Leather and Willow Diplomacy

It is well known that a cricket match was played in the grounds of the Viceregal Lodge in 1792 between the Officers of the Garrison and the Gentlemen of All Ireland; the outcome of this encounter was a victory for the Military XI by a margin of an innings and ninety-four runs. My attention has been drawn, however, to the tale of another meeting of cricket teams from Ireland and England some two years earlier, records of which have remained secret for over two hundred years. Here I will endeavour to bring this important and historic event to the notice of interested parties.

Things were a little unsettled in the Kingdom of Ireland in early 1790; the pestilential Irish were agitating in what appeared, to their lords and masters, to be a typically unreasonable fashion, for some hand in the way their lives were governed. The Viceroy of the day, the Marquis of Buckingham, fearing for his position and being an already unpopular representative of the King, decided to leave no stone unturned in his search for a solution to the “Irish question” which would involve no further loss of English blood.

Buckingham summoned his Chief Secretary, one Major Hobart, to his private office to get the opinion of his Number One, and to see if that worthy could devise a plan to bring the natives to heel once and for all. Now Hobart being a sportsman of no mean skill, famed for his courage and agility, proposed a sporting solution. His plan was to challenge the Irish to a test of foot-the-ball to be contested by teams to be selected by, on the one hand by the Viceroy and on the other by that political thorn in his Majesty’s side, Mr Henry Grattan. The prize for the victors to be nothing less than the government of Ireland.

In the unlikely event of a victory for the natives, the English would withdraw from Ireland leaving the Irish to stew in their own juices, while in the much more likely outcome, an English triumph would see the Irish cease and desist from all forms of rebellion and bow the knee to their rightful overlords. Buckingham was truly ecstatic when he heard this plan and instructed the Secretary to put the process into motion without delay.

The noble Viceroy sat back, called for a lackey to pour him a snifter of cognac and dreamed of the great honours that would surely be bestowed on him when he had succeeded in taming the noisy neighbours when everyone else had failed to do so during the previous six hundred years.

Suddenly, the brandy caught in the viceregal throat; what if the plan were to fail, he thought, what if Hobart’s side were to be beaten? The ignominy, “I’ll die in some cholera infested swamp in the Caribbean or Africa or some other steaming jungle,” panic invaded every fibre of his being, “I’ll be forgotten, left to perish, a victim of some foul disease, or eaten by vile cannibals”.

The lackey, having been alerted by the frightened screech of his master rushed in to help, only to receive a sharp kick in the seat of his pants, and to be told to get Hobart back as quickly as possible.

“Hobart, you demned fool”, Buckingham raged, “what if your side turns out to be a bunch of slackers and layabouts? These Irish are hulking great brutes whose version of foot-the-ball differs greatly from our gentlemanly exhibition of skill and sportsmanship”, the noble lord caught his breath, “Y’know these chaps wouldn’t hesitate to use their brute force against your namby-pamby dancers. No, no, no, we must find another solution, one which cannot fail”.

Hobart, seeing that he was in danger of an imminent return to the ranks, thought quickly and came up with an answer;

“Cricket!” he declared.

“Cricket?” said Buckingham, “but the Irish know nothing about cricket” and at that very moment he was struck by a sublime light, a veritable epiphany, “that means we can’t lose!”

The Chief Secretary was once again despatched to put the plan into motion, “and pretty demned sharply. Why are you still here?”

Hobart’s first step was to contact young Wellesley, in the County Meath town of Trim, to bring him onside and to use his undoubted popularity among the garrison to gather an unbeatable XI to represent His Majesty.

Now Wellesley was Irish born and had been schooled in Drogheda - or as the occupiers called it, Droyda - but he bore no love for his compatriots, “ If I had been born in a stable, would I be a horse?” he was rumoured to have said on any occasion he had been accused of being Irish. Here, he thought, was an opportunity to put the blighters in their proper place.


Meanwhile Hobart had thrown down the gauntlet to Grattan.

“If you desire independence from England so strongly, here is your chance. No blood need be spilled, nobody need die for the cause; all you will need will be eleven men to take up the challenge and overcome our brave boys in a test of cricket”, he sneered, knowing that Grattan could not afford to back down without betraying everything he stood for, even though he knew that cricket would be completely foreign to the vast majority of his constituents.

