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Sport and the Irish

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 48, Issue 1&2, Spring / Summer 2013
pp. 11-14 | 10.1353/eir.2013.0007

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

July 1934 saw Limerick defeat Waterford in the Munster hurling final, played in the Cork Athletic Grounds, en route to claiming the Liam McCarthy Cup later that year. Among those in attendance in Cork that July afternoon was Daniel Corkery, then in the fourth year of his tenure as professor of English at University College Cork. It was at this game, reputedly, that a conversation began about the direction and nature of contemporary Irish fiction when Corkery allegedly pointed to the attending masses and posed the question—“Who speaks for these?”

This special issue of Éire-Ireland attempts to answer that question. Rather than chronicling famous events and valorizing sporting victories, this volume’s thirteen essays offer a close examination of Irish popular culture—such as Gaelic football, rugby, golf, camogie, hunting, and soccer. Popular culture, in contrast to high cosmopolitan European culture or native folk-culture forms, is primarily pleasure-oriented rather than morally purifying, intellectually enhancing, or politically motivating. And sports in particular are exemplary in this regard. Sports, including the culture, economics, politics, histories, and controversies of those who participate—as well as of those who precipitate the sporting spectacle by attending, following, and embracing the cultural process—reveal much about the state of Ireland both during the historical period in which they occurred and in the present. Examining such microhistories allows us to go beyond, behind, and beneath the standard macrohistories and master narratives that focus almost exclusively on nationalism, unionism, and modernization as the coherent and central themes of the Irish past.

These essays instead focus on various aspects of Irish sport as played, patronized, and popularized by rank-and-file men and women at home and abroad. In doing so, they reveal such pursuits to be not idle pastimes but rather cultural products and processes that, when properly and critically examined, better equip us to understand the political, economic, technological, and social landscape of Ireland and its diaspora. The public reception of such cultural products—an openly gay Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) icon, an Irish-speaking GAA, a gay rugby team, Free State rugby players, and unionist or nationalist golfers—reveals much about nonelite behaviors, values, and opinions. It is precisely because sport is popular that it offers a window into Irish society and culture. It is for the very same reasons that it echoes the aims of Irish Studies as an interdisciplinary project seeing popular culture as a force that plays a key role in our understanding of ourselves as individuals, as citizens, and as social beings with access to multiple affiliations. Thus these essays seek to posit an answer to Corkery’s question by examining supporters’ participation, collaboration, and reaction to various key moments and aspirational aims of different sports. In essence, then, this collection aims to give Corkery’s “them” a voice and to bring Irish Studies face-to-face with sport—so often described as the passion of the people, but for too long met with indifference by scholars, who have chosen to overlook a social, political, and economic activity that dominates the nonworking lives of many Irish people and that has shaped the landscape and provided one of the key definitions of Irish identity.

Sport, then, as this collection of essays makes clear, is central to understanding Ireland’s past and present. It is a space in which wider ideological, intellectual, and social debates are conducted that have meaning beyond the field of play. Three recent examples suffice to illustrate the point. First, there is the case of Michelle Smith, Ireland’s greatest-ever Olympian, who won three swimming gold medals at the 1996 Olympics. In 1998 Smith was banned from the sport for tampering with a urine test and retired. In 2005 she was voted by the listeners of RTÉ’s “Marian Finucane Show” as the third-greatest Irish woman in history (behind Nano Nagle and Mary Robinson). In 2012, as the torch for the London Olympics of that year was relayed through Dublin, a fresh media storm ignited—Should Smith, as the greatest Irish medal winner, but suspected drug cheat, carry the torch? In the event she did not, but the mere fact that sixteen years after...

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