Since beginning my study of physical culture several years ago, I have been fascinated by the extent of Irish physical culture. Part of the British Empire in the early twentieth century, Ireland was very much influenced by the broader spread of physical culture in Great Britain. So close were the two regions that the Irish physical culture industry was largely predicated on what was happening in Britain, but more specifically, in London.
Thus in the late 1890s and early 1900s numerous Irishmen, of all age ranges, began writing in to British physical culture periodicals seeking advice, support and kudos for their interest in purposeful exercise. Without simplifying things too much, Irish physical culture at this time was very much a poor imitation of broader British developments. When a British Amateur Weightlifting Association was founded in the early 1900s, a smaller Irish branch was opened the same year. Where Britain had physical culture magazines, Ireland had physical culture newspaper columns. What Britain did, Ireland followed and this extended to bodybuilding competitions.
In late 2018 I was conducted by a very kind seller who had an item of interest in his own collection. This item, a medal (Shown above), connected to an Irish physical culturist, W.N. Kerr, who I would later go on to write about. Seemingly innocuous at first, the medal’s inscription laid bear the history of Ireland’s first ever live bodybuilding show, a full forty years before the establishment of the Mr. Ireland contest.
In 1908 W.N. Kerr, and several other Irishmen, took the unprecedented step of competing in a physique competition in Ireland. Prior to this time Irishmen had competed in the monthly photograph competitions found in Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture, Health and Strength and several other physical culture periodicals. This competition, on the other hand, was actually staged in Ireland and therefore marked the first recorded physique show of its kind. Held in Dublin’s Empire Palace Theatre, in the heart of the city centre, the contest was held alongside several other strength and gymnastic competitions. Advertisements for the ‘Amateur Athletic Tournament’ began in March 1908 with 6 April chosen as the final date.[i] Free from much of the hyperbole surrounding Sandow’s competition, the event was none less important.[ii]It was an indication that the associational cultures sprung from physical culture, which perhaps found their greatest expression in England, had emerged in Ireland.
Like Sandow’s contest in the Royal Albert Hall seven years previous, the tournament featured a wide array of entertainment and sporting events. Done alongside a variety show, the tournament included contests in boxing, wrestling, weightlifting and of course, physical development. It has proven impossible to discover how many men entered the physical development contest although advertisements produced in the lead up to the event noted ‘enormous numbers of entries from all parts.’[iii] Many of the contestants took part in several of the events – Kerr also competed in three separate wrestling divisions on the night of the show. In wrestling alone, the tournament featured over a dozen separate athletes. Advertised in Freeman’s Journal and the Evening Herald, the contest was a direct imitation of the contests put on by Sandow and at a later date, those run by Health and Strength magazine.[iv]
Kerr’s ultimate victory in the Physical Development event did not garner a great deal of attention in the Irish press.[v]Even more surprising was the fact that English physical culture periodicals were noticeably silent on the matter despite the continuous correspondence between Irish and English physical culturists. Forgotten soon after its final event, the tournament and Kerr’s victory should still be viewed as a significant moment in Irish body cultures. It was the first time that such a show had been held in Ireland. That the tournament’s overall schedule mimicked those found in England highlighted once more the crosscurrents between the metropole and Ireland. Furthermore, the marrying of a physical development contest alongside sporting events reiterated the holistic masculinity promoted by Kerr and others which saw the strong and athletic physique as part of a broader body culture more generally. Kerr’s gold medal in physical development, shown below, speaks of the normative bodies desired by physical culturists at this time. The medal, kept for many years by a private collector, serves as material evidence that male bodies were compared, contrasted and critiqued against one another during this time. The event’s raison d’etre, ‘physical development’, spoke to the kinds of male bodies desired by Irish physical culturists.
[i] Freeman’s Journal, 28 March, 1908, 6; Evening Herald, 6 April,1908, 4.
[ii] Waller, The Perfect Man, 173-180.
[iii] Evening Herald, 6 April,1908, 4.
[iv] On Health and Strength see ‘A Young Antrim Athletes’, Health and Strength, 12 (1906): 266.
[v] Aside from Evening Herald, 6 April,1908, 4.
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