Grattan’s first thought was to get in touch with his old college pal, Wolfe Tone.

“Theo”, he said, “Buckingham has a dastardly plan in hand and we must accept his challenge or all will be lost, utterly lost, but I fear we cannot possibly succeed.”

Tone looked his friend in the eye, “Tell me, old chap, what is this fiendish plot?” he asked.

Henry explained the dilemma on the horns of which he found himself, how he had been approached by Hobart and how he had been unable to refuse to pick up the gauntlet.

“Fear not, Harry”, he said, “we can gather an XI from all corners of the land who will be brave and skilful enough to face down the English at their own game, leave it with me.”

The Irish XI

Thus relieved of his burden, Grattan returned to The Parliament House to carry on with his vital task, that of ensuring that the Bank of Ireland would have a suitably imposing headquarters in years to come.

For his part, Wolfe Tone set out to assemble as frightening a cohort of characters as ever took to the greensward to participate in a cricket match; his first choice, that of an opening batsman with the cojones (a Spanish word that Tone had learn during a brief sojourn at the royal court in Madrid) to face the pace of Hobart’s likely opening bowler, the fierce and fearsome Major Sir Pennington Wyldbore-Smythe. There was only one candidate in Theo’s mind for the position. He sent his boy at once to summon the great James Napper Tandy to his rooms, where he apprised his guest of the grave danger in which the nation stood. Napper Tandy had made several attempts to overthrow the invaders, and so he accepted with alacrity the opportunity to be part of this brave band of warriors. Tandy then made a suggestion that was to change the course of history dramatically.

“Theobald” he said, “to be a truly Irish side we must recruit one or two Ulster dissenters; they’re just as determined as are we to rid the land of the English oppressor. I would encourage the inclusion of Henry Joy McCracken, a damn’ fine leggy and young Roddy McCorley, who can generate amazing pace off a short run-up”.

Thus emboldened, Tone went about selecting his team and advising them of the import of their task. Brian Merriman promised to get some sleep at night so as to be able to keep wicket without dreaming of solitary nocturnal entertainments, Aogan O’Rahilly, a natural all-rounder, willingly came aboard, these were joined by Edward Bunting, Tom Russell, Ed Burke, John Toland, and a passing drayman named Casey and known to his associates as Skobie who had to be included because he had heard Napper Tandy explain the plan to McCracken, and had threatened to go to the Castle if he wasn’t given a place in the team.

An Agreeable Venue

The challenge having been laid and accepted, the principals met to decide on a suitable field; the Viceroy, of course, suggested his spacious lawn but for obvious reasons, this was not acceptable to the Irish, who wanted to play at a ground further from the capital, and had in mind a field near Milverstown, in the Barony of Balrothery. The English, however were not satisfied that they would be safe from the indigenous peoples, they being descended from the Vikings and renowned for their ferocity.

After much toing and froing, a proposal from Wellesley for a ground in his Co Meath constituency, owned by a loyal neighbour and located in a pleasant situation, sheltered by the nearby Harley’s Hill, Cnoc h’Arlaidh to the natives thereabouts.

The King’s XI

Wellesley had been busy assembling the finest sportsmen available to him in order to ensure that Hobart’s plan should succeed, in addition to Wyldbore-Smythe, Hobart, and himself, he had acquired the services of seven young snooks whose education on the playing fields of Eton and Charterhouse had equipped them ideally for the trials which lay ahead. With just one more player required, Hobart took himself to the sports fields in Phoenix Park to see what he might find; one can only imagine his delight when he witnessed a corporal of the Grenadier Guards playing catch with some of his comrades and throwing the ball with such accuracy and speed that even his fellow soldiers were full of admiration for his skill

“That man”, Hobart called, and every man within earshot stood smartly to attention fearing they had been caught doing something forbidden.

“That corporal!”, the Secretary called out again.

“Who Sir, me Sir?” replied Tommy Atkins, for such was the corporal’s name.

“Yes you, report to me at the Viceregal Lodge in two hours”.

With that, he turned and left, leaving Atkins bemused and fearful of his fate. However, he was greatly relieved when told of the plan, sworn to secrecy, and moved to the officers’ quarters for the duration.

