Nationalist attitudes to golf

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), Letters, Letters, Volume 15

Sir,

—While Daniel Mulhall’s article on golf’s early days in Ireland (HI14.5, Sept./Oct. 2006) is very interesting, I suspect that heunderestimates the extent of nationalist hostility to golf in theperiod. The relative scarcity of denunciations of golf in nationalistpublications may reflect the fact that its select and often olderclientele meant that it did not compete directly with Gaelic sports (assoccer, for example, did). It was, however, denounced on two grounds:

(1) Social class/snobbery—cf. for example the Tom Lalor cartoon ‘TheShoneens’ Progress’ in the Leader of 14 February 1914 (with verses byAMW [John Swift]), which presents golf as a symbol of tinpot snobs suchas ‘Bung’ the publican, who despise productive industry while engagingin ludicrous provincial displays:

‘In Ballyshoneen little thought they bestow
On swains and mechanics uncultured and low;
Towards work and production small heed they display,
And trade in this hamlet is left to decay.

This rustic retreat has a name far and nigh
For tinpot aristocrats pompous and high.
They’re so full of fashion it’s strange that no hint,
Or line of their doings in Paris they print.

For there is big Bung at the head of the crowd
With Bank Clerk and Pawn very haughty and proud;
There too all correct and most socially sound
In upper ten circle may Bobby be found . . .

No doubt Paris journals of fashion and style
Will soon get their lamps on this part of our isle,
And lords, dukes and earls will read of some scene
Described on the golf links of Ballyshoneen . . .’
(2) Its association with Arthur James Balfour (mentioned by DanielMulhall in connection with nationalist attacks on the Phoenix Parkgolf-course). Balfour’s fondness for golf was related to the proximityof his Scottish Whittinghame estate to the Royal and Ancientgolf-course at St Andrews, and nationalist newspapers like UnitedIreland regularly accused him of viewing Ireland’s sufferings from StAndrews in the manner of Nero fiddling while Rome burned (cf. forexample J. D. Reigh’s cartoon ‘Ireland Wrestles with Famine while MrBalfour Plays Golf’ from United Ireland, 23 August 1890, reproduced onp. 40 of L. Perry Curtis Jr’s Images of Erin in the age of Parnell(National Library of Ireland, 2000)). In some quarters this hostilitywas long-lasting. Arthur Clery, who wrote for D. P. Moran’s Leaderunder the pen-name ‘Chanel’, devoted considerable casuistic energy toarguing that tennis and even rugby might be tolerated by Gaels butdeclared that he could never stomach golf because of its associationwith Balfour. Clery believed that the game had actually been introducedinto Ireland by Balfour and taken up by unionists as a gesture ofadmiration for him. (In fact, as Mulhall’s article shows, golf hadappeared in the north of Ireland in the late 1870s and had spread southto Dublin well before Balfour’s arrival in 1887.) This illusion wasshared by others who came to take a kindlier view of golf. In hisRecollections of an Irish judge (London, 1914), the former deputyeditor of United Ireland, Matthias M’Donnell Bodkin, recalls:

‘It is, however, only fair to remember that during his stormy career inIreland, Mr Balfour conferred one great boon on the country whichalmost entitles him to rank with Sir Walter Raleigh as a publicbenefactor. If Sir Walter introduced the potato, Mr Balfour introducedgolf to an appreciative people, and both grew and flourished with anamazing rapidity and vigour in the congenial Irish soil.
Before Mr Balfour’s coming the very name of golf was unknown. Irecall with shame that the game was ridiculed in the columns of UnitedIreland, and the name “Mr Golfour” regarded as a term of reproach. Thefew votaries who first followed his lead and formed the Royal Golf Clubof Dollymount, with their caddies and their bags of queer-lookingclubs, were subjected to merciless ridicule. Nationalists stood out fora long time against the game, but, one by one, myself among the number,they yielded to its inexplicable, irresistible fascination . . .
For all golf is a great game; for elderly people like myself it isthe only game. It not merely affords enjoyment, but it enforcesexercise and fresh air which the doctor can only prescribe. WhenIrishmen are tempted to recall with bitterness Mr Balfour’s regime,they should never forget they are indebted to him for the pricelessbenefaction of golf.’

—Yours etc.,
PATRICK MAUME
Queen’s University
Belfast

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