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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 26 October, 2014

Extract: How ‘throwing at cocks’ took root in Ireland

Professor James Kelly explains how tying a rooster to a post and throwing sticks at it until it died was considered sport in the 17th century.

William Hogarth's First Stage of Cruelty shows schoolboys cock throwing.
William Hogarth's First Stage of Cruelty shows schoolboys cock throwing.

James Kelly, Cregan professor of history at St Patrick’s College in DCU looks at sports that were popular in Ireland from 1600-1840, explaining why ’throwing at cocks’ – where a rooster was tied to a post and people took turns throwing sticks at the bird until it died – was considered sport. 

TOO LITTLE IS known about the social make-up and cultural practices of the English migrants whose arrival transformed Dublin into a predominantly Protestant city by 1660 to suggest how and when throwing at cocks took root.

It may be that it was as much a consequence of cultural diffusion as of demographic transfer, but the incentives provided for by parliament in 1662 to encourage artisans, craftsmen and traders ‘to inhabit and plant in the kingdom of Ireland’ provides one possible point of entry of English recreational habits.

Indeed, it might be observed, following Dennis Brailsford, that if ‘the free atmosphere of the post-Restoration era’ in England ‘gave … traditional festivals an opportunity to develop their more barbarous potentials’, the adoption in Ireland of the practice of throwing at cocks was an illustration of the same impulse in action in Ireland.

‘Throwing at cocks’

Throwing at cocks was certainly not of such complexity that it necessitated the transfer of an intricate set of ideas or habits, since, at its most basic, it involved little more than tethering a cockerel with a rope or hempen chords to a post or stone pillar in order to provide a target; then, for a penny or comparably modest sum, an individual purchased the right to throw a stick or staff at the bird in the anticipation that if he succeeded in striking a mortal blow, the bird was his; alternatively, if he managed to knock the bird off its feet he was entitled to claim possession if he was quick and agile enough to take it into his grasp before the bird righted itself.

There was room within this loose framework for some variation, but the rude simplicity of the sport appealed particularly to the apprentices, servants and young men with whom it was most closely identified.

They treasured the entitlement to cast off the rules and restrictions by which they were habitually bound on Shrove Tuesday, and the days leading thereto, which was the season when throwing at cocks was commonly practiced.

The English

Shrove Tuesday had evolved by the early seventeenth century into a key date in the annual calendar of apprentices in London and English regional cities; it was a day characterised by ‘licensed misrule’ as the rules and conventions that bound apprentices, servants and other males in equivalently dependent positions were momentarily relaxed and they were indulged in their wish to recreate on the streets and greens of towns and cities.

There is insufficient evidence to suggest that the situation was similar in Ireland, but the concern expressed in Dublin in 1620 that apprentices and servants were being tempted into ‘vice and idleness, to the decaie and impoverishing of their masters and other the cittizens’ by engaging in bear- and bull-baiting suggests that there was a comparable impulse at work even if it did not then follow the same pattern.

The most obvious difference was that of scale, but as Irish urban spaces expanded as a consequence of immigration, and specialised industrial quarters emerged, the likelihood of artisans, servants and apprentices emulating the cultural practices of their English equivalents increased.

The process remains elusive, and the particulars of the embrace of throwing at cocks particularly opaque, but the general imitation of English recreational practices across the island, commented upon by one observer in 1732, encouraged comparable pursuits, of which throwing at cocks was one.

Spread throughout Ireland 

It is not possible confidently to map the geospatial extent of throwing at cocks in Ireland, but definite evidence for its presence in Dublin, Belfast, Ballymena, Londonderry, Kilkenny and Cork suggests not only that it was an urban activity, but also that it required a critical plebeian mass with anglicised cultural roots to flourish.

This was certainly in place by the beginning of the eighteenth century, from when there is clear evidence that recreation was being practiced.

As a result when the authorities in Ireland sought to emulate the example of various provincial municipalities in England and effect its eradication, they quickly learned that this would not be a simple or straightforward matter because the practitioners of the sport were too devoted to its retention readily to comply.

The first identified attempt to curb the urban plebeian enthusiasm for throwing at cocks in Ireland dates from 1726. It emanated with Londonderry corporation, and it provided for a fine of 5s. for those who threw at cocks within the city walls.

A quarter century later, the sovereign of Belfast signalled his intention to combat the practice when in February 1750 he ‘issued warrants to the several constables there to apprehend all persons who shall fight, set up, or throw at cocks on Shrove Tuesday next in the town of Belfast or within two miles thereof’.

Dublin city 

As if liberated by this example, the lord mayor of Dublin, Thomas Taylor, issued a proclamation on 16 February 1751 proscribing ‘the inhuman custom of throwing at cocks in the street’ in the capital, on the grounds that it was injurious not only to ‘the lives of … poor creatures but [also to] the limbs of many … spectators’, and ‘commanding the several constables of the city to be vigilant in apprehending such persons’ as might challenge his order.

Meanwhile, in Ballymena, which possessed a less developed structure of local government, ‘the gentlemen there’ took a quite different tack.

Instead of seeking simply to ban the practice, they ‘promoted a battle royal of cocks to prevent the barbarous custom of throwing at them; which battle consisted of 21 cocks in one pit; the owner of each cock putting in an English shilling, which money and cocks were given to the poor, except the surviving one’.

Cockfighting was, it might be suggested, a rather obvious diversionary tactic, and it may be that it succeeded since no further mention is made of the sport of throwing at cocks in that jurisdiction. It became quickly apparent though that the task of eradicating the diversion in larger towns and cities would not easily be accomplished, though this did not dissuade either the sovereign of Belfast or successive lord mayors of Dublin from trying.

Barbaric 

Indicatively, the lord mayor, Charles Barton, signalled his resolve in 1753 by reiterating the commitment to take up ‘all persons who shall be found guilty of the barbarous practice of throwing at cocks’, and it is a measure of his determination to ensure that his instruction was not ignored that soldiers in the Royal Barracks were requested to be at the ready to assist with the policing of the city of Shrove Tuesday, 3 March, should they be called upon.

It so happened that the military were not called upon to disperse the ‘great number of idle vagrants [who] assembled’ in Christ-Church Yard on Shrove Tuesday for the purpose’ of throwing at cocks because the task was performed satisfactorily by ‘the sub-sheriff of the county … attended by a party of constables’.

However, the body of people – variously described as a ‘great mob’ and as ‘several disorderly persons’ – that gathered the same day at Oxmantown Green both to partake in and to view the same activity, presented a more deliberate act of defiance, which the authorities were not willing to ignore. Inevitably, a confrontation resulted.

Angered by the actions of ‘some soldiers, endeavouring to disperse them, a fray ensued, in which several persons were dangerously wounded’. This was not unusual; relations between the citizenry of the city and the military garrison were inherently volatile, and it took little to ignite this combustible tinder.

The spark was provided, on this occasion, by the butchers of Ormond market. They were the primary constituency of one of the city’s leading factions – the Ormond Boys – and they were provoked by the altercation at Oxmantown Green to animate their own ongoing confrontation with the army.

The sequence of events is unclear, but later that same day ‘a disturbance happened and much mischief was done, on Ormond Quay, in a quarrel on the like account between several soldiers and butchers, which was renewed the next day with great violence, and many wounded on both sides’.

This article is an extract from the new book Sport in Ireland, 1600–1840 by James Kelly. Published by Four Courts Press, March 2014.

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