The summer is officially nearing its end in Ireland. How do I know? Next Sunday (7th Sept.) is All-Ireland Hurling Final Day. Like Labour Day in the US, this event effectively marks the end of summer for most Irish people (even if we happen to get an Indian summer for September!).
When the ‘Normans’ (my ancestors on my dad’s side) came to Ireland in 1169, they rapidly gained control of vast areas of the country. But how did they divide out the land? Well, Ireland was already divided into different local units and the ‘Normans’ simply appropriated these local divisions as a way of apportioning the newly conquered lands among themselves. Some of these divisions were probably extremely old, others had been created more recently due to political and religious developments since the 900s. One new thing the Normans introduced was the rudiments of Ireland’s modern county structure – although we had to wait until the seventeenth century to achieve the full gamut of thirty-two counties that we see on modern maps of Ireland. There were no counties in Ireland until they were imposed on the country following the English model, which makes the modern Irish identification with counties so ironic. As a Corkman I can identify with both the city of Cork and, particularly, the county of Cork. The irony lies in the fact that this English subdivision of Ireland provides the basis of passionate county loyalty when following the All-Ireland Hurling and Football Championships. The body behind these games, the Gaelic Athletic Association, is very much one with a nationalist, even anti-British, history.
September brings the two great sporting occasions in Ireland – the All-Ireland Hurling Final and the All-Ireland Football Final. In colloquial parlance, when someone says they are either going to, or planning to watch, the ‘All-Ireland’ you are expected to know which game is involved. The Hurling Final is usually played on the first Sunday in September (this year, on next Sunday 7th Sept.) and the Football Final is usually played two weeks later on the third Sunday in September (this year on Sunday 21st Sept.). The Hurling Final, as noted, can be said to mark the definitive end of summer in Ireland – the schools and universities are already back for the new academic year. By the time the Football Final is played, the autumn is truly with us – it’s time to drag out the old woolly jumper and wrap up against the chilly evenings.
However, our Irish county loyalties did not exist prior to the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association at a meeting convened by Michael Cusack in Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles, County Tipperary, on 1st November 1884. With the spread of the organisation into parishes and villages around the country and the development of the All-Ireland Championships (the first finals were held in 1887) there came about gradual popular identification with one’s county. But county loyalties transcend hurling and football – even people with little attachment to Gaelic games feel a strong county attachment. Imagine the football or baseball seasons in the US being run on basis of state teams contesting with one another until only two are left to play at the final – Texas versus California would be pretty intense I imagine. That’s how it is here in Ireland. To make matters even more intense, Tipperary and Kilkenny are neighbouring counties – they share a common border, although they are in different provinces.
So, I am, and always will be, a Corkman! Even if I didn’t proclaim it, people from other parts of Ireland would inquire where do I come from. The answer marks me out at once. This is pretty much the case whenever you meet someone here. Continental visitors are amused by the Irish asking ‘Where in (name country) do you come from?’ It usually doesn’t matter (unless you’re Italian!), except in Ireland. And, of course, once we’ve pinned down your county, we get down to your parish and, maybe, even townland! Townlands, and their subdivisions, ploughlands, were Ireland’s answer to the GPS system, before the first satellites were even launched – you could be located very precisely. on the map of Ireland!
Much of Irish history is all about location (province, county), location (barony, parish), location (townland, ploughland). Some of the post on this blog will discuss the subdivisions of Ireland and their importance in locating people in the past – VERY useful if you are trying to find the correct Thomas Murphy among all the other Thomas Murphys in the same parish!
(NOTE: It is another delightful Irish irony that we refer to the events of 1169 as the ‘Norman Invasion’ of Ireland. They were invited into the country as mercenaries for a deposed Irish king, and, despite the fact that they spoke French, Flemish and Welsh, they called themselves English, because their sovereign was the King of England, Henry II. The Normans were considered a better class of invader! Such are the delights of Irish hsitory.)
(who actually called themselves ‘English’ even if they spoke French among themselves – that is, subjects of the King of England)