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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Twenty Nine

Leisure Activities

 Summary of chapter. There was a wide variety of leisure activities in this period. There were no outstanding achievements but there was a competence in most of the arts. Games had not been codified. The codification of rules, and the spread of the railways transformed sports later in the century.

(i) Literature

(ii) Books, Libraries, and Reading Rooms

(iii) The Theatre and Theatricals

(iv) Architecture, Art, and Music

(v) Sport and Recreation


(i) Literature 

The Golden Age of Irish literature came at the end of the nineteenth century with Shaw, Yeats, Wilde, and many others. Though there were no figures of comparable stature in the first half of the century literature was flourishing. 

            The most famous writer was Thomas Moore, the Romantic poet. His output was vast, but much of his work was mediocre. His position as 'Ireland's national poet' has remained unchallenged because no one else ever attempted the composition of poetry on a similar scale. The political nationalism of the 1840's produced the poetry of James Clarence Mangan. Though his output was not great he was undoubtedly the best poet in the first half of the century. Thomas Davis and the Rev. Charles Wolfe ('The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna') produced minor gems. (Irish critics in the past had a tendency to gauge the quality of the poetry by the quality of nationalist sentiment.) 

            Novelists were more numerous and their work was better. Of the four best writers in the first twenty years of the century three were women. Maria Edgeworth the daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, is the best known, possibly because her writings on the evils of absentee landlords were useful to Irish nationalists. She was a landlord's daughter and wrote didactic novels about estate management from the point of view of the resident Tory gentlemen. The Absentee and Castle Rackrent have been reprinted recently. Miss Sidney Owenson, later Lady Morgan, also wrote of life on Irish estates but in the Romantic style derived from Moore that Sir Walter Scott was to develop. The Quakeress, Mary Leadbetter, daughter of Richard Shackleton the master of the Quaker School at Ballitore, was even more didactic and improving than Edgeworth, and her sketches of Irish peasant life were a prelude to the even more famous sketches by Carleton. The fourth, the Rev. Charles Maturin wrote exciting Romantic or even 'Gothic' novels that were an even more direct inspiration for Scott. (Gothic novels contained supernatural or horrifying events, but the heyday of the Irish Gothic novel was not until late in the century with Lefanu and Stoker.)  

            In the 1820's a group of Irishmen went to London to write for the theatre. Among these were Michael and Joseph Banim who had little genius, and Gerald Griffin who had some. The Banims wrote tales of the Irish peasants in what they considered a 'realist' style calculated to counter the figure of the 'stage Irishman, but which others might regard as a Romantic style. The stage Irishman was a stock character to be found in plays written by Englishmen who had no firsthand knowledge of Ireland. The term 'stage Irish' is usually used nowadays by nationalists of descriptions of Ireland they do not like. The word peasant is a literary one, not in common use. It refers either to small farmers or labourers. Their peasant figures were as much idealised as those of the Brothers Grimm. At this time too Thomas Crofton Croker began to collect the fairy legends of the south of Ireland and these were published in a doubtless bowdlerised version. Eighteenth century peasant tales were more racy that nineteenth century drawing-room taste would allow. The Brothers Grimm translated the collected tales into German. Irish literature may not have risen to great heights at the beginning of the century but it seems to have influenced other literatures more than it was influenced by them. 

            The Rev. William Hamilton, who devised the ‘rollicking tale’, started another strand in Irish literature. The great exponent of the genre was Charles Lever who wrote Harry Lorrequer and similar stories. Samuel Lover was described as a third rate novelist, poet, and painter, but his stories like Handy Andy are still very readable. The Countess of Blessington lived in London and wrote society novels which had no connection with Ireland. The greatest novelist in the first half of the century was undoubtedly William Carleton. He was born a Catholic but conformed to the Established Church which made him unpopular with Catholics. He resembles Dickens in his social concerns and in that he wrote about ordinary people. He too had to write sketches of the Irish peasants that are more realistic and earthy than those of others for he did not avoid topics of evil or violence. 

