For a twenty-one year old Irish male, I have surprisingly little interest in sport. The majority of the worlds major sporting events pass me by almost unaffected. The sole consequence I can never escape however, is the awkwardness of my conversations with those who assume I’d watched Ireland’s rugby game or Rory McIlroy’s golf tournament and find themselves at a loss for words when I have no opinion on such matters. Nevertheless I found myself cheering on Ireland during Euro 2012, supporting the team much as I had during the World Cup campaign of 2002. 2012 was also the year I found myself cheering on my childhood team of Manchester City as they won the Premier League- in a way, I rediscovered the game of soccer after a hiatus of about eight years. More than any other sport however I follow Gaelic football, attending virtually every Mayo game for much of the last decade and formerly playing the game at underage level. So why do I follow both of these codes(Or at least, used to) and care little for any others? Well, I’m going to approach this question from an Annales School viewpoint and go back a few centuries to the origin of spectator sports (Surprisingly, this is relevant).
Different sports are played in different countries and often in different regions within the country. This is often due to differences of terrain or climate- it comes as little surprise that Ice Hockey is so much more popular in Minnesota than it is in Texas. What interests me however, is when the popularity of a certain sport is related to matters of class or ethnicity. The split between Rugby League and Rugby Union came about because of divisions between the working-class players of northern England and the upper-class former public schoolboys of the south. In Australia soccer is regarded as a sport played mainly by Mediterranean immigrants and their descendants leading it to receive the rather offensive name of ‘wogball’ (Australia is also home to a regional divide between Australian Rules Football and Rugby, although this appears to be unrelated to any issues of class, politics or race.)
I don’t believe any nation is home to historical divisions in sporting allegiances more interesting than those in Ireland. The predominance of any team in a given sport can be traced back to the social conditions of the nineteenth century or even earlier. Look at any of the regions where Hurling is a popular game and you will see they are all agriculturally prosperous regions- the importance of good relations between landlord and tenant for the promotion of hurling has been noted before, and although hurlers do not like to be told that they play a ‘landlords sport’ it is historically the case. The divide between hurling and Gaelic football is particularly noticable in counties historically strong in both codes- in Galway for example, the Hurling strongholds lie in the low-lying plains of the south, while football is centred around the boggier regions in the north and west of the county. This map confirms the divide. The most successful county in either code illustrate this further- Kilkenny is a county of low rolling hills and green fields, heavily contrasted with Kerry’s mountain and bog. Despite allegedly being Ireland’s national game, a very small number of Irish people have ever played hurling. To a Mayoman like myself, the game means very little. Gaelic football always occupied pride of place in my county with hurling only being played in a few scattered areas- I didn’t even know Mayo had a county hurling team until I was twelve years old or so.
What then, of the two codes of football that have come to us from across the Irish sea? Well the historical factors in their geographic spread are also clear to see. Soccer’s strongholds in Ireland are in urban centres- it is centred around Belfast in the north and Dubin in the south. What is also apparent is that it is a working-class game often tied to towns formerly home to large numbers of British troops- Dublin, Cork, Sligo, Dundalk, Drogheda and Athlone are all former garrison towns. However the game has spread quite effectively outside of these towns, primarily due to its popularity amongst Irish emigrants to Britain, who passed a love of the game on to their relatives. I believe that the high level of emigration from many rural areas has led to the coexistent popularity of Gaelic football and soccer in the same villages- I was quite surprised to learn a hostility still existed between the followers of each game in areas of Leinster. I recall having the same two men manage me at both Gaelic and soccer for a few months- they weren’t any good at managing either team but at least they weren’t prejudiced. When I was a child all of the other lads in my class supported Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal. I chose Manchester City because I like being different and awkward. And although I hadn’t followed the game for years, I still felt a connection to both Man City and the Irish national team as they found success (Or not) this year.
Rugby is a very different matter. Its hardly original to joke about how rugby is a ‘posh’ sport or about how its centred around elitist fee-paying schools. Unfortunately for defenders of the game, all of these claims are or were true. Rugby has found little success in the province of Connacht due to its historical poverty, its lack of an urban middle-class (People tend to forget Munster rugby’s dependence upon the suburbs of Cork and Limerick) and its small Protestant population. The clear association between that once existed between rugby and Britishness is demonstrated by the lack of a divide between north and south- not because of a common Irish identity as in the GAA, but because of a common British one amongst many members of the IRFU during the twenties (The Irish Football Association, for the record, saw the breakaway of the FAI during the War of Independence). Its assumed by many that these issues are in the past and rugby is enjoyed by everyone in Ireland now. Well I for one have never warmed to the game, not because of the merits of the sport itself, but because I lack a childhood loyalty to any teams competing in it.
This is the crux of the matter for me- I don’t really watch games in which I don’t have a personal interest, whether through supporting a team or backing one in a bet. This is why I support Mayo and, to a much lesser extent, Manchester City. I never identified with the Connacht or Ireland teams as a child as the game was simply not played in my corner of Mayo and I never even had a successful hurling team that I could pretend represented me. Although I’m not in any way a major follower of sports I feel a residual loyalty to my childhood teams and the sports in which I chose teams were decided long before I was born. So when I tell you I haven’t a clue about rugby don’t blame me- I’m a product of society.