The National Rifle Association is a powerful organisation these days, to the despair of America’s gun control campaigners. But it was not always so. And strange to say, whether we want to or not, Ireland can claim an important role in making the NRA what it is.
The story begins with an epochal event 150 years ago this summer, when Irish marksmen humbled their English and Scottish counterparts to win an annual contest for a thing called the Elcho Shield.
This was an upset not just for the formbook, but the rulebook too. As the NRA website notes, it was a triumph over gun-control UK-style. During the first years of the Elcho competition (named for its founder, Lord Elcho) in the early 1860s: “The British had excluded the Irish from the challenge, not wanting to encourage shooting skills from the perceived ‘rebel’ faction of their kingdom.”
Eventually, thanks to the lobbying of one Capt Arthur Blennerhassett Leech, a team from this island was allowed enter, but for several years struggled to compete with the greater resources of the opposition.
Then came 1873, when the Irish “eight” beat England, Scotland, and the weather: defying stormy conditions in Wimbledon to record a near-perfect 354 hits from 360 shots, almost beating the record, which had been set in a dead calm.
Capt Leech was no rebel in the political sense. Although proud of his country, he was also a unionist. But even the then like-minded Irish Times lauded the result as a victory for the oppressed underdog.
“While English and Scotch riflemen are in the enjoyment of facilities for incessant practice and may be numbered by tens of thousands,” it commented, “the vast bulk of the people of Ireland are debarred from the use of arms, and the class out of which their representatives in the international arena may be chosen are counted by the score.”
Even so: “the Irishman’s martial instincts, visible in their glorious fruits everywhere but at home, [have asserted] themselves in the most trying competition”.
And strangely foreshadowing the language of 1916, the newspaper concluded: “The policy of coercion and distrust persistently applied to this country has failed to effect the object for which it was initiated – the extirpation of the military spirit of the Irish people.”
The hero of this military revival, meanwhile, was now turning his attentions across the Atlantic. In a letter to the New York Herald in 1874, Capt Leech proposed a challenge match against local sharpshooters, for the “Rifle Championship of the world”.
Among his conditions were that a “sufficient stake” be put down: “not for the sake of a trifling pecuniary gain, but as a guarantee that the Irish team will meet representative shots of America.”
In another sign of confidence, he later donated what is now the Leech Cup, a masterpiece of Irish silversmithing which his hosts were in turn invited to present to the competition’s “best man”.
Leech had good reasons to be confident of taking the silver tankard home again, because long-distance shooting was not something for which the US was noted then.
Union Army records from the Civil War suggested that only one in every 1,000 shots fired had hit their target, causing Gen Ambrose Burnside to lament: “Out of ten soldiers who are perfect in drill . . . only one knows the purpose of the sights on his gun or can hit the broad side of a barn.”
Results of this humiliating realisation included the establishment in 1871 of the NRA. But the association was still largely unknown before October 1874. Then “the Great International Rifle Match” changed everything.
Hyped by the local press, the contest at Long Island drew thousands of spectators. Hawkers sold “‘Merican sandwiches” and “Dublin pies” to respective supporters. Any humble pie, however, was reserved for the visiting marksmen.
In a close, high-quality contest, a man named Bodine edged the result for the home side, thereby winning Leech’s tankard. It was a shock result but no fluke, as confirmed a year later when the Americans also won the return match in Dublin.
Soon they launched their own international competition, for the Centennial trophy. And boosted by the success and publicity, the NRA thrived. As an item on its website notes, the Irish challenge of 1874 had given it “purpose”.
For its first century, the association was non-partisan and relatively uncontroversial. Only from the 1970s did it become increasingly associated with the Republican Party, and with right-wing politics of the “God, guns, and freedom” variety.
But the Leech Cup remains a link to 1874.
Described by the original donor (in a contemporary newspaper summary) as “made of Irish silver, and worked in Ireland, and as Irish as the rifles they shot with, and as the hearts that beat in the bosoms of the marksmen”, it is now America’s oldest shooting cup, presented annually by the National Rifle Association.