The Sporting Life: Murder Stopped Play

By David Flin

Cricket match at College Park, Dublin, in the early 1900s

Cricket is, they say, a game for Gentlemen. In the 1920s, cricket in Britain had very clear class divisions. Gentlemen played as amateurs, receiving no pay, but collecting generous expenses for their time; players were professionals who were paid for their efforts. Many games between Gentlemen and Players, or Gentlemen and other groups took place.

One such game was arranged between the Gentlemen of Ireland and the Military of Ireland, for the 3-4 June, 1921 at College Park, Trinity College, Dublin. A lot of troops from the British Army were here, this being at the tail-end of the Irish War of Independence, and it had been a long time since the Gentlemen of Ireland had been able to play against good opponents.

The war had effectively come to an end. The largely Protestant Gentlemen were keen to take advantage of the opportunity to play against a team from the British Army.

The Gentlemen of Ireland quickly took control of the game, to the delight of the crowd. Bob Lambert and Wenty Allen were particular favourites of the crowd. The Military were bowled out for 108, Allen taking five wickets, and received “many admiring glances from ladies in the crowd.” In response, the Gentlemen of Ireland had taken their score to 266 by the tea interval, with Lambert and John Crawford “smashing the bowling to all corners of the ground.”

It has a familiar feel to anyone who followed English cricket in the 1990s; an English side being humiliated by an opponent, with an abject surrender by the English side.

At 5.30pm, just as the tea break was coming to an end, the band that had been entertaining the crowd began to leave the field of play. As it did so, shots rang out from railings on one side of the ground. The bandsmen and the fielders threw themselves to the ground. The two batsmen looked on it stunned disbelief before they too were hauled to the ground by soldiers.

According to a report in the Irish Times, two men had cycled up: “and carefully placed their machines against the kerbstone. They advanced towards the railings and, producing revolvers, fired them in the direction of the players. They then put their revolvers in their pockets, remounted their bicycles, and rode away.”

The incident happened so quickly that most of the crowd had not reacted before it was all over, and the players picking themselves up. The umpires and captains decided to continue with the game. On the face of it, the IRA had launched an attack, but failed to hit any of the soldiers.

There the matter would have ended, had that been all. However, before another ball could be bowled, there was another disturbance. One of the spectators had collapsed. Miss Kathleen Wright, a Trinity student, had gone to the game with her fiancé, George Hubert Ardill, the son of a clergyman from Sligo.

The Irish Times reported that ‘Miss Kathleen Alexanderson Wright received a bullet wound in the back, with a corresponding exit wound in the breast, from which blood flowed freely’. Shortly after, she collapsed and died.

Incredibly, after the shooting, the match resumed. The Provost of Trinity, John Henry Bernard, came to the ground, and the match was abandoned.

The attackers made good their escape.

The attackers were Paddy O’Connor and Jim McGuiness of the IRA. Paddy O’Connor made a statement that was not available to the public until the release of documents from the Bureau of Military History in 2003. His version of events was:

“During the summer of 1921, a cricket match was held in Trinity College between the Gentlemen of Ireland and the Military. We were instructed to stop this match taking place. Our instructions were that we were to go down to the vicinity of Trinity College and fire into the grounds. Jimmy McGuinness and myself cycled down as the match was just starting. From a position behind the boundary wall of Trinity College at Lincoln Place, the two of us opened fire in the general direction of the players. After the first couple of rounds were fired, a lady spectator jumped up from one of the seats and got killed by a stray shot. The match was not proceeded with.”

In general, the basic facts agree. Not in all details, however. There had been no other suggested that she had jumped, risen, or even moved before being struck, and that all the evidence suggests that she had been hit by a very wildly aimed shot.

It was at this point that claim and counter-claim emerged. Newspapers and the IRA claimed that Kathleen Wright was English, although she was one of the fourth generation of the family to have been educated at Trinity. Her uncle, Sir Charles Wright, was the assistant librarian at the National Library of Ireland, and the family had lived in Ireland for over 300 years.

There were accusations that she was a Protestant, and therefore not welcome in Ireland. It’s perfectly true that she was a Protestant, but the fact being used to somehow suggest that her death wasn’t something that should be apologised for sounds very familiar to anyone familiar with The Troubles in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998.

There were accusations that the Gentlemen of Ireland and the Military were at fault. As always in incidents like this, it seems that organisations believe that the greatest crime lies in admitting a terrible mistake was made.

The incident caused a stir for a few months, and then faded from memory as the Irish Civil War started.

As I write this article, I do so where one of the lead stories is the killing of the journalist Lyra McKee, shot in Derry by members of the New IRA who fired recklessly across a crowd, killing a bystander. Plus ça change.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow