Guest Post: Military Athletics in Tipperary’s Garrison Towns

Thanks to Pat Bracken, De Montfort University, for this post!

The Military and Athletics

With the impending London Olympics looming large on the horizon many millions of people will follow with great interest, their favoured competitor, or Olympic discipline. For many people the athletics, particularly the 100 metres final will be one of the most eagerly anticipated events. Whilst the general sporting role of the military, in nineteenth-century Ireland, has been viewed as one at which the atypical garrison games of soccer, 1 cricket and rugby union are to the fore, the military also excelled at athletics.

In this post I will describe some aspects of military participation in athletics within Co. Tipperary, from 1840 to 1884. Almost all of the primary towns in the county – Cahir, Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel, Fethard, Nenagh, Roscrea, Templemore and Tipperary – had a military garrison. During this forty-four-year period barracks in Tipperary provided temporary homes for thousands of British army personnel.

Postcard of Tipperary Barracks

Feats of agility and endurance were nothing new to the military. In Clonmel, in early June 1842, soldiers from the local barracks competed in a half mile cross country race over a range of obstacles. 2 Two of the competitors, Private Norris, 5th Dragoons, and Bombardier Wheatley, Royal Artillery, took things a little further on the following day by competing in a mile race, from the barrack gate, which the latter won in a time of five and a half minutes. 3

Military athletic events started to become more common in the 1860s. In 1861, at Cahir, the non-commissioned officers and men of the 4th (Queen’s Own) Hussars, commemorated the anniversary of the Battle at Balaclava with a series of athletic sports in the barrack square. 4 One of the most moving features of the day was the appearance of a horse, known to the regiment as “The Donkey”, which was ridden in the Charge of the Light Brigade, the famous Crimean military disaster. 5

Events such as running, leaping and feats of skill typically involved various members of a military regiment, right down to the private. Where the sports were deemed to be open, some of the more prominent athletes from within Co. Tipperary were also allowed to participate. Sporting challenges were a common feature of military life, wherever soldiers were stationed. 6

In June 1869, the 44th Regiment, at Templemore, held their annual athletic events in the Parade field, opposite the garrison 7 Two years later athletic events of a more competitive nature drew competitors from far and wide to the town, and to the drill field of the barracks in particular. A few months previously the 68th Light Infantry regiment held their sports in the barracks, after which Private Tyrrell was the champion of the day. Tyrrell, an Englishman, who had previously competed against some first class runners, boasted “that there was not a Tipperary man able to run [sic] him.” 8 Tyrrell was able to beat all who competed against him. He then allegedly proclaimed that there wasn’t a man in Ireland who could beat him. So in the Templemore sports of 1871 there was a determined effort made to put Tyrrell back into his box. 9 He was defeated in the 150 yard race, thus ending his run of victories.

Military athletic meetings were arranged under the guidance of a committee, typically consisting of officers from the local barracks. The events themselves would be competed for by the NCOs and privates. Permission to hold the sports would be received from the commanding officer of the respective garrison. In October 1882, the prize money on offer at the Cahir military sports ranged from 5s. to £1 for first place; 2s. to 5s. for second; and 1s. to 2s. for third. 10 A new meaning to taking the Queen’s shilling, perhaps!

Military athletic meetings were, in general, similar to civilian meetings. There were still the sprint and middle distance races, hurdle races and throwing the cricket ball. Singlestick was one of the more unusual sports contested. 11 This is a form of fencing with basket-hilted wooden sticks. 12 In August 1882, an elaborate obstacle course, over a quarter of a mile, at the Cahir athletic sports provided great amusement. Of twelve competitors, only three survived after the first obstacle. 13 Typical of a military event, the  regimental band would perform a varied programme of music throughout the course of the day.

Postcard of Cahir Military Barracks

The contemporary press reports suggest that it was the military at Cahir barracks which were the most innovative when it came to organising a varied programme of events. At the 21st Hussar annual sports of 1884, the programme of events was much different to any which had gone before. It included events such as lance against lance; sword against lance; lance against bayonet; tent pegging; and several other events. 14 These type of displays became clearly identified with the military, the formal drills being a prototype of what would later become the military tattoo. 15

Most of these events would not feature in a civilian sports meeting, but they serve to illustrate the capacity to which the military promoted sporting recreation in the latter end of the nineteenth century.

  1. Neal Garnham, Association football and society in pre-partition Ireland (Belfast, 2004), pp 18-21.
  2. These were drawn from the Royal Artillery, 5th Dragoons and 46th Depot. Tipperary Free Press, 8 June 1842.
  3. Tipperary Free Press, 11 June 1842.
  4. Clonmel Chronicle, 26 October 1861.
  5. Another war horse, Dickie Bird, is now on exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland: (Accessed 30 July 2012). See also for more on the 4th Hussars and the Battle of Balaclava. (Accessed 30 July 2012)
  6. Tony Mason and Eliza  Reidi, Sport and the Military: The British Armed Forces 1880–1960, (Cambridge, 2010) p. 7.
  7. Clonmel Chronicle, 23 June 1869.
  8. Clonmel Chronicle, 2 September 1871.
  9. Nenagh Guardian, 30 August 1871.
  10. Clonmel Chronicle, October 1882.
  11. Clonmel Chronicle, 3 July 1872.
  12. (Accessed 30 July 2012).
  13. Clonmel Chronicle, 30 August 1882.
  14. Clonmel Chronicle, 16 August 1884.
  15. Jeffrey Richards, Imperialism and music: Britain 1876-1953 (Manchester, 2001), pp 212, 218.
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