Jamie Headon delves into the history of the beautiful game in Dublin - its roots, how it became so popular and Trinity College's link to it all...
There's no question about it, football has always been considered to be the working man's game in Dublin. Traditionally speaking, participations rates and levels of interest in the sport have been highest among working class Dubliners whilst, with some notable exceptions, the city's most successful clubs at local level are more often than not based in its more proletarian areas.
However, when one delves into a close examination of football in Dublin at its most embryonic stage, it soon becomes apparent that the earliest proponents of the game in the capital were not the dockers and factory workers that later came to be most closely associated with the game, but in fact largely a rather small demographic of privileged young students.
Association football first arrived on Irish shores in 1878 when J.A. Allen, the captain of Scottish side Caledonians, teamed up with the manager of a Belfast gentleman's outfitters named J.A. McAlery who had become interested in the sport having witnessed a match whilst on honeymoon in Scotland, to stage a demonstration game on 24 October between his club and fellow Scots Queen's Park at the Ulster Cricket Club in Ballymafeigh, Belfast. In September of 1879, Cliftonville F.C became the first Irish club to be formed but it wouldn't be until November 1883 that the first club in the south of the country, Dublin Association Football Club, came into being following a meeting at Tyrone Place.
Later that month a group of Trinity College students came together to make Dublin University Association Football Club the second club in what would later become the Republic of Ireland before the university outfit lost 4-0 to Dublin Association in what was the first ever official inter-club match to be played in Dublin. The students then capped of a momentous few weeks for the game's early development in the city when they lost 6-0 to Belfast Athletic at College Park in what was the first ever meeting between a team from Dublin and a team from Belfast.
Other similar institutions soon followed Trinity's lead and in doing so strengthened the student-centric nature of the Dublin game further with four out of the city's five clubs in 1884 representing educational establishments. This growth in the sport's popularity among the capital's student population would continue over the following years so much so that it is said that in 1900, the majority of players there were students of some description.
The main reason for the emergence of the beautiful game in these places of learning would seem to lie largely in a trend that became particularly prominent in the second half of the nineteenth century whereby many of Ireland's elite sent their sons to be educated in England.
It was believed that during this period, at least 1,500 boys were travelling cross-channel for their education on an annual basis, many of whom would have acquired a love of the association code during the time they spent within an English public schools system that placed great emphasis on the importance of sporting pursuits as part of a process aimed at producing physically and mentally strong young men possessing the qualities necessary to pursue high ranking positions in the adult world. Among these students were prominent early figures of the game in Dublin like M.F Goodbody and Willoughby Hamilton of Trinity College, who having returned home to pursue third level education, helped introduce the sport to the city's realm of recreational student activities.
However, it could be said that the fact the game's playing ranks in Dublin were largely composed of students had a somewhat stunting effect on the sport's early development in the capital. With the university term not beginning until well after the commencement of the football season and most players not regularly resident in Dublin, competitive fixtures involving local teams and sides composed of students were difficult to organise. Likewise, due to the privileged position of these student footballers, the sport in the city was viewed by many as an essentially elitist and exclusive activity thus limiting its potential to garner popularity amongst the masses the same way it did in the north of the country.
Whilst Dublin University A.F.C remain in existence today as members of the Leinster Senior League, League of Ireland outfit Bohemian F.C undoubtedly represent the most notable link between the modern day game in Dublin and its roots as a sporting preserve of the city's nineteenth century student fraternity.
Later to become one of the most successful clubs in Irish domestic football, the Gypsies were founded at the Gate Lodge in the Phoenix Park on 6 September 1890 when a group of aspiring student footballers from the Bells Academy Civil Service College on North Great Georges Street met with likeminded individuals from the Royal Hibernian Military School to form a football team. The presence of medical students was particularly prevalent among Bohs' early membership with their first chairman Alexander Blayney and his brother John along with Frank Whittaker, Joe Whelan, Michael O'Sullivan and Georgie Sheehan all going on to qualify as doctors. Although not quite as strong as in the club's formative years, this link between Bohemians and the medical professions would continue well into the following century with UCD graduates Kevin O'Flanagan and Emmett McLoughlin providing two examples of men who donned the red and black whilst undertaking medicine degrees in the 1940s.
From the turn of the century onwards, the class dynamic of the game in Dublin began to change. Although clubs like Bohemians and the Sandymount based Freebooters maintained something of an outwardly gentrified image, a consistently high level of student interest in the sport had become increasingly difficult to maintain over time as is evident from the intermittent early existence of Dublin University A.F.C. At more or less the same time, new clubs were beginning to spring up in working class communities thus kick-starting a process which saw football become primarily the game of the working man by the time of the League of Ireland's inception in 1921.
Nonetheless, although the demographic of the game in Dublin had shifted away from pre-partition Ireland's elite and descended downward on the nation's social ladder, those privileged young scholars who first pioneered the game in the capital's most exalted nineteenth century educational establishments had left a legacy which lives on to this day in the thousands of matches played amongst players of all socio-economic backgrounds on pitches the length and breadth of the city and its surrounding area every week.