From the 1930s to early 1970s, schoolchildren in Ireland were sent towards grandparents, village elders and distant relatives in search of stories about Ireland’s past. Done under the auspices of their schools and an overarching governmental desire to preserve Ireland’s heritage, the Irish Folklore Collection as it was termed, collected information on local myths, sports and pastimes within the country. In terms of sport or physical activity, many of the recollections centred on Gaelic Games, soccer or folk games. There was however another section which gained considerable attention. Coupled amongst stories of goals or points scored were reverent discussions about local strongmen. Having previously discussed the practice of heavy stone lifting in Ireland, the current article examines two additional feats of strength. Performed by farmers and fishermen, they highlight the position of these men within their communities and point to the importance of memory in preserving informal sporting displays often undertaken in front of a handful of spectators.
As a largely agrarian society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with a few noticeable exceptions, it is perhaps no surprise that farmers and rural labourers routinely feature in the recollections of the Folklore Collection. Though declining somewhat numerically from the mid-nineteenth century, farm labourers still held an important position within rural towns and villages within Ireland. Employed in a position with long working hours and little time for dedicated involvement in a codified sport, many farm labourers turned instead towards improvisation.
Free from rules, provisions and traditions, labourers would lift sacks of oats, pull carts and heave heavy weights to determine the strongest man on the farm. Johnny Cavanagh impressed the locals of Knockanelo, Co. Mayo by carrying seven curts of oats with ease. Lawrence Plunkett from Rush in Co. Dublin lifted a half hundred weight of potatoes with his teeth while Peter Duigan from Kiltycreevagh, Co. Longford carried two sacks of meal weighing roughly 40 stone nine yards. Whether Duigan ever met his fellow Longford farmer Patrick Monaghan, who could carry a twenty-stone sack of potatoes under his arm, is sadly unknown. Oftentimes such feats were done in competition with someone else. At other points, the local strongman was simply goaded into performing a feat of strength. This was certainly the case for Jeremiah McConnelly from Muff, Co. Donegal, capable of lifting a sixteen-stone bag of corn and throwing it onto a cart with one hand. Similarly, Martin Sweeney from Shanakill, Co. Tipperary would lift threshing machines with his hands once given sufficient encouragement. What is fascinating about such feats, aside from the strength itself, was the manner in which they were conducted. Seeking diversion, play and competition, men turned towards the items closest at hand. Unable to compete in codified sports, men created their own competition. In much the same way that a certain generation of footballers will recall the use of improvised footballs made from a variety of materials, these men created their own equipment and indeed their own fun. For the townspeople witness to these feats, the men’s strength became ingrained in their memory.
While the accuracy of the weights lifted is of course suspect, that the men and women interviewed several decades after the fact recalled which men were strong and how they demonstrated their strength, was telling. Though done perhaps with an air of frivolity, these feats became part of people’s childhood memories, they became a part of individual’s life history.
Away from the farms, seemingly littered with strongmen (if indeed the Folklore Collection is to be believed) were the fishing towns of Ireland. Though smaller in number than their farming counterparts, fishermen in Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century similarly emerged within the memories collected in the Folklore Collection. Take for example, an unnamed fisherman from Leat Beg, Co. Donegal who could supposedly push an eighteen-foot boat from the full sea mark down into the shore. While this act appears to have begun out of necessity, it soon became an exhibition of the man’s strengths for onlookers. The same man could likewise catch a linseed barrel weighing 300 pounds with ease. Echoing the displays found in the farming recollections, such feats mixed pragmatic workplace movements with pseudo-vaudevillian entertainment. One of the older entrants from the collection, a Pat Dowds from Killybegs, also from Donegal, would row a boat or carry a hundredweight on his back at the age of eighty. Though few remembered Dowds as a young man, his ability to proficiently row boats in his eighth decade was seen as illustrative of his enormous power. Finally, Gilbert Magee, a local fisherman from Shannagh, Co. Donegal performed perhaps the most impressive feat of all the men examined in this post by briefly supporting a bridge on his back for an undisclosed period of time. With the bridge firmly in place, Magee sustained the structure as six separate farm carts passed from one side of the river to the other. In the contemporary vaudeville shows of the early twentieth-century, strongmen would perform a human bridge supporting members of the audience, actors, live animals or even vehicles. Few acts were as functional as Magee’s. We see then that for communities in the Northern Irish fishing towns examined here, these feats were seen as out of the ordinary and as something inherently different. In short, they were worth remembering and certainly worth retelling.
In the 1930s, the Harvard anthropologist Conrad Arensberg conducted a series of studies primarily in the west of Ireland. Largely hidden alongside wider societal points about marriage, sociability and local politics was a throwaway remark about the older generations they encountered. Men approaching, or in some cases, well past, their middle age would regularly lament the loss of strength and vitality in the younger generation. While the idea that the younger generation was physically or mentally weaker than the preceding generation has been, and perhaps will continue to be, a recurring trope in social discourses, the point noted by Arensberg is interesting in light of the Folklore Collection. The men noted by the anthropologists were among the age cohort most likely to be interviewed by Irish schoolchildren for the Folklore Collection.
The memories and reminisces found in the Collection detailed men of seemingly Herculean strength. How the younger generation could compete physically or metaphorically with such men is difficult to know. These men, farmers and fishers, were part of the local community. Locals did not pay to see them perform feats of strength but rather watched with intrigue and amazement as they heaved oats, pulled boats and supported bridges. Such feats lived long in the memory and serve as a reminder that physical activity away from the sporting field can similarly prove just as memorable, as exhilarating and as entertaining as a well taken goal or skilfully executed point.
Article © Conor Heffernan
Suggestions for Further Reading
Arensberg, Conrad M., The Irish Countryman (Harvard, 1937).
Bell, Jonathan & Watson, Mervyn, History of Irish Farming, 1750-1950 (Dublin, 2008).
The Irish Folklore Collection (Available here).