Dublin soccer hotspots: Part One - Ringsend
It’s the most expensive piece of real estate in the country, always has been, where every blade of grass is valuable.
But Dublin 4, and that little corner of it called Ringsend, has struggled but also coped with the lack of space and opportunity for decades, this spot with a claim to be the first real hub of soccer activity in the country.
Phibsboro, and Dalymount Park, may be seen as the real home of Irish football. Tallaght, birthplace of the current Ireland manager and all-time top scorer and home to Shamrock Rovers, may claim supremacy today, but Ringsend can be put forward as the old heartbeat of Dublin soccer.
It’s the traditional home of Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne, two clubs now exiled to Tallaght and Drumcondra, with many Shels supporters still harbouring romantic hopes of a return to their own ground in their birthplace south of the Liffey.
Ringsend has seen locals go on to play for Ireland, from the presence of Bob Fullam, a North Wall docker, in the first international (Italy, 1926) to more modern heroes like Graham Kavanagh.
Last year’s FAI Cup final at the Aviva Stadium, between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk, saw three Ringsend boys (Seán Kavanagh, Seán Gannon and Dan Kelly) do battle in a game played less than five minutes’ walk from where they grew up. Kavanagh (Stella Gardens) and Gannon (St Brendan’s Cottages) grew up with the distance of a goal kick between them.
“For such a small place, football was always strong there, always a flow of players, to the League of Ireland or away to England,” says Dundalk defender Gannon.
“If you meet someone on the street in Ringsend and stop for a chat, the talk is all about football. I know other parts of Dublin have more of a GAA tradition but in Ringsend, it’s football and nothing else.”
Stories and tales of local legends were passed from generation to generation. “I never saw the likes of Rocky O’Brien or Jody Byrne play, but I knew who they were, we all did,” added Gannon.
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“Later on, I’d see Seán Kavanagh, back home from Fulham for the summer, playing out on the road or in the Park with his mates as if he’d never left. Football was everything for us.”
Current Rovers player Seán Kavanagh agrees. “All we did every day was go out and play football, until you were dragged in and made come home,” he says.
“And even at a young age you knew the history. I wasn’t related to Graham Kavanagh, but I knew all about him as he was a local, one of us, I remember my uncle and grandad taking me to Lansdowne to see him play for Ireland when I was young and I said to myself, I’d love to do that one day.”
Graham Kavanagh, from Pine Road, has boyhood memories of seeing fellow Ringsend man Dave Langan play for Ireland at Lansdowne Road and dreamed of doing the same.
“Some people when they are kids dream of playing at Anfield or Old Trafford. All I wanted to do was play for Ireland at Lansdowne Road,” says Graham Kavanagh.
“I’d seen Dave Langan do it, I’d see Liam O’Brien do it and I knew that if those lads could come out of Ringsend and play for their country, I could.
“I knew all about the history. I used to go to all the Ireland games. We’d go down to Havelock Square, there was a woman who’d let you into her house if you paid her 50p, you’d go through her house, out the back door and over the wall into the stadium.”
Graham Kavanagh technically isn’t a Ringsend native, as the family only moved in from nearby Macken Street when he was two, but Rinsgend has always been home. “We moved into Pine Road, they were called the New Houses. Forty years later they’re still called the New Houses,” Graham jokes. “Even back them, Dave Langan was a real local hero.”
Ringsend man Liam O’Brien, who would become Kavanagh’s brother-in-law, won the first of his caps at Lansdowne in 1986, while still a Shamrock Rovers player.
Graham Kavanagh won the bulk of his 16 senior caps at Lansdowne but one stands out, a goal on his home debut, against Sweden, in 1999.
“I did play there as a kid but we shouldn’t have been there, we’d play in Marian College and on the way home the odd time we’d just sneak in to Lansdowne and have a kickabout, you’d be scoring into a rugby goal. But my vision was to score a goal for my country there,” he says.
“So to score on my home debut was amazing, it was an out-of-body experience. I remember celebrating the goal with Steve Staunton and Tony Cascarino, me thinking, these guys were my heroes in 1990 and now they are congratulating me for a goal for Ireland.”
Graham says he learned his skills on the streets. “Jumpers down and playing on the streets, it was real street football, and it kills me that kids today are more manufactured. We played off the cuff, you really learned from playing against older boys, lads who were bigger and tougher and quicker than you,” he says.
