When cricket was 'alive ho in the west'

The 1880s was a watershed in the history of sport in Ireland. Soccer's All-Ireland governing body was established in Belfast in 1880 and during that decade the sport began to spread out from Ulster and scatter throughout the island. The first set of rules for rugby were drawn up in England in 1845, but the sport did not gain much traction in Ireland until the 1880s, a mere 10 years after the first game was played on Irish soil. The sport’s managing body, the Irish Rugby Football Union, was founded in 1879. The Golfing Union of Ireland was established in 1891, and though the game was being played in Ireland prior to that date, it had not attracted a Mayo following. The first golf club in Connacht was only founded in 1892. In 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed with a view to promoting Ireland’s native games. All of these sports have grown to become extremely popular in Mayo today but one sport, once arguably the most popular organised sport in the county, has virtually disappeared.

Cricket was introduced into Ireland in the 18th century. The earliest known reference to the sport is of a match held in Dublin in 1792 between the British garrison and an "All-Ireland" team. The oldest cricket club still in existence in Ireland is Phoenix Cricket Club in Dublin, which was founded in 1830 by John Parnell, father of Charles Stewart Parnell. In Mayo, the County Club was already in existence by 1818. All strata of society were allowed play, and were encouraged to play the game. By the 1870s, very active cricket clubs existed across the county. The early games were played very much with a parochial feel to them with social events organised around the games themselves. Hollymount Cricket Club hosted a regular athletic sports day. By incorporating athletes into the day, the club opened up the event, and cricket, to a wider audience. Castlebar Cricket Club held concerts with the dual purpose of raising funds and creating a social mixer for club members, families, and supporters. Friendly rivalries existed between certain clubs. In the east of the county, Swinford and Kilkelly cricket clubs frequently battled for sporting honours. The bigger towns of Castlebar, Ballina, and Westport played each other regularly, and being evenly matched, reports of their matches were of interest to the county’s wider cricket support. At the inaugural meeting of the Ballyhaunis Cricket Club in 1893, the chairman noticed that every town in the west had a cricket club. So strong was cricket in Mayo that "Ranje", a provincial newspaper columnist, cheered "Cricket's alive ho! in the West". Ranje’s popular column gave cricket updates on Mayo teams and tips on how to play the game's more common strokes.

The late 19th century campaigns for Home Rule, Land Reform, and cultural nationalism succeeded in driving a wedge between the coloniser and the natives. Everything associated with the British presence in Ireland was to be avoided, including their sports. As a direct result, cricket was declining by the 1890s and was being played in Mayo mainly by the British garrison which fuelled nationalists’ suspicion of those playing it. Games were now confined to the larger town clubs of Ballina, Westport, and Castlebar playing the Garrison Club of the Connaught Rangers, the Castlebar Garrison, and Captain Bingham’s XI on lands supplied by the Earl of Lucan and Lord Sligo.

In 1906, Claremorris Cricket Club was reformed. The president, captain, and committee were all Congested District Board (CDB ) employees, except for one man. It was editorialised by the press that this man was, up until the club was renewed, the most ardent Irish culture revivalist in south Mayo. The CDB was seen by some nationalists as a body by which the British government was attempting to buy Irish subservience through the issuing of grants and redistribution of land. The man was berated for his allegiance to a foreign game and was labelled “the latest addition to the rank of West Briton shoneens” who participate not in a manly activity but in “girl’s play”. The press promised to bring sanction on him if he did not immediately renounce his new sport, the sport of “nation killers”, and retake his place on the local hurling team. He was given three weeks to quit the club. Claremorris Cricket Club played several matches over the following weeks in which the accused, ignoring the threats, played a part. Further ridicule was flung at the civilian. His sporting prowess at the crease and his non-Irish made cricket attire were the subjects of abuse and were followed by additional threats. The Claremorris club travelled to a cricket tournament held at Dalgan Park five weeks after the initial threat. The “civilian cricketer” was not present.

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