            Writings for the theatre were few in number and mediocre in quality. The best playwrights were Richard Lalor Sheil and James Sheridan Knowles. They had some successes at the time but their plays were never considered worth reviving. Writing for the stage did not revive until mid-century when Dion Boucicault appeared. [Top] 

(ii) Books, Libraries, and Reading Rooms 

            By the terms of the Act of Union Ireland became subject to British copyrights, and so lost the 'right' to pirate British publications. Standards of printing and publishing improved but Ireland never equalled Scotland as a publishing centre. Public libraries as we know them did not exist, so each gentleman had to purchase his own books. Publishers normally sought to obtain the names of sufficient subscribers before they had a book printed.

            Libraries, even if called public libraries, did not admit the general public. That in Trinity College, Dublin, did not even admit undergraduates. (For them there was a small 'undergraduate collection' for their use.) The second largest library in Dublin was that of the King's Inn, but it was open only to gentlemen connected with the law. The Dublin Library was a private library maintained by the subscriptions of its members. It possessed 13,000 volumes, but the reading rooms where members had to go to consult the books, were very poor. The Mechanics Institutes when they were formed in Dublin and elsewhere normally provided a small library of useful books for the instruction of members. 

            The larger provincial towns all seem to have had some kind of public library, normally of the subscription kind. Belfast in 1849 claimed to have six subscription libraries. Cork had three libraries but they were connected with various institutes in the city. Drogheda had only the library of the Mechanics' Institute, but Kilkenny and Limerick had subscription libraries. Armagh had the best library in Ireland because Primate Robinson's library was open to the public and books could be borrowed on paying a subscription. 

            It is well known that Karl Marx spent his time sitting at the fires in the British Museum Library chatting to his friends. The pictures we are given of reading rooms in Irish libraries is very similar. Gentlemen subscribers used them as club-rooms in which to meet their friends. The idea of a library as a place for serious study seems to have been invented by Lord Brougham when he started the London Library in 1836. 

            There were in Irish towns newspaper reading rooms. These were also maintained by subscription. Newspapers were relatively dear, so those who purchased them were unlikely to buy more than one. Reading rooms took several of the Dublin and London papers. The Dublin rooms carefully folded the copies after a few days and sold them in the country towns. Whether these were bought chiefly by reading rooms or local newspaper editors is not obvious. [Top] 

(iii) The Theatre and Theatricals 

            Though the early nineteenth century was not a very good period for the Irish theatre interest in it was widespread, as was also concern about how to improve it. It seems that most of the rioting in the theatres was directed at the management, and newspapers were full of good advice when not defending libel suits by the managers. 

            Unlike England and France, Ireland did not experience a great development of its theatre in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Irish stage remained at the medieval level of performances by the trade guilds before the Lord Lieutenant. (Compare with As You Like It). As in many other ways there was a false dawn in the first half of the seventeenth century under Charles I's great Lord Lieutenant, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. The first theatre was opened in Dublin in 1634 by John Ogilby, the teacher of Strafford's children, but was closed in the ensuing troubles.  

            The Restoration of Charles II in many ways marked the entry of Ireland into the modern world, and so it proved in the theatre. In 1662 the famous theatre in Smock Alley (now Lower Exchange Street, Dublin) was opened. Joseph Ashbury, an army officer who seized Dublin Castle for the royalists in 1659, was made manager and the Lord Lieutenant's deputy Master of the Revels, and was given the patent for a theatre royal. A company of professional actors was not recruited until 1692. Despite the patent a second theatre (with what authority is not clear) was established in Crow Street in 1731. Major wars were later to break out between the rival managers that nearly bankrupted all concerned. They even went so far in 1743 as to put on the same play, Richard III, on the same night. The most important figure connected with the Irish theatre in the middle of the eighteenth century was Thomas Sheridan, the father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The theatre in Dublin remained only marginally profitable despite great efforts by various managers throughout the century. One of the problems was that productions were could be put on only in the winter months. Also in the same century many of the larger provincial towns built their own theatres. 

