Ger Siggins (Times Ireland)
The 2018 season is hurtling towards a climax over the next few weeks, with the big three of Merrion, Clontarf and North County certain to claim all the winners and runners-up medals going in Leinster.
One hundred years ago none of these sides were vying for honours, because the summer of 1918 was the last one without a competitive structure in the province, mainly because Irishmen of all hues and origins were fighting in khaki in the battlefields of Europe.
The Leinster Cricket Union was still seven months from its foundation – on March 14, 1919 at the Central Hotel in Dublin – and the senior league would soon after take shape with Leinster, Phoenix, Dublin University, Pembroke, Railway Union, Civil Service, UCD, Co Kildare and the Royal Hibernian Military School.
Clontarf didn’t join the senior league until 1920, Merrion 1925, and North County 1990.
Besides the political and national changes wreaked in Ireland by the First World War and its aftermath, it is also widely acknowledged as a watershed in Irish society, and notably in Irish sport.
David Toms, author of ‘Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937, explains: “Even more than the War of Independence, (the war) totally changed the demographics. The whole of Irish society was changed because of the people who died, and the politics of everything changed. When the Munster Soccer Association re-established itself in 1922, the kind of people involved were from very different backgrounds to the people who were running the game before that.”
Sportsmen answered the call in their hundreds, with the IRFU president Frank Browning organising a ‘Pals’ regiment that drilled at Lansdowne Road.
Many GAA members, too, enlisted, as the association’s former president Aogán Ó Fearghail pointed out, “There were far more GAA members in the general sense involved in World War One than in the War of Independence or 1916. There’s no doubt about that.”
Irish cricketers also stepped up – and were butchered in their hundreds.
Pat Bracken, a keen historian of the sport, has traced more than 300, with every county in Ireland bar one represented, and almost every age from 18 to 52. That the men held 28 different ranks shows how indiscriminate the game – and their fate – was.
Bracken has written biographies of each of the men for a book he hopes to see published. There are celebrated men such as Robert Gregory, for whom WB Yeats wrote ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, to others only remembered, faintly, by their families. Men such as Trooper Francis Larkin of Wilton Lodge, who played cricket for Sandymount, football for Bohemians and rowed for Commercial.
Larkin volunteered “for the duty of bomb throwing” and was killed in France aged 22. Had Larkin survived the war he may have returned to play for Sandymount, although that club’s ground was devoured by building in the 1930s.
Sandymount, like many clubs in Ireland, continued playing during the war years, although most senior sides shut up shop. When war broke out, in August 1914, military men were quickly in the fray, including Lancashire captain ‘Monkey’ Hornby who was summoned from the field in a Roses match to receive his call-up.
Others rushed to enlist which soon impacted on county cricket. While the authorities had asked that the game continue, media criticism mounted. Before the end of August the game’s largest figure, WG Grace, then aged 70, wrote a letter to The Sportsman newspaper.
“I think the time has arrived when the county cricket season should be closed, for it is not fitting at a time like this that able-bodied men should be playing cricket by day and pleasure-seekers look on,” he wrote.
His words were heeded; county cricket ceased within a week, not to resume till 1919.
In Ireland, Phoenix cancelled three games against military sides on August 23rd, but the reality of the war soon hit home when Allan Luther, who played with Leinster, was killed the following week.
Patriotic fervour caught hold, and many cricketers rushed to enlist in the Sporting Battalion of the Ulster Division, or Browning’s Pals regiment which was decimated at Suvla Bay.
The language of sport was used to entice volunteers, as this poem from the Derry Journal shows.
“Where are those hefty sporting lads, Who donned the flannels, gloves and pads?
They play a new and deadly game Where thunder bursts in crash and flame.
Our cricketers have gone ‘on tour’ To make their country’s triumph sure.
They’ll take the Kaiser’s middle wicket And smash it by clean British cricket.”
In 1915 the Northern union decided to abandon all senior competition but encouraged clubs to stage friendlies.
In Dublin Junior and Intermediate competitions ran through the war, while other clubs, as well as the Mardyke in Cork, provided grounds for military fixtures. Some decided to help the war effort by converting their playing fields to growing vegetables, such as in Trinity and Clontarf.
In July 1916 a gala match was staged in the university to raise funds for the Soldiers and Sailors Club charity, with the Military of Ireland taking on a side raised by Bob Lambert, the pre-eminent Irish player of the era.
The Irish Times gave its blessing in an editorial. “The good object that was served by the cricket match in the College Park indemnified those members of the public who allowed themselves the pleasure of watching the play against suspicion of undue frivolity at a grave time.”
By 1919, with the slaughter at an end, the Leinster clubs finally said goodbye to the era of two-day friendlies and began their senior league.
Ninety-nine years on, it’s still going strong.