The Bumpy Road to an Irish Cricket Union

The year 1923 has been widely regarded as marking the formation – after some thirty years of abortive attempts – of the Irish Cricket Union.  As 2023 begins, it seems appropriate to examine the circumstances that made this so protracted a process and to test the assumption that 1923 is, indeed, the most appropriate anniversary to celebrate.

In Ireland, as in England, the last quarter of the nineteenth century marked the great surge in the establishment of national governing bodies of sport.  Thus a fourteen-year period saw the formation of the Irish Rugby Football Union (1879), Irish Football Association (1880), Gaelic Athletic Association (1884), Golfing Union of Ireland (1891) and Irish Hockey Union (1893).  Cricket had at provincial level seen the formation of the Northern (1884) and County Derry (later North-West of Ireland) (1888) Cricket Unions.  Despite the absence of an official national governing body for cricket in England (the MCC exercising most of the associated functions until the establishment of the Test and County Cricket Board in 1968), moves to establish such a body in Ireland were unlikely to be long delayed.

1884 – First Stirrings

The first move took place as early as 21 April 1884, when a meeting was convened at the Dublin office of the noted promoter and chronicler of contemporary Irish cricket, John Lawrence.  Those present included representatives of the main Dublin clubs, Cork County, and J Cormac (or MacCormac – versions of his name differ) representing NICC and the other members of the newly-formed Northern Cricket Union.  All who spoke were favourable in principle towards the formation of an Irish Cricket Union, the members of which would apparently have been individual clubs rather than provincial unions, though a number indicated that they had not been given authority to commit their clubs.  A resolution was nevertheless passed without dissent that an Irish Cricket Union should be formed.  The meeting was reported at length in the Dublin weekly newspaper Sport on 26 April but when it reconvened a week later to take the matter further there were no representatives present from the key Phoenix and Dublin University clubs – ostensibly over a suggestion that junior clubs might be admitted to membership on the same basis as their senior counterparts - and the campaign appears to have gone into abeyance.

1890 – Interprovincial Dawn

An editorial in The Irish Times of 19 April 1890 entitled A Cricket Union for Ireland made reference to the failed 1884 initiative and sought to encourage constructive discussion of the way forward, suggesting that, as in rugby, provincial branches/unions might act as an intermediate level between clubs and the national body.  It also referred to controversy regarding the selection of the team that played I Zingari the previous season (nine of whose members played in Leinster – six of them for Dublin University or Phoenix), noting that ‘so far as Dublin is concerned, considerably more is known about the English form than regarding players living in Belfast, Cork or country districts’.

Perhaps on foot of such ‘constructive discussion’, the initial interprovincial series took place in Dublin in July 1890, during which meetings were arranged to discuss the formation of an Irish Cricket Union.  The mood was once again very positive, with a resolution to the effect that an Irish Cricket Union be formed being passed unanimously and a committee nominated.  It in turn held its first meeting the following day and resolved that separate provincial unions should be formed forthwith in Leinster, Munster and Connaught, along the lines of the Northern Cricket Union, and that each should then send three delegates to meet and form the new Irish Union and make rules etc.  It is noteworthy that leading roles in these meetings were taken by two prominent figures in the NCU, John Andrews Jnr and Willie Vint.  So enthusiastic about the proceedings was the correspondent of The Irish Times that he opined that ‘judging from the tone of the speeches, the success of the project would seem to be assured’.

Despite all the optimism, the trail now seems to go cold for another decade.  Reports suggest that, while a Leinster Branch of the Irish Cricket Union (later renamed the Leinster Cricket Union, but not linked directly to the current LCU set up in 1919) was indeed established the following week, neither Munster nor Connaught followed suit.  Most significantly, the Northern Cricket Union appears not to have taken any further part in the process.  The lack of surviving NCU minutes covering the years prior to 1902 makes the reasons difficult to confirm.  It has been suggested that the political tensions associated with the Home Rule campaign may have played a part, but the early 1890s were in fact a relatively quiet period in that long-running controversy.  Another factor could have been that union’s anxiety regarding the risk of having to assume any financial responsibility for international matches.  Perhaps those from across Ireland who gathered in Dublin for that first interprovincial weekend simply overestimated the enthusiasm of the clubs back in their respective areas for the formation of a national body.  This may have reflected a divergence of priorities between the leading players – much concerned about the need for more broadly-based and accountable selection arrangements for Ireland teams - and the majority of club members, who were probably more interested in developing provincial inter-club competitions.

