The phrase ‘first-class cricket’ has been bandied about quite a bit this year, with Cricket Ireland hoping that the interprovincial championship is accorded that status as an important step towards being granted Test status. It is mainly a statistical nicety, allowing players to add their names to the list of those who have played the multi-day game at the highest level below Tests and allowing comparison between eras knowing a certain standard has been attained.

We’ve been playing “first-class” cricket in Ireland for well over a century – Dublin University were strong enough to be granted the honour in the 1890s, and also in the 1920s when they weren’t strong at all. There were also several FC games played by the professional-filled club at Woodbrook, near Bray, in the years before World War One. Ireland played their first FC game on the 1902 tour of England, and as I related recently, didn’t have very many games at all until the Inter-Continental Cup came along.

The notion of ‘first-class’ was copper-fastened by the MCC in 1894 when it defined the status and listed the games that qualified. ICC further formalised what it was in 1947 but neither organisation suggested any retrospective granting. Over the years many statisticians – and the likes of Wisden – have attempted to define the limits, allowing meaningful stats and records to be compiled. The formation of the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians further redefined this, and began looking at games in the 19th century. Modern thinking holds that the first first-class played was played between Hampshire and All-England at Hambledon on 24-25 June 1772, and the likes of Cricket Archive and Cricinfo hold this as game No.1.

Exploring the scorecards of those games are fascinating, but there are few biographical details available for many of the players. However, by working through the scorecards I have identified two men who are likely to have been the very first Irish first-class cricketers, the brothers Bligh from Athboy, Co Meath, who played in game no.100.

They made their debuts on 6 August 1789, just the third season their club operated from its base at Dorset Square in Marylebone – it would take another quarter-century before it found a home at Thomas Lord’s Ground. On this day MCC were playing at Hornchurch, a village near Romford in Essex, and to give it some sort of context the French Revolution had kicked off just three weeks before.

Earl of Danley by Thomas GainsboroughHad the revolution spirit struck in southern England, and Newgate stormed instead of the Bastille, there’s a fair chance the cricketers would have been hauled off in a hay-cart, as they and many of their team-mates were of aristocratic stock – the elder, John, was already the 4th Earl of Darnley (right).

That summer was also when the most famous Bligh of all – the unrelated Captain William – suffered the infamous mutiny on HMAV Bounty.

Back in 1789, MCC lost that game in Hornchurch by six wickets, with only John’s 21 from No.11 worthy of mention. The Earl played 44 more FC innings and never passed that score, ending with an average of 3.79. Edward, who later played for pre-county-club sides called Kent, Middlesex, Hampshire and Surrey, played 76 matches in his long FC career, scoring 1,311 runs.

John was an Oxford-educated lawyer, with a taste “for antient music and good modern dinners”. His christening robes were sold in Dublin at auction recently for €2,800. Edward was a military man, eventually attaining the rank of general. He also served as MP for Athboy in the Irish House of Commons just before the Act of Union.

Edward’s great-grandson, the 8th Earl of Darnley, had an even great role to play in cricket history – in 1882/83 Ivo Bligh captained the English tourists to Australia where he was presented with an urn by a group of Melbourne women. The verse inscribed on it begins “When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn…” and is now played for as the greatest prize in cricket – The Ashes.

Below is a table showing the first cricketer to play first-class who was born in each of the counties of Ireland. Only five have yet to produce one: Longford, Sligo, Westmeath, Offaly and Roscommon.

There are a few things worth noting: the first Wicklow man was John Parnell, father of ‘the Uncrowned King’, Charles Stewart Parnell. The first from Waterford played for Australia and invented the cricket blazer.

The first two Kildare first-class cricketers have the same surname, and were both born in Carbury. They also made their debut in the same season, 1893/94. Charles Johnson played twice for the Europeans v Parsees in the Bombay Presidency tournament in August 1893, while Clement made his debut at Newlands on St Patrick’s Day 1894, scoring 52 for Transvaal against Eastern Province. A former Trinity student, he later went on to play two test matches for South Africa. It is not known if Charles and Clem were brothers, but as they were just two years apart in age it may be considered a possibility.

DebutBorn First-class sidesmts
1789Meath 1769E BlighMCC, Kent, Middlesex, Hampshire, Surrey76
1789(Ireland) 1767J BlighMCC, Kent, Old Etonians24
1795Antrim 1777AP UptonMCC, Gentlemen, Middlesex36
1797Cork 1768HW MartenSurrey, England7
1822Kilkenny 1804T StevensonCambridge Univ1
1829Mayo 1797Sir T OrmsbyMarried1
1831Wicklow 1811JH ParnellCambridge Univ1
1834Carlow 1814W KavanaghCambridge Univ, MCC3
1836Down 1814J LeslieMCC, Oxford Univ2
1837(Ireland) 1817A CooteOxford Univ, Gentlemen12
1841Dublin 1820JBR BulwerCambridge Univ, MCC7
1841Monaghan 1821CP LeslieOxford Univ1
1851Fermanagh 1826AM ArchdallGentlemen of Kent1
1857/8Galway 1833RW PowerVictoria2
1863Donegal 1842H MaturinMiddlesex, Hampshire, Gentlemen of the South12
1863/4Waterford 1844TJD KellyVictoria, Australia16
1869Louth 1849CR FilgateGloucestershire25
1872Armagh 1851JCK FoxGlouc­estershire2
1873Clare 1842M FlanaganMiddlesex18
1873Derry 1845RJC YoungMCC1
1879Cavan 1859AWB SclaterSussex9
1881/2Kerry 1864J LawlorVictoria3
1888Tipperary 1859J UsherYorkshire1
1893/4Kildare 1869CD JohnsonBombay Europeans2
1893/4Kildare 1871CL JohnsonTransvaal, South Africa4
1903/4Leitrim 1871HPL GaussenHawkes Bay; MCC11
1908Wexford 1880WH NapperIreland5
1911Tyrone 1891RA LloydLancashire6
1921Laois 1896GN BrownriggSussex3
1946Limerick 1917PHP WaldronIreland4