In August 1924, Tex Austin’s International Rodeo arrived in Dublin and laid on an ‘engrossing and astonishing’ seven day spectacle at Croke Park. The people of Ireland had never seen the like of it. But boy did they enjoy it. Tickets to the world-famous rodeo sold out in record time as crowds of up to 35,000 made their way to Croker for the daily shows at 2:30pm and 6:30pm. In advance of the event, the audience were promised an opportunity to bear witness to:
‘… skill, strength, courage and all other qualities that go into the making of a real man … and [which] are regarded as insurance against any possible development of a race of mollycoddles’.
The programme also contained a cowboy dictionary of terms such as ‘man killer’, ‘outlaw’ and ‘saddle emptier’. Posters for the show featured a young man on an explosive, rearing horse carrying his sombrero in one hand, a huge cloud of earthy smoke beneath them.
It also promised ‘Outlaw Horses with Wicked Records!’ that were ‘not merely untamed, but untameable’ and which would thus ‘test the skill, courage and horsemanship of the world’s greatest riders’. [But presumably these horses were herded in from somewhere in Ireland or the UK, or did they really come all the way from the USA and, if so, hadn’t they been broken by then?!]
‘Rodeo’ is a Mexican word for ‘round up’ and the round up at first meant a mobilization of cattle for shipping purposes, as seen in the Baz Luhrman film, ‘Australia’. The history of rodeo was straightforward. First there were small local competitions, generally matches between the best men of individual outfits who they chanced to meet, probably while driving their respective herds to a shipping point. It then grew to be a State or provincial, the National and finally became International. The Times noted that the rules in these competitions were ‘precise and complicated’.
‘They do say that the finest sight in the world is a fine man on a fine horse’, said showman John ‘Tex’ Austin. ‘But I’ll tell you a better – a fine man on a buck jumper’. Tex knew how to lay on a good show. Born in 1886, the Texan enjoyed a successful career as a rancher before marketing the concept of ‘rodeo’ as a sport in 1918. In the early 1920s, he organized rodeos at Chicago Stadium, New York’s Madison Square Garden.
In June 1924, his rodeo crossed the ocean and went on show at the newly opened Wembley Stadium in London. Managed by theatre expert Charles Blake Cochran, a colleague of Noel Coward colleague, the First International Rodeo had a two week run at Wembley’s Empire Stadium from 14-28n June. The Times described it as ‘a championship contest, said to be the most popular sport on cattle-raising countries’ (ie: USA, Canada, Australia). It was also the first of its kind held in UK. There were two performances a day, with 5/6, 8/6 and 12/6 per ticket. Proceeds from opening day went to a charity.
From Wembley, the International Rodeo crossed over to Dublin, where it was hosted by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in their stadium at Croke Park. The Dublin show began on 18 August with the first of two special performances for the benefit of the Jubilee Nurses.
Tex Austin always insisted his rodeo was a sporting competition, not a Wild West Show. That did not stop crowds turning up on the off-chance they might see Calamity Jane shoot a pack of playing cards or maybe get a glimpse of Sitting Bull’s impassive face. But few who attended the Croke Park rodeo can have left disappointed.
The principal event was steer wrestling, a contest determined by the length of time it took the wrestler, who started on horseback, to leap from his pony and wrestle a running steer to the ground. Also on offer was bronk riding (ie: the riding of unbroken horses), trick riding and pony express (or relay) races, where competing cowboys changed horses and saddles four times over the course of a mile. In a similar contest for cowgirls, the mounts were changed four times but not the saddles.
The day culminated with a wild horse race in which cowboys and cowgirls chased and saddled unbroken horses, and rode them for a minimum of fifty yards without a bridle.
The Dublin crowd were spared the steer-roping which had so appalled the London crowds in June after a heavy white Hereford, at full gallop, was roped around the neck and thrown so heavily that he broke his leg and had to be shot in front of everyone. This resulted in a costly court action by the RSPCA, who lost.
Once this event was removed from the programme, everything else was designed so that ‘even the most tender-hearted nature-lover can watch without compunction’. Nonetheless, several complained to the papers that ‘making a circus’ of these ‘necessary’ rural practices was ‘demoralizing’ and ‘disgusting’. One cavalry captain advocated that:
‘… if we must return to barbarism and reintroduce the Circus of Rome, then let us have more noble sport, and fight man against man, armed with sword, net and trident. Let our giants wrestle with our strong men’. But for man to fight the most noble and nervous beast that serves him – the horse – and wrestle with the brute upon which he will shortly feed is a very silly and sordid business’.
Some credence to Tex Austin’s claim that this was a genuine sporting competition was gained by the fact none of the sixty cowboys and cowgirls who took part were professionals or, for that matter, amateurs. Nor were they paid. They were mostly ranch workers although some had worked their way up to become ranch owners.
Each person covered their own costs of entering and training for the championship, hoping to win back the costs and a good deal more by capturing one of the lucrative prizes on offer. Many were already household names in North America, while others came from Canada, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. At least six were of Irish decent, most notably Tommy Kirnan, regarded as the world maestro of roping, and the beautiful Vera McGinnis, whose party trick was to crawl under a horse’s belly while it was at full gallop. Others said to have been of Irish descent include Ambrose ‘Nowata Slim’ Richardson, Ruth Roche, Bea Kirnan and Jim McDonagh.
A further attraction was the ‘extremely funny’ Red Sublett, the highest paid clown in the rodeo business. Accompanied by his sidekick mule ‘Spark Plug’, Red was paid $4,000 and expenses to perform in Dublin. ‘Shucks, I had always wanted to see Ireland’, he later remarked. ‘I would have worked that rodeo for the ship ticket, a daily ration of corn beef and cabbage, and a bottle of Irish whiskey.’
With thanks to the GAA Museum, and specifically to Selina O’Regan, GAA Museum Education Officer, and Mark Dorman, GAA Museum Director.