            Amateur theatricals were more popular and successful at least up to 1820. The actors were ladies and gentlemen of independent means and the proceeds from public performances had to be distributed to charity. Amateur theatricals were said to have begun in the house of the Rt. Hon. William Brownlow in Lurgan co. Armagh in 1759 (DEP 28 May 1850). From there they spread to other great houses. In 1790 some gentlemen took over the Little Theatre in Fishamble Street, Dublin for the production of amateur performances. The most famous of all the amateur performances were given annually in the Kilkenny Theatre from 1802 to 1819. Richard Power produced them. The Kilkenny 'season' lasted six weeks and was an important fixture in the Irish social calendar while it lasted. After 1819 falling attendances and the fact that the group of actors were growing apart led to discontinuance. 

            From 1786 onwards the professional theatre was regulated by an Irish Act (26 George III) of that year. To try to make the theatre profitable and to improve standards the Lord Lieutenant was allowed to grant an exclusive patent to the manager of the Theatre Royal. (This corresponded to the grants to the two London patent theatres in Drury Lane and Covent Garden.) Thereafter the title migrated along with the patent. The patentee could allow productions in the provincial theatres that did not affect his own. The patent covered ordinary spoken plays.  Silent plays like mimes, pantomimes, pierrots, and harlequinades, singing plays like operas and melodramas, and similar 'French inventions' could be performed without breach of the patent. The law was the same as in England. 

            In the late eighteenth century the leading impresario was Richard Daly, but in 1792 Frederick Edward Jones (Buck Jones) secured the patent for 21 years but with onerous obligations to Daly. He had to protect his patent against rivals like Thomas Astley the manager of an 'amphitheatre' who were pushing at the edges of his patent. He was also involved in disputes with some gentlemen he had brought in as financial assistants. His period of management was marked by crowd disturbances. The most famous riot occurred in 1814 over a play called 'The Forest of Bondy'. This required a specially trained Newfoundland dog. On a particular night the dog's owner refused to release him so the management had to substitute another play. The theatregoers rioted and wrecked the theatre. (By contrast the 'Bottle riot' in 1822 when a bottle and a night-watchman’s rattle were thrown at the Lord Lieutenant was a minor scuffle.) 

            About this time various people, including Frederick Conway, tried to bring out regular periodicals connected with the theatre. 

            Because of widespread dissatisfaction with Jones the patent was transferred in 1819 to Henry Harris. Jones refused to sell or lease the theatre building in Crow Street so Harris had to build and furnish a new theatre in Hawkins Street, spending over £130,000. He was unfortunate in that his undertaking coincided with the lowest ebb in theatregoing in Ireland for eighty years. All over Ireland theatres were closing. In Dublin the famous theatre in Smock Alley became a church, Astley's Circus in Peter Street became a chapel of the Molineux Institute, and the Crow Street theatre was abandoned and its site was taken over by the Apothecaries' Hall. In the provinces, the Kilkenny theatre was used as a corn store, the Limerick theatre became a Catholic chapel, the Wexford theatre a Dissenters' Meeting House, and the Cork theatre was transferred to the Society of Arts. 

            Harris made no profit and after a few years leased his patent to various managers. The most successful of the managers was called Calcraft who managed the theatre from 1830 until 1846. Despite putting on excellent productions he made very little money. 

            The manager or patentee could either maintain his own troupe of actors in Dublin, or import established 'stars' from London hoping that the extra receipts would cover the extra costs. Both systems were tried but the Dublin audience always remained fickle and hard to please. Production standards were equal to those in London and leading actors exchanged between the two cities. 

            Of the actors and actresses of the period, Eliza O’Neill, (always called Miss O’Neill) was the most famous. She was the daughter of the manager of the Drogheda theatre and she played in Drogheda, Belfast, and Dublin, before taking London by storm with her performance of Juliet in Covent Garden in 1815. She retired from the stage on her marriage. Another notable actor was Tyrone Power (1797-1841) who was born in Waterford and joined a group of strolling players in England at the age of fourteen. He was very successful in London, but it is not clear if he ever acted in Ireland. Other actors of note were Charles Connor and Gustavus Brook. John Henry Johnstone and John Moody continued their careers into the nineteenth century. Edmund Kean and Charles Kean had many connections with the Irish stage, but do not seem to have been Irish by origin (DNB). 

