Jim Bennett, October 2020
Sports historians and various commentators have provided many reasons for cricket's decline from being a mainstream sport in Ireland in the 1870s to its status as a minority sport in the early 20th Century. It is beyond the scope of this article to analyse the causes for this phenomenon, but it is necessary to outline them briefly so that a context can be provided for an account of cricket in Fingal. One of the consequences of the Land Wars of the early 1880s was to drive a further wedge in the already difficult relationship between landlords and tenants with the result that landlords were not inclined to engage in sporting activities with their tenants when violent actions were occurring on a regular basis. The Gaelic Revival of the early 1890s with its emphasis on all things Irish and its castigation of English games and goods meant that there was plenty of ammunition (no pun intended) for those who perceived cricket as being the most quintessentially English of all field sports, and Irish-Irelanders were quick to vent their spleen on cricket and cricketers.
It is dangerous to generalise, and Paul Rouse suggests that the complexities of life in rural Ireland meant that different factors were at work in different areas, and that it is not always possible to ascribe neat divisions in sport to a particular reason. This was undoubtedly the case in Fingal (and Meath) towards the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, and while cricket was dying in parts of the country, it was thriving in these two areas. To ascertain the reasons these regions appeared to be swimming against the tide, it is necessary to examine briefly the factors which contributed to the development of cricket in Fingal during this period.
While there were large landed estates in Fingal such as those of Holmpatrick in Skerries and Talbot in Malahide, the pattern of land-ownership in Fingal differed from that which existed in the rest of Ireland. Due to the various Land Acts, many of the tenant farmers were enabled to buy-out their holdings, with the result that there was not the same level of dependence on the gentry for the promotion of cricket. The owners of the Big Houses such as the Taylors of Ardgillan, the Talbots of Malahide and the Palmers of Rush were responsible for introducing cricket to Fingal, and members of the gentry such as Woods of Milverton Hall, Woods of Whitestown, and Hussey of Westown House played their part in fostering cricket, but the tenant farmers, farm labourers and small farmers who lived in the vicinity of the landed gentry were also very involved in playing cricket. If the "Big House" team was short of players, the gardeners, the farm labourers or tenant farmers were recruited to make up the side. They tended to be bowlers, fielders and late-order batsmen because it was important that the gentlemen batted first.
It is not being suggested that Fingal was an egalitarian Utopia, and that relationships between landowners and farm-labourers were always harmonious, but at a general level, it appears that there was a level of tolerant co-existence with the gentry leading totally separate lives to the rest of the community. Cricket was an area of activity where there was a connection between the gentry and their tenants although it was reported that at some games, the gentry took their refreshments in different quarters to their workers.
The availability of the rail network was of crucial importance because it provided flexibility and choice in terms of fixtures for teams and it is no coincidence that clubs were founded in Malahide, Skerries, Balbriggan and Rush. This is readily illustrated by the fixtures which teams from Balbriggan, its hinterland, Skerries and Malahide fulfilled during this period. The report on the game between Laytown Visitors and Skerries Visitors in the Drogheda Argus and Leader Journal, 30 August 1890 ended with a note of appreciation for the station master:
As usual the Railway company stopped the 8.10 p.m. train to take up the Skerries cricket team. The Company always kindly stopped trains at Laytown to take up or set down cricket teams at the request of the hon. sec. of the Laytown Cricket Club, Mr Thos. JA Wall.
The train timetables tended to dictate the starting and finishing times of games. For example, the members of the Civil Service 2nd X1 were advised to meet at Amiens Street Station at 1.30 p.m. for a game against Balbriggan which was scheduled to commence at 3.00.
Other factors involved in facilitating cricket in Fingal was the involvement in cricket of the visitors to Skerries and Rush who rented houses in these town during the summer. The Holmpatrick cricket team was comprised of members of the sizeable Anglican population in Skerries, summer residents and visitors to the area. Balbriggan had developed as a major manufacturing centre with the result that there was a constant influx of migrant workers from England to the town.
Due to a lack of league structures and a resistance among some people to the concept of competitions, clubs arranged games by placing advertisements in the local newspapers, indicating available dates or preferences in terms of travel. For example, the Emmets Cricket Club in Skerries expressed a desire for "a few more fixtures with country clubs." The other means of obtaining fixtures was to issue a public challenge. In a review of the 1903 season, the Secretary of Knockbrack CC reported that the team had won eight games and lost 4, and its record was not as good as Corduff's but unlike Corduff, Knockbrack never refused a challenge from "clubs that were likely to beat them." An inflammatory statement such as this was guaranteed to provoke a response from Corduff, and Peter Kelly, Secretary of Corduff, did not pull any punches in his reply:
Corduff has played and defeated better teams that ever they were, and would not have refused to play (and be sure to defeat them), only on the grounds that we were certain they were inclined to pick a local team whom we have defeated, but are very much inclined for rising rows.
