The 19th century was a turbulent time for British society. Living standards and prosperity were increasing at an unprecedented rate. Inclusive, democratic institutions were emerging and cementing themselves in the public psyche. Cities were filling up as people moved from the countryside to work in factories. And against the backdrop of the industrial and agricultural revolutions, there was a cultural revolution flaring up. The idea of “respectability” had emerged and people were keen to embrace it.
Gone were the days of lawlessness and vulgarity. Laws and government were being shored up and schools and organisations were implementing strict codes of ethics and behaviour. Society was being put in order, and, as Prof James Kelly, the head of the School of History and Geography at Dublin City University (DCU), told The University Times: “The idea that sport should be accepted from that would be seem not to make a huge amount of sense.”
Initially, then, sport was very much at odds with the idea of respectability. Football was a lawless game. Evangelical protestants and the Catholic church in Ireland both looked down on its savagery, perhaps one of the few things they had in common. Not only was it deemed as being beneath them, it disrespected the Sabbath. Sunday was a time for prayer, not for young men kicking a ball around a field. The Christian elites saw little difference between football matches and public disorder. Furthermore, after the 1798 rebellion in Ireland, the authorities believed that football matches were merely a cover for mass meetings of rebels, and cracked down hard on them.
Nevertheless, a love of sport could not be beaten out of the populace. All that was required was a justification for the game to be played, a way to bend the rules and make the game respectable. This justification would come out of the Public School system in the form of muscular Christianity.
The man we should be thanking for the game of rugby is Thomas Arnold. Arnold was headmaster of Rugby School in Warwickshire between 1828 and 1841. He had little time for science and really, in his mind, a public-school education should not focus on intellectual development.
Instead its main purpose was instilling Christian values and morals in its schoolboys and making them into upstanding men. Arnold saw sport as an important part of this endeavour. Team sports brought out qualities like leadership and discipline. They taught people how to be gracious in victory and also in defeat. As Kelly said, “the whole concept of muscular christianity which emerges in the 19th century doesn’t see any great contradiction between sporting activity and religious activity”. Team sports helped mould Englishmen into the kind of tough, stiff-upper-lipped, noble Christians the Public School system wanted to produce.
The man we should be thanking for the game of rugby is Thomas Arnold
Charles Burton Barrington, the man largely credited with the 150-year existence of Dublin University Football Club (DUFC), was one such noble Christian. Hailing from Limerick, Barrington was a student at Rugby School in the mid-1800s and came to Trinity in 1867 to undertake an arts degree. Fit and vigorous, Barrington embodied muscular Christianity – and he liked rugby. Barrington, however, found a rugby scene in Trinity that was in disarray.
In 1854, DUFC was established in Trinity. There are reports of football (in the various forms it existed in) being played on campus before then, but there was little coherence in its rules and nothing by way of competitive structure. An example, for perspective, of the type of game that would have been played on Trinity’s campus before 1854 was “fair hair versus dark hair”. When DUFC was set up, there were no set rules to the game and no competitive structures, muscular Christianity not yet having spread to Ireland in the same way as in the UK.
Barrington, then, had his work cut out. Coming from the home of rugby, he brought with him a knowledge of the rules of rugby, and just as importantly, an understanding of the values it sought to instil in those who played it. In 1868, Barrington sat down in Botany Bay with a man called Robert Morton Wall and wrote up the rules of rugby for DUFC.
Everything changed from this point onwards.
Barrington introduced positions, rules and a structure – rules that surprisingly resemble quite closely the game we see today. Some rules appear comical now, such as “no hacking, as distinct from tripping, is fair”, and “holding and throttling is disallowed”, but for its time, the laws were very modern. Barrington, significantly, also picked the colours of Trinity’s new kit, red and black after the black earth of College Park.
Rugby slowly spread across the country, with Trinity at its epicentre. Under Barrington’s watchful eye the Irish Football Union was set up, a union that would later become the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) when it joined forces with the Northern Football Union in 1879. Clubs started to spring up across the country. Fixtures were organised between clubs. Irish rugby was born. More than 150 years later, DUFC continues to thrive as the oldest rugby club in continuous existence.
