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Shin-kicking, horse swimming and grimacing | The history of Irish sport

Thom Malone
Thom Malone

21:22 31 Mar 2020

Everyone’s favourite sports historian Paul Rouse joined Off The Ball on Tuesday for another instalment of his history of sport in Ireland odyssey.

Rouse was talking about the fairs that were very popular events across the country in medieval Ireland, which became the foundations for organised gatherings that would eventually evolve into major sporting events.

The UCD historian recounted the story of Donnybrook Fair - not the shop.

It began in 1204 by writ of King John as part of the establishment of formal structures of Ireland, the same year as Dublin Castle.

"Donnybrook Fair is the first example of great public fairs, commercial events that took place around the country," says Rouse.

"It was an eight-day commercial event where people sold their wares, but very quickly around it developed all manner of sporting events.

"So people began to race against each other in running, they began to have throwing competitions and jumping competitions, and it became a venue for cock-fighting, "added Rouse

First sporting outlet

Donnybrook Fair was one of the first sporting outlets held on the island of Ireland, as a major public event. These fairs exploded in popularity over the next 600 years or so.

The UCD professor told listeners, "by 1800 there were more than 1200 fairs being held around the countryside. In all of those fairs and on those fair greens sporting events took place."

Those sports are slightly different from the palette on offer to modern-day sports fans, with shin-kicking, swimming horses, grimacing, grinning and dancing competitions all part of the fun of the fair.

Stone-throwing and tug-of-war contests date back to these gatherings.

Shin-kicking

The fairs were a form of entertainment for the patrons and the shin-kicking contests apparently were for the audience's benefit, perhaps more than the participants.

Paul explained the shin-kicking in the minimal detail that was required for such an activity.

The players toss to see who gets to kick first, before the players took it in turns to kick each other in the shins and it was a case "the last man standing" - quite literally.

Many of the events were feats of basic endurance. There were dancing competitions held, where the person who can dance for the longest is the winner.

While these sports had various levels of seriousness, it was also the birthplace of sports inequality between the sexes.

"It was sport for all depending on the sport," says Rouse, who notes that the men's races were seen as more serious while the women's races were deemed to be more "frivolous."

"Men's competition was already seen to be more important, and more central to how people did things."

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