Éire-Ireland 41.1 (2006) 213-241
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Cycling and Gender in Victorian Ireland*
Until relatively recently there were very few academic studies of the history of sport in Ireland, and most of what has been written to date focuses mainly on the history of the country's foremost sporting organization, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).1 The establishment, in February 2005, of an academic body—Sports History Ireland—and its holding of the first conference devoted to the history of Irish sport show that historians are finally beginning to realize the importance of the study of sport (including, but not only involving, Gaelic games) for an understanding of Ireland's social, cultural, and political history.2 One of the many potentially [End Page 213] rich areas for research, as Patrick McDevitt has shown, is how notions of gender helped to shape the development of modern Irish sport. McDevitt provides fascinating evidence of the extent to which the GAA, in its early years, was strongly influenced by contemporary opinions on what constituted appropriate masculine and feminine behavior.3 This article, which examines the early history of Irish cycling from the late 1860s to the late 1890s, shows that contemporary ideas about masculinity and femininity also played a central role in shaping the development of this new sport.
In November 1897 J.C. Percy, the editor of the Irish Wheelman, when surveying recent developments in the cycling trade in Ireland, declared that "Cycling has now found its level, which happily, is a very high one. It is no longer a fad or a fancy, but an established factor in modern every day life. . . . The army of riders is increasing with constant and steady growth, and will continue to enrol in its numbers members of every age, sex, and rank."4 The newspaper's female columnist, "Portia," commented that
The day will come when we shall wonder how we ever existed before the advent of the cycle. Doctors who are still shy about visiting their patients by such locomotive means will do so as an ordinary occurrence. Governesses will arrive at their pupils' houses on their machines; men and women will pay their calls as a matter of course on their bicycles, while by this means even the frock-coated clergyman will visit his parishioners.5
These predicted changes were already well in progress, as indicated by numerous contemporary observers.6 An instructive piece of evidence is the fact that "Skin the Goat," the car driver who conveyed some of the Invincible assassins to the scene of the Phoenix Park murders in 1882, was, on his release from Kilmainham Jail in 1899, reportedly "fairly paralysed at the changes in Dublin since he went to prison seventeen years ago, and especially at the number of cyclists." The London-based Irish cycling journalist E.J. O'Reilly [End Page 214] was not surprised at the released prisoner's amazement. O'Reilly visited Phoenix Park one night and found that
the roads were alive with cyclists, chiefly girls. They were there in groups and singly, with young men and without them. Most of them, I presume, were girls who had been working hard all day. A few years ago every cyclist you saw in the Park was a male, and, numerically, they were not in it with the present lot. The change was amazing, and was the most remarkable thing that came under my notice during my visit. I could not help thinking what a grand institution the cycle must be to have wrought such a change, and how thankful the girls ought to be to us—the other fellows and myself—who were the leaders in a movement that has given woman more health and liberty than she ever knew before, and that has made it possible for a woman to say, as one did the other day, that since she had taken to cycling there were two souls in her breast instead of one.7
As we shall see, Irish society and the Irish cycling world were slow to accept the idea that cycling was an...