The sport that dare not speak its name: The curious history of the League of Ireland

This weekend sees the resumption of one of Ireland’s most curious seasonal events. Across the country people will gather at various locations to scream and shout at institutions whose foundations pre-date the State.

If the kick-off of the 2015 League of Ireland season isn’t in your diary, you are far from alone. In a country where hurling and Gaelic football are the mammy and daddy of sport and rugby is the over-achieving favourite son, domestic football is the estranged cousin who turns up drunk to family occasions, starts a fight and then falls down the stairs with their trousers around their ankles.

Despite its less than favoured status in the sporting family, the league has shown remarkable perseverance. Four clubs partaking in the 2015 season – Athlone Town, Bohemians, Shelbourne and UCD – are in their third century of competitive action, while Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers have both celebrated 100th birthdays.

The League of Ireland traces its origins back to October 24th, 1878, the date of the first ever game of association football to take place in Ireland. The Ulster Cricket Grounds was the venue for the meeting of Queen’s Park and Caledonians, two Scottish clubs invited to Ireland by John McAlery. The young Belfast trader had first encountered the sport while on honeymoon in Edinburgh, securing his place in history as both the first Irish football fan and the first Irishman to row about football on his honeymoon.

The following September McAlery announced the formation of Clifonville Association Football Club, who became the first club in Ireland to be formed around the rules of the game as codified at the Freemasons’ Tavern in London’s Great Queen Street 15 years earlier. Cliftonville last year celebrated their 135th year in existence by claiming the Northern Irish league title ahead of Linfield, with whom they have been bitter rivals for 129 years – a young rivalry in the context of Northern Irish society, perhaps, but an impressive one by the standards of world sport.

Clubs began springing-up all over Ulster and, gradually, in southern counties too. Belfast retained a tight grip on administrative matters. The Irish Football Association (IFA) was founded in Belfast in 1880, although it wasn’t long before tensions with the southern clubs led to the formation of the Leinster Football Association in 1892.

The early football pioneers in the southern counties soon discovered that establishing a sport founded in London and ruled from Belfast was not without its challenges. The sport came in for particular criticism from those who promoted Ireland’s indigenous equivalent. For many decades, members of the GAA – itself a younger organisation than the IFA – were threatened with expulsion for attending football matches, while any League of Ireland supporter over a certain age will recall their posteriors being introduced to belt buckles for having dared enjoy the Sasanach’s game.

Perhaps for this reason, the growth of football was mostly restricted to urban centres, where people could indulge with less fear of retribution. Today, the League of Ireland remains essentially a competition between Irish towns and cities.

Football competition was originally played on an all-island basis, which was certainly a challenge given the political climate. Partition of the island led to the partition of football. Winter 1921 saw the debut season of the League of Ireland, which was contested by eight clubs, all of which were from Dublin. St. James’s Gate claimed the first title, a fitting indication of the close links that would grow between the sport and drinking.

By the 1950s league games were attracting regular attendances of over 10,000. This decade is widely recognised as the golden era of the league. However, a series of developments across the water would soon conspire to mortally wound it.

Firstly, in 1961 Jimmy Hill successfully campaigned to scrap the maximum wage for footballers, for the first time giving financial incentive to Irish players to leave their local clubs. Secondly, in 1964 Match of the Day began screening highlights of England’s top games. That Jimmy Hill would go on to host that show for many years gives rise to questions over what sort of vendetta England’s greatest chin had against Irish football.

There is a direct correlation between the sale of televisions in Ireland and the fall in League of Ireland attendances. The damage was completed in 1983 when matches from across the channel were broadcast live for the first time.

By the time Jackie’s Army took to Italy, the Irish sporting public was becoming quite accustomed to the notion of football as a television programme. Paradoxically, as the popularity of football in Ireland rocketed, willingness to watch Irish people play it plummeted.

And that is the great contradiction of Irish football: originally attacked for promoting a foreign game, it is now over-looked in favour of foreign leagues.

It seems the League of Ireland just can’t win. Which, of course, is another problem that has traditionally plagued Irish football.

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