Before opening the pages of this new study of sporting activity in Ireland’s southernmost province, the reader is drawn into its world. The cover image, perfectly chosen, places you amidst the crowd, cheering for one side or another. In the background is a grandstand, sparsely populated but a fine construction nonetheless. Look carefully and you’ll see scores of spectators on the hill overlooking the ground, watching the game for free. And for the more discerning eye are the unmistakeable overhead lamps of the greyhound racing track that circles the pitch. With long shorts and officials in suits, this is clearly a game played long ago, but it is at the same time utterly familiar; modern, even. Herein lies the argument made by David Toms in his admirable study, Soccer in Munster. Although long derided in Ireland as a ‘foreign game’ or as the ‘garrison game’ (not least by the Gaelic Athletic Association, with interests all of their own), organised soccer has been part and parcel of Irish working-class culture since the late nineteenth century developing alongside hurling and rugby as would-be pastimes of a growing proletarian workforce.
It is important to iterate that particular aspect early in this review, for Soccer in Munster forms part of a new wave of Irish historiography that places class at the heart of its analysis. In a direct challenge to the dominant nationalist-republican narratives which stress the unity of the Irish people, and the lack of ‘class’ in Ireland, this emerging wave of scholarship insists alternately on the validity of an Irish working class and the vitality of its self-expression. ‘Ireland’, writes Toms instructively, ‘though an island physically, was not one socially or culturally’ (p. 3). To play soccer on the streets of, for instance, a Redmondite city such as Waterford, which owed so much to maritime trade with Britain, was to express a certain form of Irishness that has long been overlooked, not just by perpetuators of the nationalist-republican tradition but by generations of historians. To play it in a greyhound stadium in Cork, or at Turner’s Cross in the midst of terraces of small, narrow, proletarian dwellings, was to express another variant. This is not a historiographical innovation that seeks to recover poor stockingers or rural labourers from posterity’s condescension, but rather factory workers and dockers. We should not be surprised, therefore, that of those classics of class in Britain, it is the work of Eric Hobsbawm that features heavily in Toms’s bibliography.
Class and other competing identities form the subject of the book’s most important chapter, in which Toms considers what sort of Ireland and Irish identities are revealed by those who turned away from hurling and played the ‘garrison game’. Here, he reveals the attempt by the nationalist-republican establishment, amidst a cultural revolution directed primarily by them, to stamp out the ‘undesirable cultural residue’ of British rule, including soccer (p. 103). In this way, Toms establishes the extent to which sport formed (in his words) ‘a central part of the debate about how Irish identity in a post-independence setting was to be constructed’ (p. 113). As revealed in chapter three, which tackles commercialised leisure, this was a debate about Irish modernity that engaged jazz, dancing, gambling at the dog and speedway track, and cultural imports from the United States.
It is symptomatic of Toms’s inventiveness that his research has tilled through sources more typical of labour history than the history of sport. Newspapers and contemporary sporting publications thus sit alongside council minute books, the archives of sporting associations, and those endlessly fruitful reports compiled by medical officers of health. This serves as a reminder, then, should any still be needed, that sport history, like labour history, exists because of a desire to tell the full story of working-class life and working-class experience. As Toms writes, sport history itself was ‘born out of, initially, interest from those historians […] who wished to know what it was the working class did when they weren’t working’ (p. 210). There are certain gaps, however, which would have added to his analysis of soccer’s street-level development: most notably the question of criminality. Although mentioned in passing, it is true to say that boys who played on the streets faced a constant battle with the police. Juvenile courts often had to deal with children brought before them on charges of obstruction and the like. Given their absence here, one wonders what the court and police (later Garda) records would reveal of the Irish context? Was there a shift in attitudes from the Royal Irish Constabulary to An Gardai Síochána?
A book about a game of two halves, Soccer in Munster does, to some extent, fall into the trap of having two distinct parts of its own: the first three chapters cover the full chronological span, the latter three provide case studies of soccer’s development in Cork, Waterford, and Limerick, between 1918 and 1937. Given the tumultuous events in Ireland after 1918, it is understandable that that date should prove a watershed. In other hands, the book might have benefitted from reorganisation to place the case studies directly after the opening chapter leading up to 1918. But that is not the case here, since the emphasis in the case studies remains the theme of a contested cultural revolution, class identity, and self-expression. Referees emerge as striking workers, unemployment looms large for player and spectator, and another Ireland (urban, working-class) is heard.
For Soccer in Munster is, in sum, a truly fine study of what Irish workers did when they weren’t working: it recovers soccer’s place in the pantheon of sports to which the Irish working class were devoted before and after independence. And it is the opinion of this reviewer that the book will play a major role in the continued (and vital) restoration of class to Irish historiography.