I was asked to contribute to an event celebrating the history of football in Dublin. Below is an edited version of the talk delivered.
The history of football in Ireland is intertwined with politics, religion and class. It’s a rich history, and one that deserves to be celebrated.
The origins of the game
I’m going to speak about the history of football in Dublin in general, and Ringsend in particular. Ringsend is famous for having produced two great clubs: Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers.
Before talking about the foundation of either Rovers or Shels, it’s important to look at the context of that time.
Various forms of football have been played in every country of the world for centuries, but the game was played according to local rules. From around the 1850s, there were attempts to agree rules between different regions of England.
The two most popular rulebooks were the Cambridge Rules, which were widely adopted in the south of England, and the Sheffield Rules, which were played in northern England.
In 1863, members of several clubs came together to agree standardised rules to govern the entire country. On October 26th, 1863, the Football Association was formed at a meeting in the Freemasons Tavern in London’s Great Queen Street.
Thus, association football was born.
Clubs adhering to this new rule book began mushrooming, firstly in Britain but soon after on the continent too.
The period between 1875 and 1900 was the most revolutionary ever known in world sport. Those twenty-five years saw the creation of clubs across the world that would go on to become enormous global brands: Manchester United (1878), Arsenal (1886), Juventus (1897), Barcelona (1899).
The vast majority of new football clubs shared two main characteristics.
Firstly, they were urban and their members were predominantly poor. By the 1860s the Industrial Revolution was at its peak. Huge swaths of the population of Britain had left the land and moved to cities. I think it’s fair to speculate that the identity crisis this would have caused – not to mention the poor living conditions – would have contributed to people seeking avenues for enjoyment and meaning.
The second big factor linking football clubs is their interaction with Britain, either through trade or military occupation.
The first football clubs to be established in European countries were in large port towns: Le Havre Athletic Club (1872), KB Copenhagen (1876), Royal Antwerp (1880), Sparta Rotterdam (1888). This suggests that trade with British merchants may have led to the game being developed.
In other countries, the resident British community laid the foundation blocks for the game. In South America, for example, the first clubs – Buenos Aires FC (1865) and Sao Paulo FC (1901) – were founded by the British community.
Football in Ireland
As a British colony, Ireland was exposed to the new rules of association football through both of these methods.
The first club in Ireland was founded by John McAlery, a young Belfast trader who had seen the game while in Scotland. He returned home and established Cliftonville FC.
But the British army undoubtedly had a huge part to play in the development of the game here. Ireland’s earliest football clubs were all set up in so-called garrison towns – towns in which members of the British army were stationed.
The oldest senior club still in operation in the Republic is Athlone Town, which was founded in 1887 in that garrison town. In 1890 Bohemian Football Club was established by students from Bells Academy, a civil service training college, and the Royal Hibernian Military School, an institution to educate orphaned children of British soldiers.
Given these political and military links, it is no surprise that the earliest clubs on the island were formed in the north of the country. In 1881 Cliftonville battled it out with Limavady, Moyola Park, Distillery, Knock, Oldpark and Avoniel in the 1881 Irish Cup, the first competitive football competition held on Irish soil, which was ultimately won by Moyola Park.
So, back to Ringsend…the story of this area dates to the 15th century when the Anglo-Norman rulers of Dublin expelled the Irish inhabitants. They were banished to outside the city walls to an area that became known as Irishtown.
It wasn’t for another two centuries that the area began to grow. Ringsend was virtually uninhabited until the 17th century when it became Dublin’s main port. People and jobs flowed accordingly.
However, a near-fatal blow was dealt to the area in 1814 when Howth replaced it as Dublin’s main port. That move ended Ringsend’s importance and led to a huge decline in economic fortunes.
By the late 1800s, Ringsend was as poor and destitute as many of Dublin’s other surrounding villages. Thom’s Almanac of 1848, describes Ringsend as having 150 houses, with a population of 1,755. It consisted of several streets which were poor and dilapidated.
There were some other industries. Pims Flour Mill, for example, would have offered some work to Ringsenders. In 1873 the mill was acquired by Patrick Boland, giving us the famous Boland’s Mill.
So, Ringsend was urban, poor, coastal and had a trading relationship with British residents. From a football point of view, it was perfect.
By the mid-1890s there were 59 football clubs in Leinster. In 1895, Ringsend got its first club, when a group of men led by James Rowan established Shelbourne FC.
Shelbourne took its name from the Shelbourne Road, which was itself named after William Petty-Fitzmaurice, Marquess of Lansdowne and second Earl of Shelbourne. Petty-Fitzmaurice was one of only two Irishmen to become Prime Minister of Britain.
He was Prime Minister for a year, during which time he negotiated the end of the US War of Independence, an important if costly agreement. Thus, Shelbourne’s career at the top was brief, successful but very expensive, a situation the football club named after him can surely identify with.
