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'It was the biggest game in Ireland' | Rouse on cricket history

Eoin Harte
Eoin Harte

20:31 23 Jul 2019

Author and UCD history lecturer Paul Rouse was on Off the Ball and spoke about how cricket was once the most popular sport in Ireland.

The game was popular with the Anglo-Irish landed gentry that owned much of the land in Ireland in the 1800s but the sport was also very popular with the general public.

“It was the biggest game in Ireland in the 1870s and the 1880s without question. You read newspapers, whether it was the local press or the national press, there were reports of cricket matches all across the countryside.

“There was a cricket pitch laid out at every significant British barracks in the country. All the public schools of Ireland had cricket pitches. The elite, on their landed estates had cricket pitches.

“The most prestigious one was at the Viceregal Lodge, currently An Aras an Uachtarain, you had the most beautiful cricket pitch in the country… the Viceroy and his elite staff played but you also had the butcher, the baker and the servants also played on that same team,” Rouse explained.

Even though cricket was played by so many across the country, it didn’t take long for the sport to decline dramatically in popularity. The emergence of the GAA being a major force behind this change.

“They derided cricket as the garrison game. The GAA was utterly vitriolic in how it attacked cricket.

“The things that were said, that cricket was for seanins and traitors and why wouldn’t they play a real Irish game. The things that were said and written were outrageous,” Rouse explained.

However, other English sports such as rugby and soccer were also harshly criticised by the newly founded GAA, yet they managed to maintain their popularity.

Rouse explained that social changes and issues in the governance of the sport also attributed to the fall of cricket in Ireland.

“Cricket was very strong in rural Ireland through the 1890s in rural Ireland but two things are important.

"First of all the Land War causes a sundering between the gentry and the public. So those great estates where there were cricket pitches are now lost. So that really matters because there’s a change in the social organisation of rural Ireland.

“There’s a change from those 5,000 landlords who won the country to the 70,000 tenant farmers who now take the land… and those tenant farmers aren’t given the land for cricket pitches.

“The second point is an internal cricket issue. The singular failure of an establishment of a cricketing body for Ireland.

While there was an attempt to establish a cricket union of Ireland opposition from some of the countries biggest clubs saw it fail to get off the ground.

The Irish Cricket Union was eventually founded in 1923 but even then, it failed to win the allegiance of every sector of cricket in Ireland.

“It was only in 2001 that a fully formed Irish Cricket Union, which eventually became Cricket Ireland, was established,” Rouse explained.

While cricket has managed to win back some of its popularity in recent years through a number of high profile wins for the national side, it’s unlikely the sport will ever get back to its heyday in the 1870s.

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Cricket History Ireland Paul Rouse

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