On the evidence of the reports in the local newspapers, there were at least twenty three cricket clubs in Fingal during the period 1897 to 1910. Many of these clubs could more correctly be called teams because they were simply groups of like-minded individuals who came together to play cricket and had been given access to a field by a friendly landowner. The fields which were used could change from season to season, or even during a season, and finding a field in which to play was a constant problem. Balbriggan CC held its annual meeting on 23 May 1900, and it was explained that there was no point in meeting any earlier because the club had no ground but Terence O'Neill, businessman and landowner, came to the rescue and "placed one of his fields at their disposal."
Games not being finished occurred occasionally. The convention was for each team to provide one umpire, and it was assumed that in keeping with the spirit of cricket, umpires' decisions would be respected, and all umpires would be impartial. The practice diverged at times from this theory, and umpires' decisions were contested with some regularity. When the Naul played Ashbourne, the Naul was 19 runs in front, when T. Mc Grurn disputed the umpire's decision, and the game was abandoned.
It would be unfair to over-emphasise the games not being completed due to disputes. Teams in Fingal acquired a reputation for being competitive on the field, and very hospitable when the games were over. The quality of the hospitality was a characteristic of Fingal clubs in the early era and continues to be a hallmark of Fingal clubs in modern times. In an account on the game between Westown and Balbriggan, the reporter excelled himself with the account of the after-match hospitality:
After play Mr and Mrs Hussey displayed their usual hospitality by entertaining the players and visitors to sumptuous dejeuner. Mr Hussey presiding and after drinking the usual loyal and complimentary toasts, the company parted at a late hour, highly pleased after indulging in the feast of reason and the flow of soul.
Corduff CC had a reputation for being a very competitive team, but that did not prevent the players from appreciating the social aspects of cricket. The club appears to have made a distinction between games against neighbouring clubs and games in Dublin because the game against St James' CC was "all the more enjoyable as it was free from the strain of league and inter-club cricket." The game "took a secondary part with the social proceedings which followed. The St James' men and their ladies vied with each other in paying attention to their guests."
The start of the cricket season was awaited eagerly in Fingal, and a correspondent in the Drogheda Argus was critical of the tardy way in which Balbriggan was preparing for the new season:
What is the matter with Balbriggan Cricket Club? On all sides one reads and hears of preparations being made for the coming season, but the committee of BCC seem to be still in the comatose condition attributed to the bear in winter.
In addition to inter-club games, business houses and factories also played cricket. In a game between Balbriggan and Belfast Banking Co., a player called A. Slogger got runs (18) and took 5 wickets. An exhaustive search of the 1901 Census has failed to reveal anyone in Ireland with the surname of Slogger so even in that era, it is obvious that "hired guns" were being used.
Between 1910 and 1913, there are very few reports of cricket being played in Fingal. Whether this was due to less cricket being played or if there was pressure on space due to publicity being given to other sports or other events is not clear. In 1913, Ring Commons CC indicated in April that it was open for challenges for the coming season. Knockbrack continued to play cricket, and Gormanstown CC made a comeback after being absent for some years. There was some cricket being played during the war, because on 29 August 1915, Lieutenant M. F. Healy thought it strange that people in Skerries preferred playing cricket and golf to fighting in the war:
They were fighting to keep the Germans from Ireland and yet they in Skerries could keep on playing golf and cricket and would not go into training and help the fighting men.
From 1913 until 1925, the only report in the local press is a reference to a schoolboys' game which was played in Rush in 1920.
Local, national and international events were predominant during the next 12 years or so, with minimal attention being given to the reporting of cricket. For example, there was agitation during 1911 regarding rents and the sale of the Holmpatrick estate. Relations between farm labourers and land owners were particularly strained during the farm labourers' strike in 1913 when an ultimatum was given to the farm labourers to leave the union or be dismissed, a tomb belonging to the Woods' family was desecrated and cattle were released on to the road. In October 1914, the Skerries Branch of the Town Tenants' League organised a protest meeting to condemn evictions, the increased demands for rent and charges for seaweed by Lord Holmpatrick and his agents. Some of people on the platform such as Wm. McLoughlin, P. Grimes and Walter Collins had also been involved in playing cricket with the Emmets CC and the Black Hills.
The War of Independence and Civil War which followed World War 1 caused attitudes to harden regarding anything to do with England, and cricket was adjudged by cultural nationalists to be the most English of all sports, a source of fraternisation with the enemy and the cause of emasculation of the virile Irish people. Politically and socially, it was not expedient to be involved in cricket during troubled times, but the regard for cricket in Fingal ran very deep, and traditionally, Fingallians are "possessed of an independent spirit." They did not appreciate being dictated to by cultural nationalists or others regarding the games that they might or might not play.
The most important development in the preservation of cricket in Fingal was the announcement in October 1926 that North County Dublin cricket clubs intended to form a league and were confident of having the league "in full working order before the opening of the next season". It is intended to chronicle at a later stage the extent of the indebtedness of cricket-lovers to the vision and energy of the its founders.
The assistance of Joe Curtis is acknowledged for his insights into that era and the photographs; the late Joe Clinton provided the impetus and inspiration for undertaking this work.