The game of cricket has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years on the back of the heroic performances of the Ireland team at the ICC World Cups. For many it was a surprise that cricket was even played in Ireland, but in fact the sport has a long history here – there was cricket played in Ireland before Europeans discovered Australia and New Zealand.
It is believed the game came to Ireland with the British military, and grew when Irish boys at school in England came home for holidays. There are sporadic references to the game in the 18th century, but the first comprehensive account of a game took place in the Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1792.
More than two centuries on the sport of cricket is still enjoyed in the Phoenix Park, where two of Dublin’s oldest clubs play in senior and junior and competition every summer weekend.
That game in 1792 saw an All Ireland side take on the Garrison at the Fifteen Acres in the Phoenix Park. One of the leading Irish players is believed to have been Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, who was described as “active and remarked for a promising player”.
The ‘All Ireland’ side was in no way representative of the 4.8 million people then living on the island, being made up almost certainly of the governing elite: several were important political figures and five were MPs in the Irish House of Commons. Two of the men – Major Hobart and Thomas Brisbane – went on to give their names to Australian state capitals.
That game planted a seed, but a few top civil servants, MPs and army officers weren’t able to lay down deep foundations for the game in Ireland. For the next forty years there are just a handful of references to cricket in the press, and most of them concerning military sides.
As in England, the game in Ireland expanded after the Napoleonic wars, and Trinity College was a hotbed by the 1820s. The game was probably introduced by English-schooled students, but the first evidence for a properly constituted club does not emerge until 1835.
‘The Dublin Club’ was formed in 1830 and played on open fields to the south of the canal at Upper Baggot Street. In 1838 the club sought permission to enclose a ground 150 yards square near the Wellington Testimonial, which was given on condition the fence be removed each winter. The following summer saw several players injured on ground that had been badly cut up by horses and cattle and the authorities gave the club – by now called Phoenix – permission to permanently enclose the ground.
Clubs sprang up all over the land in the 1830s, including one at Avondale, Co Wicklow, founded by John Parnell, father of the man later known as ‘The Uncrowned King of Ireland’, Charles Stewart Parnell. His illustrious son played the game regularly as a boy for Avondale and while at Cambridge. He played for Phoenix for a time, but an 1866 committee meeting complained that he had not paid his subscription.
Cricket continued to expand in the 1840s, with new clubs springing up in Roebuck and Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire).
In 1855 a game took place between the Gentlemen of Ireland and the Gentlemen of England, which has been accepted by Cricket Ireland as the first representative game. Ireland was victorious in this game, which was played at Phoenix on 10-11 September.
The leading ground at the time was the Vice-Regal lodge, also in the Phoenix Park, built by the The 7th Earl of Carlisle, an eccentric bachelor who was a great lover of the game. He liked nothing better than to potter across to Phoenix and keep the scorebook. He founded the Civil Service club in 1863 and his name lived on in the name of another Dublin club until the 1990s.
Other grounds were opened to the game such as the Coburg Gardens (behind the National Concert Hall) and Rotunda Gardens (now Parnell Square) both hosted international matches.
College Park became the centre of Irish cricket, with the student club promoting fixtures against top English opposition virtually every season from 1870 to the outbreak of the First World War. The city centre location and Trinity’s importance in Victorian society ensured a great attendance – at times exceeding 5,000 – each summer and allowed the students to test their skills against the best English amateurs and professionals, as well as Australia and South Africa. As late as 1923 the college side played the touring West Indies.
But the showpiece fixtures were just the icing on the cake: the game itself was in great health throughout the 1860s. More clubs sprang up all over the country and all the Leinster towns had thriving clubs, as well as many districts of Dublin.
However, by the time the GAA was founded in 1884 cricket’s decline was already well advanced in many parts of the country. With society becoming increasingly polarised, cricket’s association with England and the aristocracy cost it many adherents. The GAA’s infamous ban on foreign sports was not to blame – that was the work of a later generation of officials – but it put the final nail in the coffin of the game in many areas.
In Dublin the atmosphere was changing too, and there were a lot more attractions for athletic young men. Arthur Samuels complained that his Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) club broke up when they found it hard to get the locals to practice because of “the attractions of the bands on the pier and other allurements”.
But while cricket was dying off in the port, other parts of the city were booming. Back in the 1850s the prosperous suburbs just south of the city centre were home to a “Bal-ballon” club. Some of the young blades did not consider the obscure French sport spirited enough, so cricket was adopted to increase their adrenaline flow. Thus the famous Leinster Cricket Club was formed in Rathgar in 1852. Over the next 13 years the club moved around frequently, finding homes in Garville Avenue, Lord Palmerston’s estate and the South Circular Road before finding a permanent base at the end of Observatory Lane in Rathmines where it still thrives today.
In 1907, in the County Wicklow town of Bray, a remarkable ground was built by Sir Stanley Cochrane, heir to the Cantrell & Cochrane soft drinks fortune. On his Woodbrook estate he built a private railway station to facilitate the crowds he expected at his matches. He built an indoor school, hired several county professionals and invited touring sides and English counties to play. South Africa and Australia each visited twice, and 16 games against top sides were played there.
In 1919 the Leinster Senior League commenced, with eight teams: Leinster, Phoenix, Trinity, Pembroke, Railway Union, Civil Service (who are all still leading clubs), UCD and the Royal Hibernian Military School (both of whom are no longer active). Leinster, led by the legendary Bob Lambert, won the first title.
The Leinster Senior Cup commenced in 1935, although there had been junior cup competitions more than 40 years earlier.
The original senior clubs were joined over the years by Clontarf and Malahide on the northside, and on the southside by Terenure, YMCA (Sandymount) and Merrion (Ballsbridge). The Old Belvedere club was started in Cabra by former pupils of that school.
The greatest growth in cricket in Leinster has undoubtedly been in Fingal, where three senior clubs have sprung to the fore in the past twenty years. The best club in the country over the last decade has been North County CC, based in Balrothery, winning five Irish Senior Cups in that time.
- Gerard Siggins is author of ‘Green Days: Cricket in Ireland since 1792’ (The History Press/Nonsuch Ireland)
- Leahy, Ed. Green Wickets: Ireland’s adventures at the 2007 cricket world cup. ISBN 9781905483334.
- O’Dwyer, Michael. The history of cricket in County Kilkenny : the forgotten game. O’Dwyer Books: Kilkenny, 2006. 420pp. ISBN
- Siggins, Gerard. Green Days : cricket In Ireland 1792-2005. Nonsuch Publishing: Stroud, 2005. 128pp. ISBN 9781845885120.
- Siggins, Gerard and Fitzgerald, James. 100 Greats of Irish Cricket. Nonsuch Publishing: Stroud, 2006. ISBN 9781845885649.
- Siggins, Gerard and Johnston, Trent. Raiders of the Caribbean: Ireland’s World Cup adventure. 2007. ISBN 9781847170641.