During the prime of his career, Eugen Sandow was known for having ‘the perfect physique’ and for being one of the foremost proponents of physical culture. Physical culture being broadly understood as the social movement concerned with health and strength that swept across Europe and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. A man built to a Grecian ideal of beauty and presented as the ideal of what good health should be, Sandow toured the world performing and lecturing the masses about the importance of physical and spiritual health. Such was Sandow’s mass appeal in the late 19th and early 20th century, that some commentators have credited him with launching the body obsessive societies of today. His influence stretched from America to Australia and many places in between. Much has been written about Sandow’s time in Great Britain and the United States, but few have examined Sandow’s time in the south of Ireland in the late 1890s. His time in Ireland was brief but it was to leave lasting results.
Sandow’s Coming to Town
On May 6th 1898, Eugen Sandow and his tour company opened their first show in Ireland for over five years. When Sandow had toured Ireland in 1893 he had been met with moderate support from pockets of Irish fans. When he came back in 1898 he was treated like the celebrity he had become. Reports from the Irish Times suggested that the opening night of Sandow’s performance saw over 1,300 fans cram into the Empire Palace Theatre to see the “modern day Hercules” in the flesh. They weren’t to be disappointed. First in the running order came a preliminary posing routine from the Prussian strongman during which members of the audience were permitted to touch Sandow’s well-sculpted muscles. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence for the Prussian. Indeed he often earned additional income by holding private shows for groups to behold his physique. Sandow was more than a body however, as David Chapman eloquently argued in his biography of him. The Prussian was part model and part showman. If one is to believe the newspaper reports, Sandow’s showmanship in Ireland was nothing short of extraordinary.
“He lifted enormously heavy weights, which he raised above his head, stretching out the arm in which he held them to its full length; getting on the back of a horse, he leant back over the crupper and lifted enormous weights from the level of the stage and brought them up until he sat upright with them on horseback.”
Soon after Sandow was reported to have thrown willing members of the audience around the stage like bags of flour followed by feats of strength such as tearing through packs of playing cards. Such feats reached a crescendo when Sandow raised overhead a platform supporting both a piano and a pianist. Sandow then stood calmly with the platform overhead whilst the pianist played a quick cavatina.
Not everyone could match Sandow’s Strength…
Once the curtains drew down to rapturous applause, Sandow went backstage where his night’s work continued. Backstage Irish doctors, professors and gentlemen eagerly awaited a lecture from Sandow regarding his health regimen. Speaking in a slightly foreign accent, Sandow lectured his small audience on the virtues of physical health and well-being. Importantly, he also revealed the means to obtain them. Once the lecture was finished, Sandow patiently waited as Irish physicians prodded and probed at his muscular physique in a quest to gain a fuller understanding of his vitality. Few were surprised when the verdict of such investigations was that Sandow was “sound as a bell.” Sandow and his tour company performed for just one week at the Empire Palace Theatre but the effects of his visit were to be long lasting.
During and soon after Sandow’s visit, numerous articles began to emerge in Irish newspapers about the importance of health and physical culture. Clubs, similar to the modern day gymnasium, began to spring up around the Ireland and within a decade of Sandow’s show. Remarkably such clubs were open to women, children and men. Throughout these years, Sandow’s influence remained constant. His book ‘Strength and How to Obtain it’ and magazine entitled ‘Physical Culture’ debuted soon after his appearance in Dublin on Irish shelves. Browne and Nolan, the Irish booksellers based in Nassau Street, even advertised Sandow’s tome ‘Strength and How to Obtain it’ alongside St. John’s Gospel. Sadly no records exist as to which publication sold more.
Sandow’s Famous Muscle Building Work was frequently seen on Irish shelves
Irish newspapers began to carry foreign editorials about Sandow’s latest health advice accompanied beside advertisements for Sandow endorsed foods and equipment. References to the Sandow Developer, a crude system of pulleys and dumbbells, turned up in newspaper reports, Irish Army Brochures, and even James Joyce’s Ulysses. Some Sandow biographers even believe Joyce attended Sandow’s performance in 1898 and may have been a Sandow devotee himself. W.B. Yeats was a known Sandow follower, so the suggestion that Joyce himself engaged in a Sandow routine is at least somewhat plausible. In 1906, Sandow announced in the Irish Times that henceforth he had established a consolatory office in Dawson Street for Irish strength enthusiasts hoping to get advice from the ‘modern day Hercules’.
How can one explain Sandow’s popularity in Ireland? It is arguable that Sandow’s popularity was due as much to domestic trends in Ireland as it was Sandow’s charisma. The timing of the “modern day Hercules” came at a time of increased interest in health from Irish physicians, nationalists and periodicals.
