DES KEENAN'S BOOKS ON IRISH HISTORY online version
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Summary of chapter. There was a wide variety of leisure activities in this period. There were no outstanding achievements but there was a competence in most of the arts. Games had not been codified. The codification of rules, and the spread of the railways transformed sports later in the century.
The Golden Age of
Irish literature came at the end of the nineteenth century with Shaw, Yeats,
Wilde, and many others. Though there were no figures of comparable stature in
the first half of the century literature was flourishing.
most famous writer was Thomas Moore, the Romantic poet. His output was vast,
but much of his work was mediocre. His position as '
were more numerous and their work was better. Of the four best writers in the
first twenty years of the century three were women. Maria Edgeworth the
daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, is the best
known, possibly because her writings on the evils of absentee landlords were
useful to Irish nationalists. She was a landlord's daughter and wrote didactic
novels about estate management from the point of view of the resident Tory
gentlemen. The Absentee and Castle Rackrent have been reprinted
recently. Miss Sidney Owenson, later Lady Morgan, also wrote of life on Irish
estates but in the Romantic style derived from
the 1820's a group of Irishmen went to
Rev. William Hamilton, who devised the ‘rollicking tale’, started another
strand in Irish literature. The great exponent of the genre was Charles Lever
who wrote Harry Lorrequer and similar stories. Samuel Lover was described as a
third rate novelist, poet, and painter, but his stories like Handy Andy are still very readable. The
Countess of Blessington lived in
for the theatre were few in number and mediocre in quality. The best
playwrights were Richard Lalor Sheil and James Sheridan Knowles. They had some
successes at the time but their plays were never considered worth reviving.
Writing for the stage did not revive until mid-century when Dion Boucicault
the terms of the Act of Union Ireland became subject to British copyrights, and
so lost the 'right' to pirate British publications. Standards of printing and
publishing improved but
even if called public libraries, did not admit the general public. That in
larger provincial towns all seem to have had some kind of public library,
normally of the subscription kind.
is well known that Karl Marx spent his time sitting at the fires in the British
Museum Library chatting to his friends. The pictures we are given of reading
rooms in Irish libraries is very similar. Gentlemen
subscribers used them as club-rooms in which to meet their friends. The idea of
a library as a place for serious study seems to have been invented by Lord
Brougham when he started the London Library in 1836.
were in Irish towns newspaper reading rooms. These
were also maintained by subscription. Newspapers were relatively dear, so those
who purchased them were unlikely to buy more than one.
the early nineteenth century was not a very good period for the Irish theatre
interest in it was widespread, as was also concern about how to improve it. It
seems that most of the rioting in the theatres was directed at the management,
and newspapers were full of good advice when not defending libel suits by the
Restoration of Charles II in many ways marked the entry of
theatricals were more popular and successful at least up to 1820. The actors
were ladies and gentlemen of independent means and the proceeds from public
performances had to be distributed to charity. Amateur theatricals were said to
have begun in the house of the Rt. Hon. William Brownlow in Lurgan co.
1786 onwards the professional theatre was regulated by an Irish Act (26 George
III) of that year. To try to make the theatre profitable and to improve
standards the Lord Lieutenant was allowed to grant an exclusive patent to the
manager of the Theatre Royal. (This corresponded to the grants to the two
the late eighteenth century the leading impresario was Richard Daly, but in
1792 Frederick Edward Jones (Buck Jones) secured the patent for 21 years but
with onerous obligations to Daly. He had to protect his patent against rivals
like Thomas Astley the manager of an 'amphitheatre' who were pushing at the
edges of his patent. He was also involved in disputes with some gentlemen he
had brought in as financial assistants. His period of management was marked by
crowd disturbances. The most famous riot occurred in 1814 over a play called 'The
this time various people, including Frederick Conway, tried to bring out
regular periodicals connected with the theatre.
of widespread dissatisfaction with Jones the patent was transferred in 1819 to
Henry Harris. Jones refused to sell or lease the theatre building in
made no profit and after a few years leased his patent to various managers. The
most successful of the managers was called Calcraft who managed the theatre
from 1830 until 1846. Despite putting on excellent productions he made very
manager or patentee could either maintain his own troupe of actors in
the actors and actresses of the period, Eliza O’Neill, (always called Miss
O’Neill) was the most famous. She was the daughter of the manager of the
on the provincial theatre is hard to find except in snippets. It was generally
prosperous around 1800 but then shared in the general decline. The Theatre
alternative theatre had an equally uncertain career. Thomas Astley was the
proprietor of the Amphitheatre Royal in
the end of the century the tradition of the Irish theatre split in two. Some
playwrights like Shaw and Wilde felt its focus should be placed in
had reached one of its great peaks in
art like stucco-work, at first retained the high standards of the preceding
century, but standards inevitably declined as the demand increased and mass
production methods had to be adopted.