1901 – The Leinster Schism

In June 1901, a major row broke out regarding the selection of the Gentlemen of Ireland XI to play against the South Africans.  The initial approach had been made to the Dublin University club, which passed it to Phoenix.  This greatly annoyed the Leinster Branch, which felt that the approach ought to have come to it.  The upshot was that three players from Leinster and Pembroke withdrew from the selected side, which ultimately contained ten players with Phoenix and/or Dublin University affiliation.  There was a vigorous correspondence in The Irish Times on the subject including, significantly, a letter from the Secretary of the Northern Cricket Union protesting against the manner in which the team had been selected and stating that his Union was of the opinion that it should have been chosen by the Irish Cricket Union and its branches.

Two months later, during an interprovincial in Belfast, a meeting took place between representatives of the Leinster Branch and the NCU.  Once again it was agreed that an Irish Cricket Union should be formed comprising the Leinster Branch, the NCU and branches to be formed in Munster and Connaught.  Draft rules were approved and were to be submitted to the various clubs throughout Ireland.  The Annual Report presented to the NCU AGM in January 1902 recorded that “A conference was held between a sub-committee of your Union and representatives of the Leinster Union with a view to the formation of an Irish Cricket Union.  Owing to the dispute in cricket circles in Dublin, no definite settlement has been arrived at.”  In early March, the AGM of the Leinster Branch changed its name to the Leinster Cricket Union and passed a resolution to the effect that it was “of the opinion that no body for the government of Irish cricket can be regarded as satisfactory on which the Leinster Cricket Union is not recognised”.

This seems to have had some effect, as on 9 April Sir John Kennedy, the Co. Kildare grandee, wrote to the Irish Times reporting that an agreement had been reached “That a committee be formed for the purpose of choosing representative teams consisting of two delegates from the Northern Cricket Union, two delegates from the Leinster Cricket Union, and one from each of the following clubs: Phoenix, Dublin University, Co Kildare and Co. Cork”.

This may have resolved one dispute, but the report in The Irish Times on the first day of the Leinster v Ulster interprovincial on 1 August still noted that “the difference between the Leinster Union and Phoenix prevented any of the players representing Leinster being drawn from Phoenix, and the University, being another club not affiliated to the Union, was also unrepresented in the home eleven.”

1903 – The CCRIC Emerges

By late 1903, the selection committee appears to have morphed into the more ambitious guise of a Committee Controlling Representative Irish Cricket (CCRIC), under the Chairmanship of Sir John Kennedy and with Mr D F Gillman (Phoenix) as Hon Secretary.  How this came to pass is less than clear – NCU minutes make no mention of consultation on the subject but record receipt from Mr Gillman of a report on the first meeting of the CCRIC on 7 November.  The Secretary was instructed to reply seeking information on the financial arrangements and “definite proposals” for the future.  Having received no satisfactory reply, the Secretary, Bob Erskine, was dispatched to Dublin, accompanied by James Andrews – North Down cricketer, Trinity law graduate and future Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland - for a CCRIC meeting on 7 December with an agenda of discussing the formation of a controlling body for Irish cricket.  

This does not seem to have produced a satisfactory outcome, as an NCU Emergency Committee meeting on 31 December – prompted by a draft circular to clubs from CCRIC seeking donations to a fund to enable it to arrange representative matches – produced the reply that “the Committee did not see their way, in the present unsatisfactory state this representative body was constituted, to recommend the circular to the consideration of the various clubs in the Union.”

Perhaps emboldened by the new title, Mr Gillman spent much of the latter half of 1904 in a lengthy and public (by virtue of his letters on the subject to The Irish Times), but ultimately fruitless, correspondence with the MCC Secretary, F E Lacey, regarding the lack of first-class status for certain Irish fixtures.  This apart, the CCRIC seems to have got on with organising Irish matches without further controversy and the question of forming an Irish Cricket Union again receded into the background for five years.

1909 – Prickly Exchanges

Once again, it was The Irish Times that boldly proclaimed “Irish Cricket Union Established” on 14 June 1909.  Those who had been following the saga over the preceding 25 years may perhaps have evinced a measure of scepticism.  If so, history was to prove them correct.  Although a meeting of representatives from Leinster, Munster and Ulster (NCU) on 11 June had indeed agreed a resolution “That an Irish Cricket Union for the promotion and control of cricket in Ireland, with branches in Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught, be and is hereby established”, the devil was always going to be in the detail, and the meeting agreed that the new Union would not come into operation until after the end of the current season and the making of arrangements for the branches.