And decades later, Ringsend boys were doing the same.
“There was a small patch of grass beside us in Stella Gardens so we’d play there until we’d get kicked off and told to move on,” says Seán Kavanagh. “I’d go off on my own with a ball, kicking it against a wall. I’d use the stairways in the flats as a goal, use that to work on your touch, your skills. Apart from Ringsend Park there’s not a lot of green space there so you did what you could.”
Seán Kavanagh signed for Rovers in 2018 after a six-year spell in London with Fulham and last year’s FAI Cup win at the nearby Aviva was something special. “It was a big thing for Rovers fans to meet up in Ringsend, where the club came from, and walk up to Lansdowne, my family did that walk with the Rovers fans and it was a big honour for them to see me win the Cup so close to home.”
Football survives but not all is the same. “The place has changed a lot, with Google and those companies gone in,” says Seán Kavanagh. “There was a time when you’d know everyone you met on the street, families stayed there for generations but that’s not the case now, Ringsend people can’t afford to buy houses in Ringsend any more.”
And it’s also a fact that Ringsend talent leaves the area: almost all locals start off playing for Cambridge Boys but they also leave to progress their talents. Graham Kavanagh was desperate to get to England but knew he wouldn’t be spotted at Cambridge Boys, so earned his move to Middlesbrough via Home Farm.
Seán Kavanagh left for Belvedere aged 11, and Gannon was a similar age moving on, to Home Farm and then St Kevin’s Boys.
“Leaving for the northside was a big deal,” says Gannon. “Me moving to Home Farm from Ringsend was like me going to Belfast, the northside seemed that far away at 11.
“Cambridge Boys have done so much good work to help people like me, there are brilliant people there, they really encourage you.
“It’s sad that Cambridge Boys and Ringsend gives us a start and we have to leave to go to a higher level but that’s the way football is. But Ringsend will always be home.”
Shelbourne were the first serious outfit to set up home in Ringsend, playing matches at Bath Avenue in 1895, and struck a blow for the game in Dublin when they won the (pre-partition) Irish Cup, until then dominated by Belfast teams, in 1906, bonfires in Ringsend to welcome the heroes home.
Shels had built up enough resources to open their own home, Shelbourne Park, in 1913. Riots, more related to the politics of the Lockout than football rivalry, accompanied the opening game there, against Bohemians.
The Reds carried on in Dublin 4 as Shamrock Rovers moved out and in 1951 they outlined a plan to build a new stadium in Irishtown but they played there for just one cash-strapped season (1955/56) and that ground was sold by Shels in 1964 as they roved on for decades, to Tolka Park via Harold’s Cross.
Rovers were also born in Ringsend, in 1901. Some claim that the location of a meeting to set up the club, at a house in Shamrock Avenue, was the reason they chose their name, though research by club historian Robert Goggins has been unable to verify that exact spot and that historic meeting may have taken place elsewhere.
Goggins noted that in the Ringsend of 1901, “big houses existed on one street and tenements on the next, children wore clothes that resembled nothing better than rags” and that Shamrock Avenue at the time was “just 16 tenements”.
The Hoops’ first home ground was at Ringsend Park, a spot known locally as The Clinkers. Not yet in the senior ranks, Rovers were a big draw, reports of a crowd of 3,000 punters for a win at Ringsend over a side called Botanic in the semi-final of the Leinster Junior Cup in 1905.
But the pitch in Ringsend was below standard and its open nature made it impossible to collect gate receipts. Not having a proper home ground hurt, as did the cost of so many away games, and Rovers went out of business twice, first in 1906, only remerging in 1914, after a meeting of like-minded souls in Sam Beatty’s barber shop in Ringsend’s Bridge Street.
Rovers were tenants of Shels at Shelbourne Park for a year (1915/16) but early in the 1916/17 season they withdrew from the Leinster Senior League “due to the fact that they could not secure a ground”.
By 1921 Rovers had found a home in Windy Arbour, before a further move to a Milltown site which would be home until its tragic sale in 1987.
And it’s the sadder side of the Ringsend story that the area is unable to sustain the talent born there. Rovers only began to breathe and prosper as a club once they left Ringsend, in 1921, and Shels were also unable to survive there.
Tomorrow on Independent.ie: Inner belief forged on the streets of Dublin