Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

The Sporting Dimension to the Relationship
Between Ireland and Latin America

By John Kennedy


Mercedes Football Club. From left to right, standing: Rufino Bello, Tuco Rodríguez, David Lennard, Hugh Gahan, Severo Ruiz, A. N. Other, J. J. McLoughlin (secretary), Charles L. Lowther (treasurer). Second row: James J. McLoughlin (president), Tommy Price, N. Alori, Eugene Gahan (captain), Juan Arturo Gahan. Third row: Johnny Rossiter, Leo Gahan
('Hiberno-Argentine Review', Nº 149, Buenos Aries, 5 March 1909

The prominence given to the successes of Argentina in a wide variety of sports in recent times, in particular those of British origin, has created a greater awareness of the important contribution ingleses have made to the diffusion of the sport in Latin America and Iberia through the bonds of informal empire. Central to this is the influence Irish immigrants and Argentines of Irish origin have had on the dissemination and development of these sports. In addition to this, a specific contribution was made with the introduction of hurling to Argentina. Irish-Argentines have had a significant influence in football, rugby, field hockey, basketball, polo and other sports. Relations between Ireland and the region were enhanced through frequent sporting contacts. As Ireland has now become a net recipient of migrants and home to communities from Latin America and Iberia, it is likely that in the future they will in turn make their mark in those sports which the Irish played a part in diffusing and developing in their countries of origin.   


As 2007 drew to a close, there was a growing recognition of the dominance of Latin America in world sport, largely through the wide-ranging success of Argentina across a number of sporting disciplines. Ángel Cabrera won the US Open golf tournament at Oakmount; David Nalbandian won the Madrid and Paris tennis Masters; Manu Ginóbli continued to stir the world of basketball, and of course there was the spectacular success of the ‘Pumas’, reaching third place in the Rugby World Cup in France. Not only that, but the country also maintained its position at the top of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) rankings. These achievements have prompted greater examination of the roots of this success. 

The genesis of this sporting success lies in late eighteenth-century England and the development of modern organised sport, which reached an apex in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Latin American and Caribbean regions were among the first beneficiaries of these sporting innovations. In Latin America the diffusion of British sports took place through the informal bonds of empire through trading and capital investment, whereas in the Caribbean it was through more formal colonial mechanisms. As one of the earliest Latin American countries to practice modern sports and the only country with significant Irish immigration, ‘which has been estimated to be 45-50,000’ (Murray 2004: 28), the focus of this survey article will be mainly on Argentina. However the experience is paralleled to a certain extent in other Latin American countries, as well as in Iberia. As constituent members of the community of ingleses, Irish immigrants played a key role in the nurturing of these new sports and their diffusion. Their descendents made their own contribution to helping to make Argentina the dominant power in world sport that it is today. As Carlin (2007) notes, all Argentines, irrespective of origin, display the ‘desperate need to carve out an identity separate from the rich cultural one inherited from their transoceanic forebears.’

The Emergence of Modern Organised Sport

Before the advent of modern sports a variety of what can be termed traditional sports were practiced in Britain and Ireland. These included various types of football including a type played in Cornwall called Cornish hurling [1] and Caid, a precursor to Gaelic football, played in Ireland. This array also included animal-based sports such as bear-baiting, bull-running and cock-fighting, which were common throughout Europe. These were later banned, largely due to the efforts of the Methodist movement, under the British Cruelty to Animals Act in 1835.

It is a common misconception that organised sport in England emerged during the Victorian era (1837-1901), and that there was a gap between the decline of ancient forms and the development of new games (Holt 1989). ‘The interplay of change and continuity, persistence in some things and innovation in others, is too complex to be slotted neatly into a simple modernisation model’ (Holt 1989: 12). The first sports to take on an organised form were horseracing and cricket, albeit in a more rural context - proof that organic change in sport was taking place long before the mid-Victorian period.

Horseracing could be considered to be the first organised sport. The publication of a racing calendar in 1727, the formation of the Jockey Club in 1752 and the establishment of classic races such as the St Ledger in 1776 and the Derby in 1780, set the foundations for modern racing. Cricket was the first team sport to emerge on an organised basis and also provided a mechanism that enabled social interaction between the aristocracy and commoners; a rarity at the time. One of the first clubs to be established was the Hambledon Cricket Club which was founded around 1750. Later in the eighteenth century the game gained its own governing body, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC).

Despite these organic developments, it was the elite public school [2] system that left the most enduring legacies, through the codification of various types of ‘traditional’ football. Although various types of ball games had long been part of the boys’ curriculum, most headmasters saw little benefit in these pursuits and actively discouraged them. Thomas Arnold, headmaster at Rugby school from 1828 to 1842, was a pioneer in this area and was one of the first to see the potential of organised sport as a source of discipline and morality. Gradually other schools began the process of organising and introducing discipline into these sports. Another impact the public school system had on sport was the emphasis on amateurism, and the spirit of 'fair play'.

At first the universities were instrumental in establishing common rules, as most public schools had their own variants; however they were later supplanted by professional associations. The Football Association (FA) was first established in London among the old boys clubs, who drew up common rules to agree on the basis upon which they could play against each other. Initially the FA rules allowed holding the ball and hacking (kicking the opponents in the shins). However, clubs from Sheffield argued that these practices should be forbidden. With the creation of the International Football Association Board in 1886, the views of the Sheffield clubs were accepted and reflected in the new agreed code. Although a set of common rules was agreed for rugby in 1845, it was not until 1871 that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was formed to govern the sport.

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

Kennedy, John, 'The Sporting Dimension to the Relationship Between Ireland and Latin America' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 3-14. Available online (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information