If Shelbourne think being named after a British Prime Minister is bad, they can be thankful of a lucky escape. Until the 1860s the Shelbourne Road was known as Artichoke Road, which offered the tantalising prospect of Artichoke FC playing in the League of Ireland. Or perhaps just Chokers FC for short.
Shels’ pitches were located on Havelock Square, beside the present-day Aviva.
Shels had been established for four years when Ringsenders decided to set up a rival club. The decision to do so was taken at the home of Lar Byrne at 4 Irishtown Road.
A number of meetings were held and the question of what to call this new club was raised several times. Eventually, the club founders met in a house on Shamrock Avenue and it was decided to name the club after the location. Shamrock Rovers was born.
It’s not clear why Rovers was established in competition to Shels. It’s probably likely that simple geography was the cause. Shelbourne was founded and played on the north of the river Dodder, whereas Rovers was established in the heart of Ringsend village. Perhaps Lar Byrne didn’t view James Rowan as being a ‘real Ringsender’.
There is no doubt that the club was a real village affair. Rovers’ first clubhouse stood right here on Thorncastle Street. The playing pitch was on a spot of land known as ‘The Clinkers’ just around the corner close to Ringsend Park. Many of the players and club officials lived in Shamrock Avenue or St. Patrick’s Villas, the small streets opposite where the library now stands.
So close was the association between the club and St. Patrick’s Villas that it was briefly called St. Patrick’s for a period around 1906 before its rightful name was restored.
Football in Ringsend
There was an immediate rivalry between Rovers and Shels. Games between the two clubs attracted thousands and split families down the middle.
It wasn’t long before they found themselves operating at different levels, however.
In 1904 Shels – who were now playing in Shelbourne Park – joined the Irish Football League, which was then an all-Ireland competition featuring the likes of Linfield and Glentoran.
Rovers, meanwhile, won the County Dublin League and Leinster Junior Cup in 1904/05. They won the Leinster Junior League the following season but then – for reasons which remain unknown – essentially folded for a number of years.
They reformed in 1914, winning the Leinster Junior League, before again withdrawing from football.
In 1920/21 the club re-entered the Leinster Junior League and, thankfully, has been operational ever since.
The 1913 Lockout riot
While Rovers were in junior football, Bohs and Shels were the big two Dublin clubs.
A game between these two produced one of the more unusual events in early Irish football history.
On August 30th 1913 Bohs came to Ringsend to take on Shels. This was during the 1913 Lockout and tensions were high in the city.
The night before the game, Jim Larkin instructed his supporters to picket the game, accusing some of the players of being scabs.
6,000 fans turned up to the game, as did around 100 striking tramway workers.
The Irish Times noted that “the members of the Bohemian team, who pluckily drove to the scene of the match on outside cars through a hostile crowd of roughs, were assailed with coarse epithets.”
Tempers flared and a tram carrying supporters was attacked. The melee was ended when one of the passengers on the tram produced a gun.
In total, sixteen arrests were made at Ringsend that day, with over fifty people treated in hospital for their injuries.
The newspapers blamed the influence of outside “hooligans” for the actions of the “usually peaceful and industrious inhabitants of Ringsend” on the day.
There was widespread condemnation of the Bohs-Shels riot, but it was put in the shade the following day when one man was killed and hundreds injured on Bloody Sunday in Sackville Street.
Irish Football League
Bohs were the first southern Irish club to play in the Irish Football League, entering for the 1902/03 season, two seasons ahead of Shels.
Shels generally had the better of the two Dublin teams. The title never came to Dublin but Shels did finish second in 1906/07.
The Dublin clubs had more luck in cup competitions. Between them, Bohs and Shels reached the Irish Cup final 13 times. Shels won the Cup three times and Bohs won it once.
Interestingly, a third Dublin club – Tritonville Dublin – entered the Irish Football League for the 1912/13 season. Tritonville hailed from just down the road from here in the borderlands between Ringsend and Sandymount.
Tritonville finished bottom and promptly dropped out. In any case, the league was soon disrupted by the outbreak of World War I. No southern team ventured north during the war.
By the time the league resumed in 1919/20, from a political view all had changed, changed utterly.
If the Setanta Cup sometimes led to security difficulties, you can imagine what it would have been like playing an all-Ireland league in the context of the War of Independence.
The Irish Football Association bitterly split in 1921 and Shels and Bohs became founder members of the new League of Ireland.
League of Ireland
When it began in 1922/23, the League of Ireland was initially exclusively a Dublin affair. The eight teams which competed the inaugural season were: Bohemians, Dublin United, Frankfort, Jacobs, Olympia, St. James’s Gate, Shelbourne and YMCA.
The closest derby game for Shels that year was probably the YMCA, who were from Sandymount and who presumably had terrifying Ultras who dressed as native Americans, traffic cops and plumbers.
