This post is driven by the same impulses as those that produced my piece on fish ‘n’ chips in Ireland, which you can check out here.
The part of Cork I live in is reasonably old, with most of the houses dating from around the 1880s. The oldest houses are in terraced rows. There are plenty of children in the area, and in the good weather they can be seen out and about, playing. One particular gable end is a favoured spot of some boys to either kick a ball or hurl a sliotar at. The importance of having a gable end that can operate as a goal, or as someone to pass the ball back to you tends to be underestimated. This particular gable end is in a wide open spot near the major road artery that brings you around to all of the streets in the area. This is usually only used by maybe one or two kids at a time and rarely are full-blown matches played here.
The iconic image to the left, taken by British photographer Roger Mayne in 1956, captures the essence of playing on the street. There was a time, before the mass provision of outdoor and indoor facilities for sport in Ireland by the local club, the local government, or private leisure companies – the field of dreams for many was the street. Often narrow, usually packed, dirty, noisy, and always hard, they saw sporting triumph and tragedy to match any of the great pantheons of modern sport. For many kids, being out on the street playing was a necessity – small, cramped housing in many of Ireland’s towns and cities invariably meant that children were more likely to be found on the relatively spacious streets as opposed to their small homes.
Not surprisingly, much of this play was not looked on too kindly by some adults, and certainly not by the police. The antagonism between ball-playing youngsters and either local residents or police, has a long established tradition in Ireland. In Dublin Tenement Life, Kevin Kearns’ excellent oral history of inner-city, working-class Dublin, a huge array of stories abound on this subject. Take for instance the testimony of Senan Finucan, a Clare native who was a policeman in the Liberties in the 1930s:
Children all in the streets playing football and handball. They shouldn’t have been but they’d just give a signal that the police are coming and they’d run. And children swinging on the lamp-posts, that was dangerous with the lorries coming along. And scutting that was highly dangerous. We always tried to prevent that.
Throughout the book there are stories from people playing in the streets, in pitch ‘n’ toss schools, keeping sketch for policemen that might be coming. Such things weren’t restricted to Dublin’s inner-city though. Way back in 1875, in Nenagh, north Tipperary, football was already popular with young boys in the area with many being brought before the Petty Sessions in order to be fined either for playing football on the street or trespassing in farmer’s fields to play games with a football.
On one occasion a total of more than thirty young boys were summoned by the court in Waterford to pay one shilling for the “nuisance” they had caused with their ball playing. He said that it was a pity there weren’t more playing pitches in the city, and thought it a good thing that the boys should be playing football, calling it a “natural” thing. The previous day he had fined two boys five shillings and warned those in front of him that future fines would be two shillings six pence.
Similar incidences happened elsewhere throughout the country, even in the county towns. In Bantry, to take another example, one boy was brought before court for kicking a football off the bonnet of a Ford car during a game in which fifteen or sixteen boys took part according to a report in the Southern Star in September 1930, while many years earlier boys near Borrisoleigh in north Tipperary were summoned to court for trespassing on a farmer’s land to play football, according to court reports in the Nenagh Guardian during August of 1909 – following in the footsteps of boys nearby back in 1875.
In 1905, a tiny notice appeared in the Limerick Leader, informing us that at the Petty Sessions recently two boys were each fined a shilling for playing football on Market Alley. And, in Derry in April 1925, a boy of 16 was fined the remarkable sum of five shillings for playing football in the street, with the magistrate quoted as complaining that it was ‘almost impossible to get walking on the footpath in some districts.’ It’s unlikely the surly magistrate had the sunny south-east in mind, but around the same time in Waterford there was much he would have recognised. Between 1927 and 1930 especially there was a good number of cases appeared before the district court relating to young boys who had been apprehended for playing football in the street, often with broken windows becoming a problem from stray footballs.
For one journalist, this was the thin end of the wedge, writing in the Irish Independent in July 1933 that kids who are fined for playing football in the streets come ‘to treat as no more serious [the laws forbidding] street football the laws forbidding truancy and petty stealing.’ Moralistic alarmism this may well have been but remarkably, the same newspaper records an incident in Belfast where a woman, Matilda Kernaghan, 74 years of age died in hospital from shock and exhaustion. This was following a fractured leg sustained after being knocked over by a boy during a game of football on the street in April 1937.
Only three years previously, the Irish Press reported of a near fatal game which saw two boys involved in a game brought before the circuit criminal court in Dublin, when one boy caused sever bodily harm to another he was playing against in January 1934.
In July of that same year, the Irish Press ran the story of a Dublin dressmaker who had collected some 400 footballs that had been put through her window by boys playing in the street, which a Garda cited in the case of 17 year old boy four shillings for playing football in Denmark Street. These were extreme and unusual cases, but were apt to cause panic and dismay.
Part of the problem of course was that where previously road traffic had been minimal in Ireland, it was increasingly the case that cars were on the roads. By 1940 things had reached such a pitch over this issue of playing on the streets, and the accidents it was causing that the ‘Safety First’ Association published a handbook Safety First for Children. The publication was the subject of an Irish Times article in May 1940, which threw scorn upon those parents whose children played on the streets. Although the article acknowledges the dearth of playing spaces, nevertheless the blame lies squarely with the parents who don’t teach their children how best to behave on the roads.In Waterford, the problem had become such by the 1940s that the newspapers nonchalantly ended court reports with the topic in a careworn fashion:
The usual fines were imposed on a number of city youths charged with ball playing on the street
Highlighting a significant gap between those for whom streets were fields of play and those for whom they were to be patrolled, these stories bear out the gap between desired and actual behaviour at a time when it was deemed right and proper that children should be seen and not heard!