Informal acts of weightlifting in Ireland

That stone had lain in that place as long as the oldest traditions in the village could remember. And from time immemorial it had been the custom of the young men of the village to test their strength by lifting it …[i]

Liam O’Flaherty, 1937.

Simply titled, ‘The Stone’, Liam O’Flaherty’s short Irish story from 1937 centres on an unnamed elderly man wandering the outskirts of his coastal village. Struggling to accept his mortality and loss of vitality, the protagonist stumbles across the village’s ‘challenge stone’. Readers are told that ‘from the time of the most remote ancestors of the people’ men from the village challenged one another to lift the stone to the chest and prove their strength. Far from a meaningless act of bravado or spontaneous play, the stone served as an important social signifier. Accordingly, O’Flaherty’s protagonist claimed that

it was a great day in each young man’s life when he raised the stone from the ground and ‘gave it wind’ as they said. And if he raised it to his knees, he was a champion, the equal of the best.

And if he raised it to his chest, he was a hero, a phenomenon of strength and the men talked of him. Whereas, he who failed to lift it from the ground became the butt of everybody’s scorn …[ii]

Allowing for O’Flaherty’s artistic embellishment, the short story pointed towards the importance of strength and weightlifting in rural Irish life, especially among men. Contemporaneous biographies, such as that of the Irish poet Peig Sayers, and primary accounts found in the Irish Folklore Collection, substantiate this point. Sayers wrote of her brother, Séan, nicknamed ‘the pounder’ for his prowess with the ‘challenge stones’.[iii] Likewise the Folklore Collection contains numerous stories of rural strongmen lifting stones, sacks of flour or hay bales to prove their strength.[iv] Put simply, rudimentary forms of weight lifting were popular in many parts of Ireland, served an important function and became part of a town’s history. In his travels around the west of Ireland in the 1930s, the Harvard-trained anthropologist, Conrad Arensberg recorded the disappointment among older generations of men with the disappearance of heavy stone lifting.[v]Its fall in popularity was seen to suggest a generational weakness. That weightlifting of some kind was popular in Ireland furthers the paradox surrounding official acts of Irish weightlifting. The pursuit happened regularly but failed to organise.

Moving from informal and rudimentary feats of strength to more organised forms, Paul Rouse’s history of sport in Ireland noted the regularity with which weight lifting and weight throwing occurred in eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish fairs.[vi] Akin to O’Flaherty’s unnamed protagonist, such feats were part entertainment, part self-fashioning. Weight lifting, as defined by standardised weights and mass-produced equipment, came to Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Spurred on by the growth of physical culture in England and mainland Europe, late nineteenth century Irish exercisers began to enrol in gymnasia, purchase exercise equipment and nutritional supplements to build their physiques.[vii] Described by Michael Anton Budd as a ‘late nineteenth and early twentieth century concern with the ideological and commercial cultivation of the body’, physical culture’s growth in the late 1800s signified an intensification of public interest in health and exercise.[viii] For men in particular, physical culture became linked to the desire to build strong, lean and muscular bodies. A key component of the physical culture enterprise was exercising with weights. Light weighted exercise tended to be the most popular form of weight training during this period, a point Terry Todd argued stemmed from the cost of producing heavier weights and also fears about becoming overly muscular.[ix]Despite the general favouring of light weight exercise in Ireland and Britain during this time, many individuals still took to heavier forms of weightlifting, the kind MacPherson tried to formalise in the early 1910s.

Leading the vanguard in this respect were vaudeville and theatre performers. Vaudevillian strongmen rose to popularity from the mid-nineteenth century in Ireland and Great Britain.[x] Some, like the 1850s British strongman Professor James Harrison, even achieved a global celebrity based on their feats.[xi] With the rise of physical culture in the century’s closing decades, many theatre strongmen reinvented themselves as ‘physical culturists’, and in doing so, added a greater level of respectability to their pursuit. In his biography of Eugen Sandow, perhaps the most decorated physical culturist of the age, David Chapman argued that strength and weight lifting had previously been associated with the working or rural class in Britain.[xii] Through individuals like Sandow and others, physical culturists helped, in part, to rebrand these exercises as middle class. Turning to Ireland, the first recognisable weightlifter to gain traction as a physical culturist was Alf Stone. Performing in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Stone was advertised as the ‘Hidden Hercules’ in Irish newspapers owing to his feats with dumbbells and barbells.[xiii] What marked Stone as unique was the crude regulation applied to his performances. A common theme across other physical culture performances was the implausibility of the weights used. In a bid to exaggerate their strength or importance, many performers misrepresented or fabricated the weight they could lift. At the 1891 London games studied by Bonini, this obstacle was overcome by accurately measuring the weights.[xiv] This was not however, a commonplace practice. That Alf Stone invited informal weightlifting referees to evaluate his weights, like the Dublin Evening Herald’s sport editor, Christopher Kiernan, demonstrated his effort to formalise his performances.[xv] Stone’s performances, although widely applauded in the Irish press, quickly fell from memory. For two years in the late 1890s, Stone competed in challenge matches with others, held weight lifting exhibitions and performed in theatres. A lack of competition however meant that Stone’s career as a weightlifter was transitory.

