There are four regional unions in Ireland and about 150 clubs throughout the country. The majority are situated in Northern Ireland in the Northern Cricket Union area, centred around Belfast and in the North West Cricket Union area centred around Derry. Dublin has 16 senior clubs in the Leinster Cricket Union and there are only a handful of clubs in the Munster Cricket Union. Munster play in the Second Division of the Leinster League, however there is a long history of cricket in Cork in the beautiful Mardyke ground (left) and many of the best memories of Irish cricketers surround trips to the `Dyke and nights which ended in the Westpoint Guest House.
Whereas there are many rural clubs in the North there are only a few junior clubs outside Dublin and Cork in the South. However there are teams to be found in Galway, Limerick, Tralee, Waterford and in some midland areas. Touring sides frequently find their way to picturesque grounds such as Mount Juliet, slightly better known for its golf course, Bagenalstown, Mullingar, Halverstown and Headfort, the home of County Meath. It is said that the barrister and author Charles Lysaght made a big impression on Cambridge Captain Mike Brearley when he arrived at nets at Fenners. He told Brearley that he played County Cricket, omitting the fact that it was for County Meath. Unfortunately Charles didn't talk his way to a blue, but achieved the next best thing, Presidency of the Cambridge Union.
The most successful clubs of the period have been Waringstown in the Northern Cricket Union, Phoenix in Leinster, Donemana and Limavady in the North West and Cork County in Munster. Waringstown is a picturesque village, probably best known for its cricket club. The Harrison family dominated the team and cricket in the NCU throughout the seventies and eighties. Four Harrison brothers played for Ireland, Roy, Jim, Deryck and Garfield (right), a record that will take some beating. Phoenix won the Leinster Cup five years in a row in the seventies and the superiority of Ulster clubs is emphasised by the fact that Phoenix are still the only southern club to have won the Irish Senior Cup, a feat achieved in 1986. Donemana and Limavady have extraordinary records in the recent past with the former winning nine league titles in a row in the North West only to be replaced in the last seven years by Limavady.
By far the most fanatical cricketers are to be found in the North West, where one could say there is a separate cricketing republic. There are parallels here with rugby in Limerick, whose sporting public are not only the most knowledgeable but the most partisan followers imaginable. There is a general belief in these two areas that their sporting sons are the most gifted and the most hard done by. Players from Belfast or Dublin are pathetic wimps in comparison. In Yorkshire there would be a similar healthy disregard for those wearing a Middlesex sweater. It is only in the counties of Derry and Tyrone that you can find large enthusiastic crowds attending a club match, urging the batsmen to 'Gi'er the lang handle in the heel o the evenin', or 'Gi'er a drink'. (There might be a river over the mid wicket boundary).
There are plenty of incidents in the North West League, probably more than in the rest of the country put together and there is fierce rivalry between clubs such as the above mentioned Donemana and Limavady along with their main challengers Brigade, Eglinton, Sion Mills and Strabane. My first experience of playing in the North West came in 1968, just as the 'Troubles' were beginning. I was travelling to Strabane late on a Friday night with three other Dublin cricketers when the car with its southern plates was stopped somewhere in rural Tyrone by the 'B' Specials, the soon to be disbanded armed police reserve. We were lined up and searched in what could be described as a rather threatening manner. They relented somewhat when they found we were in possession of cricket bats but when I asked them did they know Ossie Colhoun, we changed dramatically from being 'Fenians from the Free State' to red carpet visitors. We were given a motor cycle escort straight to the Fir Trees Hotel, Strabane.
My favourite on field story with a North West provenance involves Big Roy Torrens (right), the well known Brigade fast bowler, Derry City footballer and magician. Ireland was playing Surrey at the Oval and the Irish team had taken a dislike to the Kiwi Geoff Howarth who had visibly and orally indicated that he was less than pleased at being asked to play in such a match, especially as he had just been told he was surplus to Surrey's requirements the following season. It was coming to the end of the Irish innings and I, as captain, asked Roy to go in and throw the bat and score a few quick runs. Roy faced his first ball which was a good length outside the off stump. He launched into an extravagant drive, missed the ball, followed through and the bat flew from his hands in the direction of Howarth, who happened to be standing beside the square leg umpire. Luckily for both men the bat sailed over their heads. Much mirth ensued in the middle. When Roy returned to the visitors changing room he announced that the 'Skipper told me to throw the bat'. We knew that it was no accident that it was the hapless Kiwi that was in most danger.
In the same game Roy was taking a bit of a pasting from the Surrey openers, Alan Butcher and Duncan Pauline. In the third over of the innings as we hastily reset the field with slips disappearing to all parts of the Oval, Roy hesitated at the end of his run up and shouted out that he would like 'Jacko' to move to extra cover on the boundary. This would not normally be strange but for the fact that 'Jacko' was the wicket keeper. In recent years Roy has become a larger than life character in the administration of CricketIreland. Having been a selector for a number of seasons he was President of the Union in the Millennium season. The sight of himself and 'Monty' (Dermot Monteith) walking around the boundary at an International match, or sitting in a hotel lobby at two in the morning in the company of a Famous Grouse, is one of the great spectacles of modern Irish cricket administration.
In the Belfast area, as in the North West, cricket is widely played and reported. The profile of the game in Dublin is not as high. This is partly due to the limited space apportioned to the game in Dublin and also to the odd fact that apart from Trinity, Phoenix and perhaps Malahide there are no grounds that are visible to casual passers by. Most are down laneways or behind high walls. Many cricketers have come to live and work in Dublin and have taken a couple of years to discover that cricket was played in Ireland. In fact many Irish people are only vaguely aware of its existence. Lord Killanin, the Irish ex President of the International Olympic Committee, once famously announced that cricket was not played in Ireland!