Sandow and the Irish Medical Community
At the dawn of the 20th century Irish cities were characterized by several dangers in the form of poor housing, ravenous diseases and severe malnutrition. The great exodus from rural parts of Ireland into the cities had brought about increased squalor and worsening living conditions. In 1896, the travel writer C.W. Gedney echoed the concern of many of his contemporaries when he detailed the poverty of Limerick city
“Nothing more squalid than the cabins which flank this thoroughfare could be found in Ireland. Wretched hovels with heaps of manure and slush at their doors.”
Dublin was in a similar situation. By the time of Sandow’s visit in 1898, overcrowding in Ireland’s capital was beginning to reach a tipping point. Between 1891 and 1911, Dublin’s population grew by over 20,000 yet despite a swell in the populace, only 2,600 new dwellings were built. Overcrowding inevitably increased the rate and capacity at which diseases spread. Dublin’s mortality rate was exceedingly high. By 1899, it had reached 33 per 1,000. Other major cities in the British Isles such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and London all fell well below the benchmark set in Ireland. Outbreaks of diseases such as diphtheria, measles and smallpox became part and parcel of tenement living in Irish cities.
A Sketch of Dublin in 1900. Courtesy of the Irish Times.
Reports form the British Medical Journal in the early 1900s frequently made mention to the poor living conditions in Dublin. For physicians like Sir Charles Cameron the culprit of Ireland’s poor health was simple. Poverty, insufficiency of food and overcrowding were the culprits. Malnutrition and poor eating choices were indeed serious problems in late 19th century Dublin. Dermot Ferriter in his tome on Ireland in the 20th century highlighted the link between the poor supply of food into the capital and the mortality rates of women and children. Fears of physical deterioration of Dublin’s populace plagued the minds of many.
In 1904, Sandow wrote in the Irish Examiner that the key to longevity was daily exercise, personal hygiene and moderation. Such a message was echoed by Irish Physicians in the 1904 British Report by the Inter-departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration. Sandow was routinely lauded for his scientific approach to health and well-being in Irish and foreign newspapers. The backing of the medical community for his advice gave Sandow something of an air of credibility amongst the Irish populace. His backing wasn’t limited to Irish physicians however as his messages on strength appealed to the Irish nationalist as well.
Sandow and Gaelic Masculinity
Ireland’s emerging nationalists from this time were also attracted by Sandow’s message of strength. Unlike the medical community however, they were more concerned with masculinity than living conditions. By the time of Sandow’s visit in the late 1800s, a strain of Irish nationalism had emerged that placed the betterment of Irish manhood as one of their key aims. Gaelic masculinity and the strength of the natural Gael entered the conversations and pamphlets of certain Irish groups. In much the same way that eugenic movements across Europe and the United States began to preach about the importance of racial purity, certain Irish nationalists searched for ways to enhance the Irish man.
Stephanie Rains recently argued that this was due to the belief among nationalists that Ireland’s pursuit of self-governance would only be successful if the Irish male was demonstrably strong, virile and self-controlled. In many ways such an emphasis on Gaelic masculinity was a reaction to the depictions of the Irish man in British periodicals as emasculate or feminine. Gaelic manhood, as espoused by revolutionary leaders such as Padraig Pearse, was presented as a counterpoint to a perceived growing Anglican effeteness. Victorian and Edwardian England were going through their own turmoil about masculinity during these years, something Irish nationalists were keen to exploit. Irish nationalists, as a way of distancing Irish and British men, began to promote activities such as sport and physical culture.
A Strong Gael was a Masculine Gael
This was made clear with the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association (the GAA) in the 1885. For Geoffrey Levett, the GAA was specifically founded with the mission of developing an alternative model of native Irish manliness through ‘de-Anglicising’ sport. It was hoped that in doing so, the GAA would return Ireland to pre-British and hence masculine, ways of life. Joseph postulated that this shift towards constructing Irish masculinity was done against a backdrop of Victorian ideals of manliness and as an expression of Irish rebellion as Irish ‘psychomachia’. For many at the time it seemed that Irish masculinity naturally equated with Ireland’s capacity to rule itself. A striking similarity can by found in India in the 1920s when football was used as a tool by pockets of Indian nationalists through which to prove their superiority to their English masters.
Perhaps the best-known use of health and fitness as a political tool in Ireland came from Padraig Pearse’s school in which young boys were trained in a specifically Irish form of manhood. Pearse aimed to instil a sense of pre-colonial heroism in his students based on the myths of Cú Chulainn and other famous Irish legends. A common theme to many depictions of Irish manhood in the early 1900s was the focus on strength. It was no surprise that Sandow’s messages were well received.