            Information on the provincial theatre is hard to find except in snippets. It was generally prosperous around 1800 but then shared in the general decline. The Theatre Royal in Belfast was built in 1793 and survived until it was rebuilt on a grander scale about 1870. By that time professional touring companies were providing the basic fare in the Irish theatre. Local managers could of course put on performances like pantomimes as well. 

            The alternative theatre had an equally uncertain career. Thomas Astley was the proprietor of the Amphitheatre Royal in Dublin. He specialised in performances involving trained horses, and was rather what we would call a circus manager.  Exhibitions were given in them also of tumbling, trampolining, wire-dancing, and slackrope vaulting. Several attempts were made to establish theatres in Dublin for the productions of melodramas, pantomimes, etc. but none proved successful. In 1829 the two sons of Buck Jones were given a patent for an alternative theatre. In 1844 this patent was sold to a Mr John Joseph who changed its name to the Queen's Theatre. He employed John Harris as manager, and the latter was lucky to become employed just when the theatre in Dublin was becoming profitable. 

            Towards the end of the century the tradition of the Irish theatre split in two. Some playwrights like Shaw and Wilde felt its focus should be placed in London and that it should be raised to world standards. The other group which formed the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Abbey Theatre) considered that the focus should remain in Dublin, and that it should concentrate on Irish themes. Both groups were composed largely of Protestants, and neither was particularly nationalist in outlook. [Top] 

(iv) Architecture, Art, and Music 

            Architecture had reached one of its great peaks in Ireland in the Georgian period in the eighteenth century. Standards remained at a high level in the early nineteenth century. Fashions in architecture passed through the same stages in Ireland that they did in England, Neo-classicism, Greek revival, and Gothic revival. The eighteenth century was famous for its houses, both country mansions and town squares, but the next century concentrated rather on public buildings, churches, courthouses, banks, schools, colleges, monasteries and convents, and railway stations. 

            As in England, as inspiration declined exact historical reproduction became more favoured. An historical style, usually one deemed appropriate to the institution in question was adopted. Gothic became particularly favoured for churches and Tudor Gothic in particular for educational establishments. The Neo-classical style continued in use for public buildings and banks up to mid-century. By that time a more ornamented style derived from Italian Renaissance villas and so called Italianate came into fashion and was adopted especially by railway companies. 

            Applied art like stucco-work, at first retained the high standards of the preceding century, but standards inevitably declined as the demand increased and mass production methods had to be adopted. 

            Sculpture both free-standing and applied to buildings remained at a high standard of competence even if there were no outstanding geniuses. The style always remained classical. John Hogan, Patrick MacDowell, and John Henry Foley were the most notable. 

            Painting too remained at a high level of technical competence. The Classical and Romantic styles survived from the preceding century. After mid-century inspiration was renewed by contacts with the French realist and Impressionist schools. (Irish art and architecture are among the few subjects about which adequate studies have been made. See for example Harbison, Potterton and Sheehy, and Bruce Arnold.) 

            There is little to be said about Irish music in the first half of the century. The folk tunes of the traditional musicians, whatever their origin, were minor compositions. Handel, in the first half of the eighteenth century, was the first major composer whose works were publicly performed in Dublin. Italian opera came to Ireland in the second half of the century, and the Earl of Mornington (the Duke of Wellington's father) had some connection with it.  

            In the nineteenth century William Vincent Wallace (Maritana), William Henry Kearns, Thomas Simpson Cook, Michael Kelly, Joseph Augustine Wade and John Andrew Stevenson just about qualified for inclusion in the Dictionary of National Biography. The last named arranged the music for Moore's 'Melodies'. Michael Balfe (The Bohemian Girl) was the most famous. Catherine Hayes became a noted singer and achieved great success at La Scala in Milan.  

