From The United Irishman, October 20, 1900.
One of the features of the times in Ireland is the prominence, which every year is growing more marked, of Athletics in our daily life. A few years since there was none of the colossal tournaments and few, if any, of the sporting journals which today stare one in the face at every turn. Athleticism, as old as civilisation, has latterly in most parts of the world become almost a necessity to people, and its gatherings recur with the regularity of the tides and seasons. That outdoor sports of a bracing, healthy nature are essential to the existence of nation, that they make men better physically and intellectually, are in a manner tonics for the strain which the rush of modern life entails, is such a palpable fact that it need not be laboured here. Of athleticism itself in the abstract there can be no great adverse criticism. Of the manner in which it is carried out in this island of ours there is, unfortunately, much to be said, and little of a complimentary character.
Like almost everything else, Irish Athletics have suffered by the temporary submerging of the Irish language. Time was when every parish had its hurling team, its stalwart stone-throwers, its long jumpers, its high jumpers, and its swift-footed runners. Then also that parish had its poet and its seanachuidhe, its old men and women learned in the virtues of plants and herbs, and its fireside historians learned in the history of every rath and ruin in the neighbourhood. They have all but disappeared; here and there a hurling team survives, or a stone-caster worthy of his fathers arise and maintains the old reputation of the country for dexterity and muscle, but in the main the old order has changed, and the dry rot of Anglicisation has invaded our sports and pastimes, just as it has our literature, our language and our public life. The rise of the Gaelic Athletic Association for a time stayed the evil, and all but vanquished the foreigner and his amusements; but the unstable shifting and squabbling of the last decade has strengthened the stranger, and today his organisations and his pastimes have invaded every quarter of our island.
It were foolish to adopt a policy of insular hostility to everything external for there must be international reciprocity between nations, and most countries have contributed something to the general knowledge or comfort of mankind. But there is no such international arrangement between us and Great Britain. Anything that is forced upon a people is not likely to be of much benefit to them; nor is anything adopted by them through ignorance or slavishness likely to be to their advantage either. Ireland has always been fond of the horse, but the mania for betting has its votaries now in every class, from the boy who sells you your evening paper to the teller in the bank and the lawyer in the Four Courts. One sees London betting papers on all sides, and hears the weights and handicaps discussed with quite an au fait air by people who do not look as if they had very much to risk on the “off chance.” Apart from the morality of betting, these papers are powerful towards Anglicisation. They are purely British; cricket, coursing, football, swimming, footracing, everything of sporting character, are looked at purely from their interest for Britishers, and as if there were no other horses or sports in the world except those controlled by the Jockey Club or the Rugby Union. One hears of the British cricketer and his scoring as if he were some illustrious general who had fought his way to fame through the blood of thousands. One sees as much interest in a cricket match between two English counties as if the salvation of Ireland trembled in the balance. This might not be so noticeable if the people who pant to learn the last exploit of Ranjitsinjhi took even a tame interest in sport in France, Germany, or elsewhere. But no; they are content to lower themselves and their country to the level of a British shire, to talk learnedly of the bowling of this one and the batting of that, and to volunteer colossal wagers on the superiority of this or that eleven. They imagine they are sportsmen and liberal-minded people because they have risen above the common sports of Ireland, and have the names of British favourites on their fingers’ -ends. This cringing and crawling is not, as might be expected, confined to those enlightened persons the bank clerk or his mercantile brother. Those gentlemen – they are always gentlemen – are quite above the people, and take care to impress the fact on all occasions; but they have recently had accessions from the ranks of those trained in the National and Christian Brothers’ Schools – talented young men whose Intermediate training and South Kensington course have convinced them of the utter narrowness and smallness of Nationality – talented – tolerated – young men, who tell you over their glass of bitter beer and in the intervals snatched from the enjoyment of one of Ogden’s cigarettes, that they cannot see the use of keeping up this “bally bickering with England” – talented young men who talk of their governors and get the measurements of their clothes sent to London to have the latest cut and fashion. These talented young men have their imitators, too, in various thoughtless young men in lower ranks who take their views on all matters from the journals produced by the members of the British Institute of Journalists – who being intensely National, wide their leading columns – fill their pages with notes anent British actors, artistes and athletes, and lament the bad weather at Epsom, or the muddy condition of affairs at Lord’s. That cricket has never had anything but a hothouse existence in Ireland is certainly not the fault of either our newspapers or our talented young men.
But though cricket has never taken a hold here, other things have been more fortunate. Thanks to the unfailing and constant patronage of our colleges, Rugby football occupies the leisure moments of our young men whose destiny is one of the learned professions or the Indian Civil Service. That low common game once so popular among the ancestors of these young men is tabooed for the pastime affected by the Britisher. Of course the sport that Fionn and Oscar and their company followed is altogether unfitted for and beneath the scions of country grocers and police pensioners. It would give them no chance of masquerading as the representatives of Ireland before a howling British mob; it would deprive them of the possibility of hobnobbing with the blue bloods of Oxford, Cambridge, or where else. It would smash up the fellowship and kindly feeling which a series “of international matches” have sown. It would reduce them to mere Irishmen, an intolerable thing that no fellow could possibly submit to. So also the “Association” game of football has elevated our mechanics, artisans, and others, to the level of the gallant British soldier. There is now no obstacle to the young men of our towns and cities standing on the same footing, and sharing the refined conversation of the denizens of the barrack room. What a satisfaction it is to know that a British sergeant of foot condescends to act as umpire between his own company and a body of mere Irishmen. How pleasant to think that “spot” has done more than all the Acts of Parliament to make Irishmen and Englishmen foregather, and forget their racial hatred over the social cup. How pleasant it is to contemplate the march of English civilisation through our island; the choice chaste language of the barrack square and the canteen on the lips of our rising generations; the delicate airy humour of the Cockney tickling our fancy on every side; his comic papers delighting our young minds; his glorious lyrical creations ringing in our ears. Yes, it is a grand thing to think that while many of the young men who affect the companionship of the British soldier would tell you they are prepared to sacrifice their lives against the laws of the British Parliament, they are not resolute enough to forego the regulations of a British association which has no force behind it except snobbery and servility. Of the relative merits of the Irish and foreign games there is no need to speak here. During its existence the Gaelic Athletic Association has trained as great a proportion of first-class men in every line as any other combination in the world, but were its games the lowest in the list of athletic sports, simply and merely from the fact that they are our own we should patronise them and no others. There may be faults in its rules; there may have been disorganisation and want of discipline in its gatherings, but the faults can be mended. It is a fact that many of those who are devotees of the foreign game affect to protest against playing on Sundays, but such strict Sabbatarians ought not to be seen on a race course on such days, for gambling is at least a great a breach of the Commandments as indulging in exercise. We know, of course, that this plea is merely hypocritical. The game of the British association was originally introduced here by West-British snobs and their military friends, and naturally when our young men affect the game they must needs imitate the snobbery of their originals. It is slavish for any nation to fawn and fondle on another people, especially when that other happens to be master by force of arms. It is the spirit of the mongrel and the sycophant that sneers at what belongs to home and imitates servilely and soullessly the fashions and the fads of the foreigner. No nation ever yet rose to strength or influence by any other way than by the development of its own genius, characteristics, and resources. Those who think it “class” to comingle with the Britisher of any sort must be rigidly ostracised. Ireland can only be lifted by firmness and determination.