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University of Alabama at Birmingham

I know not however whether it was fair to expect them to give up at once the agreeable recreation of fighting. It's not easy to abolish old customs, particularly diversions; and everyone knows that this is the national amusement of the finest peasantry on the face of the earth. To be sure skulls and bones are broken, and lives lost; but they are lost in pleasant fighting - they are the consequences of the sport, the beauty of which consists in breaking as many heads and necks as you can. William Carleton(1)

Studies of the history of violence, especially homicide, have focused on a number of explanations: economic, political, demographic and cultural. An overabundance of young men, a culture of honor and the absence of other means of achieving status have been among the factors demonstrated to influence violence in a society.2 However, a study of violent crimes in nineteenth century Ireland suggests another factor - that of violence as recreation.

This study is based primarily on the records of 1,932 homicides reported by the Irish police between 1866 to 1892. The government compiled a Return of Outrages which included a brief description of homicides reported by police outside metropolitan Dublin. The figures in this paper are based on these returns, supplemented when possible by newspaper and court records. A fire at the Irish Public Record Office destroyed a large portion of nineteenth century criminal records. However some criminal records survive for seventeen counties. The British Library has extensive holdings of Irish provincial newspapers.(3)

The recreational aspect of Irish violence does not mean that other causes are not involved. However, the Irish evidence includes cases in which other explanations do not suffice. The thesis here is that while violence at times serves as a substitute for something else or as a reaction to negative stimulus, it is also sometimes deliberately chosen as a pastime. Anthropologists have used the term "agonistic" to refer to violence which is "playful, symbolic or ritualistic."(4) While the symbolic and ritualistic elements have often been the subject of scholarly analysis, relatively little work has been done on the playful aspects. More often the recreational aspects of violence are overlooked in the search for deeper meanings. Perhaps the idea that humans find pleasure in violence is simply unpalatable, though, as Gwynn Nettler has pointed out, "It is not at all clear that human beings prefer lives without some violence."(5) In his classic study, Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argued that fighting "is the most energetic form of play and at the same time the most palpable and primitive. Young dogs and small boys fight 'for fun;' with rules limiting the degree of violence nevertheless the limits of licit violence do not necessarily stop at the spilling of blood or even killing."(6)

The Irish evidence is particularly colorful and in some ways distinctive, though recreational violence is not unique to nineteenth century Ireland. Much of the violence of late nineteenth century Ireland resembles the patterns Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning characterized as typical of pre-industrial societies. Dunning describes the distinction between instrumental violence which is rational and goal oriented and expressive violence which is emotional and "more closely associated with the arousal of pleasurable feelings."(7) The idea of pleasurable violence may be jarring to modern sensibilities. However in addition to evidence for pre-industrial Europe, similar actions have also been documented in the American West and South, Australia, the Mediterranean and parts of Central and South America.(8)

Further while the amount of recreational violence has declined in the past century, I would argue that it still exists in milder forms. Recreational violence is distinguished by clearly defined rules, willing participants, a sense of pleasure in the activity and an absence of any malicious intent. Under these conditions fighting can be seen as the far end of a spectrum of play or sport.(9) Though seldom acknowledged, violence is an integral part of most team sports. As Don Atyeo point outs: "The thing about sports is it legitimizes violence, thereby laundering it acceptably clean. Incidents routinely occur in the name of sport which if they were perpetrated under any other banner short of open warfare would be roundly condemned as crimes. . . . The pain inflicted in sport is somehow not really pain at all; it is Tom and Jerry pain, cartoon agony which doesn't hurt."(10) Anyone who has played pick-up basketball or touch football or has childhood memories of sharing the backseat with a sibling on a long car trip probably has had some first-hand experience of a mild form of recreational violence.(11) Obviously the consequences in these recent examples are far less severe, but the basic concept of physical conflict as a form of pleasant entertainment is the same.

Many scholars have suggested that violence provides a means of attaining status for those who are barred from economic or political achievement. For example, Kenneth Polk has suggested that physical violence is the means of competition for status only among groups where economic or political avenues to dominance are denied.(12) However, recreational violence in late nineteenth century Ireland was not simply a response to political oppression or dire poverty. Post-famine Ireland had actually reached new levels of political and economic sophistication. By the 1860s the Irish economy had largely recovered from the devastation of the famine and the structure of rural society was changing. The "strong" farmers who leased substantial holdings represented a growing force in the rural community. Even the smaller tenant farmers had become more vocal and politically aware. The agricultural laboring class, which had been hardest hit by the famine, was also more prosperous after the drastic decline in population had made more land and work available. Furthermore, literacy was increasing among all classes and a lively provincial press enhanced political awareness.(13)

Property and position were no guarantee of decorum. Thirty-five percent of homicides in brawls involved strong farmers or their families. As a quarter session chairman noted in 1875, "the assaults increase with the increase of prosperity of the farming-class, whose wealth, in a great measure, finds its way into the public house."(14) Though it might be argued that such rowdiness was a hold-over from earlier times in which political and economic success were effectively denied to Irish tenant farmers, it was in the most prosperous areas of the countryside that the violent traditions were longest-lived. The lack of correspondence between peace and prosperity was noted by the Munster News "There should be less cause of atrocity here than in other places. The country around is fertile; the farmers are in comfortable circumstances and a barefooted boy or girl is seldom observed."(15)

