and highly coveted possession. The greyhound, too, figures prominently in present-day sport, and in many parts of the country are held coursing meetings, which frequently result in several spirited contests. A famous Irish greyhound was Lord Lurgan’s black and white dog, Master McGrath. Master McGrath achieved the rare distinction of winning the Waterloo Cup three times, in 1868, 1869, and 1871. When it is remembered that the Waterloo Cup is to coursing what the Liverpool Grand National is to steeplechasing, or the Epsom Derby to flat racing, the merit of this triple performance will at once be apparent.
Compared with the sports in which horse and hound participate, all other outdoor pastimes in Ireland take rather a minor place. Still, the Irishman’s love of sport is diversified. Few there are who have not many inclinations, and as a nation our taste in sport is catholic. We take part in nearly every pastime; in many we excel. The prize ring has fallen from its high estate, nor is it the intention here to try to cast any glamour over it. The subject is introduced, in a passing way, for the sole purpose of showing that, in what at least used to be the manly art of self-defense, Ireland in days gone by as well as at the present time has more than held her own. The most conspicuous of the representatives of her race in this department are perhaps Heenan, Ryan, Sullivan, Corbett, Maher, McAuliffe, McFarland, and McGoorty. There is one other prize-fighter, Dan Donnelly by name, who became a sort of national hero, of whom all Irishmen of his day were not a little proud, because he laid the English champion low, and whose performance, now haloed by the antiquity of more than a hundred years, we may with equanimity, as without offense, contemplate, with perhaps a sigh for the good old times. The famous encounter between Donnelly and Cooper took place on the Curragh, and after eleven rounds of scientific boxing Donnelly knocked his opponent over the ropes and won the world’s championship for the Emerald Isle. The spot where the battle came off has ever since been known as Donnelly’s Hollow, and a neat monument there erected commemorates the Dublin man’s pluck and skill. A ballad recounting the incidents of the fight and, as ballads go, not badly composed, had a wonderful vogue, and was sung at fair and market and other meeting place within the memory of men who are not now more than middle-aged.
A search in other domains of sport will be by no means barren of results. Take running, for instance. Who has not heard of the wondrous little Thomas Conneff from the short-grass county of Kildare? Who does not know of his brilliant performances on the track? We in Ireland, who had seen him defeat Carter, the great Canadian, over the four-mile course at Ballsbridge one summer’s eve now nearly twenty golden years ago, knew his worth before he crossed the broad Atlantic to show to thousands of admiring spectators in America that Ireland was the breeder of fleet-footed sons, who lacked neither the courage, nor the thews and sinews, nor the staying power, to carry them at high speed over any distance of ground. May the earth lie light on Conneff, for in a small body he had a great heart! Then there was the mighty runner, James J. Daly, a true hero from Galway, the idol of the crowd in his native land as well as in the United States. Daly was the champion long distance cross-country runner of his day at home, and he showed before various nationalities in the Greater Ireland beyond the seas that he could successfully compete with the best from all countries.
In high jumping, Patrick Davin, P. Leahy, and Peter O’Connor were for long in the foremost rank; Daniel Ahearne was famous for his hop-step-and-jump performance; Maurice Davin, Matthew McGrath, and Patrick Ryan have, each in his own day, thrown the 16-pound hammer to record distance; in shot-putting there are Sheridan, Horgan, John Flanagan, and others bearing true Irish names, who are right in front; and before their time we had a redoubted champion in W.J.M. Barry. All previous performances in the shot-putting line have, however, been recently eclipsed by Patrick J. McDonald, of the Irish-American Club, who at Celtic Park, Long Island, on May 30, 1914, made a new world’s record by putting the 18-pound shot 46 feet 2-3/4 inches. The climax of achievement was reached when T.F. Kiely won the all-round championship of the world at New York. The distinguished part taken by Irishmen or sons of Irishmen in all departments of the Olympic games is so recent and so well known as to call for no comment. Ireland is far indeed from being degenerate in her athletes.
In international strife with England, Scotland, Wales, and France at Rugby football, Ireland has likewise won her spurs. She has never been beaten by the representatives of Gaul; and though for long enough she had invariably to succumb in competition with the other three countries, such is not the case nowadays, nor has it been for many years past. The Irish team has ever to be reckoned with. In Association football, too, Ireland is coming into her own. This branch of the game has developed enormously within a comparatively few seasons. The people flock in their thousands to witness matches for the principal league contests or cup ties. But the greatest crowds of all go to see Gaelic football, the national game; and to hurling, also distinctively Irish, they foregather in serried masses. Since the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded both football and hurling have prospered exceedingly. They are essentially popular forms of sport, and the muscular manhood of city and country finds in them a natural outlet for their characteristic Celtic vigor. The Gaelic Association has fostered and developed these sports, and has organized them on so sound a basis that interest in them is not confined to any particular district but spreads throughout the length and breadth of Ireland.
When the America Cup was to be challenged for, into the breach stepped the Earl of Dunraven and flung his gage to the holders of the trophy. This distinguished Irish nobleman furnished a contender in his Valkyrie II. in the fall of 1893, and his patriotic spirit in doing so stirred the sport-loving Irish nation to the greatest enthusiasm. His lordship was not successful, but he was not disheartened. He tried again with Valkyrie III., but again he was only second best, for, though his yacht sailed to victory in home waters, she proved unequal to the task of lifting the cup. No Englishman was prepared to tempt fortune, but not so that sterling Irishman, Sir Thomas Lipton, who, win or lose, would not have it laid to the charge of Ireland that an attempt should not be made. His Shamrock, Shamrock II., and Shamrock III.–surely a deep sense of patriotism prompted nomenclature such as that–each in succession went down to defeat; but Sir Thomas has not done yet. Like King Bruce, he is going to try again, and Shamrock IV. is to do battle with the best that America can range against her. All honor to Lord Dunraven and to Sir Thomas Lipton for their persistent efforts to engage in generous rivalry with the yachtsmen across the sea.
Lawn-tennis, cricket, and golf we play, and play well; to rowing many of us are enthusiastically devoted; and at handball our young men–and some not so young–are signally expert. The champion handball player has always been of Irish blood. Baseball we invented–and called it rounders. It is significant that the great American ball game is still played according to a code which is scarcely modified from that which may be seen in force any summer day on an Irish school field or village green. Perhaps something of hereditary instinct is to be traced in the fact that many of the best exponents of American baseball are the bearers of fine old Irish names.
This brief and cursory review of Ireland at Play must now conclude. It is scarcely more than a glossary, and not a complete one at that. It may, however, serve to show that Ireland’s record in sport, like her record in so many other things set forth in this book, is great and glorious enough to warrant the insertion of this short chapter among those which tell of old achievements and feats of high emprize.
Racing–Irish Racing Calendar: 1790-1914, 124 vols. (Dublin, Brindley and Son); The Racing Calendar: 1774-1914 (London, Weatherby and Sons). Breeding–The General Stud Book: 1908-1913, 22 vols. (London, Weatherby and Sons). Racing and Breeding Generally–Cox: Notes on the History of the Irish Horse (Dublin, 1897). Boxing and Athletics–Files of Sport and Freeman’s Journal.