By 1900, just one year after Sandow’s performance, physical culture clubs run by Irish nationalists had already begun to emerge. A report from the Southern Star noted
“When any kind of society can be formed in a small town, there does not seem to be any insuperable difficultly in the Gaels forming a society for physical culture.”
Soon advertisements for physical culture clubs emerged in Meath, Kildare, Dublin and counties further in the West. Certain Irish groups established with the aim of improving and/or evolving Irish masculinity eagerly latched onto Sandow’s message of strength.
Despite the fervency of Irish physicians and nationalists to promote and implement parts of Sandow’s teachings, such groups were often minorities. It was arguably Sandow’s relationship with a growing Irish media that solidified his popularity at this time.
Sandow and Mass Media
As has been noted elsewhere in biographies on Sandow, part of the Prussian’s success was due to his fortunate timing. Sandow’s celebrity coincided with an increased interest in health in both US and British periodicals. Although Ireland’s mass media and mass culture movement is often relegated to the footnotes of such histories, she too experienced a seismic shift in the growth and scope of its periodicals.
By the time of the early twentieth century, Ireland had developed its own mass media market with a mixture of both Irish and international publications available for purchase at reasonable prices. For Stephanie Rains, such publications were often vehicles for Anglo-American messages about the importance of health, virility and masculinity. From Ireland’s Own to the Shamrock, cheaply priced Irish publications began to advertise courses and equipment concerned with boosting men’s natural virility and improving their strength. In the early 1900s, Sandow’s name was often used a means of selling to Irish readers. In both Irish publications and newspapers, Sandow Developers, Cocoa Products and even Sandow cigars were advertised with the seal of approval from the Prussian.
The advent of mass media and the consumption behaviour it fostered helped Sandow to expand his Empire concurrently and in several directions. Many of Sandow’s articles in Irish newspapers, such as his advocacy of cold baths or promotional work for his latest equipment, appeared in newspapers across several different countries. Sandow biographer, David Waller noted that the Sandow Empire was built off the back of Sandow’s ability to use the growth of mass media to his advantage. Judging by the Irish example, Sandow was able to maintain a sustained presence in Ireland in the early 1900s without visiting for a prolonged period. Sandow was keen to ensure interest in his empire remained constant. From 1898 to 1914, competitions were held yearly to find the best physique from Great Britain and Ireland. When Mr. Frederick A. Hornbrick from Cork took the honours in 1898, Irish newspapers were quick to laud the efficacy of the Sandow system. Mr. Hornbrick supposedly built his award winning physique in only three months thanks to Sandow’s advice. For readers across Ireland, the message was clear. Sandow was the authority on health and strength for the masses. The periodicals ensured that.
Eugen Sandow’s time in Ireland was indeed brief but through a combination of his international celebrity and domestic Irish forces, he would remain an influence in Ireland long after the curtain closed on his performances in 1898. It was only really with the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 that the Sandow success story would come to a grinding halt. Despite living outside of Germany for over two decades, once the first shots of the war had been fired, Sandow became an outcast both in England and Ireland thanks to his German roots. After the war, the physical culture movement continued in Ireland but references to Sandow become almost now non-existent.
Chapman, David L. Sandow the magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the beginnings of bodybuilding. University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Ferriter, Diarmaid. The transformation of Ireland 1900-2000. Profile Books, 2010.
Irish Newspaper Archive.
Levett, Geoffrey, ‘Gaelic Manhood’ versus ‘Anglican Athletics’: Two models of manliness in Edwardian Ireland, Presented at Sporting History Ireland Conference, September 2014.
Morais, Dominic G. “Branding Iron: Eugen Sandow’s” Modern” Marketing Strategies, 1887–1925.” Journal of Sport History 40, no. 2 (2013): 193-214.
Plock, Vike Martina. “A Feat of Strength in” Ithaca”: Eugen Sandow and Physical Culture in Joyce’s Ulysses.” Journal of Modern Literature 30, no. 1 (2006): 129-139.
Rains, Stephanie. “Do you ring, or are you rung for?” Mass Media, Social Class and Social Aspiration in Edwardian Ireland”, New Hibernia Review, no. 4, (Winter/Geimhreadh 2014), 17-35.
Valente, Joseph. The Myth of Manliness in Irish Nationalist Culture 1880-1922, University of Illinois, 2011.
Waller, David. The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman. Victorian Secrets, 2011.