But while violence was not always motivated by economic or political concerns, it could be a response to other needs. In his study of the American West, Roger McGrath points out that even though men went to the frontier in the pursuit of material gains their fights were over the non-material values of honor, pride and courage.(16) One possible explanation for the attraction of recreational violence can be found in post-famine demographics. Throughout the nineteenth century, but especially after the famine, inheritance patterns changed. In order to keep the family farm intact only one son was chosen as heir and only one daughter dowered for marriage. In 1851, 14.5 percent of men and 13.5 percent of women over the age of thirty five had never married. By 1891, among persons over the age of thirty-five, 21.8 percent of men and 20 percent of women were single.(17) David Courtwright has recently argued that the disproportionate number of single men is a key factor in explaining the high level of violence in American society. In Courtwright's analysis the absence of family ties favors irresponsibility.(18) However, the single men of rural Ireland were subject to social controls far more repressive than those experienced by husbands and fathers. Unmarried adult children in rural Ireland could either emigrate or remain on the family farm as unpaid servants.(19) Consequently an enormous number of people were simply never allowed to function as autonomous adults. These unmarried adults were referred to as "boys and girls" and treated accordingly. Fighting was often the only opportunity many of these 'boys' had to achieve any individual status. Recreational violence was also a response to the monotony of rural life. Fighting was often one of very few leisure activities available in the countryside. The defense attorney in a case in which more than a hundred men had been involved in a brawl "alluded to the very few recreations which the country people had to amuse themselves with."(20)

Scholars have also identified honor cultures, in the American south and along the Mediterranean among other places, in which masculine honor requires a willingness to answer insult or challenge with physical violence.(21) Violence in defense of honor and recreational violence are not synonomous though they may and frequently do coexist. Societies marked by an honor culture have a very high level of violence. The records do not support the notion of the Irish as particularly prone to violence. Most years the Irish homicide rate was only about two thirds that of England and Wales. Another significant difference is the fact that confrontations over honor are deadly serious.(22) In Ireland brawling was entertainment.

The goal of recreational violence was not to injure or kill but rather to participate in a mutual display of skill and strength. Consequently, Irish perceptions of criminal liability for physical violence were distinctive. As Justice Charles Barry noted: "In many parts of the country, the people seemed not to consider murder under certain circumstances a crime at all."(23) A major element in negating the criminality of violence in Ireland, especially in homicides, was the recreational aspect. Forty-one percent of all Irish homicides between 1866 and 1892 were recreational in origin. Rather than men bent on vengeance, the characters who emerge from the criminal records are more often people who enjoyed fighting as a sometimes lethal, but rarely malicious, form of entertainment. The Irish evidence indicates support or at least tolerance for recreational violence among judges, jurors, police and journalists as well as those who found themselves in court as victims or defendants. Recreational violence was not simply a form of misplaced resistance by an oppressed peasantry but a form of sport, recognized and even praised by authorities and participants alike.

The clearest examples of recreational violence in Ireland are the faction fights. These huge ritualized brawls have been compared to football and other sports as a form of community entertainment.(24) A formal faction fight, which might involve hundreds of men on each side, usually began with the ritual of wheeling which included chants, stylized gestures and insults. The traditional wheel included the name of the person(s) issuing the challenge as well as the intended opponent. For example, "Here is Connors and Delahanty. Is there any Madden will come before us?"(25) The setting was often prearranged and faction fights were routine at fairs, markets and other large gatherings. In addition to these large scale confrontations members of opposing factions might take advantage of other opportunities for confrontations.

Factions seem to have been under-reported in official returns.(26) In some cases authorities refused to get involved. When a nineteen-year-old died of a skull fracture in Kilkenny in 1873, the judge directed an acquittal since "the only motive that can be assigned is that the parties belonged to opposite factions." Four years later the Kilkenny quarter sessions chairman ordered an acquittal in a riot cases because: "It was a regular fight between parties on the public road, sticks and stones were fully used." Further evidence of the status of a faction fight as a sporting event can be seen in the fact that in 1878 a man was sentenced to six months for beating a friend after they watched a faction fight but none of the faction fighters was arrested.(27)

At the aptly named Strokestown fair in Roscommon in 1866, factions of more than one hundred men each had attacked one another with sticks and stones. Several men were charged with riot, but proving the charge of riot required evidence that reasonable people had been alarmed. The arresting officer testified "I have not one of her majesty's subjects here to swear he was terrified by this mob; I was not frightened myself." After acquitting one of the faction leaders, a juror suggested that the police should return the man's blackthorn stick. The defendants were of the same prosperous farming class as the jurors. In 1873 two Roscommon faction fighters were each able to pay [pounds]100 recognizances to avoid prison.The fights continued in Roscommon, but arrests were rare and punishment even rarer.(28)

Factions were particularly strong in the New Pallas and Cappamore districts of Limerick where the Three Year Olds and Four Year Olds had battled for generations. The names stemmed from a fight held decades earlier over the age of either a colt or a cow. By 1860 nobody remembered which. These factions were contributing factors in over a quarter of all indictments for assault and 8 percent of homicides in Limerick between 1866 and 1892. As in Roscommon, the fighters were often of the same class as the jurors. Justice Fitzgerald lamented that in faction fights "The persons involved are an exceedingly fine class of people physically and also intelligent. They were well-dressed, apparently wealthy."(29)

Between 1866 and 1892 Limerick juries convicted in only 27 percent of faction related cases. Factions continued to enjoy the support of the Limerick community even though the Limerick quarter sessions chairman lamented the bizarre aspect of the practice. "We would say that they were a strange people where one man raises a stick, wheels and utters a cry, when another man comes and breaks his head." That the putative motives of the fights were often ludicrous was immaterial. Factions provided a physical activity through which men could prove their strength and demonstrate their loyalties. As the Munster News noted "in these few adjoining districts in this county it was maintained as a practice which should not be allowed to decline." When a Limerick policeman attempted to arrest an old man who was drunk and wheeling for the Four Year Olds, the constable was assaulted by five hundred people. In another case when a policeman fired a gun into the air to try to break up a faction fight at a fair, the factions united to seize the constable and take him before the magistrates for illegal possession of a firearm.(30)

