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The Best Circles

Donncha Ó Muirithe

Cycling in Victorian Ireland, by Brian Griffin, Nonsuch Publishing, 220 pp, €17.99, ISBN: 978-1845885625



A popular way of condemning something as hopelessly outmoded or irrelevant is to describe it as Victorian. Yet contemporary Dubliners are invited to gasp at that latest technological marvel the tram, while another late Victorian innovation in transport, the underground railway, still remains the stuff of fantasy for the citizens of our twenty-first century capital. Prisons can be demolished to make way for property developments on the basis that they are Victorian, journalistic shorthand for grim, although the newspaper property pages still see nineteenth century “artisan cottages” as charming structures retaining their old-world charm.

Our forebears are dismissed as irrelevant or quaint. Yet as Brian Griffin’s recent study of Victorian Irish cyclists shows, the principal character types in modern Ireland – brilliant entrepreneurs, grasping traders, innovators and chancers, health and hygiene cranks, hopelessly inept sports administrators, public safety zealots, snobs, outspoken feminists and unbalanced clerics and journalists – were abundantly in evidence well over a century ago.

The early cyclists had courage. William Mackey, a Dublin tram conductor, hired a tricycle and rode it to Lucan on his holidays in 1889. According to a newspaper account, he “imbibed freely”, so that his return journey “was a very zigzag one”. Two miles from Lucan, his heavy machine proved too much for him and he fell under a tram. The Freeman’s Journal, with admirable sensitivity, reported that Mr Mackey’s death was due to his lack of expertise at cycling rather than any intoxication. Another rider met his end by “scorching” along D’Olier Street in 1894 with his head down over the handlebars and riding into the shaft of a parked cart.

Many young cyclists regarded riding a machine with brakes as a mark of timidity. The brakeless bicycle, according to one Irish Cycling correspondent in 1902, was “a patent of cycling nobility”. This bravado echoed that of the earlier riders of the Ordinary cycles or “penny-farthings” (a term of scorn first used in the late 1890s), one of whom in 1866 derided safety bicycles, with their wheels of equal size and chain-drives, as fit only for “aged riders, whose lumbar and ventral regions have assumed aldermanic proportions”. Accidents were frequent, with or without brakes, and the state of Irish roads challenged even experienced cyclists. Some were little more than cattle tracks; punctures, which could take even an experienced cyclist an hour or more to repair, were the bane of early wheelers. English cycle manufacturers even made sturdier versions of their machines in the 1880s and 1890s for use on Irish roads. One tourist recorded the sensations of cycling peculiar to Ireland: “Bang, bump, jump, crash, knock, rattle and jolt you go, with now and then a skid right across the road for a change.”

Dogs were another nuisance. A Northern Cycling Club member wrote in 1881 that the alert cyclist should always carry a whip and not be timid in using it against any aggression. In 1884, a defendant who had shot a dog in Kenmare was acquitted of reckless endangerment by demonstrating to the court that he was such a marksman he could shoot a cork out of a man’s hand while cycling by. For those not so adept with whip or revolver, an enterprising cyclist in 1893 devised a gun that could spray ammonia into the face of any aggressive animal. Appalled by this, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty urged cyclists to forgo ammonia, reminding them that “a hearty kick would be just as effective”. Farm livestock could also be a trial. Drovers and their cattle were a particular irritant and one writer reckoned that only the most emollient and patient attitude was of any use when faced with contrary drovers “armed with long ash saplings”.



Early women cyclists faced an added difficulty in opting for tricycles, cumbersome contraptions that they were. The indomitable Beatrice Grimshaw, one of the heroines of early Irish cycling, recalled the problems of riding such “metal monsters” and being “persecuted by the relentless ridicule of nine-tenths of the whole community”. The news that a woman rode a tricycle was, she recalled, taken as an indication of “general fastness and unfemininity; and yells, hoots, prayers, and curses followed after the daring pioneers of feminine wheeling wherever they appeared”. By the late 1880s, some intrepid women in Dublin had been spotted on the newer safety machines. Since it would have been impossible to cycle these models in long dresses, the “rationalist” clothing of jackets and more “sensible” skirts came into being. Some were outraged at seeing women cycling by in plain skirts and coats of a “mannish cut”. The newspaper boys of Dublin thought such pioneers an excellent butt for their scorn: one joke they never tired of was to follow female cyclists in “rationalist” clothing with cries of “All the sporting news, sir!” Yet whatever the views of merry guttersnipes, business was quick to see the arrival of a new market and by the late 1890s some bicycle shops were selling more machines to women than men. By 1897 a shop in Westmoreland Street in Dublin devoted part of its premises exclusively to the display of women’s bicycles and furnished it with “plush hangings and ornamental stands”. Some cycling agents even offered courses to novice female riders.

