Early Years – Growth of the Game in Ireland

The introduction of Association Football (“soccer”) to Ireland can be credited to a Belfast merchant named John McAlery, who, having witnessed the game being played while on honeymoon in Scotland, began promoting it in his native city throughout 1878. An exhibition game between the Scottish clubs Queens Park and Caledonians in October would represent the first organised association football match to take place on the island of Ireland. McAlery was behind the formation of Cliftonville Football Club the following year, and on the 18th of November 1880, the latter was one of seven clubs (primarily from the Belfast area) that were founder members of the Irish Football Association (I.F.A.). The I.F.A. was the world’s fourth national football association, following those of England, Scotland and Wales.

The game (with the Scottish rule-book being adopted by the I.F.A.) began to grow steadily on the island over the coming years, and aided in no small part by Trinity College’s large English and Scottish student populations, gradually began to gain a foothold in Dublin. It wasn’t long before teams, and then clubs began to spring up around the capital, and in 1883, Dublin A.F.C. became the first one to be established outside of Ulster. The most notable clubs to emerge in the city in the coming years, however, were Bohemians (official name “Bohemian F.C.”, formed by members of various Anglo-Irish schools and academies in and around the Phoenix Park area) in 1890, Shelbourne (from Ringsend / Sandymount) in 1895, and St. James’s Gate, who drew from membership of the Guinness Sports and Social Club, and were named after the address of that company’s famous brewery. Having staged some high profile friendlies at their new Dalymount Park home against the likes of Preston North End and Glasgow Celtic the previous year, 1902 saw Bohemians gain entry to the Irish League, which had been up and running (as the Belfast and District League) since 1890, and they were joined by Shelbourne in 1904.

With Bohemians deciding to retain an amateur footballing ethos (as a Protestant club, they also sought not to play on Sundays), Shelbourne became Dublin’s first professional football club in September of 1905. This helped ensure they were a more competitive force within the Irish League framework, and having won an Irish Cup in 1906 (two Jimmy Owens goals beating Belfast Celtic in the Dalymount Park final), they finished runners-up to Linfield in the eight-team league in 1907. Bohemians were a respected side too, however, and while they never put together a sustained league challenge, they did reach six Irish Cup finals, with a 3-1 replay win over Shelbourne in a Dublin derby at Dalymount in 1908 being their only victory. Shels prevailed by two goals to one in another Irish Cup final derby against Bohemians in 1911, before a third Dublin side, Tritonville, competed in the Irish League for the 1912-13 season, only to relinquish their place the following year. (A Dublin club called Freebooters had contested the 1901 Irish Cup final, but lost to Cliftonville at Jones’s Road, current site of Croke Park; British army teams based in Limerick and Kildare had been runners-up in the 1892 and 1897 finals in Belfast.)

Then, however, due to a perceived “Belfast bias” on the part of the I.F.A., especially with regard to the selection of players for the Irish national side, disputes began to occur between the Belfast and Dublin clubs. The pro-British sentiments of the northern clubs (with the notable exception of Belfast Celtic) during the First World War and the Irish War of Independence inevitably increased tensions further, and in April of 1921, when an Irish Cup semi-final replay between Glenavon and holders Shelbourne (who had won the 1920 trophy after the semi-finalists on the other side of the draw were both disqualified) was switched from Dublin to Belfast for security reasons, the two southern sides removed themselves from the Irish League.

An Irish Cup match between Shelbourne and St. James’s Gate at Dalymount Park in February 1921

It was in June of this year that the Football League of Ireland came into existence. Five other Dublin clubs (all from the ranks of the Leinster Senior League), namely Dublin United (based at Beech Hill, Clonskeagh), Frankfort (Richmond Road, Drumcondra), Jacobs (a team representing the famous Irish biscuit factory who played at Rutland Avenue, Crumlin), Olympia (Bellevue Lodge, Ballsbridge) and Y.M.C.A. (Claremont Road, Sandymount), joined Shelbourne, Bohemians and “the Gate” to contest the 1921-1922 football season. In September of 1921, the Football Association of Ireland (F.A.I.) was formed, to rival the now exclusively northern I.F.A, although the latter body continued to see itself as holding sway over the footballing affairs of the entire island (including the selection of players for the national side). The F.A.I. consisted of the Football League of Ireland, together with the Leinster Football Association (formed as far back as 1892), who had revoked their own membership of the I.F.A. some months previously. A newly reformed Munster Football Association (the body was originally established in 1901 but due to its heavy British military make-up at the time, collapsed upon the outbreak of the First World War) would be incorporated into the F.A.I. in 1922.

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