both free-standing and applied to buildings remained at a high standard of
competence even if there were no outstanding geniuses. The style always
remained classical. John Hogan, Patrick MacDowell, and John Henry Foley were
the most notable.
too remained at a high level of technical competence. The Classical and
Romantic styles survived from the preceding century. After
mid-century inspiration was renewed by contacts with the French realist and
Impressionist schools. (Irish art and architecture are among the few
subjects about which adequate studies have been made. See for example Harbison,
Potterton and Sheehy, and Bruce Arnold.)
is little to be said about Irish music in the first half of the century. The
folk tunes of the traditional musicians, whatever their origin, were minor
compositions. Handel, in the first half of the eighteenth century, was the
first major composer whose works were publicly performed in
the nineteenth century William Vincent Wallace (Maritana), William Henry
Kearns, Thomas Simpson Cook, Michael Kelly, Joseph Augustine Wade and John
Andrew Stevenson just about qualified for inclusion in the Dictionary of National Biography.
The last named arranged the music for Moore's 'Melodies'. Michael Balfe (The Bohemian Girl) was the most famous.
Catherine Hayes became a noted singer and achieved great success at La Scala in
was an age when instrument makers were devoting their attention to the
improvement of instruments, seeking to overcome traditional limitations. John
Egan of Dublin developed the keyboard harp by introducing a keyboard to form
the modern concert harp. Particular difficulties with keeping the harp in tune
caused it to lose favour in drawing-rooms to the similarly improved pianoforte.
was largely unorganised and spontaneous. Theatre, concert, and circus
performances were popular among those who could afford them. The coffee-house was
replaced by the reading room that performed a similar function. Gentlemen's
clubs existed chiefly for gambling. Golf was played but not extensively.
Fowling was popular among those, especially in towns, who had a gun or fowling
piece. Fairdays and local horse racing
days provided opportunities for general recreation. Getting drunk was a
pleasure for those who could afford it. Heavy drinking was very noticeable
among the upper classes. Sunday afternoons were often spent taking long walks
in the countryside, stopping to drink tea in tea-houses or punch in taverns.
was plenty of music, dancing, singing, running, wrestling, and card-playing.
The more serious-minded deplored the evils of modern dancing, especially the
waltz. The reading of novels was very common and Irish novelists had a ready
market. The drinking of tea, a rather expensive luxury, was popular with all
Towards the end of the eighteenth
century the seaside resorts modelled on Brighton began to replace the
spa-towns. Bathing-boxes were provided for women and children. Recreations in
these 'watering places' consisted of sea-bathing, balls, card assemblies, the
playing of backgammon, piquet, whist, and billiards, yacht-racing, and even
horse-racing. As in England the trend to the seaside with the drinking of
seawater and bathing in the salty water, largely killed off the spa resorts
like Mallow, in co. Cork.
There was also a trend to follow the Romantic
poets of the Lake District in England, and 'tourists' sought out wild romantic
places. In Ireland, the gentlemen with their families went especially to
Glendalough and the Vale of Avoca in co. Wicklow and Killarney in co. Kerry.
Hotels were built at these spots for their convenience. Later, with the coming
of the railways and the spread of angling, hotels were built all through the
Midlands and the west. (The word 'tourist' was originally applied to those who
went on the Grand Tour, but after the Napoleonic Wars it was applied to
sightseers within the British Isles. It was not mass-tourism.)
the ordinary workingmen in the parishes, besides the recreations listed above,
running and wrestling contests seem to have been the most popular. Footraces
were over distances of over twenty miles. Hurling was played in some places but
not in others. It is not clear if football was played extensively. Football was
not really very different from that other disreputable rural pursuit faction
fighting. In both large bodies of the young men from rival parishes
participated. In football the ostensible aim was to kick a stuffed ball to the
boundary of the parish or to some other goal or mark. The essence of the game
lay not in skill but in the jostling and tripping. In a faction fight cudgels
were used, and the aim was to break as many heads as possible, i.e. to draw
blood from the skull. For this reason the leaders on each side normally avoided
each other. We can assume that in hurling the two 'sports' were combined.
Football as we know it developed in England in the second half of the century.
The rules were codified and made uniform, and skill in managing the ball was
made the principal, if not quite exclusive, element. Regular leagues were
developed when the factory workers were given a half-day off on Saturdays.