Though factions are the closest analogy to team sports, huge brawls did not always involve factions. Thirty percent of indictable assaults involved more than two people. The sheer numbers involved in brawls indicate the communal aspect of recreational violence. Once a fight began, friends and relatives of the fighters usually felt free, if not compelled, to join in. A quarter sessions judge in Kilkenny ruled, "there was no mistake but that the law allowed a father to protect his son if he saw him getting the worst of it." In addition to factions and family, group loyalties might also extend to the village or even the county. When Patrick Brien was accused of killing Francis Gorman in a drunken brawl, Brien's response was "it is a nice thing to say that we would kill a man from our own county."(31)

In keeping with the recreational aspect of fighting there were rules of combat even in brawls. Though supporting one's comrades was expected, in most cases justice required roughly even sides. Justice Murphy was indignant when he heard a case in which six members of the Callaghan family had assaulted and beaten Bernard Faddin outside a pub on Christmas day. Faddin had been alone except for his sister, and the uneven sides offended the judge who sentenced the Callaghans to sixteen months each. In another case, the quarter sessions chairman laid out the rules as he saw them: "If the fight had been left between Whelan and the prosecutor who at first struck each other, the law would take a very lenient view of the case." But, ganging up was not acceptable. Nor was continuing to pummel a defeated opponent. When John Delaney came to the assistance of a friend who was already winning a fight the judge was incensed "The fact of Delany coming to the other's assistance, and then, as proved, they both kicking him while down rendered the case a very treacherous one." For his treachery Delany was sentenced to twelve months, while his friend who had started the fight was sentenced to only six months.(32)

The rituals involved in fighting included the wheel, the removal of one's coat and in some cases the naming of seconds. Wheeling was the recognized signal of a willingness to fight. As the Mayor of Limerick explained, "Wheeling, as it is called is an old practice in this county. When a person 'wheels' he means a quarrel." The courts routinely began enquiries into assaults by determining whether any of the participants had wheeled. Making such a challenge rendered the legal consequences less serious regardless of the physical injuries. Pat Derrane's sentence for hitting Pat Hannon in the head with a chair was reduced to two months after Hannon admitted wheeling that he had "never met a Derrane in Arran as good as himself."(33)

Even in cases of homicide the challenger deserved the consequences. John Galligan of Tipperary was plowing in a field when Patrick Doyle, a farmer and cattle dealer who was drunk at the time, went into the field and knocked Galligan down because he had failed to join in a brawl the previous day. Galligan responded by kicking Doyle in the head and chest, then continued his plowing for four hours while the fatally injured Doyle lay on the ground. Before his death however, Doyle gave a dying deposition admitting that he had started the fight. Galligan was acquitted. As was the man who killed John Cudahy in a brawl after Cudahy shouted "Is there anyone able for me?" The longest sentence given for a homicide after a challenge was one year for John Doyle who killed Michael Quinn in a boxing match. Quinn had initiated the fight and both men had their coats off. The twelve month sentence presumably reflected the fact that Doyle had violated the rules by kicking Quinn in the stomach three times after he was down.(34)

While wheels might include insults or references to past grievances, a challenge to see who was the better man would usually suffice. One assault victim explained that "he was always a manly man, ready to meet anyone singly in a fight." However, the concern with manhood did not preclude female participation. Even though the fighters of Ireland often used gendered terminology in challenges and terms such as "bitch" and "slut" were particularly offensive epithets for men, women were also quick to respond to a challenge. In one case a defense attorney successfully argued that two women accused of encouraging a homicide could not have been using disgraceful language because at the time they "were in fisticuffs on the road." Women who resorted to violence might take the same pride in prowess as their men. When a prosecuting attorney asked Margaret Brennan if it was true that she was the rowdiest woman in Kilkenny, she replied, "What's it to you?" Regardless of gender, if the fight had been agreed to the injuries sustained were often viewed as an inevitable and acceptable side-effect. At a Mayo fair in 1892, Anne Mullee, a widow selling sheep at the fair, got into a fight with John Mullen. She swung at him with a razor and he hit her in the eye with an ashplant. The judge said the case was too trivial to consider.(35)

The rules of Irish brawls were not those of the Marquis of Queensbury. Two and a half percent of homicide victims died from kicks and five from infected bites. Both tactics were apparently standard in brawls though parity of results was a factor. After John Murphy bit John Michael Duby's finger off, a witness brought the finger into court to show the judge, who calmly asked, "with the exception of the finger who got the worst of it?" After hearing an account of the fight, the judge told the jury that since Duby had knocked Murphy to the ground and was beating on him the bite was an act of self-defense. Murphy was acquitted.(36)

Beyond the fists, feet and teeth, the single most popular weapon, in part because of availability, was the stone. Throwing stones was a common response to provocation and in some areas was considered no more serious than fisticuffs. In Mayo in 1890 a judge announced that the "only way a jury could find the accused guilty was for committing an assault by throwing stones." Apparently the verdict was unthinkable. The accused was acquitted.(37) At least 212 people were killed with stones between 1866 and 1892. Less than 10 percent of these homicides led to sentences of over two years.

The weapons employed in most assaults and homicides were improvised. A Kilkenny judge complained of, "Cases arising as usual out of drunken brawls, senseless altercations and old feuds raked up, and the stick, the stone, the knife, and in one case the hatchet - whatever weapon is ready to hand - is had recourse to." Thirty-two percent of homicide victims were beaten to death either with fists, sticks or stones. At least 95 people died of skull fractures. At the Limerick summer assize in 1878 Justice Barry complained that "skull fracturing had become so frequent that people did not seem to mind it, and indeed he was informed that there was not a man in a certain part of the county who had not a fractured skull." Even some judges shared the complacency. When a witness brought fragments of a skull to a Tipperary courtroom to illustrate the damage done during a brawl, Justice Fitzgerald sneered: "They would not think anything of that in Clare."(38)

The courts took a slightly less lenient view of the use of the knife. As Justice John George Gibson explained, "A man might attack another with his fists or with his walking stick but the use of the knife was a treacherous and a serious thing." But the comments reveal that it was the weapon itself they objected to, not the violence. A quarter sessions chairman told jurors: "It was all very well in a fair fight to retaliate with the natural weapons a person was intrusted with, but in the prisoner's case it seemed to be an equal fight, and there appeared to be no necessity for the use of the knife." Judges admitted that knives might sometimes be necessary. After directing an acquittal in a Kilkenny case, Justice Dowse warned the accused "on no account in future to use a knife when it could possibly be avoided."(39)

Knives were more likely to kill or seriously injure but judges also objected on other grounds. While brawling with sticks and stones was traditional, knives were considered alien. Part of the tolerance for fighting as recreation stemmed from the sense that it was part of Irish tradition.(40) In 1867 a judge complained of "the most treacherous and cowardly use of the knife. He was sorry to see that the use of this unnational and deadly instrument, the importation of a foreign country, has, of late, very much increased among the peasantry of Ireland." The Limerick quarter session chairman shared this sentiment: "This habit of using the knife is most cowardly, it is certainly un-Irish and should be checked." As did Justice Harrison: "Stabbing is a brutal sort of thing and quite unnational."(41) Persons convicted of homicides in which either no weapon was used or the assailants used a rock or a stick were released on recognizance or punished by sentences of less than six months 47 percent of the time. Only 18 percent of them were sentenced to penal servitude or death. In the 10 percent of homicides in which a knife was used less than 20 percent of those convicted served less than six months and 33 percent were sentenced to penal servitude or death.

Even a knife fight did not necessarily involve hostility. Often the combatants were friends, both before and after the fight. When John Howard testified about being stabbed by John Heffernan in a pub row, he assured the court, "I am not a bit the worse for the stab, Heffernan and I were good friends and are good friends, and if it is pleasing to you I'll now forgive him." Heffernan was duly acquitted. Though John Martin was convicted of stabbing his friend Michael Carroll, Carroll insisted that "Martin and I were the best of friends and that he had given as good as he got." When Patrick O'Donnell was charged with stabbing John Higgins, he assured the judge, "I did not intend to do it sir, Mr. Higgins is one of the best friends I have in the world." The judge replied, "Well, in the hope that you will learn to treat your friends better in the future, I will only give you four months hard labour."(42)

Brawls usually included alcohol. After Margaret Hunt bit another woman's nose off during a brawl, her victim told the court "we had always previously been the best of friends. I had a little drink taken." Drinking was an integral part of social interaction. The Limerick quarter sessions chairman concluded, "the Irish people did not drink for the love of drink, but through a mistaken sense of good nature and to give a treat." The same sense of good nature could be found in recreational brawls. A challenge to fight was often less a reflection of animosity than an invitation to engage in a convivial form of recreation. When five Limerick men were charged with assaulting John McGrath, the victim admitted: "I was shouting 'here is McGrath' because I was hearty. When I came near the prisoner's house, James Horan wheeled against me." A battle with sticks and stones followed. Perhaps as significant as the wheel is the fact that McGrath by his own calculation had consumed seven whiskeys, two drinks of punch and his "share of porter."(43) Alcohol was listed as a contributing factor in 28 percent of homicides, though the actual percentage was probably much higher, as the mere consumption of alcohol was often such an integral part of the setting as to be unworthy of mention in police reports.(44)

That serious injuries and deaths should result from something as common and pleasant as drunken brawls was something the participants often seemed to find genuinely surprising. As Michael Connelly claimed hitting a friend in the head with an iron bar, "I am crying morning, noon, and night ever since. I am so heartily sorry for it. Drink was the whole cause of it." After confessing to killing Michael Mannion in a fight, Patrick Dwyer told the police: "He challenged me to fight and I told him not to beat me and that he was superior to me and I told him several times not to rise a hand to me." But, Mannion had insisted. "He went to the wall for a stone and ran after me and I am sure I pulled out a penknife and he was running very close to me and I thought he had a stone. I turned back and I must have stuck him with the penknife." Dwyer was sentenced to eighteen months. A schoolmaster who had stabbed a man during a fight on the way home from a pub was hard-pressed to explain how it happened: "I do not know how the words began; I believe we bid each other good night; I cannot say what was said but whatever was said we began fighting; I cannot say who was struck first." William Donnellan and James Lyon fought over which route to take home from a celebration. "We were wrangling at collar and elbow and doing each other no harm," until Donnellan pulled a knife and stabbed Lyons in the throat. Donnellan apologized: "Don't blame me for no one can be sorrier for it than I am myself but sure I did not know what I was doing." Donnellan agreed to pay Lyons for time lost from work and Lyons said he hated to prosecute.(45)

As recreation, drunken brawls were most likely to occur during times of celebration. In Limerick in 1891, thirty different people were treated for injuries from assaults on Boxing Night [December 26], including a man stabbed outside his own house, a woman whose left eye had been knocked out as she passed a brawl and another woman whose skull had been fractured by her half-sister. In Kildare in 1886, Owen Lynch and John Boland got into a drunken fight while singing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve. Neither could remember what started the fight, but Lynch admitted stabbing Boland with a chisel. The judge sentenced Lynch to twenty-four hours.(46) St. Patrick's Day and other religious holidays were also popular times for brawls and assaults. Sometimes sectarian differences or factions were involved, but often the only cause was drink and holiday exuberance.

