Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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The Sporting Dimension to the Relationship Between Ireland and Latin America

By John Kennedy


The children of William Murphy at the tennis court. Estancia San Martin, Salto, Buenos Aires province, ca. 1890
(Anastasia Joyce Collection)

Whilst the impetus for the codification of these traditional sports may have emanated from the public school system, there were a number of contemporaneous social and economic factors which led to the diffusion and success of organised sports, including the concept of muscular Christianity, [3] industrialisation and the associated urbanisation, the ban on the more popular blood sports, the development of the railway system, and increased wealth. The spread of empire is also considered to be an important factor in the promotion of sport, ‘though public school sport was in the first instance not specifically intended to train the lieutenants of the Empire, it came rapidly to be seen in this light’ (Holt 1989: 204).

As well as codification of traditional sports, there was some influence from the colonies in terms of reverse cultural transmission, as demonstrated by the adoption of polo by the British elite in colonial India. The first game was played in Hounslow Heath in West London in 1870 between two mounted military regiments; the Tenth Hussars and the Ninth Lancers.    

The introduction of organised sport to Latin America: Argentina – a case study

As was the case in other Spanish colonies, among the earliest spectator amusements in the River Plate [4] region was bullfighting. Games such as the Basque ball sport, jai alai, were also introduced. In time the region developed its own distinctive criollo [5] sports, the most prominent being pato (duck). The chronicles of Félix de Azara mentioned a ‘run’ held in Buenos Aires in 1610 on the feast of the beatification of St. Ignatius Loyola (Lupo 2004: 57). In various writings of the eighteenth century there were several references to these ‘runs’, which were characterised for their dangerousness, often leading to tragic outcomes. The ecclesiastical authorities were the first to attempt to prohibit the game, by threatening to excommunicate any parishioners involved in the sport. A further attempt was made, this time by the civilian authorities in 1822, when the Governor of Buenos Aires, General Martín Rodriguez, issued a decree prohibiting the playing of the game, but it failed in its objective. Arbena & LaFrance (2002: xii) have argued that ‘this was part of an effort to impose capitalist control over the Pampa and its labour force’. It was not until the 1930s that a set of rules based on polo were developed for the game, through the efforts of Alberto del Castillo. It was designated the national sport of Argentina in 1953.

Though British immigrants began arriving in Argentina as early as 1806, their numbers were small, and they were generally involved in mercantile interests. Following the fall of the Rosas regime in 1852, [6] Argentina embarked on a path of economic development, central to which was British capital. The most significant manifestation of this investment was the railways. As the railways grew, many of their employees were specifically recruited from all over Britain and Ireland for their specialist skills. By 1890 there were, according to Rock (1987: 132), over 9,344 kilometres of railway, most of it privately owned by British companies. The growth of the railways also attracted trading concerns, insurance brokerages, banking and financial enterprises, which brought many more ingleses to the region. The British later became involved in public utilities such as gas, tramways and water supply. Even though ‘the British share of immigrants was never to surpass four percent of the annual total’ (Jakubs 2000: 136), the impact they had in terms of the sporting environment was wholly disproportionate to their size.

The first organised sport played in Argentina was cricket. It is claimed that the first games were played in the Retiro district of the city of Buenos Aires during the English invasions in 1806 and 1807. It may also have been played in the rural district of San Antonio de Areco in Buenos Aires Province (Graham-Yooll 1999:176), where many of the prisoners from the invasions were incarcerated by the Viceroyalty of the River Plate. The first recorded game was at the country house of James Brittain in 1817 in the city district of Barracas (Raffo 2004:33). After many attempts, the first club, the Buenos Aires Cricket Club (BACC) was formed in 1831. However, it appears that references to the club disappeared in the late 1830s, though they reappeared during the Mitre era (1862-8). [7] In 1864 the BACC was re-formed officially and a pitch was inaugurated at Palermo Park in the city of Buenos Aires, which became the chief focus for cricket in Argentina.

The sporting trends that were emerging in Britain during the mid-Victorian period soon made their presence felt in Argentina with the first recorded football match played on 20 June 1867 by a group of British players in the grounds of BACC in Palermo. Many teams were formed during the following years, but few records remain. The most significant development was the formation of a team at the Buenos Aires English High School in 1891 by its Scottish headmaster Watson Hutton, later to become Alumni. The club was the most successful in the amateur era and took part in the inaugural Association Football League (AAFL) [8] competition in 1893. Other clubs were formed during that period, which still exist today, including Banfield AC, Rosario Central and Quilmes Athletic. It is no accident that many of the early clubs grew up around the railway stations.

Rugby Union made it first appearance in 1873 when the first game was played at Palermo. Though there are some claims that the first game on the continent was played across the river Plate in Montevideo in 1865 (Richards 2007:54). It was soon adopted as the code to be played at the Buenos Ayres Football Club. In 1874, BACC also adopted the code after a Mr Coghlan, president of the club, highlighted the confusing regulations that applied to football, so it was decided to apply the rules of Rugby Union as the preferred code. Generally it was cricket clubs that were the earliest ‘incubators’ of the sport (Richards 2007: 54). It would appear that the game became so popular that it threatened the survival of football. Due to the number of casualties, the sport was banned for a period, but made its reappearance again in 1886. The game spread to other cities with the founding of clubs in Rosario in 1886 and Córdoba in 1898. It was not until 1899 that a governing body, the River Plate Rugby Union (later to be come the Unión Argentina de Rugby), was formed.

Horseracing ‘English style’ on a round course was introduced in 1826, when the Buenos Ayres Race Club was founded by ingleses. The Foreign Amateurs Race Sporting Society was founded in 1849 and was active between 1849 and 1855, when it closed down due to disagreements among its members. By that time, it had been superseded by a number of smaller clubs. The equine sport most synonymous with Argentina, polo, made its first recorded appearance in 1875 at the ‘Negrete’ ranch of James Anderson Shennan (Graham-Yooll 1999:179). Following from that, the game became very popular among the English-speaking landed elite.

Other British sports arrived in Argentina, such as rowing, which was introduced on the river Luján in Tigre in 1871, lawn tennis in 1881 and hockey in 1905. ‘British sports became an important part of national life and the only aspect of the British community that put Britons in close social and cultural contact with Argentines’ (Graham-Yooll 1999: 175).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

Kennedy, John, 'The Sporting Dimension to the Relationship Between Ireland and Latin America' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 3-14. Available online (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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