            It was an age when instrument makers were devoting their attention to the improvement of instruments, seeking to overcome traditional limitations. John Egan of Dublin developed the keyboard harp by introducing a keyboard to form the modern concert harp. Particular difficulties with keeping the harp in tune caused it to lose favour in drawing-rooms to the similarly improved pianoforte. [Top] 

(v) Sport and Recreation 

            Sport was largely unorganised and spontaneous. Theatre, concert, and circus performances were popular among those who could afford them. The coffee-house was replaced by the reading room that performed a similar function. Gentlemen's clubs existed chiefly for gambling. Golf was played but not extensively. Fowling was popular among those, especially in towns, who had a gun or fowling piece.   Fairdays and local horse racing days provided opportunities for general recreation. Getting drunk was a pleasure for those who could afford it. Heavy drinking was very noticeable among the upper classes. Sunday afternoons were often spent taking long walks in the countryside, stopping to drink tea in tea-houses or punch in taverns. 

            There was plenty of music, dancing, singing, running, wrestling, and card-playing. The more serious-minded deplored the evils of modern dancing, especially the waltz. The reading of novels was very common and Irish novelists had a ready market. The drinking of tea, a rather expensive luxury, was popular with all classes. 

            Towards the end of the eighteenth century the seaside resorts modelled on Brighton began to replace the spa-towns. Bathing-boxes were provided for women and children. Recreations in these 'watering places' consisted of sea-bathing, balls, card assemblies, the playing of backgammon, piquet, whist, and billiards, yacht-racing, and even horse-racing. As in England the trend to the seaside with the drinking of seawater and bathing in the salty water, largely killed off the spa resorts like Mallow, in co. Cork. 

             There was also a trend to follow the Romantic poets of the Lake District in England, and 'tourists' sought out wild romantic places. In Ireland, the gentlemen with their families went especially to Glendalough and the Vale of Avoca in co. Wicklow and Killarney in co. Kerry. Hotels were built at these spots for their convenience. Later, with the coming of the railways and the spread of angling, hotels were built all through the Midlands and the west. (The word 'tourist' was originally applied to those who went on the Grand Tour, but after the Napoleonic Wars it was applied to sightseers within the British Isles. It was not mass-tourism.) 

            Among the ordinary workingmen in the parishes, besides the recreations listed above, running and wrestling contests seem to have been the most popular. Footraces were over distances of over twenty miles. Hurling was played in some places but not in others. It is not clear if football was played extensively. Football was not really very different from that other disreputable rural pursuit faction fighting. In both large bodies of the young men from rival parishes participated. In football the ostensible aim was to kick a stuffed ball to the boundary of the parish or to some other goal or mark. The essence of the game lay not in skill but in the jostling and tripping. In a faction fight cudgels were used, and the aim was to break as many heads as possible, i.e. to draw blood from the skull. For this reason the leaders on each side normally avoided each other. We can assume that in hurling the two 'sports' were combined. Football as we know it developed in England in the second half of the century. The rules were codified and made uniform, and skill in managing the ball was made the principal, if not quite exclusive, element. Regular leagues were developed when the factory workers were given a half-day off on Saturdays. Association football then spread to the Irish towns. In the countryside, about 1880, the nationalists developed a rival so-called 'Gaelic' code in which handling the ball but not running with it was allowed.  This code established a virtual monopoly in rural areas. 

            Race meetings on a regular basis were started in Ireland in the late seventeenth century shortly after their establishment in England. These meetings continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gentlemen owned the horses, but all classes were allowed to attend the meetings and place bets. There were regular meetings at Downpatrick and The Maze in co. Down, Bellewstown in co. Louth, Navan in co. Meath, Tralee in co. Kerry, and so on. These meetings continue until the present day. The Curragh was the great centre of racing, and here the races for the King's Plates of 100 guineas were held. It was the Irish Newmarket. The meeting in late summer was a great social occasion. 

