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  • Rugby Football and Identity Politics in Free State Ireland
  • Liam O’Callaghan (bio)

A lighthearted anecdote about Irish rugby in the first decade of the twentieth century was recounted by the Irish Times in 1947 as follows: “An English visitor, who was being driven out to Lansdowne Road on an outside car, asked the jarvey: ‘What sort of Irish team have you this year?’ ‘Irish team, how are you?’ came the reply. ‘Fourteen Protestants and a so-and-soing Jew!’”1

Although the social and cultural configuration of any international sporting team is rarely the nation writ large, the perception that the Irish rugby team did not truly represent Ireland because it comprised a majority of Protestants was a potent one. This was a perspective long encouraged by Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) polemicists. Moreover, it was given fresh impetus from 1922 in a newly independent state where asserting freedom through the promotion of a Gaelic Ireland and the accompanying removal of the remnants of British influence gained considerable political traction.2 Exemplifying this trend in a sporting context was the viewpoint of a correspondent to the Nenagh Guardian in 1929, who, considering a forthcoming debate on the retention of the GAA’s “ban” on “foreign games,” observed that the instrument was “the line between imperialism and Gaelicism . . . , a bulwark against the advances of foreign influence, a safeguard for our national spirit. . . . Up to this, alas, we have not let our own individualism awake! It is almost suffocated by the cloak of foreign influence that enshrouds it. . . .”3 [End Page 148]

This statement exemplifies what Tadgh Ó hAnnracháin has recently termed the “touchy nationalism” of the infant Free State that informed much of the public discourse surrounding the GAA and other cultural activities.4 For the purposes of this article it clearly articulates the position of rugby football within the prevailing cultural atmosphere of the newly independent state. As Mike Cronin and John M. Regan have commented: “Post-revolutionary Ireland championed a narrowly-focused mono-culture which remained remarkably impervious to sources of pluralism.”5 Among cultural purists of differing hues, the game of rugby, at best, was popularly held as having a “de-nationalizing” effect on the nation’s youth. And on the extreme end of the spectrum, rugby, along with other sports of British origin and a whole coterie of cultural pursuits including “indecent literature,” films, jazz music, and certain styles of dance, were symptomatic of undesirable foreign influence and modernizing tendencies.6 The discursive line between Gael and West Brit was drawn, and for a significant and vocal body of opinion rugby was on the wrong side.

With this idea in mind, the following article seeks to explore the relationship between rugby football and cultural identity in roughly the first decade of the Free State era. The intellectual tradition that separated Gael from shoneen, first developed in the cultural revival of the 1890s, gained, in the context of independence, significant traction in official discourse and policy. Rugby did not remain completely immune to the tendency among Free State governments to legislate against undesirable cultural pursuits. First, then, this article will examine rugby’s classification as a “foreign” sport and the effect that this had on the game’s perception in official circles. To this end, two exemplary controversies where official discrimination was shown against “foreign games” will be examined: the refusal of Galway County Council to offer a university-scholarship scheme to rugby-playing schools in 1929 and the exemption of the GAA from [End Page 149] entertainment tax in 1932. These instances display perhaps the political potency of the perceived links between sports and national identity. Yet to ascribe any objective substance to this sporting discursive division would be to assume that Irish rugby itself was monocultural. This notion leads to the second major concern of this article: the internal politics of Irish rugby and the manner in which the fundamental conflict between the game’s broad constituency on the island and its antiquated power structure (in the form of the Irish Rugby Football Union [IRFU]) led to controversy in the realm of cultural and political identity in a newly independent Ireland.


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pp. 148-167
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