The bat that died for Ireland

Prince Christian Victor, the grandson of Queen Victoria Getty Images

"Serious sport," George Orwell once wrote, "has nothing to do with fair play. It is war minus the shooting."

In cricket history, this has been proved true a few times. However, a remarkable object in the National Museum of Ireland collection shows that, occasionally, Orwell's claim actually isn't bold enough: a crafted piece of willow with a .303 calibre bullet lodged in its midriff, known with some affection as The Cricket Bat That Died For Ireland.

If symbolic of Anglo-Irish relations at the turn of the 20th century*, the shot bat also helps reveal the strange, sad role that Ireland's cricketers played in the country's struggles for self-government.

The most extraordinary tale comes from an 1890 match between the national team and the nomadic amateur club I Zingari. To claim that one dismissal could encapsulate the story of Irish independence sounds ridiculous. However, it does, and it happened 123 years ago this week, at Phoenix Park, Dublin, when Prince Christian Victor was caught by Frank Browning off the bowling of George Berkeley.

The dismissal itself was fairly unremarkable: a catch at the wicket off a left-arm bowler. The reasons that make it so significant are the three young protagonists and the way their lives entwined again with tragic consequences more than two decades later.

The 23-year-old batsman, Prince Christian Victor, was an officer of the King's Royal Rifle Corps, having joined the army after leaving school. He would go on to serve under Lord Kitchener in Sudan and then fight in the Second Boer War in South Africa, where, in Pretoria in 1900, he contracted malaria and died, aged 33.

As a consequence, his direct role in the eventual independence of Ireland was minimal, but it was his status that matters to the story. For Prince Christian Victor - or, more properly, Prince Victor Albert Ludwig Ernest Anton Christian of Schleswig-Holstein (his family called him "Christle") - was the Windsor Castle-born grandson of Queen Victoria, and "a great favourite" of hers.

As a royal soldier, he could barely have been more redolent of the British establishment. For good measure, though, he was also the only member of the British Royal Family ever to play first-class cricket, at Scarborough in 1887, three years before the I Zingari match.

The bowler - George Fitz-Hardinge Berkeley, an Oxford scholar aged just 20 - wasn't quite of such high birth, though he also went on to become a British officer in the Boer War. Berkeley was nonetheless an Irishman, a major's son from Dublin, and became strongly supportive of Home Rule, the move to devolve at least some British parliamentary powers to a government based in Ireland.

On the cricket field, Berkeley was a very fine left-arm medium-pacer, taking 131 wickets in 32 first-class games, including 8 for 70 on debut for Oxford University against the Australians in 1890. In the portentous Phoenix Park match later that year, he claimed figures of 11 for 75, yet it was one of only two games he would play for his native country.

The pivotal figure in this story, though, is the 22 year-old wicketkeeper, Frank "Chicken" Browning. Quite why he was nicknamed thus is unclear, for if there was one thing he wasn't, it was cowardly. Born in Dun Laoghaire in 1868, Browning went to Marlborough College and then Dublin University, playing cricket for both institutions. He made his Ireland debut in 1888 against Scotland, and represented his country for the next 21 years.

Browning was captain 13 times, including for a 1907 game against the South Africans, a 1908 match versus Yorkshire, and - coming full circle - a clash with Scotland in 1909.

A reliable batsman as well as gloveman, Browning made a fine 50 against WG Grace's South of England XI in June 1890, and 40 and 31 in a famous victory over the South Africans in 1904. He fared less well in the I Zingari game, scoring 19 and 6. However, he did manage to stump Prince Christian Victor in the first innings, when Berkeley took 7 for 20, before combining with Berkeley to claim the Prince's scalp in the second too. Ireland won by three wickets.

At the time of that match, Home Rule in Ireland was the dominant issue of Anglo-Irish politics. In 1886, a first bill had been presented to the House of Commons, which rejected the motion. A second proposal, in 1893, was passed by the Commons but then vetoed by the House of Lords. Nationalists began to suspect that Home Rule would never be forthcoming, while Unionists, particularly in Ulster, feared it was on its way. Tensions were always close to the surface.

Both Browning and Berkeley became barristers, the former in Dublin, the latter in London. Still keen to promote the cause, Berkeley joined the council of the London Committee of Irish Volunteers, with another Irish veteran of the Boer War, Erskine Childers. Together with Nationalist Party leader John Redmond they supported Home Rule, but Berkeley did not believe that physical force should be used to achieve it, nor that Ireland should become a republic.

In 1914, with members of Prince Christian Victor's extended family taking the world to war, matters came to a head.

