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  • “The Hallmark of Pluperfect Respectability”: The Early Development of Golf in Irish Society
  • Roisín Higgins (bio)

Reporting on the use of Leopardstown racecourse for golf in 1891, the Freeman’s Journal conceded that anyone who looked upon the game for the first time might find it difficult to understand the enthusiasm derivable from hitting “a small white ball with prodigious energy, then walking after it, searching for it leisurely in the long grass or hedgerow, hitting it again with unmerciful force, and repeating the operation ad infinitum.” The newspaper nevertheless argued that no one could watch the game of golf for any length of time “without being convinced that it is one requiring many rare qualities, strength of arm, keen judgment of distance, a sharp eye for all kinds of eventualities, and an unlimited command over the temper.”1 It had become a common practice by the end of the nineteenth century to depict sporting activities as enhancing the character as well as physical well-being. Sport was seen as a way of fostering the practices and principles that matched the economic and social needs of imperial and modernizing societies.2 Perhaps more than any other sport, golf provided a social space for the expression of the values and interests of the ascendant middle classes. In Ireland its popularity grew exponentially in the 1890s, a point in the decline of the social and economic influence of the landed gentry. Within a decade golf had established itself as a fashionable leisure pursuit and become a cornerstone of the tourist industry in Ireland. [End Page 15]

Golf was played long before the first club was formed in Edinburgh in 1744, but it was in the nineteenth century that golf became widespread as a club-based sport. Outside Britain clubs were founded across the empire in Bangalore (1820), Adelaide (1870), Montreal (1873), and Cape Town (1885); the first continental European club was formed in Pau, France, in 1856. In Ireland the first golf course was laid out at the Curragh military camp in 1852, but the first club, the Belfast Golf Club (later Royal Belfast), was not established until 1881. By the end of 1889 there were seven golf clubs in Ireland, of which four were in Ulster and three in Leinster.3

The northern province was the driving force behind the development of the sport in Ireland, in part because of its strong links to Scotland but also because, as the industrial heart of the island, the northeast had the population density and structured leisure hours that suited modern sports. In 1885 the Irish Times noted that “golf ha[d] been a favourite and much affected sport in Belfast for a considerable time, and, considering the interesting nature of the game, there is no reason why it should not extend to different parts of the country.”4 Growth eventually became extremely rapid, and twenty-five courses were opened for play in just three years between 1888 and 1891. Ninety-seven clubs were established in the following eight years, between 1892 and 1900.5 William Gibson’s seminal history of the early years of golf in Ireland ascribed its rapid expansion to factors that can be divided into four categories: land, the military, railways, and the professional middle classes.6

Golf and the Landed Gentry

By the 1890s rural Ireland had entered a more settled period; the lessening of agrarian unrest, Gibson argues, was an important aspect in the rapid development of golf.7 This was also a period during which the effects of land reform were being felt. The Land Act, 1881, [End Page 16] and the Arrears of Rent Act, 1882, had a profound impact on the nature of land tenure in Ireland and on the autonomy and wealth of landlords. Debt accumulated over generations became unsustainable once the value of land collapsed, and many of Ireland’s large landowning families either lost their estates through mismanagement or lived their lives more modestly as country gentlemen. The economic power of the landed elites had been significantly reduced by the last decades of the nineteenth century, and the establishment of a professional police force and a professional civil service had...


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