Laois locals paid to play cricket during the Great Famine
Michael Parsons (Irish Times)
“TAKING THE Queen’s shilling” has acquired an unexpected new meaning with the revelation that men in the midlands played cricket for a landlord’s cash during the Great Famine.
Documents discovered in Co Laois reveal that the quintessential English game offered poverty-stricken Irishmen a rare chance to earn money during the catastrophe which devastated the countryside.
Viscount Ashbrook’s cricket club – on his estate at Castle Durrow – had a membership composed of the local Protestant gentry. But when the club needed extra players, Catholic men from the lower classes were hired to supplement the team. While the “toffs” were required to make cash contributions to the club, the Laois “temps” were actually paid for their endeavours.
Records from the Ashbrook Cricket Club for the years 1846-1848 have unexpectedly come to light and will be auctioned by Sheppard’s fine art auctioneers next month.
Rules and Regulations for the Season 1847 – the worst year of the Famine – show that the club members were required to pay “one shilling for every match they are on the losing side” and “one shilling and sixpence” (which included the cost of a luncheon of “cold meat”) for each practice day.
But the Catholic hirelings were paid for their participation – at the rate of “two shillings each for practice day and the same per day for matches against other clubs and their expenses”.
Auctioneer Philip Sheppard said the “mostly Catholic” young men had “used their sporting skills to earn money at a time of mass starvation” by “playing alongside peers of the realm, members of parliament, medical doctors and clergymen”.
With the exception of boxers and jockeys, the Laois cricketers appear to have been the first Irish sports players to be paid. But perhaps Viscount Ashbrook, a reputedly “good” landlord, had devised the payments to alleviate suffering?
Ashbrook Cricket Club’s records for the summer of 1847 chronicle matches against clubs including Kilkenny; The Huntingdon Club at the Heath Ground in Maryborough (now Portlaoise); Templemore, Co Tipperary; the Carlow Club; and the Phoenix Club in Dublin.
Although that year subsequently became known as “Black ’47” in Irish history, there is no hint or reference to the social impact of the Famine.
Mr Sheppard said the document was the earliest-known, organised “primary source” record of Irish sport in existence – with the exception of those relating to horse-racing – which “expands our understanding of mid-19th century provincial sporting and social life beyond the generalities of the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ stereotype”.
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE IRISH TIMES AND IS REPRODUCED BY THEIR KIND PERMISSION