At the outbreak of hostilities, Browning, now president of the Irish Rugby Football Union, helped establish the IRF Corps. Those young enough for active service were sent to Gallipoli, while the older members - including Browning - stayed behind as a Home Guard. Thanks to their age and the fact their guns had the king's name in Latin emblazoned upon them, the men became known as the Gorgeous Wrecks.

If avoiding the unspeakable horrors of the eastern Mediterranean might have seemed a good thing, though, events were soon to bring carnage to the streets of Dublin.

Fearful of civil unrest, the British government had banned the importation of weapons into Ireland early in 1914, but more than 20,000 guns were smuggled from Germany into Ulster shortly afterwards to arm the Unionist volunteers. Concerned by this, Berkeley and supporters funded the purchase of 1000 German rifles, which were shipped into Howth, just north of Dublin, to ensure the Irish Volunteers could defend themselves.

Regardless of Berkeley's exact take, the push for independence gathered momentum. In the spring of 1916, having appealed to Germany for direct support, the Irish Volunteer Force united with the Irish Citizen Army, led by James Connolly, to form a republican militia. They planned an Easter insurrection, and the Germans sent a huge shipment of captured Russian arms to assist in its success.

The weapons were intercepted by the British Navy on April 21, but despite this, the leadership pressed on with the plans. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, taking command of various key buildings across central Dublin, Connolly and the republican leadership issued a proclamation of Irish independence. The Easter Rising had begun.

That weekend, Browning and the Gorgeous Wrecks had been on a weekend practice drill outside Dublin. On Easter Monday, they paraded their way back to the Beggars Bush barracks close to the Lansdowne Road rugby stadium, oblivious to what had unfolded.

Near the Mount Street Bridge across the Grand Canal, republican soldiers - led by James Grace and Lieutenant Michael Malone - were holed up in a series of houses overlooking this strategic junction. They had taken position to guard the area; to prevent any British soldiers entering the heart of the city.

As Browning's men approached, Malone and Grace presumed them to be the British Army and began shooting at them. Having only been on a practice drill, the Gorgeous Wrecks had no loaded weapons. Taken completely by surprise, they could not return fire. In panic, they ran towards the barracks, but many did not make it. By the time the rebels understood the reality of the situation and stopped firing, four of the IRF Corps had been mortally wounded.

The road was strewn with bodies, and startled locals dashed out to help. It was too late for Browning, though. He was taken to Beggars Bush and died there two days later, the only first-class cricketer to be killed in the Rising: shot by a German rifle, but far from the Western Front.

As if in parallel, while Browning lay dying, the cricket bat was added to the Rising's victims. On display in the window of JW Elvery & Co, Sackville Street, where the fighting was fiercest, it was hit on the 25th or 26th of April. Ironically, the bullet calibre shows it was fired by the British.

So, more than a quarter of a century after the catch, the wicketkeeper was killed by a gun the bowler bought to help liberate their country from the rule of the batsman's family. Berkeley was said to be "horrified" by events, but a man who purchased the armaments could hardly absolve himself of all responsibility for how they were used.

Across Dublin, the Rising saw 64 rebels, 116 soldiers and 254 civilians killed, but the republicans were vastly outnumbered by the British army, and after six days, the authorities eventually reclaimed control.

If the uprising had been shocking to most Dubliners, many of whom disapproved of the tactics, the British response was perhaps more so. With Dublin under military rule, most of the leaders were swiftly executed, inadvertently helping to cement public support for the Irish cause.

The 1918 UK elections saw a swathe of republican MPs elected to the British parliament, a second declaration of independence, and a full-blown war. Finally, in 1922, Ireland became a republic.

Almost nine decades on, despite many ups and downs, stability has prevailed. The political response to Ireland's successes at the 2007 World Cup (the photo shows unionist Ian Paisley and republican Martin McGuinness celebrating) showed that cricket can be a power to unite the country rather than divide.

As will be apparent on Tuesday, though, having your own sovereignty is one thing, sporting independence quite another. Ireland host England in Dublin with one of their own as opposition captain, and another as a recent acquisition. On the cricket field at least, the march of Irish progress still has some way to go.

Whatever happens, though, hopefully there will never be another moment with quite such fateful repercussions as that dismissal at Phoenix Park in August 1890.

*Sports scholar Sean Reid argues that, contrary to perception, cricket was not seen as "English" and that it was actually very popular in Ireland in the 19th century. In the 1860s and '70s, he suggests, only in England and Australia was the game played more widely and to a higher standard.