‘As happy as seven kings’

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22

The Irish Cyclist presented a fascinating picture of cyclists in Dublin’s Phoenix Park in May 1896, during the cycling craze:

‘To laze away a few hours in the Phoenix Park one of these fine evenings is delightful; and watching the motley train of cyclists that go by is never tiresome. In the early evening the “classes” are out, highly respectable ladies pedalling around with a look meaning “society expects everyone to do their duty, and we are doing it”. They are usually followed by well-filled men, getting on to second childhood. A little later, the junior “swells” come out. Refined young men in leggings and driving gloves, tall collars, and other comfort providers. They generally escort ladies—invariably young, but very variable every other way. The man of the “it’s all settled, we’re only waiting” couple wants to let everybody see who is the predominant partner. He bowls along as fast as he can, and if he has acquired the hands-off trick, he keeps his chest out and hands down straight like a sprinter, and looks around as proud as any animal in the Zoo. The poor little fiancée plugs along hotly behind, her skirt flopping, and her eyes smarting with the dust kicked up by her lover . . . A few unescorted ladies come round at intervals, and look quite old enough to take care of themselves. Practising for new-womanhood, we suppose. Once or twice, peculiar figures flash past. Wild-faced men, thirty-anything, with cap off and legs akimbo. There being no asylum in the vicinity, we were forced to conclude that they were jilted lovers, or men out on a “bend”. It is twilight, and the “k-r-r-r-r” of the scorchers’ wheels begins to be frequent. Whole files of humped up mixum-gatherums whizz by. Grimy fellows in kinkled trousers; ancient speed-men with pipes; smart club youths, complete with knickers, sweater and badge; oddments in straw hats, long coats, and brogues; machines from crocks to last season’s gems; round they go silent as spectres, with a look of comatose unhappiness on their faces. Border the road with dark pines, and they would resemble a band of sad spirits hastening to a Walpurgis night spectre-revel.’

The newspaper exaggerated the unhappiness of ‘scorchers’ for comic effect; most Irish cyclists would have agreed with J.M. Synge’s assessment of the therapeutic effects of cycling, when he stated that he felt ‘as happy as seven kings’ after one spin on his bicycle.

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