When the NCU Committee had considered its representatives’ report and the proposed rules of the new Union, it referred to the outcome of the meeting in its 1909 Annual Report as follows: “At this meeting it was decided to form an Irish Cricket Union, but the report of our delegates shows that the proposed rules of this cricket union would not have been acceptable in the North.”  The AGM went on to pass the resolution: “That it be a direction to the Committee for the ensuing season that the position of the Northern Cricket Union financially with regard to the Irish Cricket Union should be carefully considered, and that the support to be given to the Irish Cricket Union be an annual subscription from the Northern Cricket Union as a Union, and that the liability of the Northern Cricket Union should be limited to the amount of this subscription.”

Given this background, it is not particularly surprising that a subsequent letter from Mr James Smyth (Leinster CU), who appears to have been acting as the Hon Secretary of both his own Union and the nascent ICU, considered by the NCU Committee on 23 February 2010, received the reply that “In no case would the subscription of the Northern Cricket Union exceed ten pounds and that would be the entire liability of the Northern Cricket Union, and furthermore that, as the Northern Cricket Union had existed for 24 years (actually 26 years), it was not their intention to dissolve” (presumably to become a branch of the new ICU, as the LCU was to do on 1 May).  Ten pounds may appear to 21st century eyes to be a very small – almost derisory – sum, but its current equivalent, allowing for inflation, of £1,350 does bear comparison with the £2,964 affiliation fee paid by the NCU to Cricket Ireland in 2015 – the final year in which such fees were payable by provincial unions.

In July, Mr Smyth wrote again asking the NCU to send delegates to a further meeting on 22 July to ‘finally establish’ the ICU.  The Committee declined to do so.  The 1910 Annual Report stated, intriguingly, that “During the year negotiations with regard to the formation of the Irish Cricket Union were continued, and while at first the representatives of the other provinces refused to have anything to do with our propositions, they have now intimated their willingness to adopt same.”  However, this optimism appears to have been misplaced, as a further letter from Mr Smyth in April 1911 received the reply: “In the opinion of the Northern Cricket Union, the Irish Cricket Union has not been properly formed, and that as it would be of little or no advantage to the clubs affiliated to the Northern Cricket Union, they regret they cannot see their way to join.”  Another approach in November to send delegates to a further meeting was accepted, but when they reported back in March 1912 the Committee resolved that “We do not join the Irish Cricket Union at present”.  And thus matters stood through the traumatic decade of the Ulster Covenant, World War, Easter Rising, War of Independence and Civil War, during which comparatively little representative cricket was able to be played.  Initial approaches to the NCU from the newly-formed Leinster Cricket Union in 1920 received the response that “The present time was not opportune for discussing the proposed formation of an Irish Cricket Union.”

1922-23 – The IRCCC – a Diplomatic Triumph

The emergence of a new Leinster Cricket Union including the Phoenix and Dublin University clubs, combined with an emerging common desire to avoid the risk of Irish Cricket fracturing into separate Northern and Southern governing bodies as happened with soccer, created a climate in which forging the necessary level of accord between the Leinster and Northern Unions was to prove easier than hitherto.

The ice seemed to start breaking up in March 1922, when a further approach to the NCU from the LCU, rather than being rebuffed, was met with an invitation to “draw up a scheme for consideration by this Union”.  Proposals were duly discussed by representatives of the two Unions during the interprovincials in Dublin and found largely unobjectionable.  Nevertheless, the LCU was informed by the NCU that “This Union did not consider the present time opportune for the inauguration of a body such as suggested”.  This apparent cooling may have been linked to an incident that had occurred at Dundalk Station, when the train bringing the Ulster team (including a serving British Army officer, Nelson Russell) to Dublin for the interprovincial had been held up and searched by armed “Irregulars” (ie anti-treaty forces).  Fortunately Russell’s identity does not appear to have been discovered.

The ending of the Civil War seemed to clear the air, as during the Ulster v Leinster interprovincial in Belfast in late June 1923 further discussions took place between senior officers of the two unions under the chairmanship of the NCU President, Bob Erskine, regarding a new body to run representative cricket.  Agreement was reached remarkably quickly and the Irish Representative Cricket Control Committee (IRCCC) held its first meeting at Thompson’s restaurant in Belfast on 27 October 1923.  Meetings were to alternate between Belfast and Dublin and would be chaired by the President of the host Union.  The Committee comprised four representatives from the North (NCU) and four from the Free State (as it was then entitled).  A representative of Cork County was subsequently invited to attend (the Munster Cricket Union not being formed until 1956) on an informal basis.  The officers were two joint Honorary Treasurers (one from each jurisdiction) and an Hon Secretary, Mr George Bonass (LCU).  The functions of the Committee appear to have been exactly the same as the former CCRIC.  The initial intention was to have two home Irish matches each year, one in Dublin and one in Belfast.

