At a time when we are witnessing a movement away from the pursuit of blood sports it is perhaps opportune to look back at one of the most popular sports of another era. Cock fighting conjures up images of brutalised rustics indulging their sadistic tendencies in encouraging cocks to fight to the death. Maybe the image is not fair to those who nowadays surreptitiously follow their chosen sport but certainly it is not an accurate representation of cock fighting and its followers of times past.
A sport recorded in the 16th century as having originated in India it soon secured a strong foothold in England and Ireland. Cock fighting was a spectator sport which afforded the opportunity for side bets and it had the advantage of being both an indoor and an outdoor activity. It's popularity during the 17th and 18th centuries led to the construction of cockpits in most of the villages and towns of Ireland. Indeed it is quite surprising to find that the Quaker village of Ballytore had a cockpit in 1827.
In the town of Athy a cockpit was located just off the main street in premises now occupied by Griffin Hawe, hardware merchants. The 18th century octagonal shaped building was in a state of dereliction when it first came to the notice of the Local Authority but happily it's owners agreed to restore the building.
The cockpit as constructed was 26 ft. wide and 12 ft. high to the wall plate with a further 12 ft. to the apex of the roof. A door above ground level confirms the probability of a gallery around the walls of the octagonal building to accommodate spectators. It is likely that the spectators were also accommodated at ground level as the average fighting area provided for the cocks was some 13 ft. in diameter. No doubt the working man stood in the pit while the gentry watched from the relative comfort and safety of the gallery above.
The fighting cocks were fitted with artificial metal spurs and set to battle with each other to the death. The only persons allowed inside the fighting pit were the two men in charge of the cocks called "setters" and the teller who in modern parlance would be regarded as the umpire. The “setters” were required occasionally to disengage the cocks if their spurs became entangled or to place the cocks face to face in the event of either showing any reluctance to fight. In every fight to the death the winner emerged only with the killing of the other cock. Truly it was and remains a cruel sport even if it's primary purpose was to afford an opportunity for wagers to be laid.
No record of the activity in the Athy cockpit remains, probably because of the laws attempts in the first half of the 19th century to put an end to organised cock fighting. The indoor venues fell into disuse after the passing of the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1849 and the sport moved outdoors. The popularity of the sport did not diminish over the years as evidenced by a report in the Leinster Leader of the 30th of September, 1916. The newspaper reported that
"among the fifty odd Defendants who will figure at Kilcullen Petty Sessions on today (Friday 29th) for alleged participation in a cock fight at Kilrush on July 11th are three members of the Athy Board of Guardians, two Solicitors and two Doctors."
In the subsequent trial Police Constable Healy gave evidence of being on patrol on the night of July 11th when he was passed by several motors which turned down a side road to Chapel Farm near Ballyshannon. Other motors continued to arrive until there were 64 of them present and over 1,000 spectators. The hampers containing the cocks were taken into the kitchen of the farmhouse and the spurs screwed on. A ring was then formed of piers of green boughs broken off a tree stuck down in the ground outside of which the crowd stood to witness the cock fighting. The Constable indicated that there were 11 main fights and that the last fight ended at 10.00 a.m.
The local M.P., Denis Kilbride of Luggacurran eviction fame, later raised the Kilrush Cock Fighting Case in the House of Commons in London and in the course of a reply the British Attorney General indicated that occasions such as these were controlled by a central organisation for betting purposes.
Cock fighting is no longer one of the field sports of Doctors, Lawyers or public representatives, although I am not so sure that the Dail Chamber, aye and even the Council Chamber have not at times taken on a striking resemblance to a modern day cockpit.