Old and new rivalries as well as other opportunities to prove one's manhood were in abundance at fairs, markets and races. One hundred people died as a result of brawls in these settings, but only a third of the killers served any jail time and only nine served more than two years. In one homicide case, after dismissing all charges, the judge announced that it "was only another of the many lessons that had been taught of the frightful results of drinking at the races." Judges viewed assaults and homicides at funerals and wakes with the same philosophical resignation. When three women were involved in mutual assaults at a child's wake, the judge said it was "another one of those unfortunate cases occurring from the fact that a wake had been held and seemed to have been the signal for those parties to assemble and indulge in these fatal half-glasses, which generally end in scenes such as the one described." After hearing a case in which eleven people were arrested because they had gotten drunk "and kicked up a shindy" at a funeral, the judge released them on recognizance after having them all shake hands. When a wake led to a brawl in Cavan the police labeled it a riot but the judge said the "whole thing was a drunken row and one party was as bad as another."(47) Brawls were such an integral part of wakes that even deaths did not make the incidents serious ones. No one was convicted in any of the fourteen homicides that occurred at wakes and funerals.

The police often chose not to take action. A brawl in which no one sustained a serious injury was usually beneath their notice. Galway police refused to arrest Patrick Burke for hitting Patrick Gannon in the head with a shovel until Gannon's physician produced a certificate saying his life was in danger.(48) The reluctance was partly self-defence. Since fighting was regarded as a legitimate part of celebrations and entertainment, trying to stop a fight could be a dangerous step. At Cavan in 1882, a crowd of fifteen men assaulted and severely injured two policemen trying to break up a brawl. The defense argued that the police had no right to interfere in a drunken row. The men were convicted but released because the assault had not been premeditated. In August 1890 two gangs in Kildare met and were about to fight when constables interfered. The two gangs joined forces and attacked the police, three of whom were seriously injured.(49) Civilian interference was also dangerous. At least twenty-two people were killed interfering in brawls. Only three of the killers in these cases served more than one year. Such behavior was so foolish that the victim was deemed to have asked for his injuries.

The recreational nature of brawling meant that even when the results were fatal, the legal consequences were rarely serious.(50) Only 8 percent of those convicted of killing in brawls served more than two years. The reluctance to convict and the light sentences were a response to expectations. In "friendly" brawls both victim and assailant were often genuinely horrified that such a natural activity could have such serious consequences. Since there had been no intention to kill, the deaths were seen as unfortunate accidents.

Even in the twenty-one cases in which innocent bystanders were killed, deaths from brawls were considered regrettable but not particularly serious. Only four people were sentenced to more than two years for the death of a bystander. The longest sentence (ten years) came when a child was killed with acid thrown at her mother by a rival. But, in other cases where children were killed in brawls juries viewed their deaths as unfortunate rather than criminal. The brawling tradition began so early in life that a quarter of the children less than sixteen killed by non-relatives were killed by another child under the age of sixteen. Twenty-six children died from injuries sustained in brawls. Only seven of the killers served any jail time at all. Children, like adults, were deemed to have accepted the risks if they used fighting words or gestures. Most of these incidents involved brawls between young teenagers though six of the assailants were between eight and twelve and four children under the age of six were killed as bystanders to brawls between older children.

As the cases involving children demonstrate, there was no pattern of judging assaults on the vulnerable more harshly than those on able-bodied men. Recreational violence involved neither malice nor lethal intent. Even the deaths of bystanders were regrettable accidents. The deaths of participants were simply the acceptable risks involved in violence in sport. For example the surviving records include no cases in which anyone was jailed for an assault on a pregnant woman, although at least twelve indictments involved such cases. Pregnant women proceeded at their own risk in brawls, just like everyone else. Mary Magory was eight months pregnant when her next door neighbor hit her in the stomach. The horror of the crime was somewhat abated by the fact that Mary had started the fight by striking him with a stool. He was acquitted.51

Forty-four people over the age of sixty died in brawls, resulting in only two prison sentences. Brawling was so routine that even the disabled were sometimes involved. A one-handed pensioner in Kilkenny was sentenced to four months for knocking a man down and breaking his kneecap. John Ryan, who started a Christmas Eve brawl at a neighbor's home, was beaten to death with his own crutch. Since Ryan had started the fight, his killers were acquitted.(52)

Occasionally, a judge would express indignation. However, judges could only act on their indignation if the jury convicted. For example, Justice Murphy was appalled when a jury chose to ignore charges of attempted murder against a man who had fractured another man's skull with a stone. When they convicted him of common assault instead, Murphy shouted, "Take back that verdict. I will not take it. Do you think fracturing a man's skull is a common assault? If you do, I'd like to see it tried on yourselves." The jury refused to change their verdict. In another case Justice Harrison angrily asked a witness in a homicide case, "Do you call it a spree when a man's head is broken by a blow?" Another presiding judge complained, "You have evidence of the murderous assault committed on the prosecutor and his brother. In the former's skull you have been shown the crater left by the instrument, proved beyond the shadow of a doubt to have been used by the prisoner. That evidence is uncontradicted, not denied even." When the scolding had no effect, the accused was released on his own recognizance.(53) Heavy jail time for simply participating in recreation was something very few jurors could tolerate.

More often other judges shared the sentiments of Chief Justice Morris who told a Mayo Grand Jury hearing assault charges after a fair, "It was a very common sort of assault in his long experience, both in matters of fact, in words, and in what happened in the country, and will happen more or less to the end of time." He also praised the policeman who "took a good constabulary and judicial view of it, because having been called upon to investigate, he saw there was not very much done and that it would be very hard to find out who did it. He sent one party home and gave them a reasonable start before he let out the other party." The judge also approved of impartiality in the courtroom. "He always observed there was an effort to balance the number of witnesses, and accordingly there were six witnesses for the prosecution and a doctor and six witnesses for the defense and a doctor."(54)

