Analysis: was community background the key driver of sporting allegiances after independence and partition in Ireland?

As befits the largest sporting body on the island, the history of sport in Ireland predominantly concerns the sporting, cultural and political significance of the GAA. In contrast, my current PhD research accounts for the survival of four key non-GAA sports - soccer, rugby, cricket and hockey – in Ireland between 1922 and 2000. While the work done by the governing bodies of games is undoubtedly central to their continued popularity, social class, education, the workplace, urban/rural identity, politics, gender and nationality also influence the sporting preference of an individual.

The existing written history of sport in Ireland is also disproportionately focused on the period of the sporting revolution (1860-1914), when modern sport was born and when British sports were exported worldwide. Having accounted for the survival of these games in the post-partition era, this research will explore the subsequent growth in popularity of British sports in Ireland in the latter 20th century. The television age, increased sponsorship revenue and professionalism are three key areas allowing games previously entrenched in a Victorian amateur ethos to experience a rebirth in the modern era of globalisation.

From RTÉ Radio One's History Show, a look at the long history of sport on the island of Ireland

In terms of mass appeal, there is one obvious phenomenon that in many ways necessitates this change from a GAA-tinted lens. It is fair to say that success on the international stage for Irish teams in sports that are of British origin, has captured the imagination of the nation in a far greater manner than the GAA is able to yield annually. Notable examples include during the FIFA World Cup of 1990 and 1994, the Rugby Union Grand Slam triumphs of 2009 and 2018, a first victory at the Cricket World Cup over Pakistan on St Patricks Day 2007, and most recently the Irish team reaching the final of the 2018 Women’s Hockey World Cup.

To date, this research has charted the survival/growth of these sports in Ulster/Northern Ireland (depending on the sport) since 1922. One measure of how this occurred is through analysing the number of clubs affiliated to one of the governing bodies, such as the Ulster Branch of the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU):

A view that the GAA is historically connected with cultural and political nationalism is well-established. Similarly, the above snapshot of how the governing body successfully grew the game of rugby in Ulster following partition, reveal political undercurrents that are less well-established. Upon closer inspection of those affiliated clubs, it appears that "Northern Ireland Branch" would have been a much more accurate name for the Ulster Branch of the IRFU for at least 40 years following partition:

Even within the smaller six county area of Ulster Unionist political domination, there existed further divisions within the organisation of rugby. It was often said of 20th century northern society that an economic divide existed along the Bann River. East of this river was said to be more industrially developed and prosperous than the mainly agricultural area west of that river. A geographical analysis of the uneven growth of rugby in Ulster relates closely to that economic divide along the Bann River:

Geographic spread of Ulster Branch IRFU affiliated clubs 1925-85

Soccer would also consolidate its popularity in the east of Northern Ireland. Unlike the economic driver behind rugby’s growth east of the Bann River, the urban centre of Belfast provided the critical mass that was key to the survival of soccer. Of the four sports, soccer was unique in that it was also partitioned along the same lines as the political settlement in 1921.

Regional affiliation to the Irish Football Association 1912-22

Aside from affiliation records, the revenue data that is available can tell us much about the spectator appeal of these sports. The profits made from the running of annual senior cup competitions of the Irish Football Association (IFA), Ulster Branch IRFU and the Northern Cricket Union of Ireland (NCUI), are almost complete for the years 1922-71:

In the year ahead, similar data for governing bodies, individual clubs and local authorities in the Republic of Ireland will be examined and tabulated. How wider society and external factors shaped those trends follows the statistical analysis, before I will attempt to explore the motivations of individuals in their sporting preferences during this era. This combination is how I envisage moving the history of sport in Ireland beyond the traditional Gaelic vs foreign games battle-lines. After all, it is more than a game.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