Cycling clubs were initially reluctant to admit women. Not all women, of course, were content to wait for what must have seemed like glacially slow changes of attitude among male cyclists and so formed all-female cycling clubs. The Irish Cycling Association in 1889 attempted to discourage a membership application from one such club through the bureaucratic stratagem of requiring that all proposed delegates supply the association with their names, addresses and ages. The final requirement was thought to be such an affront to feminine vanity as to be an impossible obstacle to surmount. But attitudes changed and mixed clubs slowly emerged. The young cyclists of the all-male clubs looked upon the social outings of their mixed-club fellows with envy. In 1899, one dyspeptic correspondent in the Irish Cyclist asserted that wild flowers were being plucked at such a rate by “foolish fellows” for young women on mixed-club runs that the countryside risked being denuded. Another journal warned that women “pedalling through the streets in a ‘look at me now’ fashion” were putting their “more sedate sisters” in a bad light. Cycling broadened horizons for many young women and encouraged sociability, mobility and a sense of liberation. Reflecting on the social changes the bicycle had brought, a writer in the Irish Cyclist in 1890 wondered “when people refer to the ‘good old times’ if they really mean what they say, and whether they have not all the time in a secret corner of their hearts a strong conviction that things as they are now are decidedly very much jollier altogether”.

Father Thomas Doyle of Ramsgrange, New Ross, was in no doubt however that the old days had been better and wrote to the Enniscorthy Guardian in 1897 to alert readers to the spectacle of females “gadding about the roads on wheels, to the shame of all virtuous and modest women, and to the disgust of all sensible men”. He dismissed, with an impressive range of historical references, those who praised cycling as a healthy, wholesome and invigorating pastime for the young. Arguing that the pantheon of Irish heroes had managed well without bicycles, he wrote:

the heroes of Clontarf, who swept the Danes into the sea, never saw a bicycle, neither did the magnificent men of Athlone. The glorious men and women too of Wexford never wobbled on wheels. Where were your wheels when an almost unarmed peasantry, under Father John Murphy, annihilated the brutal North Cork on Oulart Hill? … The heroine of Bree in ’98, who wrested the bayonet from the wretch who would dishonour her, and pierced him through the heart, required no ‘wheel’ to develop her muscular strength. The muscles of that peasant woman had been developed by honest labour, and her love of holy purity strengthened her to avenge her honour.

Canon Doyle’s epistle moved readers, including other clerics, to write to the paper to reject his views.

Some older priests viewed the cycling craze among younger curates as ill-suited to the dignity of their office. A motion at a meeting of the Irish bishops in 1895 sought to condemn the increasing popularity of the pastime among priests and seminarians. Yet cycling had its champions, even among the highest reaches of the hierarchy. The Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh, a veteran of the boneshaker from his seminary days, made his feelings known by cycling from Dublin for the meeting. The motion was dropped. In addition to the sheer exhilaration of cycling, which clerics were not immune to, the bicycle was soon to prove an effective tool in promoting and enforcing Catholic morals. As Sean O’Casey recalled, the curate of St Margaret’s used a bike when suppressing crossroad dances organised by the Gaelic League’s Drumcondra and St Margaret’s branches. Surely even Canon Doyle would have approved.

Tricycles and bicycles were so expensive that for a long time they were the preserve of only the well-off. EJ O’Reilly, a sports journalist, wrote of his awe as a young boy in seeing an early velocipede, or “boneshaker”:

Tops, marbles and india-rubber balls interested me no more … At home, I rebelled, in the hope that by establishing a domestic reign of terror I might find the wherewithal to purchase a velocipede. I did everything that was wrong … I spilled my glass of milk on the table cloth; and proclaimed loudly in the presence of visitors that my new knickerbockers were not the latest thing from Paris, but had in reality been made from a pair of discarded bed-curtains. All in vain! The only result of this policy was that my hours out of bed were curtailed of their fair proportions, and my little body was made more tender by external applications of birch.”

Some enterprising youths in the ironworks of Ulster in the 1870s began making their own iron-wheeled “boneshakers”, a development which saw one well-off cyclist lamenting that “rough fellows of this sort soon formed the majority of riders and put cycling rather out of fashion”. But not for long. Such machines were soon obsolete and the later bicycles were not cheap. Lady Gregory paid twenty-four pounds for her Humber machine in 1897, “a large sum which I can’t very well spare”. For some, who enjoyed the cachet that cycling brought, the cost of the machines was not all bad news. One rider in 1890 took comfort in the fact that there was among Irish cyclists “almost an entire absence of the rowdiness inseparable from the mechanic and factory element” prevalent in English cycling. A “freemasonry of the wheel”, as one contemporary put it, reinforced a social and class bond between many cyclists before the increasing democratisation of the sport later in the decade. Even the early cycling clubs had their share of class anxieties: the County Dublin Bicycle Club split in 1875, due to resentment on the part of some members at the cliquish behaviour of the Kingstown members. Some clubs divided along religious or even denominational lines. Belfast had the Clarence Cycling Club for Church of Ireland members and the Central Presbyterian Association’s Cycling Club. However, Wexford Cycling Club was formed in 1894 through the amalgamation of two dwindling Catholic and Protestant clubs.

