Should one feel inclined to do so, take the time to read the following GAA-related passage from page five of a remarkable book on sport authored by Clonea-Power native Tom Hunt.
The Mullingar-based teacher refers to “the lack of clearly codified and understood rules and the unwillingness of individual clubs to accept the decisions of the regulatory authorities”.
Just go back through that sentence again. It’s hard to believe that Hunt is writing about problems that the Association was experiencing just a few years after its foundation, some not that removed from the headlines our games continue to generate today.
However, Tom Hunt’s book, titled ‘Sport and Society in Ireland – the Case of Westmeath’ isn’t your typical sporting tome. Anything but.
In many ways, what the author has achieved represents a landmark work in both a sporting and academic sense, possibly spearheading the way for further explorations of sport across Ireland, including Waterford.
In fact, it’s only just and proper to acclaim this thoroughly researched tome as the most comprehensive examination of Irish sport within a social/historical context yet published.
“There are so many GAA histories that are waiting to be written,” according to the author, whose examination of sport in Westmeath began life as a PhD thesis.
“The political stuff has been done over and over, but there’s such a rich social history to the GAA; there’s so much that’s yet to written on the GAA’s social dimension from that period…
“After the Portlaw study (titled ‘Portlaw, County Waterford, 1825-1876 – portrait of an industrial history and its cotton industry’), I decided I was going to do the GAA history of Mullingar.
“But when I began my research, I kept finding out so much other detail relating to other sports in the county that it developed into the book,” which was published by Cork University Press in February.
Tom continued: “I discovered an enormous amount of information relating to cricket, which was a very popular sport in the county at the time.
“And then I came upon other stuff dealing with horse racing, hunting, the development of soccer and so on – I really couldn’t believe how much there was happening in Westmeath during that period.”
Any pre-conceived notions that Victorian Ireland was socially muted were quickly dispelled during Tom’s extensive research. And to describe that level of research as exhaustive is putting it mildly.
Once the reader has got through the 255-page, eight chapter work, there’s another century of pages to examine.
This includes notes and references marked throughout the book, length appendices, as well as a bibliography and index. If there’s been a corner cut by Tom Hunt anywhere along the way, I’d challenge anyone to find it.
The depth and breadth of research is indicative to the time that the author invested in the work, and that doesn’t allow for the extensive re-writing that the text was subsequently subjected to. It’s an awesome achievement by any standards.
“Much of the work was piecemeal enough,” according to Tom. “It wasn’t all consuming or anything like that. It was mainly done during the summer holidays and then involved lots of rewrites, lots of analysis and that part of the job was a pretty slow process.”
Since publication, Tom has been delighted with the feedback to his book, which was described by UCD’s Dr Paul Rouse as “the best work yet to be produced on sport in Ireland”.
Dr Rouse, based in the University’s School of History and archives added that Hunt’s work “is a thoroughly original, ground-breaking piece of work”.
“It is a great validation to have the book spoken of in such terms, especially from a man of Paul Rouse’s stature,” said the author.
“Authors would kill for that sort of recommendation. To have someone from the academic world making such comments about my book is a great reward in itself.”
Tom Hunt felt that Westmeath was particularly well disposed to such an academic treatment. “It was a place that was very well serviced by rail at the time,” he continued.
“In the 1890s, there were 11 railway stations in Westmeath alone and it benefited enormously from its central location. You could reach any part of Ireland from the county at that time quite easily – and you certainly couldn’t have said the same about the county when I first came to work here!
“The strength of soccer in Athlone was also of particular interest to me, given the way in which it came about, stemming from the withdrawal of a club in the town from the GAA (in the 1893-94 season) which then switched its attention to soccer.”
This culminated in Athlone becoming the first non-Dublin team to win the Leinster Junior Cup, which they achieved at the first time of asking in 1894, subsequently retaining the trophy a year later.
It’s one of several fascinating stories which Hunt relays to readers in what can also be described as a truly ecumenical piece of sports research.
Tom Hunt’s eyes are already on his next project, a study of the GAA in Mullingar, while beyond that, it looks like his research shall see him returning to the banks of the Clodiagh.
“I can see myself returning to look at the Malcomsons,” he says, referring to the great Waterford shipbuilders who created an industrial powerbase in Portlaw during the 19th century.
Given the quality of both his published works and the meticulous manner in which both have been researched and written, local history buffs will be avidly looking forward to the next Tom Hunt book to hit the shelves. And with very good reason indeed.
Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland – the case of Westmeath’ by Tom Hunt is published by Cork University Press