Thursday, 19 June 2014

Bicycle polo in the Phoenix Park

Irish novelist William Trevor once talked in an award acceptance speech about his childhood memories of reading detective stories:
"All over England, it seemed to me, bodies were being discovered by housemaids in libraries. Village poison pens were tirelessly at work. There was murder in Mayfair, on trains, in airships, in Palm Court lounges, between the acts. Golfers stumbled over corpses on fairways. Chief Constables awoke to them in their gardens. We had nothing like it in West Cork."
I know what he means. Take polo. As opposed to bike polo.

A country house murder mystery might have a polo match galloping away on the Lower Acre between the local gentry of East Barchester and their genteel rivals from Loxleyhampton-on-the-Wold, and a couple of dead bodies and a bloodstained wooden mallet, but one of my own 'Moss Reid' crime mysteries would be more likely to have a bicycle polo match. One involving sticks and bikes, between a few lads from Smithfield and Stoneybatter.

While the Irish may not have invented polo, only an Irishman could have come up with the mad yet brilliant notion of bicycle polo.

That genius was Richard J. Mecredy (pictured right), the owner/editor of The Irish Cyclist magazine. This man is one of the greatest names in Irish sport, yet there are no statues to him as far as I know, no cups in his honour or plaques on the wall, no Mecredy Monument at the heart of the Phoenix Park.

He is, however, deservedly a member of Cycling Ireland's Hall of Fame:

"By far and away the single most important individual in the early history of Irish cycling is Richard James Mecredy - partly as a champion racer on tricycles and bicycles, but more importantly as an administrator in the Irish Cyclists' Association and as editor of 'The Irish Cyclist'. Such was his eminence and influence in the 1880s and 1890s that he deserves the title of 'Father of Irish Cycling': no other individual had anywhere near as much influence as he had on Irish cycling's development in these crucial decades, when cycling went from being a minority pursuit to a genuinely popular sport and pastime."

Anyway, it was 1891, a mere century after the invention of the velocipede, and just seven years after the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Basically what Mecredy came up with was like, er, water polo but on bicycles (and sometimes - depending on the Irish weather - without the water too). Or it was like traditional polo, played on bikes instead of horses.

The first game took place in County Wicklow on 4 October 1891. On 31 October that year The Irish Cyclist published the first rules of the sport, and the Phoenix Park in Dublin quickly became the game's spritual home.

Bike polo fever soon spread to England, and the first international match was played between Ireland and Perfidious Albion in 1901 at Crystal Palace (don't panic: we won 10-5). When it became a demonstration sport at the 1908 London Olympics, a nation held its breath and the Irish team was once again at the top of its game, beating Deutschland 3-1 in the final.
The 1908 Irish squad of gold medal Olympians: LR Oswald-Sealy, HE Oswald, AS Oswald and Richard McCready Junior.

Ireland looked unstoppable. It seemed that nothing could stop the rise of our tippy-tappy possession polo. Then the first World War came along. And the second.

(I say old bean: let's cue a British Pathé film of bicycle polo in the Phoenix Park from 1938. "Watch the daredevil skill of these lads ... ")

Fast forward to the 1980s. By now the game had three new superpowers: Team India, Team Canada and Team USA. While bike polo was an "Irish game", Ireland was no longer at the top of the game.

Here's some amateur and RTE footage of a 2006 international tournament in the Phoenix Park, as teams from around the planet competed for the Phoenix Shield. The French slaughtered the Scots in the final.

There is also the annual European Championships which began in 2007 - a sort of Champions League or Three Nations. It's held over three legs in France, Ireland and Britain, and is a compromise between French and British/Irish traditional rules. The French tend to win it.

Oh, that's another thing. The rules keep changing and there are lots of different versions for bike polo played on grass. Next they'll have a referee with shaving foam to make sure the wall of cyclists are back ten yards.

And there's also a relatively new upstart with its own rules, called hardcourt bike polo. Let's not go there.

The game in the park today

In the Phoenix Park you'll see the game played on proper traditional grass, usually in five-man teams, on fixed-gear bikes with no brakes.

So if you fancy a game and you have a bicycle and, strangely enough, a mallet, simply look out for the crowds and bikes at the horse polo grounds in the park near Dublin Zoo on a sunny summer weekend.

The supporters are usually outnumbered by the players, but who cares? There is no fame or financial incentive, not even the perks of playing for your county in the GAA, no fancy dans with their WAGs and sports cars, no overpaid prima donnas and divers.

Because this is a brilliant niche sport, one played for the sheer joy, camaraderie and thrill of the game. Bike polo has all the speed and skill of horsey polo, but without having to feed the bike, muck out its stables or buy a horsebox.

You'll soon learn the moves and the lingo, and get to know the difference between:

  • A wheel kick (an illegal attempt to move the ball by hitting it with your front wheel)
  • A wheel shot (deliberately aimed to bounce off an oppontent's wheel) and 
  • A wizard’s wand (tracing a circle around the ball with your mallet before taking a shot, as if casting a spell)

And while you watch or take part, remember how at one time, in this particular sport, Ireland used to rule the world...