- Rugby in Munster: A Social and Cultural History by Liam O'Callaghan
This meticulously researched study traces the development of rugby union in the Irish province of Munster from “minority sport” to “mainstream cultural product” (p. 1). With this in mind, Liam O’Callaghan’s stated aim is “not only to tell the complex story of rugby football in Munster but also to probe that complexity by extrapolating key themes from the story and analyzing them within the broader context of the social and cultural history of both the province and the country as a whole” (p. 1). To this end, whilst the first two chapters offer a chronological account of the origins and subsequent development of Munster rugby, the remaining five are thematic in approach, focusing in turn on social class, violence, politics, economics, and the impact of professionalism. These are followed by a thought-provoking conclusion in which the author summarizes the main points that emerge from his study and concludes that there has been “a remarkable re-imagination of the game’s history in the province—one that strives to underline social homogeneity” (p. 230). Indeed, according to the author, “mediated discursive threads have given the Munster team and fans a powerful sense of their own traditional uniqueness” (p. 231).
As these concluding remarks indicate, O’Callaghan is at pains throughout the book to demonstrate that rugby in Munster has never been monolithic and has consistently assumed different characteristics depending on locale. Moreover, the book vividly reveals that “localisation was the essence of Munster rugby” (p. 238) and that “the pub, club and parish remained synonymous” (p. 239). This is not, however, the dominant view of Munster rugby that is held by outsiders, even those who have a genuine interest in and knowledge of the game. Two perceptions dominate such thinking about Munster rugby—first, that it is more socially inclusive than rugby in many other parts of the world, including the rest of Ireland as well as England and, second, that it is defined by the success of the provincial team in the era of professionalism and European club competition.
O’Callaghan addresses the former widely held view by showing that rugby’s social character differed and continues to differ markedly in the province’s two main urban centers and rugby strongholds, the cities of Cork and Limerick. In what is arguably the book’s most interesting chapter, on class and community, it is argued that “the complexity of the social appeal of Munster rugby is much vaunted yet poorly understood . . .” (p. 67). Inner-city and working-class involvement with the game in Limerick was not replicated in [End Page 556] Cork where rugby remained the sport of middle-class suburbia—hence what O’Callaghan regards as the danger of “amplifying the supposed egalitarianism of Muster rugby” (p. 101).
As for the equation of Munster rugby with the provincial team, regardless of the extent to which this may well be part of the myth-making that now surrounds the game in Munster, O’Callaghan does not dispute the fact that the rise to prominence of the provincial side has been paralleled by a decline in the level of interest shown in club rugby. One senses a degree of nostalgia here which the author is otherwise able to contain. For example, he appears to play down the significance of Munster’s victory in 1978 over the touring All Blacks or, at the very least, to see it primarily in terms of the mythologizing of Munster rugby. Indeed, he writes, “the 1978 victory has served as a useful chronological staging post for the dubious re-imagination of Munster rugby in more ways than one” (p. 233), one of these being the twenty-first century mystique of Limerick’s Thomond Park. Yet the victory itself was real enough, and there has been much subsequent evidence to suggest that Thomond Park is something of a fortress for Munster rugby players. Demythologizing is important, and in relation to Minster rugby’s...