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Writing Sports History with Dónal McAnallen

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Dónal McAnallen

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Writing sports history sounds much easier than compiling a tome of history on monarchies, governments, economies or churches. The fact that most authors of sports history are keen followers of popular sport (and often journalists) does not discourage such presumptions, whereas historians examining political regimes, public policies and subjects of obvious gravity are seen as dispassionate observers rather than ‘fans’ of their subjects.

It is something of a tradition, moreover, for published histories of sports, associations and clubs to focus on the big matches and personalities to the exclusion of context and causal factors. In many cases their worth has been diminished by lengthy recitations of who scored what, game after game, an over-concentration on recent years, and partisan commentary. Because the bar was set quite low, there was a tendency to ignore or dismiss sports history as being something trivial.

Yet, for the dedicated sports historians who have come to the fore round the world over the last few decades, writing sports history is a serious pursuit. They have made their presence felt in this country since the turn of the millennium, coming together under the name of Sports History Ireland, holding annual conferences, generating a wealth of literature in journals and books, and running a website at www.sportshistoryireland.com.

121212DM0673These burgeoning ranks of Irish sports historians carry out their work in accordance with the rigorous criteria of academic history. No longer is the old newspaper report the undisputed king source of information. The mining of archives, the conducting of oral history interviews, and the analysis of old census and other digital records from prisons to pensions, are among the many methods used to craft a more empirical approach to the story. A broader appraisal of general literature and the adoption of academic referencing systems have engendered more critical evaluations of the past, in matters of sport as in the rest of society.

Sports history does not have to be haughty or dull, however. More so than almost any other area of history, thankfully, writing about past deeds of sport can combine earnest and sober scholarship with intriguing text and images. A host of contemporary written accounts and photographs have captured the split-second drama and excitement of sport to an extent unparalleled for most other subjects. These readily available resources can enhance the appeal of a book among members of the general public, who tend to prefer to read about sporting activities of yore more than most other historical subjects.

In writing my recently published book, The Cups that Cheered: A History of the Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Gaelic Games, I endeavoured to intermesh the techniques acquired in university training with popular style and anecdote; to depict in print the strange blend of learning and student antics that characterise university environments. In my view, few books detailing the histories of universities had done justice to the social and recreational lives of their students; and the handful of published works on intervarsity sport had made scant use of the abundance of manuscript and photographic sources within reach, and had thus failed to impress upon a wider readership the significance and special qualities of sport within higher education institutions.

For this subject I had something of a head start. A decade earlier, I had compiled the first set of comprehensive records of results and team-lists for the Gaelic games intervarsity competitions. In the process I discovered that even the basic rolls of honour were incorrect in places. Hence I embarked on this new project with a certain wariness of oft-cited tales of Sigerson Cup and Fitzgibbon Cup nostalgia.

This view was vindicated when I researched nationwide for the book. The university archives of UCC, Queen’s University Belfast and NUI Galway each contained valuable and largely under utilised minute-books and correspondence about the championships, as well as rare college journals. Trinity College also had its share of useful manuscript material, and UCD’s James Joyce Library provided a rich supply of college periodicals. The Gaelic games archives of the Croke Park Museum and the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library and Archive, Armagh, contained a substantial body of documents relevant to the higher education sector. For newspaper accounts, I visited my regular haunts at the Irish Reference and Local Studies Library, Armagh, Belfast Newspaper Library and the National Library of Ireland. And for photographs I cast the net far and wide, faring best in the UCC archives, the sports offices of UCC and UCD, and through making personal contact with a large number of former players and officials or their families. It was not by profligacy that I sent over 1,200 e-mails relative to this book over a fifteen-month period, and received over 1,000 in response.

A chronological narrative seemed by far the most suitable approach to the text throughout for what was the first book of length on the subject; it was essential to set down for the record the key events and figures in the approximate order of their occurrence. An author returning to the subject for a subsequent book would thus be better poised to create a more thematic structure of chapters. I strove to place equal weight on what happened on and off the pitch. I devoted the first chapter to explaining why these competitions took until the relatively late dates of 1911–12 to come to be. Thereafter I allocated a chapter to each decade, within which I started off with a general overview of the key topics, and moved on to deliver synopses of the championships on a year-by-year basis. Such a structure would usually be avoided by academic historians, but I believed that having a separate subsection for each year was preferable to a general summary of the events of a decade, because within five years student teams were entirely changed in composition.

Doubtless even mainstream historians would still view my work primarily as a sports book rather than a history book. For all that sport and recreation have affected the lives of countless millions of people over the centuries, the study of them seems to remain beyond the pale in most university history departments. Sports historians may have to play the long game for their subject to be fully embraced in Ireland. Like any dedicated athlete, they will have to keep practising hard until they find favour.


  1. If writing a commissioned piece for a club or association, ensure that proper support structures are in place from the start; if writing off your own bat, be ultra-organised and work tight to deadlines.
  2. Research as widely as you can in respect of sources; regurgitating the basic common narrative will defeat the purpose of your work.
  3. Pursue old photographs with vigour – they are out there to be had, if you are persistent enough with your enquiries, and their value to a book should never be underestimated.
  4. Try not to make the text top-heavy with recent material, which tends to be less intriguing than earlier and lacks the advantage of hindsight.
  5. Navigate your thesaurus – constant references to a goal being scored and a match being won or lost, can begin to sound monotonous very quickly without some sparks of inspiration.

Donal’s book The Cups That Cheered – A History of the Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Gaelic Games is published by The Collins Press, price €29.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from www.collinspress.ie


About the author

Dónal McAnallen is a history graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, and the National University of Ireland Galway. In both he played Gaelic football, was involved in organising Sigerson Cup tournaments, and he has been national treasurer and secretary of Comhairle Ardoideachais, the GAA’s Higher Education Council. Throughout he remained active with his club, An Eaglais, Co. Tyrone. He has worked at the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Library & Archive, Armagh, has been widely published, and he co-edited The Evolution of the GAA (2009).

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