The Role of Sport for The Irish Working Class: Lacrosse and Hockey

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Words: 2028 |

Pages: 4|

11 min read

Published: Oct 25, 2021

Words: 2028|Pages: 4|11 min read

Published: Oct 25, 2021

In the 19th century, Montreal had become the central hub for economic activity, where businesses settled their factories and their wealthy owners settled their families. Griffintown in particular became a magnet for Irish emigrants escaping troubles in their native country of Ireland. Whether they were escaping the cholera crisis or the famine, Irish newcomers would largely contribute to becoming the growing working-class population of Griffintown. It was not an ideal residential area and instead became a “busy inner-city working-class neighborhood”, where, Irish emigrants worked on the Lachine canal immediately after arriving to Montreal. The newly arrived Irish population were at a significant economic disadvantage, they were not necessarily receiving high wages for the amount of labor they put into the canal. Out of this, a set perception of the Irish in Montreal arose. Middle-class views towards them mostly involved negative connotations, the image of: an impoverished group, of a sickly lot, of a barbarous nature. The noticeable strain between the classes translates itself through the participation in sports. In an era where Griffintown’s working-class were labelled with many preconceptions, perhaps more positive memories like the popularization of sports in Irish industrial working-class neighborhoods, could alleviate such presumptions. Sports such as lacrosse and hockey were utilized by the upper-class to undermine working-class communities, however also served as a tool of empowerment for the latter. This essay will look at the role of sports in enabling working-class Irishmen to display their worth through a strong sense of masculinity, increase their morale while at the same time build a certain level of respectability and social status; all while overcoming negative presumptions about their community.

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The Montreal Shamrocks, the first Canadian hockey team, on a grand scale, acts as truly the first leading symbol of Canadian nationalism, but for the Irish community, it was a means of displaying their manly prowess on stage. In the article “Imagining a Canadian Identity through Sport: A Historical Interpretation of Lacrosse and Hockey”, Robidoux explains the reasoning behind the need for a distinct Canadian sport. Canadians are looking to create their own identity and disassociate with Britain, which could explain why Canadian soil has all but forgotten cricket. The sport is a no-contact sport and, it represents “civil expressions of masculinity”. Ironically, a less popularized sport in today’s society followed suit: lacrosse. The Montreal Shamrocks Lacrosse Club was the foundation of the Shamrocks hockey team. It focused on “physical superiority, bodily awareness,” that during colonization, was borrowed by the French because of “their infatuation with First Nations masculinity”. George Beers, a middle-class dentist, took the initiative to promote lacrosse as Canada’s national sport. From promoting in newspapers, writing a whole book in support for its inclusion as Canada’s national sport, he eventually wrote the first set of rules for the game.

This new and improved sport “benefitted both mind and soul.” This clearly eliminates or otherwise limits the originally physical aspects of the sport, coming to the interpretation that violence and roughness was not a part of a middle-class ideal of masculinity. As Robidoux mentions, the Montreal Shamrocks LC were the “social misfits”, and part of the working-class: they were the complete opposite. The Shamrocks lacrosse team created a distinct shift between other teams in the league. The players, originating from the working class, were mostly catholic, and often disagreed with Beers’ “elite anglo values” rules of the games. On the field, they completely disregarded these new standards as a sign of revolt against their social superiors, but this can also be interpreted as a showing of their fearlessness, machismo and an attempt to challenge the undermining of their character. Being more violent, aggressive, and physical is precisely what Beers wanted removed from the sport, because it was seen as a primitive form of play associated with indigenous tribes. In this sense, the working-class Irishmen who were part of the lacrosse team were seen as barbarous and thus this image is relayed to the rest of the working- class Irish population in Montreal.

Griffintown and other Irish neighborhoods were a large part of the supporting factor of the Shamrocks LC. Their fans were “boisterous and verbally offensive” towards the middle-class’ “soft play” per say, again as a show of distaste for their superiors. The type of “manly” behavior that fans were exposed to certainly influenced them as it was not uncommon for scuffles to occur amongst fans in the middle of play. For example, a few “Irish [Shamrocks fans] assaulted fans of the opposite team during a match between the Shamrocks and another Montreal team” in order to distract the opposite team, wanting to win, no matter what means. One could even mention the importance of muscular Christianity to the working-class Irish folk. This notion is meant to exemplify teamwork and perseverance through recreational activities, but also “achieving salvation” while being in good health.11 In this case hockey and lacrosse are used as a tool to grow such traits in men. For example, St-Ann’s parish in Griffintown still “operated sports teams for the boys” in the 1950s, showing just how important sports had become within the religious community on a long-term basis and its connection with a certain ideal of masculinity and manliness throughout. This arguably gave them a sense of pride, and further solidified their Irish identity.

In a diary written by a British traveler named Michael Buckley, he recalls the Irish in Montreal being extremely involved with the game of Lacrosse. He notes their perseverance in practice and their desire for achieving “glory”. Interestingly, this sport did not bring to fruition any monetary reward, yet the working-class Irish men still took time out of their limited hours to the position in which the men are posed. The players aim to show the definition in their muscles and raise their chests. This picture very much exemplifies a strong sense of manliness in their composure participate. As Buckley notes, “they were all artisans and had little time for so laborious an amusement as Lacrosse”. This indicates that sports were more than just physical activity but more so acted as a distraction form their busy daily lives in a way uplifting the morale, that was often quite low. Similarly, it served as a way to entertain their own community as well, as “thousands are to assemble…having paid fifty cents a head”. Lacrosse, and later hockey, became an outlet for entertainment and an amusement among most of the Irish community.

