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Physical Culture in Ireland, 1893 - 1939

Physical Culture in Ireland, 1893 – 1939

Researcher: Conor Heffernan


Project: Physical Culture in Ireland, 1893 – 1939

Funded By: The Irish Research Council and Universities Ireland

Research Questions:

1)    What caused the Irish interest in physical culture and what, in turn, was caused by it?

2)    What impact did the various regimes of physical culture have on normative gender identities within Ireland?

A form of exercise more akin to bodybuilding and gymnastics than competitive sport, ‘physical culture’ represented a transnational health interest of remarkable scope. Appearing across large swathes of the British Empire, mainland Europe and the Americas, physical culture systems, monographs and diets encouraged individuals to lift weights, watch their caloric intake and monitor their body’s every change. To date historians have explored the physical culture phenomena in several English and non-English speaking countries including but not limited to Great Britain and her colonies, the United States, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the Scandinavian states, China and many more. Such interest, has not however, been reciprocated within the Irish context save for a few cursory studies on the physical culturist Eugen Sandow, who made a brief appearance in Joyce’s Ulysses.


Surveying four decades of Irish history, the research explores the implementation of physical culture into several official and recreational fields. In the first instance, the work seeks to explore the role of physical culture within the military, policing and school setting throughout the period discussed. Following this, efforts are made to examine physical culture within the recreational setting, that is within the gymnasium and the sporting context. Interested in a time of great upheaval in Irish history, this research encompasses keystone moments in Irish history such as the failure of Home Rule, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, partition and the emergence of two new States within the same land mass. The use and meaning of physical culture changed alongside the socio-political context, as did its popularity.

Alongside tracking the causes behind, and impact of, the Irish interest in physical culture, the research’s underlying motivation is to understand the impact physical culture had on individual and groups’ relationship with their physical body. Exercise, under the label of physical culture, forced a literal change in the exerciser’s physical and mental being. This change was often linked with loftier ideals about becoming a ‘better’ man or ‘improved’ woman. How were these ideas mapped onto the physical body? Could the act of exercising challenge prevailing ideals about gender? Or did it reinforce them? Furthermore, how did the act of exercising intersect with issues of class, race and context?

Supervisor: Associate Professor Paul Rouse

Contact UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland

School of History, Room J113, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
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