A Wealth of Leisure – Christmas 2004

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Athenry over the past decade has enjoyed considerable success in the field of sport.

Hurling is where we have achieved most notable success but more recently there has been a growth in participation in the local soccer teams. Playing a sport of British origin is totally acceptable and commonplace all over modern Ireland but were we always so free and willing to play these “foreign” games.

What sports did our great-grandfathers in Athenry play? How did they spend their free time a hundred years ago? Well, it all depended on how much free time they had and how much money they had to spend. It was a time when being born into a wealthy family meant being born into a wealth of leisure. The privileged enjoyed a wide selection of sports including ones of English origin. Leisure time for the gentry was divided between such diverse pastimes as cricket, tennis, foxhunting, game hunting, reading, billiards and attending gala balls.

Needless to say, these recreational activities applied in the main to the rich.

Gaelic football and hurling, handball, wresting, bare knuckle fighting, storytelling, singing and athletics were among the pastimes which all sections of society could afford to partake in (both rich and poor). However, in most cases the poor never played an active role in the elite dominated sports. If the poor were lucky enough, they were allowed to watch the rich at these games. So, what sports in particular were popular back then amongst the landed class – the gentry?

In the late nineteenth century, the horse was still used as a means of transport as well as an object for leisure purpose. The annual Athenry Horse Races commenced in 1890 “over the Ballydavid course, a new track, all grass, perfectly flat, a half-mile straight to the finish”. (The Tuam News, by Liam Conway, September 11th 1891).

Horses and spectators travelled by train from all around Galway and from as far away as Athlone and Dublin to attend the races which got under way at 1pm on the third Thursday of the month of September, each year.

The feature race of the day was the Athenry Plate with prize money of £50 for the winner of the two mile race (The Galway Observer, September 12 1891). Total prize money paid out at the Athenry Races of 1891 was £145. The construction of a stand and railings for the day cost the organisers £45. However, only a profit of £4 was made that year. Sales of programmes, alcohol, stand entry fees and gate receipts helped to offset the costs. The minimum entrance fee to the races was 5 shillings. (The Tuam Herald, June 11th 1892).

Hunting was a common and favourite pastime of the rich. Notice of the upcoming hunt through local fields was given to affected landowners through the local newspapers. The master of the Galway Foxhounds or Galway Blazers, as they were more commonly known, for most of the second-half of the nineteenth century, was Burton Persse of Moyode Castle, three miles from Athenry town. He was greatly admired by his fellow members of the Blazers, so much so that in 1877 they presented him with “a magnificent portrait and a splendid silver plate.

Over two thousand gentry and nobility of the surrounding counties assembled at Moyode Castle” that day. Afterwards there was a hunt “the largest for several years” (The Loughrea Journal, December 1877).

Cricket, yes cricket, was also a crowd puller just over a hundred years ago. In 1892, the Athenry Cricket Grounds was completed. It was located in a field near the old Railway Hotel in the townland of Ballydavid South. It was built primarily as a home ground for the Galway County Cricket Club, which had previously held its home games at a site in Coolarne. For its official opening, the County Cricket club were hoping “to see the Dublin elevens coming down to Athenry” for an inter-county challenge match. Fortunately, cricket is one sport that “affords enjoyment to all classes in society” because all those interested were invited to attend the match (The Tuam Herald, February 20th 1892).

Hurling, football and handball were popular sports amongst the tenant and labouring class of Athenry long before these Irish games were integrated under the umbrella organization- the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884. On the whole though, the rich and the poor of the town and parish enjoyed many sports as one. Where the poor could not afford the equipment required to play certain sports such as cricket, they were allowed to watch, along with the gentry, at these social gatherings.

Liam Conway is originally from Athenry but now living in Galway. He is studying in NUI Galway. The research for his thesis entitled The Historical Geography of Athenry Co. Galway in the 19th century has led him to write this article.

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About this record

Written by Liam Conway

Published here 10 Feb 2024 and originally published Christmas 2004

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