restricted access Cockfighting in Ireland, 1900 to 1925
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Cockfighting in Ireland, 1900 to 1925

Today, it is difficult to imagine the popularity and omnipresence of the blood sport of cockfighting in British society. The practice carries a long and rich history in England, reaching back to the time of Roman invasions and continuing right up until it was banned in 1835, and illegally, long after. In his 1912 Sport in the Olden Time, Walter Gilbey writes that it was common for members of the English clergy to keep cocks, and “it was not unusual when town beat town in a long main to ring the church bells in celebration of the victory.”1 People from all classes of society kept cocks for fighting and rubbed shoulders at the cockpits across the nation. In contrast, cockfighting in Ireland became popular only in the latter decades of the seventeenth century, when it was likely introduced by the gentry.2 James Kelly writes in Sport in Ireland (2014) that it was initially popular in Dublin as well as in the Ulster counties, where Edward Wakefield noted that it was practiced among the descendants of English and Scottish settlers.3

Before the growth of football and other organized sports in the nineteenth century, cockfights were commonly organized between birds representing opposing towns or counties. A whole industry grew up around the breeding, feeding, training, and arming of cocks for “mains,” as the events were commonly called. Cockfighting as an activity often took place alongside horse races or in the morning or evening of a race, and like racing, was enjoyed by men of all classes. It is not surprising then, that—despite the introduction of animal cruelty legislation in 1835—cockfighting continued to be popular for much of the nineteenth century. In 1849, further legislation titled “An Act for the More Effective Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” was introduced, and other restrictions followed in later decades.4 However, the sports historian Michael Huggins writes that despite [End Page 97] the ban, cockfighting “continued in attenuated and clandestine form for much of the century. This was partly because it was by no means merely a working-class activity.”5

The Irish experience was somewhat different, as the sport had begun to wane in popularity years before restrictive legislation was introduced. Paul Rouse writes that ‘“The Rules for Matching and Fighting Cocks in Ireland” was dropped from the Racing Calendar in 1819, which suggests a lack of interest among the sporting readership. The practice of holding fights in “lawns of big houses on the morning of race meetings was also abandoned.”6 Moreover, cockfighting in Ireland never took hold as a genuinely national pastime, but was, rather, restricted to regional pockets of popularity even before it was made illegal. After 1835, the activity continued to exist on the margins of Irish society where the cockfighting community took on anti-establishment characteristics. Mains were organized on county borders and in marginal landscapes, such as mountain valleys, river and canal banks, or islands on loughs. The continuation of cockfighting was also helped by the perceived lack of interest amongst the Royal Irish Constabulary to investigate cockfighting, and reluctance on the part of the magistracy to impose sentences.7 The sport’s unique underground qualities led James Kelly to conclude that “the historiographical landscape is featureless when it comes to cockfighting.”8

An exception to overall the paucity of research on the topic of Irish cockfighting is the reportage found in the provincial press. Taken as a whole, the scattered stories and references in these low-circulation newspapers afford an opportunity to at least begin to understand this secretive alternative culture, which existed in Ireland during a period of intense strife and violence. Evidence from the provincial press reveals the popularity of cockfighting among an audience made up of all classes and faiths. Indeed, newspaper reports repeatedly comment on the inclusive attitudes of this particular sporting fraternity.

Despite an established ban stretching back six decades, there was a widespread interest in cockfighting within Ireland between 1900 and 1911. In July 1903, the Irish Times (obviously not one of the provincial papers) reported that three hundred people attended a cockfight outside of Monaghan, where twenty-four...