By 1891, The Irish Times noted that “the brotherhood of the wheel has increased a hundredfold within the last two or three years” and that cyclists now included “peers, judges, clergymen, barristers, medical men, solicitors, merchants and other respectable folk”. A cyclist in Galway noted with wry satisfaction in 1896 that the sport “had taken the elite by storm, just as it did the bourgeois by hurricane a few years ago”; even the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria’s daughters were smitten. Blue-collar cyclists were gradually making their presence felt, but not all were pleased by the involvement of the lower orders. In September 1888, the editor of the Irish Cyclist, RJ Mecredy, recorded his irritation at learning that in one pub a running tally was kept of which customers preferred the rival cycling journals of the day. The editor’s distaste at having his publication judged in such a manner was clear: “How nice to have the merits of the paper discussed by Johnny the Shoeblack, on his hired crock, or the messenger boy from the grocer’s up the road.” The truth was that the likes of “Johnny the Shoeblack” could at last aspire to getting their hands on a bicycle. Older or obsolete models could be picked up fairly cheaply and clubs would sometimes share machines among members. Postmen and delivery boys were often supplied with bikes by their employers and there was always the chance that the unredeemed pledges at the pawnbroker would include a bicycle.

RIC men were among the highest earners of Ireland’s non-salaried workers and specially designed bicycles such as the durable Special RIC Royal Sovereign were marketed to the force. Eager constables in rural areas soon saw the effectiveness of the bicycle in cracking down on Sunday drinking. The increasing popularity of the bicycle led to a decrease in the numbers of the RIC’s mounted section: by 1897, eighteen counties had no mounted police and horses were increasingly used only for ceremonial duties and riot control in urban areas. Cycle agents also saw a lucrative market in the Gaelic League, which established its cycling association, Cumann na Cuarta, in 1897 “to counteract the growing evil which is being wrought by the constantly increasing numbers of non-Irish-speaking tourists who penetrate the remoter districts where Irish is almost exclusively spoken”. Its travelling teachers, the timirí, did valiant work in preserving the language.

Not all companies targeting the Irish market were attuned to the political and cultural sensibilities of their potential customers. One Dunlop advertisement in the Irish Cyclist in 1897 shows a monkey-faced Irishman with his pig on a lead gesturing to a cyclist struggling with a puncture at the side of the road. The copy reads: “Beggorah! That feller hasn’t minded his toire yet. He was there when I wint to market this morning and he’s there now. Why doesn’t the divil ride Dunlop Tyres?”

The GAA was particularly touchy about slights, and relations between it and the sports cycling clubs could be bitter. The ban on “foreign” sports extended to cycling events not organised under Gaelic Athletic Association auspices and members were forbidden under the rules of the association from participating in Irish Cycling Association events. In 1885, one outraged cyclist and journalist called for concerted action among Irish athletes to “quash” the GAA. Some sense was restored the following year when Archbishop Croke helped broker a deal under which bicycle races held on GAA grounds would be conducted under ICA rules.

Cycling races became increasingly popular and racing tracks reflected public interest in these contests. The Waterford bicycle track at the city’s People’s Park could hold crowds of up to 8,000. Bookmakers soon made a beeline for such events, to the irritation of some. Some habits died hard and keen sports fans could be exasperated when local worthies were invited to organise, in a hopelessly amateurish way, keenly contested events. When local gentlemen were asked to conduct a bicycle race, a writer lamented in 1878, “persons who possess no knowledge of the sports they profess to manage” believe “that when they secure a brass band, a few prizes, and a badly laid-out course they have done their duty”. The stakes could be high at such avowedly amateur contests and some cyclists were happy enough to bend the Corinthian spirit by touting the virtues of one machine over another if they had their racers purchased for them and their costs paid by the manufacturers. These “makers’ amateurs”, as they were known, proved popular with the cycle agents. One amateur cyclist reflected how even the loftiest of patriotic aspirations could have its lucrative side. Harry Reynolds of Balbriggan, who won the one-mile race at the world amateur championships in Copenhagen in 1896, prevailed upon the organisers to raise a green flag instead of the Union flag and insisted that “an Irish tune” be played in place of God Save the Queen. He was later to parlay his fame into a more durable currency by opening a bicycle shop in central Dublin.

Looking at the paintings at the recent Jack B Yeats exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland, I was reminded of just how large an achievement Griffin has managed in his pioneering work. For before the Yeats of the deep impasto and deeper themes, there was a younger artist who plied his trade with pen and ink and drew the subjects he liked best, which included cyclists. His illustrations of RIC men chasing speeding cyclists and the tangled limbs and wheels of a “bicycle polo” match appeared in the cycling journals of his youth. Griffin has, with energy and skill, brought these illustrations back into the light ­– along with a wealth of material gleaned from memoirs, patent applications, court records, company archives, local histories and such long-forgotten periodicals as the Irish Wheelman and the Irish Cyclist. He illuminates with a painterly eye an era when trams were old hat and bicycles daringly new.


Donncha Ó Muirithe is a journalist. He is a former associate editor of the Art Abstracts database and has contributed articles to the Oxford Companion to the Photograph and the History of Photography journal.

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