The NCU’s 1923 Annual Report hailed the development in enthusiastic terms: “The formation during the year of the Irish Representative Cricket Control Committee, composed of an equal number of Northern and Southern representatives, and having, as its first Chairman, the President of the Union (Mr R M Erskine JP) has given rise to much satisfaction and will, it is hoped, result eventually in a regular series of International Matches, in additional to a Gentlemen of Ireland Match in Belfast annually.”  The more equitable process and structures did indeed take effect from the 1924 season, with Belfast hosting its very first international match against Wales at Ormeau that August and a marked increase in the number of NCU players selected for Ireland.  The NCU and LCU’s initial financial contributions towards the costs of the new body amounted to £100 each – equivalent to about £7,800 in 2023.

While the formation of the IRCCC has been treated by respected historians as tantamount to the creation of the Irish Cricket Union, it was in effect merely a sub-committee of the Leinster and Northern Unions, with no formal representation from the rest of Irish cricket, a chair that changed hands between meetings and functions strictly confined to the organisation of representative matches.  Did those involved at the time believe that they were the Irish Cricket Union?  They certainly never used the title during the Committee’s life of less that four years. While the agreement to establish it was undoubtedly a crucial step, paving the way to the formation of the ICU, further development in terms of membership and constitutional autonomy was surely needed before a national governing body per se emerged.

1927 – An Irish Cricket Union at Last

In August 1926 the Belfast News-Letter reported, following a meeting of the NCU Senior Committee, that agreement had been reached to form an Irish Cricket Union, which would subsume the current responsibilities of the IRCCC.

In due course, on Monday 28 February 1927, The Irish Times and the Belfast News-Letter both reported, under the heading “New Irish Cricket Union”, that the last meeting of the old Irish Representative Cricket Control Committee had been held the previous Saturday (26 February) at Mills’ Hall, Merrion Row, Dublin, with His Honour Judge Pigot in the chair, for the purpose of forming a new Irish Cricket Union, including Munster “as a separate provincial entity”.  The Union was duly formed, and the following officers were elected for the coming season:
Chairman – Sir George Colthurst, Bart (Munster).
Committee – R M Erskine, G Bruce, S H Jackson, J Fleming (NCU), R H Lambert, A P Kelly,
J Rowland, Capt. J Hart (LCU).
Hon Secretary – G J Bonass.
Joint Hon Treasurers – S H Jackson and J Rowland.
Selection Committee – Sir George Colthurst, R M Erskine, S H Jackson, R H Lambert and J Aston.

The title ‘Chairman’ was changed to ‘President’ shortly afterwards.  One of the first acts of the new ICU was to inaugurate an annual dance to raise funds for the coming season.  When the international fixtures were announced in May, there was a further appeal to “all those interested in Irish cricket” for financial assistance.

Five years later, the new Union was in crisis.  The finances were in a mess and Bonass had resigned.  Dissolution threatened and the establishment of separate Northern and Southern governing bodies was again feared.  Fortunately the Provincial Unions rallied round and the ICU continued with A E Bex as its new Hon Secretary.

1933 – Completing the Job

In the wake of the crisis, work was soon under way on drafting a new ICU constitution that would inter alia clarify governance arrangements, including the responsibilities of the officers and their accountability to the Committee.  In the course of these discussions there arose the position of the North-West Cricket Union and the desirability of bringing it formally within the Irish body.

For ten years, under the IRCC and then the ICU, the NCU had been nominally responsible for representing the entire North of Ireland, including the North-West.  Relations between the two Northern unions had however become somewhat strained, with even their annual inter-union match disappearing from the calendar.  By 1932 the North-West had begun to show interest in becoming more fully involved in the ICU – perhaps encouraged by the selection of Donald Shearer (City of Derry) in the Gentlemen of Ireland team that played the MCC that June - and a meeting held in Strabane in November between senior representatives of the two Northern unions seemed to further clear the air.  The inter-union match was duly revived in 1933 and subsequent work on the new ICU Constitution took on board the inclusion of the North-West Cricket Union as a full member.

The drafting process was undoubtedly assisted by the fact that the outgoing NCU President and incoming ICU President was Richard Best, a Lord Justice of Appeal and former NI Attorney General whose keen legal eye contributed to ensuring that the Constitution that was agreed and signed on behalf of the three provincial unions and Cork County in September 1933 served the needs of Irish cricket for more than fifty years without the need for further amendment.

It had been a long and often frustrating road from those first approaches in 1884, but the outcome had been worth waiting for.