Opinion

Monday 17 December 2018

Abuse, opposition and all that jazz

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Here are some things I didn't know two weeks ago.

In May 1927, 12,000 spectators watched a women's soccer game between a Dublin selection and Scotland at Milltown.

In 1909, Manchester City visited Cork to play a Munster selection and players and managers kissed the Blarney Stone.

Soccer was the most popular game among Anti-Treaty IRA members interned in the Curragh after the Civil War.

In February 1922, an Irish Baseball Commission was set up in Cork.

In 1932, three soccer referees were bound to the peace after doorstepping a colleague they suspected was going to break the referees' strike.

And the decline in Irish athletic performance in the 1920s was due to the debilitating influence of jazz music. Though perhaps that last claim made in a lecture by a GAA member named Cawley in 1928 must be regretfully marked as 'Not Proven.'

I owe these additions to my education to an absolutely wonderful book entitled Soccer In Munster, A Social History 1877-1937 written by David Toms - not the American golfer but a former UCC lecturer now based in Prague. The author's academic background, the title of the book and the fact that it's published by Cork University Press might lead you to expect a pretty dry tome. But in fact it's an absolutely enthralling read which does for soccer what the fine series of books written by Mike Cronin, Paul Rouse and Mark Duncan have done for the GAA.

What makes the book particularly fascinating is its picture of the society in which soccer changed from being a game of the English military stationed in Ireland to one of the Irish working class.

In bringing this world to life it is a fitting tribute not just to the teams which blazed a trail in those formative years - the likes of Cahir Park of Tipperary, Tramore Rookies of Waterford and Fordsons of Cork - but also to the hundreds of fans who stood for the entire journey to Dublin in the corridors of a special train on the way to seeing Fordsons defeat Shamrock Rovers in the 1926 FAI Cup final, the 30 young men fined a shilling each for playing football in the streets of Waterford and everyone, who in the face of considerable abuse and opposition from the GAA and its partisans, made soccer a lasting part of the Irish sporting tapestry.

The self-satisfied bigotry of the supporters of The Ban is always painful to read about. The Nenagh Guardian's denunciation of soccer as "practically altogether played by the riff raff of Irish society," is pretty much par for the course and shows the class snobbery which has perhaps not altogether vanished from Irish sport.

But in the end this is a story of triumph and perhaps the statement of the Cumann na nGaedheal TD Pat McGilligan in 1932, "if there is any game which, as I said before, destroys the tedium of work for the working man, it is Association football, the game to which he looks forward to on Saturday and Sunday," sums up the message of the book.

It's one great piece of work.

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