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Fig. 1. John Moriarty, ‘Ireland’s Strongest Man’, c. 1920.[xvi]

Stone marked Ireland’s first recognisable weightlifter and, while there is evidence that he inspired others, his career was short-lived. Far more popular, as a once off performer, was John Moriarty. Born in Kerry in the late nineteenth century, Moriarty’s three-decade career began in the late 1910s when he joined a local circus group. Later described by the English physical culturist W.A. Pullum as one of Ireland’s strongest men, Moriarty toured Ireland and England through a variety of circuses.[xvii] Like the unnamed man from O’Flaherty’s short story, Moriarty’s circus performances called on folk acts of strength more so than the regulated weightlifting feats discussed by Bonini. Moriarty did eventually compete in a competition weightlifting match with Bob McAlpine in Northern Ireland in 1919. Following Moriarty’s victory over McAlpine, the circus strongman labelled himself as Ireland’s strongest man and the ‘world champion.’[xviii]It is telling that when Irish athletes attempted to form weightlifting organisations in the early 1910s and again in the latter part of the decade, they kept performers like circus strongmen Moriarty at arm’s length. Organisers in 1919 and 1920 actually proved quite hostile towards Moriarty, disputing his titles and casting aspersions on his previous achievements.[xix] It is clear that the organizers distinguished Moriarty’s form of weightlifting with the official forms found in the Olympic Games. Despite the antipathy towards Moriarty and the short career of Alf Stone, their existence spoke to an Irish interest in weightlifting. This popularity may have been transitory at times but it was nevertheless enduring. That a pursuit could exist in Ireland without a formalised organising structure was not unique to weightlifting. Sean Reid’s study of Irish cricket cited the absence of an official cricket federation as one of the reasons why cricket, a popular sport at the turn of the nineteenth century, fell dramatically in popularity.[xx] This situation would repeat itself with Irish weightlifting in the early 1910s and 1920s.

 

[i] Liam O’Flaherty, The Short Stories of Liam O’Flaherty (London: Jonathan Cape, 1937), 397-398.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Peig Sayers, Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991), 24.

[iv] David Graham, ‘A Strong Man’, 1937-38, p. 4 (National Folklore Collection, The Schools’ Folklore Collection, Volume 1032); K. Kenny, ‘A Strong Man’, 1937-38, p. 167 (National Folklore Collection, The Schools’ Folklore Collection, Volume 1066); Pádhraic Ó Braonáin, ‘A Strong Man’, 1937-38, p. 16 (National Folklore Collection, The Schools’ Folklore Collection, Volume 0170).

[v] Conrad M. Arensberg, The Irish Countryman: An Anthropological Study (New York: Peter Smith, 1950), 115-116

[vi] Paul Rouse, Sport and Ireland: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 48.

[vii] Conor Heffernan, ‘Strength Peddlers: Eddie O’Callaghan and the Selling of Irish Strength’, Sport in History, 38, no. 1 (2018): 23-45.

[viii] Michael Anton Budd, The Sculpture Machine: Physical Culture and Body Politics in the Age of Empire (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 152.

[ix] Terry Todd, ‘Historical Perspective: The Myth of the Muscle-Bound Lifter,’ Strength & Conditioning Journal 7, no. 3 (1985): 37-41.

[x] Josh Buck, ‘Louis Cyr and Charles Sampson: Archetypes of Vaudevillian Strongmen’, Iron Game History 5, no. 3 (1998): 18-28.

[xi] Jan Todd, ‘The Strength Builders: A History of Barbells, Dumbbells and Indian Clubs’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 20, no. 1 (2003): 65-90.

[xii] David Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 101-102.

[xiii] ‘The Hidden Hercules’, The Evening Herald, August 19, 1895, 4.

[xiv] Bonini, ‘London: The Cradle of Modern Weightlifting’.

[xv] ‘Mr. Alf Stone’, The Evening Herald, October 5, 1895, 5.

[xvi] W.A. Pullum, ‘Ireland’s Strongest Man’, Health and Strength, 82, no. 4 (1953), pp. 32-33 and 48.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] ‘John Moriarty’, Kerry People, August 28, 1920, 3.

[xix] This feud continued several years as detailed in Thomas Inch, ‘Mr. Moriarty’, Health and Strength, 37, no. 23 (1925): 536.

[xx] Sean Reid, ‘Identity and Cricket in Ireland in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, Sport in Society, 15, no. 2 (2012): 147-164.