By Julien Clenet, UCD

During the 1890/1 season, five different Dublin soccer teams were mentioned in the local press. Ten years later, the corresponding figure was 111 and kept growing thereafter. The Leinster branch of the Irish Football Association (which had been established in Belfast in 1880) was set up in 1892 and was running no less than five leagues and three cups by 1898.

Informal competitions also existed within workplaces or youth organisations. On Saturdays between October and March, hundreds of players gathered to play throughout the city and the suburbs of Pembroke, Rathmines, Kilmainham, Glasnevin, and Drumcondra. Thousands more paid to watch them from the touchlines.

Such expansion was by no means unique to the city and similar developments had been previously seen in the 1870s in British industrial cities and in 1880s Belfast. Soccer was a latecomer to Dublin, but then dramatically took hold among clerical workers and the skilled working class. What was behind this rapid growth - and why was the game so eagerly followed?

Dublin's Sackville Street in the late 19th century. Photo: Getty Images

The particularities of Dublin soccer essentially lay in the socio-economic infrastructure of the city. Contrary to the English midlands, the Clyde estuary and Belfast, Dublin failed to develop as an industrial hub and remained essentially a city turned towards administration and commerce throughout the 19th century. Working conditions were also considerably worse than in Britain, with longer hours and lower wages.

It was only from the 1880s that this situation significantly improved and allowed a larger portion of the working class to budget for leisure activities. Basically, more men had more time in hand and more money to spend - and Saturday afternoon seemed a good way to do so.

The creation of the Britannia (1887), Montpellier (1887), and Bohemian (1890) clubs appear to be crucial to the development of a soccer culture at the time. They were by no mean the first clubs established in the city. The first recorded game goes back to October 1878 with students of Trinity College playing a friendly game. A month later, enlisted soldiers from one of the city’s numerous barracks also played a soccer game in the Phoenix Park.

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From RTÉ Archives, Breandán Ó hEithir takes a look at the life of Michael Cusack for Pobal

During the 1880s, the game was occasionally played in the city’s fee-paying schools. Anecdotally, one such early participant might have been Michael Cusack, later to found the Gaelic Athletic Association (1884). As he lined up in September 1881 with the rugby team of his own Civil Service Academy, he was faced with an unusual turnout of soccer players and quickly devised compromised rules for the day!

Nonetheless, soccer failed to make any significant inroads in the city in these years. This is despite the establishment in 1883 of the Dublin Association FC and the Dublin University Association FC, clubs whose members attended private schools and resolutely belonged to the city’s professional and mercantile classes.

Essentially, it failed because the timing was wrong. By then, most middle-class institutions in the city had been playing rugby since the early 1870s and sporting traditions were too firmly anchored to be nudged. The rapid democratisation of soccer in Britain at the time, and its increasing association with working-class lifestyles, was a further deterrent to the Dublin middle-class, who instead began to frequent tennis pavilions and golf courses.

Equally doubtful is the suggestion that British soldiers were crucial to soccer's spread in the city

The hypothesis that a soccer culture in Dublin stemmed from its adoption by the local elite and then found its way down the social ladder remains unconclusive. Furthermore, the long-held belief that soccer was a Protestant and unionist game does not hold to historical scrutiny as participation in the game broadly fell in line with the then religious distribution in the city.

Equally doubtful is the suggestion that British soldiers based in the city’s barracks were crucial to its spread in the city. Undoubtedly the game was played by the military throughout the 1880s and soldiers became valuable opponents to Dublin clubs from the 1890s. Military teams largely contributed to rising playing standards and providing opportunities for good-humoured banter from civilian spectators, yet their importance in introducing the game among the population should not be overstated.

Instead, the most influential factor in the rapid expansion of soccer in Dublin seems to have been Ulster migrants. They played a significant role in the creation and early administration of the Britannia, Montpellier and Bohemian clubs.

Like most other sports at the time, women were excluded from the field of play and confined to a reductive cheerleading role.

The Britannia club was based around the Central Model School on Marlborough Street and a generation of national schoolteachers were able to introduce soccer wherever they were posted. The Montpellier club was the winter extension of a cricket club based in Stoneybatter whose early members were artisans and skilled workers. On the other hand, Bohemian FC, currently one of the most successful clubs in the country, was made up of clerks and civil servants. These were the clubs responsible for the creation of a native soccer culture in Dublin and its ensuing propagation to the lower-middle and skilled working class in the 1890s.

The analysis of who came to play soccer reveals dividing lines in the city which have sometimes been overlooked. The first observation, unmistakably, was that soccer was a man’s game. Like most other sports at the time, women were excluded from the field of play and confined to a reductive cheerleading role.

The game became especially embedded among the ever-growing cohort of clerks engaged in petty office work and the skilled working class. The growing connection of soccer with a young, urban and masculine lifestyle across the Irish Sea and its reporting in Ireland by a cheap popular sporting press was a powerful motivation factor which contributed to its appeal in Dublin.

Shamrock Rovers circa 1904/05. Source: shamrock

However, unskilled workers and those employed in retail and hospitality remained largely excluded from the game as they simply could not afford it or else worked late on Saturdays. The geography of the game reinforced such socio-economic analysis. Clubs were essentially based in the city and its industrial suburbs such as East Wall (dockers), Kilmainham (railway workers) and Ringsend (glass and gas workers), where Shelbourne (1895) and Shamrock Rovers (1899) were first established.

By contrast, there were few – if any – clubs in the middle-class suburbs of Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) and Clontarf where rugby, hockey, golf, and tennis reigned supreme. Rural Dublin largely gave its allegiance to Gaelic games after the creation of the GAA in 1884.

Interestingly, one’s birthplace was as important as social class in explaining participation trends. There were proportionally more Dublin, Ulster and British-born soccer players in Dublin and conversely fewer players hailed from the rest of Ireland. Most British migrants would have then been familiar with the game since childhood and resumed practice upon moving in the city. Soccer had yet to make an impact in rural Ireland at the time, while many rural migrants were employed in department stores, groceries and public houses and thus were deprived of the Saturday half-holiday.

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From RTÉ Archives, Alan McCullough reports for RTÉ News on the funeral of Todd Andrews in 1985

The growth of soccer in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century is perhaps best exemplified by the lifelong love for the game shown by future revolutionary and civil servant Todd Andrews, which is recalled in his celebrated autobiography Dublin Made Me. Born in 1901 into a Catholic family in Dublin’s inner-city centre, Andrews was often brought by his father (engaged in clerical work yet who ‘identified himself always with the working class’) to Dalymount Park ‘to see the great amateur soccer club, Bohemians’ so he 'had become an addict of soccer and a fan of Bohemians’ from an early age. He moved to suburban Terenure aged nine and played ‘at any odd time’ with friends in the streets using a tennis ball against the gables of houses or on a real pitch with a ‘real football’ in winter.

What transpires from such experience is an unmitigated love for the game. His excitement ahead of games was all the more potent because of long standing rivalries between the northsiders of Bohemian and the (then) southsiders of Shelbourne, or when Dublin and Belfast clubs met. Here was a boyhood passion which never dwindled in adulthood. Soccer was as integral to his social and cultural identity as his occupation and politics would later become.

Thousands other voices in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland could tell the same story. The development of soccer in late 19th century Dublin was unique insofar as it was shaped by the city’s particular socio-economic infrastructure. However, people engaged with the game for much the same universal reasons as everyone else worldwide.

Julien Clenet is a recent PhD graduate and tutor at the Department of History at UCD

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