            The racehorse or thoroughbred was changing at this time and the character of the races was changing. In the previous century the races were point-to-point over courses of three or four miles with the horses carrying weights of up to 170 pounds. The growing tendency was to race younger horses over shorter distances on the flat and so weight-carrying had to be abolished. A writer in 1819 complained that the prizes like the King's Plates were not having the intended effect of developing good cavalry horses. Races were being regularly won by horses imported from Newmarket in England or by thoroughbreds from the centre of the Irish bloodstock industry at the Curragh. The thoroughbred was by now the only serious racehorse. Conditions excluding Galloways from particular races were no longer found. The greatest Irish horse in the first half of the century was Harkaway. He was foaled near Newry, in co. Down though his dam was brought there deliberately so that he would be eligible to race in that county. In the eighteenth century co. Down was probably the place were horse-racing was taken most seriously. 

            As it happened breeding horses for the various hunts produced the cavalry horses. There is not a breed called a hunter, for where the country is flat a hunter will resemble a thoroughbred, but in hilly areas ability to jump is required. Individual gentlemen had maintained packs of hounds for a long time, but it was not until about 1840 that the rules of the hunt were codified. In 1840 the Irish Sporting Chronicle announced that the Westmeath Hunt had imported a new pack of English foxhounds and that in future the hunting of hares with the pack would be forbidden. All the hunts seem to have introduced the English black-and-tan foxhound about this time, and the native Irish breed of foxhound virtually died out. It had a white, or a steel grey, or a lemon coat, and the packs were said to have degenerated through excessive inbreeding (ISC 16 May 1840 - Somerville and Ross mention a remaining pair at the end of the century.) 

            Other Irish breeds of sporting dogs continued. Among these was the Irish setter, a kind of pointer, like the retriever a gun-dog derived from the spaniel. Terriers, as their name implies, were sent into the earth to drive out foxes or badgers. Hounds were noted for their ability to follow a scent and so were used in foxhunting. 

            Angling was another sport of the gentry, and it consisted in trying to catch fish with only a baited hook attached to a rod and a fine line. Fly-fishing was practised on the lakes in the Midlands in the Twenties. Flies and other equipment had to be bought in 'tackle shops' in Dublin for none could be procured locally. The railways were to spread angling to the furthest parts of Ireland. 

            Shooting was another sport of the gentry, and Game Laws had been passed in the previous century to preserve game.  

            Yachting had been very popular with Irish gentlemen in the eighteenth century, and the Royal Cork Yacht Club claims to be the oldest in the world. As with horseracing lack of means did not mean lack of interest in the sport. A great many men of all classes were engaged in it, it being estimated that the crews of private yachts amounted to 3,000 men. Besides these, boatmakers, sailmakers, ropemakers, the makers of brass fittings, the suppliers of caulking, tar, varnish and so on, had a direct interest in the yachts. Irish cutters had formerly a great reputation for speed. In the opening years of the century the sport declined, the war, the press-gang, and enemy privateers doubtless accounting for this. The Royal Yacht Club in Cork was reorganised in 1828 and at the same time a club was started in Belfast. There was no definition of what counted as a yacht, and the fastest Irish yacht, Lord Belfast's Waterwitch was a square-rigged ship. About 1830 yachts were divided into classes for racing purposes, and these classes remained for the rest of the century. 

            Despite the interest shown by the gentlemen of the press in the subject the police managed to keep boxing out of Ireland. There was an 'Irish champion' called Langan in 1834 but he fought mainly in England. He was not a hard-hitter and relied mainly on wrestling throws. 

            Some comments on the state of the tourist trade are to be found in Irish newspapers that have a curious contemporary ring. The Dublin Evening Post in 1849 noted that the 'insurrectionary proceedings' of the previous year had adversely affected the Irish tourist trade which in any case was not so well developed as that in Switzerland, Scotland, or even Spain. But the Irish watering places were thriving. In 1850 great holiday crowds were remarked at Warrenpoint, co. Down and at Blackrock, co. Louth, and it was clear that the Famine was definitely over. By 1853 advertisements were appearing for tourist hotels as far west as Achill Island, off co. Mayo.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.