Places We Play: Ireland's Sporting Heritage

A new book explains how sport helped to shape Ireland's infrastructure and economy

There can be something very comforting about sifting through old photographs, even if the faces staring back at you are those of strangers. To then discover that there might be a connection to family folklore adds a sense of intrigue.

I recall from my childhood, references that my mother made to having had a distant cousin who had been an athlete of some note. Mother could not remember his name, but she thought that he was from somewhere in Limerick or Tipperary, across the county border from her home in Waterford.

Whoever this mysterious athlete was, he had emigrated to America and had been representing his adopted homeland at the Olympic Games. She was sure that he’d won a medal. Oh yes, and it had been gold.

As these were the days before Google and Wikipedia, the means of checking the accuracy of her story were limited. My boyhood inquisitiveness about his identity soon waned. Maybe it was just a fable.

However, that curiosity was piqued after reading the wonderfully intriguing book, Places We Play: Ireland's Sporting Heritage, written by Mike Cronin and Roisin Higgins.

In the authors' own words, the book 'explains the impact of railways, the military, landed wealth, local tradesmen and national politics on the development of the built sporting landscape'.

In pre-famine Ireland, hurling and horse racing had their place beside prize fighting and rowing. Midway through the 1800s the movement of people back and forward between Ireland and Britain brought the influx and spread of more sports.

Cricket, golf, rugby and soccer found a willing audience ready to participate in their development alongside Gaelic games.

'English heritage have done a series of books on English sporting sites, so we decided to see if we could have a similar project in Ireland,' explains Higgins, who is a research fellow at the Dublin-based Boston College-Ireland.

'It was conceived during the years of the Celtic Tiger. So many places were being moved, everything was being sold to property developers and no one was stopping to pay attention to what had been there. What we had wanted to do initially was to record what was there.'

Higgins is referring to places such as the indoor real tennis court at Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin, which was constructed in 1885 for Edward Guinness, or Trinity College Pavilion, which looked out over Ireland’s first ever modern athletics meeting in 1857.

By that stage the Turf Club had already been in existence for 67 years, and the Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders, formed in 1685 by Royal Charter from King James II, was well on the way to its second century of business.

'Why do some historians and academics not think that sport is significant, given its importance to the economy and how it tells the social history of Ireland?' asks Higgins. 'Some see it as a distraction rather than having been at the centre of things. But just look at how dependent somewhere like Galway was on the industry.

'Horse racing was more about the breeding of horses. Racing itself was not the business. Showjumping was about figuring out which horses were best suited to the hunt. It in itself was not a sport. Horses were big business and the sports came out of that business.'

And politics was never allowed to get in the way of business. Racing at Down Royal was cancelled as a mark of respect to those who died at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, for instance, and following the death of Michael Collins during the Irish Civil War in 1922.

'That really tells a story of how the horse racing fraternity was linked up and down the country and that the sport took place in neutral grounds,' says Higgins.

The Irish Golfing Guide of 1916 gives one indication of the influence of the railway on sport in Ireland.

'When you look at the map of the old railway lines it is extraordinary to see how many there were. The system was so important to where things were located. One of my favourite photographs is of a hotel at Lahinch Golf Club. The West Clare railway line is in the foreground and then there is the opulence of the hotel behind.'

Other venues developed, too, near the railways that transported thousands of spectators to sporting events all over the country. While passengers had to pay fares, horses travelled free to race meetings. And in industrial Belfast, football grounds were built in the shadow of the shipyards and the city’s linen mills. Motorsport, too, was important to the country’s image.

'Events like the North West 200 were heavily supported by the Northern Ireland government in the early years of the state. It saw this as a way of presenting the country as being a modern industrial society,' Higgins adds.

Unbeknown to Higgins or Cronin, Places We Play acts not only as an expert guide to Ireland's sporting heritage, but it could also provide the answer to a family mystery that has intrigued the Coyles for decades.

Amongst the fascinating and beautiful images of Ireland’s sporting history are photographs of the statues of Matt McGrath and Pat Ryan. Both men won Olympic gold as they competed in the hammer throwing event for the USA in the first part of the last century. Both men came from Munster.

Maybe one of them was the distant relative that my mother referred to all those years ago. It's a lovely bit of sporting history to be able to cling on to.

Places We Play: Ireland's Sporting Heritage is published by The Collins Press.