Rovers played that season in the Leinster Senior League but had made a name for themselves by reaching the FAI Cup Final, which they lost to St. James’s Gate.
The Rovers committee decided to seek entry to the League of Ireland. On 17 August 1922 they were elected to the league ahead of its second season.
Getting into the league was great news for the club but it ended the club’s residency in Ringsend.
The club needed better facilities and an opportunity arose to rent land on the Milltown Road. Rovers moved four kilometres south and stayed there until 1987.
Moving to Milltown was, of course, controversial. I spoke with one Rovers fan who remembered his father being furious with the club for moving, as he saw it, to “the countryside”.
Fullam, Flood and Glen
Rovers entered the League of Ireland in 1922 and won the league at the first time of asking, pipping their Ringsend rivals Shelbourne to the title by five points.
Three of the real stars of that Rovers team were Ringsend men. Bob Fullam, John Joe Flood and William ‘Sacky’ Glen were all born within a stone’s throw of this pub. These three players were among the first Irish football stars.
Fullam, Flood and Glen were born into a city creaking at the seams with poverty and destitution.
By the final years of the 1800s, Dublin was said to be the poorest city in the British empire.
20,000 families – nearly a third of the city’s entire population – lived in single room tenements.
To quote from the overview on the National Archives Genealogy website: “Tenements in inner-city Dublin were filthy, overcrowded, disease-ridden and teeming with malnourished children”
Football’s roots were firmly in working class Dublin so these are the conditions that would have been the norm for the early League of Ireland players and supporters.
To add to this poverty, the revolutionary period thrust Dublin into a form of chaos. Between 1916 and 1922, over 1,000 people were killed in Dublin in political violence. Probably four times that number were injured.
This was the world that Bob Fullam, John Joe Flood and ‘Sacky’ Glen knew.
Dublin was a tough city and these were tough men. They were dockers and manual labourers. Fullam and Glen, in particular, had reputations for not shying from the physical side of the game.
Bob Fullam was known for strength and power, particularly in his left foot.
John Joe Flood – who actually lived on Shamrock Avenue – was known more for pace and trickery, while Sacky Glen was a defender who enjoyed a strong tackle.
The trio was part of the Rovers team that reached the FAI Cup final in 1922, losing 1-0 to St. James’s Gate.
After the final whistle, Rovers fans invaded the pitch and scuffles broke out with the Gate players. The Rovers players soon joined in and the brawl continued into the dressing rooms. Calm was restored when a St. James’s Gate player produced a revolver and shot into the roof of the changing room.
Fullam was found to have been an instigator of the violence and he received a ban for his parts in the brawl.
Despite this, he scored 27 goals the following season to help Rovers to the title.
Following that league win, both Fullam and Flood moved to Leeds United. However, they only lasted one season in England before returning to Rovers.
Rovers had struggled without them, finishing seventh in 1923/24. Their return completed the famous forward line that became known as ‘the Four Fs’: Bob Fullam, John Joe Flood, John ‘Kruger’ Fagan and Billy ‘Juicy’ Farrell.
The Four F’s proved an unstoppable force and Rovers won the league title for a second time, going the entire season unbeaten and scoring an average of almost four goals a game.
Flood later did a season with Crystal Palace, while Fullam moved to America for a season but both men returned to Rovers.
They were also seasoned Ireland internationals. Fullam and Flood played in the Free State’s first ever international match, a 3-0 defeat away to Italy.
Italy travelled to Dublin in 1927 and Fullam scored in a 2-1 defeat. That match is remembered for an Italian defender being knocked unconscious after trying to clear a Bob Fullam free kick with his head. Legend has is that the Italians begged Ireland not to allow the Ringsend man take any more free kicks.
Rovers & Ringsend today
The stop-start nature of Rovers’ early years means that the club only played in Ringsend for around a decade. In effect, Rovers played in Ringsend for about as long as they have played in Tallaght.
Despite this, Ringsend has always formed an important part of the Rovers identity. Ringsend players such as Bob Fullam, John Joe Flood and Sacky Glen were mainstays in the Rovers team well into the mid-1930s.
Today, the club boasts a Pride of Ringsend Supporters’ Club and there was much excitement when Ringsend native Sean Kavanagh signed in February.
And, of course, there is a plaque in the village to commemorate the fact that the club was established here.
Shels had a longer playing history in Ringsend, playing in Shelbourne Park until 1949 and later playing one season in Irishtown Stadium. The club’s plan for many decades was to redevelop Irishtown Stadium. Indeed, some fans still cling to that dream. Personally, I would love to see football back in the Ringsend / Irishtown area, although how realistic that is I do not know.
Ringsend is an area steeped in football tradition; a working class, docking community who produced two of the most successful clubs and several of the most successful players Ireland has seen.