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Sport in a Time of Revolution: Sinn Féin and the Hunt in Ireland, 1919

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 48, Issue 1&2, Spring / Summer 2013
pp. 112-147 | 10.1353/eir.2013.0006

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On 5 march 1919 twenty-five members of the Muskerry Foxhounds from east Cork rode out. The Muskerry’s master, Jerry Rohan, was not present. For several weeks he had sought a compromise that would see local Sinn Féin activists end their campaign to stop fox-hunting, but by early March he had conceded defeat, leading the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) inspector for the area to report that the Muskerry had abandoned their sport for the year. Master or no master, however, twenty-five defiant members set off that morning, and according to the correspondent of the Freeman’s Journal, at first “all went merrily” and there “was abundant promise of good day’s sport.” Early on, two men on foot attempted to persuade the hunters to stop, but after a brief conversation the spoilsports were ignored and the incident was momentarily forgotten when a fox appeared, offering the opportunity of a chase. When that fortunate animal eluded them, the hunters moved on to the townland of Ballyshoneen. There the unusual action began. As the hunters prepared to rouse a new quarry, they heard the sound of whistles that signaled the arrival of fifty to sixty Sinn Féin supporters. This group adopted a vigorously persuasive approach. Wielding hurleys and sticks, they immediately set upon the hounds and horses. When a Catholic clergyman, who was among the hunting party, demanded that the attackers desist, he was, in the words of the Freeman’s prolix euphemism, “answered by an opprobrious sally of unseemly names and epithets.” Hurleys, sticks, and stones were met with riding crops, but soon the hunt was in full retreat, withdrawing to the sound of a revolver shot and the shouted question, “Now will you obey Sinn Féin and the orders of our executive?”1

This incident was among the final confrontations in an almost forgotten campaign that saw radical nationalists wreak widespread disruption upon the activities of Ireland’s hunt enthusiasts during the early months of 1919.2 The Irish revolution of 1912 to 1923 has been explored in ever more depth and using a variety of approaches in recent years, but as yet scholars have written comparatively little about the ways in which the profound instability of this period, punctuated with violence, affected the quotidian of Irish life. To what degree did the series of political crises that together constitute this “revolution” impact upon the day-to-day? To what extent, and in what ways, did commonplace practices become sites of contest? Irish sporting life is an obvious place to explore these questions because sport is one of the most significant markers of identity in modern societies. Fox-hunting is not a product of the Victorian sports revolution. It is not a mass participation sport today and it was not one in 1919, but it did have deep roots in rural Ireland, and local hunts impacted upon the lives of many who did not themselves ride to hounds. Indeed, it was in part this combination of exclusivity and pervasiveness that exposed the hunt to attack. This article will explore the origins of the campaign, the pattern of its progress, the motivations of those who participated, and the responses of those for whom it posed challenges or questions. In doing so, it will throw into relief aspects of Ireland’s multilayered revolutionary conflict and provide an alternative angle from which to view the contests around political identity, class identity, space, and legitimate authority that marked Irish provincial society at the beginning of 1919.

Origins of a Campaign

The “stopping the hunt” campaign of 1919 originated in the exuberance that followed Sinn Féin’s triumph at the general election of December 1918. Increasingly confident, the party pressured the British government to release the large number of political prisoners incarcerated in England and Ireland. They focused in particular upon a group of ninety-six internees held at seven English prisons.3 Many of these had been arrested in May 1918 when the authorities, intent upon a more aggressive policy in Ireland, justified their actions on the grounds of a “criminal conspiracy” among advanced nationalists to cooperate with Germany. The evidence for a “German plot...

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