On May 6th 1898, Eugen Sandow, the man whom many credit as the father of the Physical Culture movement, opened his first show in Ireland for over five years. When Sandow briefly performed in 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. This time the public was eager to learn and the situation ripe for profit.

An Opening Night Success



Reports from the Irish Times suggest 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 strongman’s running order came a preliminary posing routine during which members of the audience were permitted to touch Sandow’s well-sculpted muscles. This, surprisingly, wasn’t an unusual occurrence for the Prussian. Indeed he had often supplemented his 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 with ease. Such exhibitions of strength 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, much to the audience’s delight.

Once the curtains drew down to rapturous applause, Sandow went backstage where his night’s work continued. It was there that Irish doctors, professors and gentlemen eagerly awaited a lecture from Sandow regarding his health regimen. Speaking in his unmistakably Anglo-German accent, Sandow lectured his 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.’ Though Sandow and his tour company performed for just one week at the Empire Palace Theatre before travelling first to Belfast and then to England, the effects of his visit were to be long lasting.

The Cultural Aftermath

While physical culture clubs and gymnasiums had been in existence prior to Sandow’s visit, they soon proliferated at a remarkable pace. Indeed, within three years of Sandow’s performance, every county in Ireland boasted at least one physical culture gymnasium and at least twelve Irishmen competed in Sandow’s 1901 ‘Great Competition’; an early bodybuilding show. Though unsuccessful in their efforts to be recognized as having the best physique in all the British Empire, that these Irishmen first competed in regional Irish shows before travelling to London for the main event demonstrates just how seriously some trainers took their physical culture pastime.


For those unable or perhaps unwilling to enter into physique competitions, physical culture magazines and monographs no doubt provided a welcome solace. Such publications circulated widely in Ireland and included Sandow’s own Magazine of Physical Culture alongside Health and Strength, Vim and the US publication, Physical Culture. Importantly, while such things were undoubtedly aimed at the male body, they nevertheless promoted female physical culture as well. An encouragement perhaps prompted by the rising interest of middle-class English and Irish women in physical exercise classes.



Throughout the years following his Irish showing, 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.

Given all the interest in Sandow following his appearances it is little wonder that James Joyce chose to include the strongman, albeit briefly, in Ulysses. Written initially in 1918 but dealing with a day in 1904 of the fictional character, Leopold Bloom, Joyce chose to make Bloom a devotee of Sandow’s exercise system. Comparing himself unfavorably to the strongman’s measurements, the now famous advertising agent nevertheless stated to himself with resolve that ‘he must resume his Sandow exercises.’ A thought no doubt ubiquitous amongst certain Irishmen and women during the early 1900s.


From Bloom to Battle

While the proliferation of physical culture paraphilia and classes in Ireland before and after Sandow’s visit signifies a growing popular interest in physical culture, there is another, and significantly, more violent appropriation of physical culture from the era. As is well known, the political years leading up to the Great War in Ireland were, for some, times of great expectation and great resentment. As the prospect of Ireland attaining some form of relative independence from Great Britain grew, fissures within the populace began to emerge between those who wished to remain in the Union and those who wished to leave it. Remarkably, physical culture practices and systems took on a heightened significance for both groups.

As early as 1912, unionists opposed to Irish Home Rule legislation began training and drilling large numbers of volunteers as a thinly veiled threat to the British government. As Fanning’s recent monograph on the topic highlighted, the implication was that should Home Rule be ‘forced’ on an unwilling populace, the unionist’s opposition would be swift and physical. Preparation for this thus meant a fit and healthy insurgent army. Hence the need for physical culture.

Utilizing a mixture of martial and popular physical culture systems, the period 1912 to 1914 saw several unionist sympathizers deploy physical culture in preparation of battle. Writing on the need for military training, renting premises for large scale physical culture classes and even recruiting physical culture instructors to train the troops all became part of the Unionist modus operandi.

Somewhat ironically, the actions of the Unionist groupings inspired those seeking relative Irish independence to form their own armies. Unlike the leadership of the opposition, which although heterogeneous in personality was homogenous in its goal, the nationalist groups could be divided between those in favor of legislative Home Rule and those seeking a more definitive independence. Nevertheless, perhaps inspired by the Unionists, such divisions did not play out until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. A temporary truce that granted the nationalist group the opportunity to train men for battle, with one significant difference.

While both nationalist and unionist groups used military physical culture systems to advance or protect their aims, it was the nationalist groups who branched further into popular systems such as gymnastics and dumbbell work were possible. Joseph Plunkett, one of the leaders of the unsuccessful 1916 insurrection against British rule in Ireland was himself a Sandow devotee having used his system to increase the size of his biceps.

Similarly nationalists directed their attention to the youth in a much greater way with youth movements established and school curricula changed to suit nationalist goals through the medium of physical culture. Of particular relevance here was Patrick Pearse, one of the foremost educational and nationalist voices of the period who frequently stated that physical culture played an integral role at his St. Enda’s school. Indeed, Pearse’s curricula for St. Enda’s made great use of the fact that his fully equipped gymnasium offered training to children under the direction of a certified gymnastics teacher. Whereas Unionist leaders voluntarily attempted to interest children in physical culture, Nationalists made it a mandatory part of life where possible.




The weeks, months and years following the eruption of the Great War would see physical culture retain it’s prominence within Irish circles. Thanks to the online archive of the Bureau of Military History, sources exist that highlight the role of physical culture instructors in training Irish soldiers, the role of physical culture in protecting men in battle, and of course the role of physical culture in attacking the enemy.

Outside of warfare, physical culture classes continued, exercisers flocked to gymnasiums and when possible, physical culture performances continued in Irish theatres. While proponents of physical culture were certainly limited by their violent surroundings, their passion for physical culture led them to continue as best they could.

While Sandow did not kickstart the Irish interest in physical culture, or its subsequent path, his influence, even though times of trouble, was undeniable. During the Irish revolutionary period, Sandow’s name was kept alive by the Irish freedom fighter, Dan ‘Sandow’ O’Donovon, who gained his nickname owing to a supposed likeness to the Prussian. Perhaps a more lasting and Irish tribute was Sandow’s advertising campaign with Murphy’s Stout, a Cork based brewing company. Depicting Sandow lifting a horse overhead, the Stout’s ads promised that Murphy’s made you strong. Whether or not this was the case is debatable, but regardless, the campaign ensured Sandow’s image existed in Ireland for decades to come. Indeed, the photograph taken below of a Corkconian pub in 2016 pays testament to that.


Article © Conor Heffernan