Expressions of concern over recreational violence usually had less to do with the injuries inflicted than with the image projected. As long as the Irish could be portrayed as drunken barbarians bashing each others' brains out for the fun of it, any economic or political hardships could be blamed on the Irish character. The Munster News warned its readers that faction fighting could be used by the English to prove that the Irish were savages unfit to govern themselves. Justice Fitzgerald compared the faction fighters to African tribes then being "civilized" by the British: "The man and women of Ashantee were not half so savage as the men and women of Pallas and Cappamore." Justice Morris, who was descended from an ancient Galway family and took great pride in his Gaelic heritage, was nonetheless convinced that recreational violence reflected a deep-seated character flaw and made political autonomy for Ireland unthinkable. "They showed how pleasantly they lived together when they took to breaking each other's heads and how well they would live together if all control were taken from them."(55)

However, even at its worst the level of violence in Ireland was less than that in England. Further, recreational violence usually involved consenting parties. In fact after the land agitation of the 1880s at least one judge viewed it in a favorable light. In his charge to the Roscommon spring assize in 1892, Justice Harrison suggested that there were many worse things than brawling and faction fights:

There is not any boycotting in the county, no persons receiving personal police protection, and there are only four protected by occasional police patrols. This showed that the county was in a satisfactory condition. With regard to the offenses not specially reported - such as assaults and cases of intoxication - these showed an increase. But that was accounted for by the fact that the county were divided into parties and they had been showing their discrimination and intelligence by assaulting each other - which was rather an Irish way of doing things.(56)

However ludicrous and barbaric a faction fight might seem to outsiders, recreational violence with willing participants compares favorably to the institutionalized violence of imperialism or to random attacks of political terrorism.

Recreational violence was not viewed as criminal precisely because it was a form of recreation. Malice was not a factor. While the fatal consequences of broken skulls might seem too apparent to overlook, for the participants they were simply an unfortunate byproduct. Certainly bystanders were sometimes injured or killed, and the deaths and injuries had real consequences regardless of the lack of intent or malice. Nevertheless, if no serious harm was intended, any injury must have been accidental. In descriptions of assaults, rocks and knives were often described as having acted on their own. Even victims often expressed genuine surprise that such light-hearted fun could have such serious consequences. Deaths and injuries were the totally unintended results of an acceptable form of recreation. To give a heavy sentence for an injury or death as the result of a brawl was comparable to punishing someone for an injury or death sustained in a hurling match. As long as the participants had followed the rules, deaths and injuries from fighting were simply the acceptable costs of "pleasant fighting."

Though the openness about the pleasure to be found in violence may have been more prominent in Ireland than elsewhere, the concept of violence as sport (as opposed to violence in sports) is important in understanding interpersonal violence. This is not to discount economic, social and psychological factors, but violence as an outlet for other frustrations or as misdirected rebellion cannot account for all such acts. While historians have sometimes given slight notice to Elias's thesis of sport as a rationalized form of violence, emphasis in the history of sport has often been on the commercialization of the process and little attention has been paid to the fact that organized or even professional sport do not preclude the continued existence of violence as sport. The Gaelic athletic league did offer another pastime for the Irish population but it did not completely replace recreational violence. Faction fights have been reported as late as the 1960s. Further, the drunken brawl can still be found in Ireland and elsewhere. Official reactions may vary but colloquial reactions often indicate ambivalence or even exhilaration. Historians of sport frequently study the problem of violence in sport (e.g. soccer hooliganism) but not as sport. However, the Irish evidence indicates that violence can be perceived as a mutually pleasurable form of recreation. Historians would do well to consider the seeming oxymoron of the "good fight" and the very mixed reactions violence as pastime has received.

Department of History

Birmingham, AL 35294-3350


1. William Carleton, Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (London: 1867; reprint, 1971) 309,316.

2. The literature on the history of violence is growing rapidly. The following is by no means exhaustive: Gwynn Nettler, Killing One Another (Cincinnati, 1982), James E Short and Marvin E. Wolfgang, Collective Violence (Chicago, 1972),Eric Johnson and Eric H. Monkkonen. Ed. The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country Since the Middle Ages (Urbana, 1996); V.A.C. Gatrell, Bruce Lenman and Geoffrey Parker eds., Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe since 1500 (London, 1979); Marc Howard Ross, The Culture of Conflict: Interpretations and Interests in Comparative Perspective (New Haven, 1993); Ted Gurr, Violence in America:The History of Crime, vol. 1. (Newbury Park, 1989); Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth. Century American South (Oxford, 1986); David Gilmore, Aggression and Community: Paradoxes of Andalusian Culture (New Haven, 1982); Marvin Harris, Cows,Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (New York, 1974); William Montell, Killings: Folk Justice in the Upper South (Lexington, 1986); Edward Muir, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli during the Renaissance (Baltimore, 1993); Dickson Bruce, Jr. Violence and Culture in the Antebellum South (Austin, 1979); Roger Lane, Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia 1860-1900 (Cambridge, MA, 1986); For an examination of the emotions behind violence see Carol Stearns and Peter N. Stearns. Anger:The Struggle for Emotional Control in America's History (Chicago,1986); James Averill, Anger and Aggression: An Essay on Emotion (New York, 1982).

3. Return of Outrages Reported to the Constabulary Office, 1848-1878; 1879-1892. CSO ICR Volumes 1&2.

4. Collective Violence, 84.

5. Nettler, Killing One Another, 7.

6. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (New York, 1970), 110.

7. Eric Dunning, Patrick Murphy and John Williams, The Roots of Football Hooliganism: An Historical and Sociological Study (London, 1988) 210; Also see Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, Quest for Excitement:Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process (New York, 1986); Stephen Mennell, Norbert Elias: Civilization and the Human Self-Image (Oxford, 1989) 142; Eric Dunning and Chris Rojek, Sports and Leisure in the Civilizing Process (Toronto, 1992; Peter Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control (London, 1978); Robert W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700-1850 (Cambridge, 1973).