Trouble in the Camp

Al was not going as smoothly as Tone would have wished in the Irish camp; as usual, there was the threat of a split, which was only avoided because Tone overheard a snatch of a whispered conversation between Casey and O’Rahilly, behind the entertainment tent;

“Hey O’Rattely”, Scobie whispered, “do ye not feel a bit outnumbered by all dese presby  . . . Prebsi. . .  all dese Proddies? ,Oi tink we should be on are gard again’ dem dobbin’ us in to de English”.

Tone saw that this kind of talk could lead to discontent, and lest such sentiments should reach the ears of the Ulstermen, he called a meeting of the entire squad to straighten out any misconceptions. First, he presented every man with an emerald green cap and a sash of similar hue, and then he addressed his team.

“Gentlemen, we are here not as Protestant, Catholic, or Dissenter, but as Irishmen and from now on this band will be known as Irishmen United and let no man, on pain of death, attempt to cause division among us.”

Impartial Officials

With both camps in agreement on the venue, and with a book of laws composed, by the legal representatives of each side and a tribunal overseen by Chief Justice Singleton, the final detail to be put in place was the appointment of umpires acceptable to all parties.

Hobart suggested Thomas Arnold. Headmaster of Rugby School, a gentleman with a reputation for fairness, if not for firmness, unrivalled in the land. The Irish team, after some debate, agreed Arnold’s appointment.

Then, it was the turn of the home side to nominate their candidate to stand at the other end. Having anticipated the Wellesley would choose an umpire who could be bullied, Tone had made approaches to a gentleman strong enough to uphold the laws; it caused some consternation when Tone announced that Reverend Father Murphy from old Kilcormack would fill the position.

Match Day

These many preparations had taken several weeks to finalise and so it was late in August 1790 that the first great International Test between side representing The Kingdom of Great Britain and The Kingdom of Ireland would take place. The venue was to remain secret so as to ensure the safety and security of all participants. The players, officials, and their retinue of lackeys embarked from Dublin in a variety of coaches, brakes, and carts at 7.00am; the Viceroy was, of course, accompanied by a detachment of The Household Cavalry to ensure the no harm should befall the noble personage. The non-participants enjoyed the journey through the verdant pastures of Dublin and Meath while the actual contestants were too filled with pent-up nervous energy to take in the scenery.

On arrival at Harley’s Hill, Buckingham called for lunch and proceeded to treat his camp to a repast of cold meats and viands, liberally washed down with copious quantities of claret and sac, so much so that his cricketers were almost beyond caring about the forthcoming encounter.

Grattan had planned to supply a similar feast for his lads, but the wily Ulstermen had warned him to provide only a light meal and some small beer before the game began.

The Gathering

The advent of this circus had not gone unnoticed in the Royal County and as word had spread through the by-ways and boreens, curiosity was rising to a fine pitch. Finally, when the destination of the mad fellas from above in Dublin became clear, the local folk made their way, quietly to Cnoc h’Arlaidh, where they concealed themselves among the trees and undergrowth to observe whatever fun might ensue. On seeing a group of men bedecked with green caps and sashes, the good folk of Meath realised that at least some members of the assembly were their compatriots and determined to assist their fellow Gaels in whatever mystical venture was afoot. When it became clear that there were some high-born English gentry involved, and that they were accompanied by armed, red-coated soldiers, they were sure that there would be mischief involved.

A coin was tossed and Hobart, having called correctly, invited Tone to bat first. Napper Tandy and Russell opened the batting, and prepared to face the fire and venom of Wyldbore-Smythe. The ferocious major, his moustache bristling, came in of a twenty yard run-up and fired down a beamer at Napper Tandy’s head, just missing his target’s prominent proboscis, but close enough to annoy him. When the second ball followed a similar trajectory, James Napper Tandy stepped back and hooked out of the field. It was only then that the assembly realised that the hill behind the ground had filled with a huge congregation of the good people of Meath, Louth , and Cavan who loudly applauded the “sixer” struck by their green-sashed champion.

Buckingham instructed his troops to to make the natives aware that they were armed and would not hesitate to fire on any of these spectators who might attempt to enter the field of play. Meanwhile, Arnold, having received a surreptitious signal from the Viceroy, had called a dead ball and declared that no runs were to be recorded because the fieldsmen were not ready.