Association football then spread to the Irish towns. In the countryside, about
1880, the nationalists developed a rival so-called 'Gaelic' code in which
handling the ball but not running with it was allowed. This code established a virtual monopoly in
meetings on a regular basis were started in Ireland in the late seventeenth
century shortly after their establishment in England. These meetings continued
throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gentlemen owned the horses,
but all classes were allowed to attend the meetings and place bets. There were
regular meetings at Downpatrick and The Maze in co. Down, Bellewstown in co.
Louth, Navan in co. Meath, Tralee in co. Kerry, and so on. These meetings
continue until the present day. The Curragh was the great centre of racing, and
here the races for the King's Plates of 100 guineas were held. It was the Irish
Newmarket. The meeting in late summer was a great social occasion.
racehorse or thoroughbred was changing at this time and the character of the races
was changing. In the previous century the races were point-to-point over
courses of three or four miles with the horses carrying weights of up to 170
pounds. The growing tendency was to race younger horses over shorter distances
on the flat and so weight-carrying had to be abolished. A writer in 1819
complained that the prizes like the King's Plates were not having the intended
effect of developing good cavalry horses. Races were being regularly won by
horses imported from Newmarket in England or by thoroughbreds from the centre
of the Irish bloodstock industry at the Curragh. The thoroughbred was by now
the only serious racehorse. Conditions excluding Galloways from particular
races were no longer found. The greatest Irish horse in the first half of the
century was Harkaway. He was foaled near Newry, in co. Down
though his dam was brought there deliberately so that he would be eligible to
race in that county. In the eighteenth century co. Down was probably the place
were horse-racing was taken most seriously.
it happened breeding horses for the various hunts produced the cavalry horses.
There is not a breed called a hunter, for where the country is flat a hunter
will resemble a thoroughbred, but in hilly areas ability to jump is required.
Individual gentlemen had maintained packs of hounds for a long time, but it was
not until about 1840 that the rules of the hunt were codified. In 1840 the Irish Sporting Chronicle announced that
the Westmeath Hunt had imported a new pack of English foxhounds and that in
future the hunting of hares with the pack would be forbidden. All the hunts
seem to have introduced the English black-and-tan foxhound about this time, and
the native Irish breed of foxhound virtually died out. It had a white, or a
steel grey, or a lemon coat, and the packs were said to have degenerated
through excessive inbreeding (ISC 16
May 1840 - Somerville and Ross mention a remaining pair at the end of the
Irish breeds of sporting dogs continued. Among these was the Irish setter, a
kind of pointer, like the retriever a gun-dog derived from the spaniel.
Terriers, as their name implies, were sent into the earth to drive out foxes or
badgers. Hounds were noted for their ability to follow a scent and so were used
was another sport of the gentry, and it consisted in trying to catch fish with
only a baited hook attached to a rod and a fine line. Fly-fishing was practised
on the lakes in the Midlands in the Twenties. Flies and other equipment had to
be bought in 'tackle shops' in Dublin for none could be procured locally. The
railways were to spread angling to the furthest parts of Ireland.
was another sport of the gentry, and Game Laws had been passed in the previous
century to preserve game.
had been very popular with Irish gentlemen in the eighteenth century, and the
Royal Cork Yacht Club claims to be the oldest in the world. As with horseracing
lack of means did not mean lack of interest in the sport. A great many men of
all classes were engaged in it, it being estimated that the crews of private
yachts amounted to 3,000 men. Besides these, boatmakers, sailmakers,
ropemakers, the makers of brass fittings, the suppliers of caulking, tar,
varnish and so on, had a direct interest in the yachts. Irish cutters had
formerly a great reputation for speed. In the opening years of the century the
sport declined, the war, the press-gang, and enemy
privateers doubtless accounting for this. The Royal Yacht Club in Cork was
reorganised in 1828 and at the same time a club was started in Belfast. There
was no definition of what counted as a yacht, and the fastest Irish yacht, Lord
Belfast's Waterwitch was a square-rigged ship. About 1830 yachts were divided
into classes for racing purposes, and these classes remained for the rest of
the interest shown by the gentlemen of the press in the subject the police
managed to keep boxing out of Ireland. There was an 'Irish champion' called
Langan in 1834 but he fought mainly in England. He was not a hard-hitter and
relied mainly on wrestling throws.
Some comments on the state of the tourist trade are to be found in Irish newspapers that have a curious contemporary ring. The Dublin Evening Post in 1849 noted that the 'insurrectionary proceedings' of the previous year had adversely affected the Irish tourist trade which in any case was not so well developed as that in Switzerland, Scotland, or even Spain. But the Irish watering places were thriving. In 1850 great holiday crowds were remarked at Warrenpoint, co. Down and at Blackrock, co. Louth, and it was clear that the Famine was definitely over. By 1853 advertisements were appearing for tourist hotels as far west as Achill Island, off co. Mayo.
Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.