Ger Siggins, March 2016
This weekend marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, a watershed moment in the history of our island. Given the controversy which still surrounds the rebellion, and the admirable non-political nature of Irish cricket, I have no intention of writing a political column, or even a historical one. However, I spent most of this winter editing the Irish Independent's series of magazines on 1916 and kept coming across people and moments where cricket intersected or played a role.
The best known story concerns Frank Browning, the former Ireland batsman and IRFU president who was killed on Northumberland Road in one of the first attacks on Easter Monday morning. I've written about this on CricketEurope and elsewhere [bit.ly/1Rpa4ed] so I won't detain you here.
Edward Liddle has also written about the irony that the bullet that killed Browning was in part paid for by his former team-mate George Berkeley, a former officer in the Boer War who became a supporter of Home Rule:
“The Larne gun running convinced Berkeley that the Irish Volunteers must also be armed. Like John Redmond he never supported physical force or a republic and was to be entirely behind the war effort, serving with the Third Reserve Cavalry Regiment. However, he felt that the Government might ignore the Home Rule cause if the North was armed and the Irish Volunteers were not. He thus financed Childers' Howth gun running exploit, far less formidable than Crawford's at Larne, and later, incongruously mounted on a horse, and wearing his British uniform, organised the distribution of a handful of the antiquated German rifles in West Belfast.”
Other cricket notables were involved in Home Rule activity in the run up to war, with the former captain of England, Sir Timothy O'Brien, a prominent member of the All For Ireland League and accompanying Redmond as he inspected the National Volunteers in 1912. James Connolly's militia, the Irish Citizen Army, was actually founded in the Trinity rooms of Ireland cricketer Robin Gwynn, two of whose brothers also played for Ireland.
While a large strain of nationalism at the time was centred around the Gaelic sports and language, there seemed to be little of the tribalism that later surrounded these issues. Patrick Pearse ran a school in Dublin, St Enda's, where the boys voted each summer whether they wanted to play cricket or hurling, while several cricketers were involved in the rebellion.
Cathal Brugha was perhaps the best rebel cricketer, opening the bowling for Pembroke in the 1890s when it was one of the big four clubs in Dublin. He was also an excellent swimmer, rugby player and international gymnast. Then called Charlie Burgess, he started at Belvedere College, where he opened batting and bowling for the XI, and took four wickets for Workingmen's Club against Trinity 2nds in 1891. Three years later he joined Pembroke (“a great acquisition to the playing strength of PCC” said the Freeman's Journal) and took five wickets – including Frank Browning – when they beat Dundrum by ten runs.
A leading Malahide cricketer of the time, Tom Kettle, was also active in the Volunteers but chose to fight – and die – in British uniform in Flanders.
The opening shots of the Rising didn't seem to faze the children of the inner city who were observed by Ernest Jordison, managing director of BP in Dublin:
“There was a great lot of people about, from the entrance into O'Connell St, near Parnell St, and onwards, mainly on the footpaths. I actually saw boys with cricket bats and balls, playing in the middle of the road, before reaching Nelson's Pillar where I saw two dead horses lying in the road, on the left hand side of the Pillar, and an immense lot of blood all over that part of the road.”
Eamon de Valera, who was the only Irish Volunteers battalion commander to escape the firing squad, was also a keen cricketer with Blackrock College. In August 1908 he turned out for the past pupils' XI against Rockwell, when his line in the scorebook read ‘E J De Valera run out 0'.
A story has been told of how, when Taoiseach, he called down to College Park to watch the annual two-day game between Trinity and the XI of Sir John Maffey, the British ambassador. The pair were great personal friends and set off on a lap of the ground. ‘Dev' picked up a discarded bat and played some air shots but as soon as he spotted a press photographer lifting his camera he tossed the bat aside. A love for cricket was a political liability for a Fianna Fáil taoiseach in the 1940s!
But my favourite story about cricket and the Rising concerns the poet Thomas MacDonagh, who commanded the battalion that occupied The Jacob's biscuit factory in Aungier Street. While the fighting raged around Sackville Street, other outposts saw little action. Two soldiers were captured on Easter Monday but the garrison was relatively peaceful until the surrender.
One the POWs was a good leg-spin bowler, and MacDonagh was fascinated by his skill. The soldier was able to bowl a googly, barely a decade since it had been invented by Bernard Bosanquet. MacDonagh carved a bat out of a floorboard and, producing a tennis ball, asked the soldier to show him how to bowl the delivery.
I love the idea that while Europe was beset by a demented war, and Dublin city in flames as rebellion raged, two enemies could put aside their differences to ponder the mysteries of cricket.