Father Murphy, at square leg, queried this decision, only to be told by Buckingham to keep quiet and do what he was told. This enraged the patriotic local supporters, who on seeing one of their spiritual leaders slighted in this fashion, threatened to invade the pitch. Grattan stepped forward and using his famed parliamentary oratory, managed to calm the situation somewhat, but the rage was bubbling under and it would take only the smallest insult or hint of chicanery to ignite a flame that would set the field alight.

In order to calm troubled waters, Napper Tandy accepted the decision and so play resumed. The next ball flew past the batsman’s a little too closely for comfort; once Tandy’s blood was up and he smote the next projectile a mighty blow only to see the leather-bound orb fall short of the boundary where it was retrieved by Tommy Atkins, the grenadier returned the ball toward the wicket-keeper and just as Russell was about to gain his ground, the ball struck him on the temple, rendering him unconscious; Wellesley, fielding at slip grasped the ball and gleefully threw down the wicket.

“How is that, sir?” he appealed to the square leg arbiter.

Now Father Murphy was in a quandary, for the batsman had clearly not grounded his bat within the crease and so was out, nevertheless he felt that some dispensation should be made for a man laid low in this way. Indeed, the reverend gentleman suspected that corporal Atkins had aimed carefully and deliberately to ensure that Russell would not reach safe ground. Wellesley, secretly delighted that the grenadier had carried out his orders, insisted that the decision was unquestionable, and that the score should read Irish XI 0 for1.

The watchers on the hill were not to be easily placated, Father Murphy’s compassionate judgement had been questioned, and one of their countrymen had been assaulted by a cowardly Englishman. A giant of a man from Seneschalstown, named O’Siochru, jumped over the hedge and grabbed Atkins by the throat, determined to avenge the bold Russell, and immediately the redcoats of the Viceroy’s escort sprang into action.

Muskets were being primed, powder and ball prepared and it seem certain that the spectators would be slaughtered. The Meathmen, however, had other ideas and had prepared for this very eventuality; a shower of stones, sticks, and an inordinately large amount of bovine excreta rained down on the soldiery, causing them to retreat and form a circle around the assembled gentry.

An Irish Solution

Grattan, realising that oratory would not prevail this time, called his men together for a hurried conference;

“It seems, gentlemen, that no what the outcome of this sporting challenge, Buckingham will allow no other result than an English win. Do any of you see a way out of this trap without capitulating to their perfidious treachery?”

The United men in green looked at each other, wondering if any had an answer to Grattan’s question. Finally, Tone spoke up,

“Friends”, he said, “it seems to me that Henry is correct in his assessment of the situation, and so I believe that we must be even more devious than our opposition; here is my proposal;” the Irish contingent held their collective breath until Theobald had gathered his thoughts and presented his plan,

“We meet with Hobart and agree not to allow word of today’s debacle to reach London as long as the test is declared drawn and each side can return to Dublin with heads held high. Then, if Hobart or the Viceroy refuse to accept these conditions, we simply publish the facts, and the facts will show that the behaviour of Buckingham’s men, led by Wellesley, and the events which occurred here today, was just Not Cricket. That alone, would cause such a stink in Westminster that the Viceroy would be recalled in ignominy.”

The Irishmen, with the exception of Skobie Casey, agreed with Tone’s suggestion. Casey’s suggestion that Wellesley would benefit from a swift Ringsend Uppercut, while roundly applauded, would not be a suitably diplomatic resolution.

An approach was made to the Viceroy’s camp with an invitation to parlay, and after much shuttle diplomacy, and even some proximity talks, the oppressors acceded to Tone’s terms and the affair was brought to a close.

So ended a brave attempt to answer the centuries old Irish question, a question which, it should be noted, the Irish were apt to change whenever Albion thought it was nearing a solution.

For some time afterward, it was considered unwise, if not foolhardy, for anyone to bedeck himself in green, lest it raise the ire of the Chief Secretary and result in the ultimate sanction.

An epic painting “The Battle o Harley’s Hill”, by an unknown artist who was present, and who witnessed these events, was unfortunately lost in a somewhat suspicious fire some two years later, but it is believed, by some experts, to have provided the inspiration for William Sadlier’s masterpiece, “The Battle of Vinegar Hill”, which he completed some eighteen years later.

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