The history of cricket in County Kilkenny—the forgotten game

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

The history of cricket in County Kilkenny—the forgotten game
Michael O’Dwyer
(O’Dwyer Books, ‘Garvaghey’, College Gardens, Kilkenny,
e35 + e7 p&p)

Michael O’Dwyer’s book is correctly subtitled ‘the forgotten game’. Whatever else we may think of when we think of Kilkenny, cricket hardly leaps to mind. And yet this book, drawing on the ample documentation of Kilkenny newspapers, shows that cricket was strongly rooted in the community as a people’s game by the 1860s. What is more, cricket was not the preserve of a few estate or garrison towns or cossetted demesne teams but predominantly a rural game, played by farmers and labourers in their ordinary clothes.
The first recorded game of cricket in Ireland took place in 1792 in the Phoenix Park. The game spread slowly, but teams are recorded in Ballinasloe by 1825, Trinity College by 1827, Kilkenny by 1830 and Carlow by 1831. Unsurprisingly, prominent landlords like the marquess of Ormonde in Kilkenny and the Parnells in Wicklow were early sponsors. The first recorded game in Kilkenny took place on the lawns of the castle in 1829 and the 1839 Ordnance Survey map shows the neat cricket ground there. By 1830 there was a club at Norelands (the later Mount Juliet), which became the epicentre of cricket in the county. A contemporary song lists—ungrammatically—the three great ‘C’s—‘Kilkenny, claret and cricket’. In the pre-Famine period, the game was anchored on the great demesnes, like Gowran Castle, Castlecomer, Foulkscourt, Bessborough, and Desart Court near Callan. The diarist Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin records cricket in Callan in 1835 as ‘iomáin gallda’ (foreign hurling). In Kilkenny, the British Army played only a minor role, whereas it was hugely important in Tipperary with its many garrison towns, including Clonmel, Cahir, Thurles, Fethard, Tipperary, Templemore and Nenagh.
The game was not played during the Famine years but, unlike hurling, it revived in 1851 and enjoyed its heyday from the 1860s to the First World War. Interest peaked in neighbouring Tipperary in 1876, when there were 43 active teams. The Land War of the 1880s, and the resulting unpopularity of landlords, weakened it there, but the impact was lessened in Kilkenny, where the game was more strongly embedded among the farming class. By the 1880s, 45 teams were active in Kilkenny and ‘There is no game held in such high esteem at the present day as cricket amongst every class from the peasant to the nobleman and all love it’. We should remind ourselves that at this time Michael Cusack was a member of Blackrock College cricket club.
Initially the GAA made little inroad on cricket in Kilkenny, and indeed the game’s popularity peaked as late as 1896, when there were 50 active teams. Cricket may have delayed the spread of the GAA in County Kilkenny, aided by post-Parnellite dissensions in the GAA board there in the early 1890s. By 1898 it could be said of Gowran (home of D. J. Carey) that ‘This is essentially a cricketing village’. The only surviving cricket pavilion in the county is on the Gowran pitch-and-putt course, and that historic building should be an object for planning protection.
As a Tipperary man, O’Dwyer does not shy away from recording the lamentable state of hurling in late nineteenth-century Kilkenny. Modern-day Kilkenny is ringed by its four outstanding hurling clubs, but in the nineteenth century ten different cricket clubs were based there, shown on an intriguing map on page 130. In 1887 Michael Cusack’s Celtic Times despatched an observer to report on the state of hurling in Kilkenny. He saw a hurling match in the town with no spectators present, ‘a fact which proves conclusively what little hold the GAA has taken on Kilkenny’. He went on to deplore the quality on offer: ‘The hurling of both teams was, we believe, the worst and most spiritless ever witnessed on an Irish hillside . . . It would break the heart of a Moycarkey or Galway Gael to witness such a contemptible perversion of the grand old dashing game of hurling’.
So bad was the situation that an 1895 letter-writer to the Kilkenny Journal implored the cricket clubs to help out the GAA by playing football and hurling in the winter months: ‘They should now form themselves into football clubs or perhaps I should have said hurling, or both . . . The GAA should have its own club in every parish’. The advice must have been acted on, as Kilkenny won its first hurling All-Ireland in 1904: it is possible that cricket proved the salvation for Kilkenny hurling. Perhaps this should not come as too much of a surprise; some of the skills of both games overlap, although cricket lacks the physical intensity of hurling. So it is salutary to be reminded that Henry Meagher, father of Lory, was a mainstay of the Tullaroan cricket team in the 1880s, as were the Fennelly family later in the Ballyhale area.
On the eve of the First World War, twenty cricket teams were still active in the county. The game was not played in the miserable sporting decade from 1914 to 1924 but it enjoyed a renewed spurt between 1924 and 1931, with almost twenty teams again playing the game. The Second World War caused more lean years; after it, there was a brief revival and then the game finally sputtered out. In 1958 Mount Juliet became the sole surviving Kilkenny club, albeit relying primarily on outside players.
This detailed book certainly opens a new vista on the sports history of Ireland. It is salutary to be reminded that cricket teams flourished in places like Mullinavat, Clohastia, Windgap, Tullaroan, Templeorum, Kilmoganny, Knockmoylan and Coolyhune. We can add this study to books on the game in Kildare, Carlow and Tipperary and a recent thesis on Westmeath, featured in History Ireland. The GAA casts a giant shadow, but Michael O’Dwyer’s painstaking trawling of the newpapers has allowed him to shine a fresh light on a hitherto dark spot—one of the primary aims of all good history-writing.

Kevin Whelan is Director of the Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre.

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