Being involved in sports meant that even if one was part of the Irish working-class, they would still exude high respectability as a man, even if it was respect coming from the lower-classes of the Irish. For Irish lacrosse athletes originating from working-class or poorer backgrounds in Montreal, it was a means for them to gain some sort of respectability and break through the barrier between themselves and the middle-class or the bourgeois. The notion of coming out as the victor, no matter what type of violent, aggressive or physical game is played, was certainly not a quality in the middle-class, gentlemanly play that can be observed in other teams, where most players were economically superior. Chi-Kit Wong is very adamant in stating that, as opposed to hockey, lacrosse very much grew as “a manifestation of working-class culture.” There was an attempt to bring Lacrosse into the mainstream line of “Anglophone culture”, trying to remove the “undesirable”, making it solely available to the elite. In essence, lacrosse certainly is, as Robidoux states, “an identifiable articulation of who they were as men”, but also as a way of making themselves visible to the upper-classes, especially for the Irish Montrealers.17 Following lacrosse, hockey became the main sport that Canada nationalized and made its own. Overtime, the gentlemanly play that was encouraged by the bourgeois and middle-class members of society quickly faded away. The “violent and aggressive style separated itself from other bourgeois pastimes”. Several sport writers were not very receptive of hockey because it “[stood] unfit for gentlemen”. The ideas of roughness and physicality that were looked down upon previously in lacrosse were now glorified and praised, newspapers were very active in reporting for sports, being critical of the roughness, but also praising their abilities. The Montreal Shamrocks hockey club was an organization that not only represented the Irish as a whole but also the values of community. It is clear how both lacrosse and hockey played a role in igniting certain expectations for working class groups but also igniting a certain level of animosity and rivalry between them and the middle-class. This is an example of the type of journalism surrounding sports, this article is titled “Lacrosse: Shamrocks Badly Beaten.” This piece is interesting because of the vocabulary being used, the writer clearly associates the sport of lacrosse, but also the title of the Shamrocks, to the Irish class, showing just how much they have proved themselves worthy of the sport. However, the Torontonian also downgrades the Montreal Shamrocks saying, “it only took the Torontos two minutes to demonstrates their superiority.” One could interpret a sense of class difference and bias between both communities. The rivalry between both teams is clear but more importantly the opposition between the classes is evident.

The power of sports quite evidently intersects in the lives of Irish-Montrealers their social standing began to change. As lacrosse started off as a working-class sport and slowly transitioned to a sport of bourgeoisie, hockey quickly became an institutionalized sport and became quite common in schools of higher education. Naturally, this leads to opportunities for the Irish community, working-class or not, to expand into a more respectable social class and appear reputable to others outside of their circle. In Canada’s library and archives collection, Michelle Vigneault writes about French-Canadian participation in the sport of hockey. In this, he emphasizes how the Irish were responsible for teaching French students within these universities. To put into perspective, the amount of Francophone teams and players increased dramatically, by 1900, there were 148 francophone players when comparing to a measly two players in 1885. It is interesting to note how even through attending separate schools (Loyola was built exclusively for anglophones, currently part of Concordia University), Vigneault notes how both groups still created a bond and cooperated together in the sport of hockey. While the French-Canadians were mostly denied from entering senior hockey teams, the Irish community often supported them. Not only did sports create positive relationships with other groups, but hockey propelled many Irish- Montrealers into the upper class of Montreal. Where for example, members from the 1901 Montreal Shamrocks hockey team quickly became respected members of society, more notably Harry Trihey. Who became quite an established lawyer after leaving the team.

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In conclusion, the role of sports within the working-class, specifically for the Irish community in Montreal, was impactful. It acted as a morale booster for many of the men and their families, becoming a hobby that would define the very character of their community. It allowed Irish men who were constantly undermined to find a common ground, or at least attempt to create a space for themselves on the playing social field and stand equally amongst the bourgeoisie, even mingling with other groups. Playing lacrosse and hockey provided the Irish working class a sense of manly pride and worth amongst themselves that throughout the late 19th century, could not receive anywhere else. Lacrosse and hockey indeed worked as an overall social and political role in the lives of the Irish working-class.


  1. Barlow, Matthew. Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017.
  2. Barlow, Matthew. “The Montreal Shamrocks Hockey Club.” Accessed March 20, 2019.
  3. Blake, Jason, Andrew C. Holman. The Same but Different: Hockey in Quebec. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press. 2017.
  4. Buckley, M. Diary of a tour in America. Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker, 1889.
  5. Chi-kit Wong, John. Coast to Coast: Hockey in Canada to the Second World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.
  6. Fisher, M. Donald. Lacrosse: A History of the Game. Baltimore: JHU Press, 2002.
  7. Putney, Clifford. “Muscular Christianity.” Accessed April 1st, 2019.
  8. Robidoux, A. Micheal. 'Imagining a Canadian Identity through Sport: A Historical Interpretation of Lacrosse and Hockey,' The Journal of American Folklore 115, no. 456 (2002): 209- 25.
  9. Vigneault, Michel. “French-Canadian Tradition.” Accessed March 18th. http://webarchive.bac- 24002-2101-e.html
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The Role of Sport for the Irish Working Class: Lacrosse and Hockey. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“The Role of Sport for the Irish Working Class: Lacrosse and Hockey.” GradesFixer, 25 Oct. 2021,
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