8. Roger D. McGrath, "Violence and Lawlessness on the Western Frontier," in Violence in America, 142; Roger McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier (Berkeley, 1984); Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen, Culture of Honor:The Psychology of Violence in the South (Boulder,CO, 1996). Elliott J. Gorn, "'Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch': The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry," American Historical Review 90 (1985): 38-42; Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill, 1990)13,54; Kenneth Polk, When Men Kill: Scenarios of Masculine Violence (Cambridge, 1994) 60, 61; Robert Davis, The War of the Fists (New York, 1994); and Lola Romanucci Schwartz, "Conflict Without Violence and Violence Without Conflict in a Mexican Mestizo Village" in Collective Violence, 152.

9. Regarding the role of rules and rituals in agonistic violence see Peter Marsh, Elisabeth Rosser, Rom Harre, The Rules of Disorder (London, 1978); Robin Fox,"The Inherent Rules of Violence" in Social Rules and Social Behaviour ed. Peter Collett (Totowa, NJ, 1977) 132-149.

10. Don Atyeo, Blood & Guts: Violence in Sports (New York, 1979) 11.

11. This phenomenon is by no means limited to Ireland. Classmates and colleagues have contributed numerous examples from their own lives.

12. Polk, When Men Kill, 202. Also see Knud S. Larsen, Aggression: Myths and Models (Chicago, 1976) 278; Nisbett and Cohen, Culture of Honor, 4; Marvin Wolfgang, Patterns of Criminal Homicide (Philadephia, 1958).

13. See William Feingold, The Revolt of the Tenantry (Boston, 1984).The impact of the famine has been the subject of considerable debate. See for example J.M. Goldstrom, "Irish Agriculture and the Great Famine" in J.M.Goldstrom and L.A. Clarkson ed. Irish Population, Economy and Society: Essays in Honour of the late K.H. Connell (New York, 1981) 155-172; Cormac O'Grada, Ireland Before and After the Famine (Manchester, 1988); Mary Daly, Social and Economic History of Ireland Since 1800 (Dublin, 1981) 26-33; Michael J. Winstanley, Ireland and the Land Question 1800-1922 (London, 1984). Regarding the class structure see Samuel Clark, Social Origins of the Land War (Princeton, 1979); Donald Jordan, "Merchants, 'Strong Farmers' and Fenians: The Post-Famine Political Elite and the Irish Land War" in Nationalism and Popular Protest in Ireland ed. C. E. Philbin (Cambridge, 1987) 320-348; Paul Bew, Land and the National Question in Ireland 1858-82 (Dublin, 1978) 3, 4, 188, 190, 200, 222; James S. Donnelly, Jr. "Landlords and Tenants," R. V. Comerford, "Ireland 1850-70: Post Famine and Mid- Victorian" and W.E. Vaughan "Ireland c. 1870" in W.E. Vaughan, A New History of Ireland, vol. V. Ireland Under the Union 1801-1870 (Oxford, 1989).

14. Kilkenny Journal 13 October 1875.

15. Munster News 23 March 1874.

16. Roger D. McGrath, "Violence and Lawlessness" 136.

17. W.E. Vaughan and A.J. Fitzpatrick, Irish Historical Statistics: Population 1821-1971 (Dublin, 1978).

18. David T. Courtwright, Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City (Cambridge, MA, 1996), 37-41. Elliott Gorn also suggests that "violent sports, heavy drinking and impulsive pleasure seeking were appropriate for men whose futures were unpredictable, and whose opportunities were limited." "'Gouge and Bite,'" 36.

19. Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, Family and Community in Ireland (2nd edit. 1986) 52,55,56. The change in marriage and inheritance patterns actually predates the famine, though the famine probably strengthened and accelerated the trend. The debate over the timing and geographical distribution of the change has been lively. See Daly, Social and Economic History, 91-95; Goldstrom and Clarkson. ed. Irish Population, 167; K.H. Connell, Irish Peasant Society (Oxford,1968) and "Peasant Marriage in Ireland: Structure and Development Since the Famine," Economic History Review (hereafter EHR) 14 (1961-62): 502-523 and "The Land Legislation and Irish Social Life" EHR 11 (1958-59): 1-7.; Brendan M. Walsh, "Marriage Rates and Population Pressure: Ireland, 1871 and 1911," EHR 23 (1970): 148-162 and "A Perspective on Irish Population Patterns" in Eire-Ireland, IV, no.3 (autumn 1969); Michael Drake, "Marriage and Population Growth in Ireland, 1750-1845," EHR, ser. 2,16 (1963): 301-313; David Fitzpatrick, "Irish emigration in the Later Nineteenth Century," Irish Historical Studies 22 (1980-81): 126-41.

20. Roscommon Journal 10 March 1866. Knud Larsen has argued that scholars have overlooked the role boredom plays in motivating human aggression. Larsen, Aggression: Myths and Models, 278. Also see Ownby, 54. "Personal conflict could be fun, or something close to fun."

21. The clearest discussion of the culture of honor is in Julian Pitt-Rivers, The Fate of Shechem or the Politics of Sex: Essays in the Anthropology of the Mediterranean (Cambridge, 1977). For other examples see Ownby, Subduing Satan, 13,54; McGrath, Gunfighters; Nisbett and Cohen, Culture of Honor,4,13. Polk, When Men Kill, 59,68; Gorn, "'Gouge and Bite,'" 38-42; Nettler, Killing, 21.

22. For honor culture among the Irish upper classes. See James Kelly, 'That Damn'd Thing Called Honour': Duelling in Ireland 1570-1860 (Cork, 1995).

23. Kilkenny Journal 3 March 1875.

24. Charles Townshend concludes, "For the most part, faction fights were purely local, private conflicts. Their vicious character notwithstanding, it may be suggested without levity that they represented a form of communal recreation. The grounds for giving allegiance to one group rather than another, where they were not obviously familial, were as obscure or idiosyncratic as are, today, the grounds for loyalty to football teams in Britain." Charles Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland:Government and Resistance since 1848 (New York, 1983)11.

