Cricket: When Irish Eyes are Smiling

My wife and I have just returned from a cricketing tour of England with the Sydney Cricket Ground XI that included two days at Lord’s for the second Ashes Test. The atmosphere at Lord’s was fantastic – too bad about the cricket. It was not long ago that as an Irish-Australian I took delight in the way Australia used to put England to the sword whenever the two teams played the game the English had invented. On the Australians’ present form it may be some time before I will experience that sense of satisfaction once again.

Some Irish patriots might argue that anyone with a drop of Irish blood in his or her veins would despise the game of cricket as a garrison game. One such patriot was Mary MacSwiney, the sister of Terence MacSwiney, the Sinn Féin lord mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in 1920 at Brixton prison. At the Irish Race Convention in Paris in 1922 MacSwiney gave Australian delegate Dr Herbert Moran a verbal lashing when during a debate on the establishment of an Irish Olympic Games he emphasised the value of team sports, especially cricket. In his memoirs Viewless Winds Moran recalled how she “scornfully stigmatised [the game] as a subtle means for the anglicisation of Ireland.” He should have known better than to proselytise the virtues of cricket in Ms MacSwiney’s presence given his own assessment of her:

During all that week I never saw Miss MacSwiney smile. She was the incarnation of a people’s hatred for the oppressor. The memory of all the massacres and famines blazed perpetually in her eyes. Her speech was a scalding infusion from all the bitter herbs that ever grew in the crevices of suffering and misfortune.

On the other hand, according to the Guardian‘s Patrick Kingsley, contemporary Irish patriot Martin McGuinness is said to be a fan of the sport and, no less, of the England cricket team.

Garrison game or not, during the Great Irish Famine (1845-52) cricket provided a much-needed source of income to some of the native Irish living on Viscount Ashbrook’s estate at Castle Durrow in County Laois. According to Michael Parsons in the Irish Times, recently discovered records of the Ashbrook Cricket Club reveal that while gentlemen members of the club had to pay a shilling for the privilege of playing, Catholic hirelings were paid two shillings a match. Parsons writes, “With the exception of boxers and jockeys, the Laois cricketers appear to have been the first Irish sports players to be paid”. Better than taking the soup, perhaps.

But the Australian Irish accommodated themselves to cricket from early on and many have done well at the highest levels of the sport. Sons of Erin such as Bill O’Reilly, Stan McCabe and Jack Fingleton are legends of the game. But they too were made to feel uncomfortable about their playing the English game, though not by Irish patriots. In the sectarian times in which they played waspish team mates were more likely to be the source of vitriol.

In recent times, with the attenuation of patriotic fervour and sectarian conflict, Ireland has taken its place among the second tier of cricket playing nations with some notable success. As well as progressing to the second round of the 2007 World Cup, they memorably, defeated England in the 2011 World Cup. In that game Dublin-born Kevin O’Brien hit the fastest World Cup century off only 50 balls. Even Mary MacSwiney might have cracked a smile at that result.

Let’s hope that in the return Ashes series this southern summer the Aussies can turn it around so that Irish-Australian eyes are smiling once again.

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