Sport & Recreation

Sport and Recreation in Eglish

Dónal McAnallen

It was only from the late nineteenth century onwards that most sports became properly codified and organised, but over the last century and a half a wide variety of sports have been played around Eglish. During that time sport has occupied a central position in the social lives of local people. This article will carry a summary of some of the most popular sports played by teams and individuals around Eglish. It will draw mainly from local newspaper coverage since 1880. For some less welldocumented sports, the expertise of several local people was sought to fill in gaps of knowledge.

General Introduction

Almost certainly, some forms of recognisable sport were played by the people of Eglish before the nineteenth century, but a lack of surviving primary evidence locally denies us precise details. It is likely that hunting, blood-sports, road-bowls, informal athletic contests, rough-and-tumble communal games of ‘football’ of some sort, and camán (commons) or hurling, were practised. Football and commons, for example, were written about in a poem in the 1790s, concerning a feast-day in nearby Emyvale, Co. Monaghan; and commons was also reported in a survey of north-west Tyrone in 1814. However, many of these games lacked definite rules or regular organisation.

The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a steady decline in traditional indigenous sports in Ulster. By the 1850s, popular sports had practically disappeared all over Ireland. Why did this happen? First, amid strong contemporary religious revivals, laymen in general were discouraged from engaging in popular sports, given their reputation for leading to violence, drinking and Sabbath-desecration, and the newly instituted (Royal) Irish Constabulary initiated prosecutions against ordinary people who committed these indiscretions, often under the Lord’s Day Observance Act. Second, Gaelic sports were being linked with secret societies. Third, and most emphatically, the Great Famine (1845-49) ravaged Irish life, cutting the population in half, through death and emigration. Recalling his boyhood around Ballygawley in the 1860s-70s, Cardinal Joseph MacRory described the ‘dull and torpid’ nature of life then: ‘there was no Irish music, and no Irish plays, and no Irish games’, and ‘practically nothing had taken their place’.

Soon, however, industrial revolution and urbanisation in the north-east of Ireland caused the diffusion of recently organised sports from England. Sports like rugby, soccer and cricket came to Ulster from Britain. During the 1870s and 1880s, there occurred a sudden boom of new clubs in these sports in Belfast and provincial towns. Dungannon (Rugby) Football Club was one of the earliestformed in that sport, in 1873. These sports retained a very British identity in Ulster.

Circumstantial factors militated against the organisation of team-sport in Eglish, meanwhile. Only sizeable centres of population proved able to muster teams for regular competition. Eglish, then a mere hamlet and miles from any railway-line, had too small and scattered a population to produce a team. There were other barriers too. For a long time, those in authority in local areas such as Eglish seemed to view proper sport as the preserve of the few, whereas popular games were to be ignored or discouraged. Landlords restricted people’s opportunities to hunt and fish, and playing-space was denied to them – especially on Sunday, even if they did so largely for genuine religious reasons. Most local people worked full six-day weeks in agricultural jobs, so Sunday was the only day available to them for recreation, so if they could not play on that day they hardly played at all. The police and courts were also ready to penalise anyone who trespassed on land or road in the name of sport. It seems also that some local influences, not least the press, regarded most sport as essentially trivial and insignificant; one is struck by the virtual absence of any mention of sport in and around Eglish in the Tyrone Courier up to the 1920s. This does not simply reflect the fact that Eglish did not have well-established sports-clubs or playing-facilities like those of the towns and larger nearby villages such as Caledon, Benburb and the Moy. Anecdotally, we know that easily accessible sports such as roadbowls, soccer and angling were practised on an informal basis at least in the 1910s. But only after the introduction of ‘Eglish and Brantry’ notes in the Courier in the 1920s were such activities mentioned frequently in connection with this area.

As people’s standard of living improved in the early twentieth century, they found more time and money to devote to leisure, while the increasing availability of buses and cars opened up new possibilities of travel for sport. Sporting clubs eventually began to form in Eglish in the second quarter of the twentieth century, and increasingly so from the 1950s onwards. They formed primarily along denominational and fraternal lines, where facilities were available. The hub of local Protestant/unionist sporting activity was the hamlet of Greystone, augmented by nearby Orange halls promoting table-tennis, soccer and other sports. On the Catholic/nationalist side, St Patrick’s GAA Club, and later Eglish Youth Club too, were the main sports-providers. In Father Connolly Park, the Catholic parochial hall and the GAA sports-hall, these clubs promoted Gaelic football and camogie, and then indoor sports such as basketball, indoorbowls and badminton. The building of new houses in Eglish, notably Roan Park in 1970, along with new rural-planning restrictions, altered population patterns and cemented the village’s position as the centre of parish life. This ensured the development of further parochial sports facilities around the village, for the Catholic population at least.

In recent decades, the significance of sport has been reaffirmed for local residents. Travelling increasingly further for daily work, shopping and leisure, while television and computers have provided home entertainment, and church-going has declined, for some people involvement in local sports-clubs has come ever more to represent the primary point of contact with their neighbours and home area. At play and organising sport, the people of Eglish have achieved much for a small place and population.

Further information can be found in The Book of Eglish