25. Example from Clonmel Chronicle, 18 July 1888; Also see Patrick O'Donnell, The Irish Faction Fighters of the Nineteenth Century (Dublin, 1975); S.J. Connolly, "Violence and Order in the Eighteenth Century" in Rural Ireland 1600-1900: Modernisation and Change ed Patrick O'Flanagan, Paul Ferguson and Kevin Whelan (Cork, 1987), 55-58; Townshend, 11, 45-47; Carleton, vol. I, 270-316; Elizabeth Malcolm, "Popular Recreation in 19th Century Ireland" in Irish Culture and Nationalism 1750-1950 ed. Oliver Macdonagh, W.F. Mandle and Pauric Travers (London, 1985) 40-51; Paul Roberts, "Caravats and Shanavests" in Irish Peasants:Violence and Political Unrest 1780-1914 ed Samuel Clark and James Donnelly (Madison, 1983) 64-101; David Fitzpatrick, "Class, Family and Rural Unrest in Nineteenth Century Ireland in Irish Studies 2. Ireland:Land Politics and People ed J. Drudy(Cambridge, 1982); James Donnelly "The Social Composition of Agrarian Rebellions in early Nineteenth Century Ireland:The Case of the Carders and Caravats, 1813-16" in Radicals, Rebel and Establishments: Historical Studies XV ed J. Corish (Belfast, 1985) 151-169.

26. At least thirty of the homicides reported as outrages between 1866 and 1892 were faction related though not all of these deaths were the result of formal ritualized large-scale fights.

27. Return of outrages, 1873, 5; Kilkenny Journal, 28 February 1873; 21 June 1876, 17 July 1878.

28. Roscommon Journal 6 January, 10 March 1866; Roscommon Assize Books 1873, 1882. At a conference in 1992 a native of Strokestown, Roscommon, told me he had participated in organized faction fights as a child in the 1960s. He said his parents had encouraged him in much the same manner he cheered his son on at soccer games.

29. Limerick Reporter 8 March 1872, 8 March 1878.

30. Limerick Chronicle 16 April 1868; Munster News, 2 September 1874. For a more complicated example see Roberts, "Caravats and Shanavests."

31. Kilkenny Journal, 4 January 1879; Kildare Assize Files 1885.

32. Kilkenny Journal 30 December 1873; Roscommon Journal, 10 March 1891.

33. Limerick Reporter 2 March 1883; Galway Assize Files 1890.

34. Return of outrages, 1889, 12; Clonmel Chronicle 10 July 1889; Tipperary Assize Files 1889; Return of outrages 1889, 8; Kilkenny Journal 15 July 1889; Return of outrages 1870; Kilkenny Journal 23 July 1870.

35. Cavan Weekly News 2 March 1877; Limerick Reporter 8 March 1872; Mayo Assize File 1892; Mayo Examiner 23 July 1892.

36. Limerick Reporter 16 July 1878.

37. Mayo Examiner 18 July 1890.

38. Kilkenny Journal 13 October 1875; Limerick Reporter 16 July 1878; Clonmel Chronicle 9 July 1892.

39. Kilkenny Journal 26 June 1867, 19 October 1878, 18 July 1874.

40. The tradition is a very long one. Nora Chadwick describes the first century Irish as enjoying warfare as a form of sport. Nora Chadwick, The Celts (London, 1971) 135-136.

41. Roscommon Journal 9 March 1867; Limerick Reporter 4 July 1871; Cavan Weekly News 6 March 1891, 21 July 1871, 9 January 1885.

42. Limerick Reporter 7 March 1879; Kilkenny Journal 13 October 1870; Limerick Chronicle 15 November 1872. For similar examples of friendly violence see Polk, 82 and Romanucci Schwartz, 152.

43. Kilkenny Journal 9 October 1873; Limerick Chronicle 27 February 1868; Limerick Reporter 23 January 1873.

44. On drinking in Ireland see Parl. Papers, Report of Judicial and Criminal Statistics, 1864 LVII, 659. Also see Elizabeth Malcolm, 'Ireland Sober, Ireland Free': Drink and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Syracuse, NY, 1986) 323-344; Robert Bales, "Attitudes Towards Drinking in Irish Culture" in Society, Culture and Drinking Patterns ed. D.J. Pittman and Charles Snyder, (London, 1962) 157-188. Regarding alcohol and violence see Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton, Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation (Chicago, 1969) and Kai Pernanen, Alcohol in Human Violence (New York, 1991).

45. Galway Assize Files 1889;1888;1891.

46. Limerick Reporter 30 December 1891; Kildare Assize Files 1886; Kildare Observer 3 July 1886.

47. Kilkenny Journal 13 October 1880, 2 January 1878, 25 July 1866; Cavan Weekly News 28 March 1892.

48. Galway Assize Files 1891.

49. Cavan Weekly News 10 March 1882; Kildare Assize Files 1890; 1891; Leinster Express 8 March 1890; 12 March 1891.

50. McGrath found a similar outlook in his study of violence on the American western frontier. "They accepted the killings because those killed with only a few exceptions had been willing combatants." McGrath, "Violence and Lawlessness," 137.

51. Cavan Weekly News 28 December 1882.

52. Kilkenny Journal 6 January 1866; Kildare Assize Files 1887; Kildare Observer 9 July 1887.

53. Clonmel Chronicle 7 December 1889; Cavan Weekly News 9 March 1883; Limerick Reporter 13 December 1889.

54. Mayo Examiner 13 July 1889.

55. Munster News 2 September 1874, 23 March 1874; Limerick Reporter 14 July 1873.

56. Roscommon Journal 12 March 1892.
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Author:Conley, Carolyn
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Date:Sep 22, 1999

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