When DUFC was set up, there were no set rules to the game and no competitive structures, muscular Christianity not yet having spread to Ireland
The values introduced to Trinity by Barrington in 1854 unsurprisingly echoed those he had learned at Rugby School, the same values instilled in generations of English public schoolboys before and since due to the influence of Arnold. Ideas like “a healthy mind in a healthy body”, coupled with the newly Christianised nature of sport, were an important part of the rugby experience that DUFC offered.
To state the obvious, a lot of time has passed since Barrington’s time as captain of DUFC. The ideology that underpinned the game of rugby football, first envisioned by Arnold, was born out of noble aspirations, as a tool to encourage virtuous qualities and help young people succeed and thrive. DUFC was founded on precisely those same values. Have they survived the test of time?
Around this time last year, The University Times published a report of a match between DUFC and Terenure in College Park. It was the season opener and Trinity were well beaten. That week happened to be freshers’ week, and I went up to their stand to introduce myself. One of the players manning the stand asked me if I was the one who had written the match report. I said I was. Half expecting to be met with an angry tirade about how unfair my article had been and how I knew nothing about rugby, I was surprised by what transpired. One of the other players at the stand piped up and told me that what I had written was fair and they hadn’t been good enough.
As I researched this article, that anecdote kept popping into my head. Rugby, built on the values of muscular Christianity, on the idea that sport could actually improve someone, seemed to me to have held onto its ability to instil these same values in its players today. The value of being graceful in defeat seemed still to exist in the team.
Speaking to The University Times, John Boyd, the Chairperson of DUFC, was keen to bring up the importance of history. He spoke about whanau, a Maori concept: “It means a family, a tribe, a sense of where you have come from, inherited values and the All Blacks put this at the heart of everything they do.” There are certainly parallels between whanau and whatever it is that makes DUFC tick. The club make efforts to inform people of their rich history. There is a wealth of information on DUFC’s website about the club’s past. They also run a “virtual clubhouse”, called 1854 after the year of the club’s birth, where past members can mingle and network.
Barrington introduced positions, rules and a structure – rules that surprisingly resemble quite closely the game we see today
Boyd also talked about the values Tony Smeeth, the head coach of DUFC, has tried to instill in the team, most pertinently “personal discipline, support for each other as a family”. These values are strikingly similar to those of muscular Christianity. It appeared to me that my assertion that some of the old DUFC survived today was pretty accurate. Even now rugby was being used as a tool to encourage certain virtues, as it had been in Barrington’s time.
Colm Hogan, the captain of DUFC, also emphasised to The University Times the importance of discipline. Trinity’s rugby players have early-morning gym sessions throughout the year. Hogan pointed out the head start he therefore had against his non-sporting peers: “It’s 9am, you’re in college, you have your exercise done, you’re already up, you’ve had breakfast, you’re ready for the day and most people are only just getting up.” These sessions are undoubtedly a struggle, but Hogan sees them as character building and useful outside of the rugby sphere: “If you can get up at 6.30am for a gym session you can sure as hell get up for a 9am lecture.” Again, you can see the values of Barrington’s rugby club rubbing off on people’s daily lives.
But really, how could those values not seep into the team? Every home game takes place in the centre of the College, surrounded by all the old buildings. History and heritage are all around. As Hogan said, referencing the conversion attempts of so many outhalves over the years, “you’re kicking a ball off the law school”. And even if this physical reminder did not exist, the sport itself would foster these values. To be good at rugby you have to be disciplined and you have to make sacrifices.
A poem about rugby in Trinity by Brendan Kennelly appeared in a collection of essays published in 2003, edited by Trevor West. The final stanza runs as follows: “In rain and mud these gallant warriors play/ Their hearts out for my heart’s delight/ Near Trinity’s heart/ In the heart of Dublin.” Often as you walk through College towards the Hamilton you’ll see a rugby match being played in College Park, the pitch ringed with students and alumni alike, cheering on the team or collectively groaning at mistakes. Rugby is omnipresent in Trinity, and the idea of a healthy mind in a healthy body can still be seen today in Trinity’s sports clubs. As the pioneer of rugby in Trinity, Barrington has left an indelible mark on both the campus and the College’s heart.