Extract 'With the GAA's nationalist ties, Irish soccer faced a strong challenge'

Conor Curran shares an extract from his book, Soccer and Society in Dublin.

IN THE LATE nineteenth century, many sports as we know them today gained their original rules and matches and clubs began to attract more public interest.

In Dublin, association football or soccer as it is more commonly known in the United States of America began to gain support. The first soccer club in Dublin, the Dublin Association Football Club, was founded in October 1883 with those who had experience of the game in other areas such as Belfast, Scotland and England prominent in its development.

Shortly afterwards, a club was established in Trinity College Dublin and took the name of Dublin University Association Football Club. The two fledgling clubs met in the first match between two clubs in the city at Trinity College Park in the fall of that year. The soccer code slowly began to gain public interest, despite opposition from organisers of rugby football, which had by the early 1880s already been growing in popularity in Dublin. The foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884 also saw the formation of rules for another football code, Gaelic, the following year, which took up more of the sporting space in the city. 

A new sport

Soccer in Dublin was slower to take hold than in the northern city of Belfast, where the Irish Football Association, which was reluctant to provide support for clubs and regional branches outside that area, had been founded in 1880. However, after some involvement in the IFA’s cup competitions and numerous friendly matches, Dublin’s early clubs gained their own provincial structure when the Leinster Football Association was established in the Wicklow Hotel in 1892.

By then, the Dublin Association Football Club had folded but a number of its members became involved in the Leinster Nomads Football Club.

Bohemians Football Club had by then been founded with medical men prominent in this and it would go on to become one of the city’s most popular and successful clubs.

The foundation of Shelbourne Football Club in 1895, ‘an offspring of the old Tritonville club’, was also important in that it grew in strength and like Bohemians, would later win the IFA Cup. Their entry into the Irish League in the early 1900s helped raise interest in the game in Dublin as Belfast teams began to travel more regularly to play competitive matches there.

Figure 17 Pearse Square Play Centre soccer 1970 DCC Library granted (1) Pearse Square play Centre Soccer in 1970.

In 1905 Shelbourne became a professional club, but soccer in Ireland lacked the capital, population and support to develop a mass following like that in parts of the more heavily industrialised Britain such as Manchester or Glasgow, and in turn an infrastructure of full-time professional football. In 1908, the two clubs met in the IFA Cup final at Dalymount Park, with Bohemians winning the trophy two years after their opponents had initially done so.

The Leinster FA’s league and cup matches were fundamental to the growth of the game in Dublin. Clubs were established which reflected a more diverse socio-economic background in the 1890s than that of the early middle class teams of Dublin Association Football Club and the Dublin University Football Club.

Amongst these were those founded from neighbourhoods, churches, pubs, religious institutions and factories, such as St James’s Gate, the club of the Guinness Brewery, in 1907, and in 1902, Jacob’s, which had its origins in the biscuit factory. By the early 1900s, the diversity of Dublin clubs was reflected in the presence of a Richmond Asylum team in the Leinster Junior League, while the existence of the Railway and Steampacket Companies Irish Athletic and Social Union AFC, initially based at the organisation’s headquarters at Park Avenue, was another example of how the growth of soccer since the 1880s in Dublin had become more widespread.


Numerous Dublin soccer players served in the First World War (1914-18) as part of the British Army. Clubs such as Olympia, Bendigo, Bohemians, Shelbourne and St James’s Gate all lost players in the conflict. Manliffe Francis Goodbody, a former Dublin University Association Football Club and Ireland player who had contested the US Men’s tennis final in 1894, lost his life in 1916 after the ship in which he was travelling, the SS Sussex, was torpedoed in the English Channel.

A number of soccer players were also involved in the Irish Revolution (1913-23) including Oscar Traynor, who would later become a government minister.

He was eager to dispel the notion that soccer players were unpatriotic and later highlighted the role of a number of these in Ireland’s fight for freedom in a number of newspaper articles. Soccer in Dublin continued through these military conflicts with the partition of Ireland taking place in 1921 followed by the Civil War from 1922 to 1923. Dublin clubs continued to send players to those in England and in turn fielded them in this decade, despite Anglo-Irish tensions.

In 1921 the Leinster clubs in the Irish Football Association left that organisation having become disillusioned with the Belfast-body’s favouring of northern clubs. The Football Association of Ireland was founded that year. Phoenix Park, one of the largest city parks in Europe, was home to a number of playing fields and many lower league teams played there at the weekends. Some more prominent clubs were able to develop their own grounds, with Bohemians having opened Dalymount Park in the Phibsboro area in 1901. The meeting of the Irish Free State team against the United States Olympic soccer selection took place there in 1924. The organisation of the professional American Soccer League from 1921 until 1931 saw a number of Dublin players move there in search of better pay and new experiences. One club which specifically recruited Irish players was Philadelphia Celtic, but this venture collapsed in 1927 when team owner Fred Magennis, a Belfast man, fled leaving his players without any income. Most of these returned to Irish clubs, including Bob Fullam, who was given a hero’s welcome on arrival back in his native Dublin the following year.


Dublin had players who migrated to English League football from the 1900s onwards, and many would go on to establish prominent careers in England. Two of these, Alex Stevenson of Everton and Johnny Carey of Manchester United, both served in the Second World War, in the Royal Air Force and British Army respectively, although independent Ireland remained neutral. Soccer in Dublin came through the war relatively unscathed, despite the loss of some players to recruitment and the disruption of matches with clubs lying outside the capital due to travel restrictions.

Moving abroad

The establishment of the North American Soccer League in 1968, which ran until 1984, saw some Dublin players drawn to the opportunity to play professional football there in a different setting. Amongst these was Shamrock Rovers’ star Paddy Mulligan, who joined Boston Beacons. He would later go on to win fifty international caps and enjoy a successful career in England with Chelsea, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion despite carrying a debilitating knee injury sustained early in his career. Some Dublin players have also taken up soccer scholarships in the USA, with Greg McElroy the first of these, having been recruited to the University of South Florida by coach Don Holcombe in 1969. For those who remained in the USA, coaching remained a popular option having finished their scholarships, while a few played professionally in Major League Soccer, which was set up in 1996.

Paul Keegan, who joined New England Revolution after graduating from Boston College, where he was coached by fellow Dubliner Ed Kelly, later returned home to play in Dublin and also in Scotland.

With the Gaelic Athletic Association’s strong nationalist ties, Irish soccer has faced a strong challenge, particularly in rural areas where parish and community ties are often heavily linked to GAA clubs. Soccer players in Dublin were often monitored by vigilance committees, set up by the GAA in 1924 to monitor GAA players’ participation in so called ‘foreign games’ such as hockey, soccer, rugby and cricket. Under the GAA’s Ban, established in the early 1900s, players found guilty could be suspended from Gaelic games. This draconian law was not removed in 1971, with some players such as Irish international Con Martin earlier receiving suspensions.

While soccer in Dublin was a popular spectator sport, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, it also came under scrutiny from the Catholic Church in the former decade, with the FAI’s decision to go ahead with an international soccer match at Dalymount Park in 1955 against Yugoslavia, whose communist government had been accused of mistreating Catholic cleric Cardinal Stepinac, drawing the ire of the church’s hierarchy. Following their failure to prevent the match, the Catholic Church attempted to infiltrate the FAI’s organisational structures in an attempt to gain influence, but this was unsuccessful as the international team continued to meet communist-backed teams from Eastern Europe including Romania and Czechoslovakia.

In the latter decades of the twentieth century, Lansdowne Road, a rugby ground, became a safer option than the deteriorating Dalymount Park for hosting international soccer matches. The Republic of Ireland’s qualification for the 1988 European Championships under manager Jack Charlton, a World Cup winning Englishman, was their first trip to a major international tournament, with Dublin officially celebrating its millennium that year.

On arrival back in Dublin, having beaten England, the team received the largest welcome since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979.

Despite the national team’s success in qualifying for the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy and the 1994 World Cup in the USA, where they beat Italy in New Jersey’s Giants Stadium, the financial windfall from these tournaments was not well distributed by the FAI and the game has at times struggled at grassroots level in the Irish countryside, while the League of Ireland lacks the attention given to the GAA’s All-Ireland Gaelic football and hurling championships.

Soccer clubs in Dublin had lost support since the early 1970s with the advent of clashing televised English league football matches, with Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers both experiencing severe financial difficulties in the 1980s. In turn, English clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United developed strong Irish support bases, with their fielding of Dublin born players, related success and annual visits for friendly matches in the Irish capital key factors in this. In particular, some Ronnie Whelan attained legendary status in the Liverpool team of the 1980s, while Manchester United’s Frank Stapleton and Kevin Moran similarly rose to the heights of English soccer as well as appearing in the Irish team.

Dublin schoolboy football has been highly significant in the development of young players, the best of whom have traditionally migrated to English clubs. Clubs such as Home Farm, founded for an altar boys league in 1928, and Stella Maris, a team established in 1944 and initially part of the Legion of Mary, provided many young boys with the opportunity to develop their talents, with Irish international John Giles joining Manchester United from Stella Maris in 1955. He joined a club which at the time was home to the ‘Busby babes’ and included Liam Whelan, who died tragically in the Munich Air Disaster in 1958 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Family ties and a tradition of club support have helped maintain the game in the city and its suburbs, with 1962-3 Everton first division championship winner Mick Meagan, who sadly died recently, appearing in the same team as his son Mark having returned home from English league football.

Soccer has been a huge social outlet in Dublin and the recent news that the city will be part of a bid along with a number of cities in the United Kingdom to host the 2028 European championship finals should see, if successful, the Republic of Ireland host a major international soccer tournament for the first time. Overall, this book takes an original and detailed look at how soccer developed in the capital of Ireland and draws widely on archival sources as well as player interviews. It will be of interest to lovers of sport as well as those who are keen to learn more about the history of relations between Ireland and Britain before and after partition.

Conor Curran is an adjunct lecturer in the School of Education, TCD, who has published extensively on the history of sport and society.

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