the beautiful game in ireland: a story of neglect

Donal O’Falluin writes on Irish working-class football culture

On the northside of Dublin, there is a football stadium. Only a short walk from the 82,000 seater capacity Croke Park, home of the Gaelic Athletic Association, a small stadium with a capacity of about 8,000 sits. Pele, Zidane and many other greats have run out onto the pitch of Dalymount Park. It is considered by many ‘the home of Irish football’. It is symbolic of where the game is today that this historically important stadium, once home to the Irish international side, today crumbles. Like Dalymount Park herself, football in Ireland has endured a fall from grace.

On paper, the football experience in Ireland is something which greatly excites the English football faithful, from an outsiders perspective. With standing in stadiums commonplace, and terraces still the order of the day for many, not to mention a ticket cost averaging €15, it’s an almost romantic throwback to a time before the topflight game in the United Kingdom passed into the hands of speculators, becoming a sort of ’22 men on a pitch’ version of Monopoly among the world’s wealthy. On the ground though it’s evident the game in Ireland is in a seriously troubled state.

Ireland is peculiar in that her national team, referred to by some football fans here as the ‘Irish Granny Rule Team’, consists not of domestic players but rather those who toil abroad in the Scottish and English leagues.

The decline of the game in Ireland in all earnest can be dated back to the arrival of the dreaded British sports channels in Ireland, and the ‘culture’ which came with it. Thousands of Irish people began weekly pilgrimages to England and Scotland, something from which the game here never truly recovered. It is a sad  testament to the fact that typically a clubs largest gate-return annually will come from a glorified pre-season friendly with an English or Scottish side.

Football in Ireland is very much based in working class communities. Derry City play in the heart of the Bogside, while in Dublin clubs like Saint Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemian F.C enjoy strong local support from working class corners of the city. A stroll through Inchicore, an area which in the past suffered greatly to the effects of poverty, neglect and addiction, will show any visitor the positive effects of Saint Patrick’s Athletic in that area.

They are not unique in Dublin: in most working class areas one finds local youth passionately follow the local side. At a recent Dublin derby between Shamrock Rovers and Saint Patrick’s Athletic, the personalised fan banners read like a ‘who’s who’ of working class Dublin. Ballyfermot Hoops, Inchicore Saints, Tallaght Saints and the like.

The importance of the game in providing a community environment and hobby for young people can not be understated. Yet despite this, funding for the sport has been cut time and time again, with the national association focusing its efforts on the national team and the ‘Aviva Stadium’, a sports venue where adult tickets can cost up to €100 for a regular encounter.

Why is a game so central to working class identity, not least in the capital of Ireland, so neglected? There are multiple factors. One is undoubtedly the media. Like clockwork, the Irish media can be expected to churn out several ‘documentaries’ on the underbelly of the league on an annual basis. The most discussed of these was a now-infamous documentary from TV3, a leading television station in Ireland, which attempted to show the ‘ugly side’ of the beautiful game. The documentary consisted for the most part of voice actors reading excerpts from Bebo and Facebook pages, and attempted to present an image of a league which had been plagued by ‘The English Disease’ as the tabloids across the sea term it.

While images of fifteen year olds in fake Stone Island jumpers posturing raised nothing beyond chuckles from the games faithful, who understood the sense of community at the heart of the sport, they muddy the water just enough in the eyes of the general public. ‘Should I bring my child to a domestic football match where hooliganism is commonplace?’ some asked. In many cases, they decided it a wise move not to. The only winners in such a situation were the television channels who profit off Irish allegiances to Manchester United, Liverpool and the like.

The recent hospitalisation of a young Cork City supporter outside a Dublin stadium was the sort of incident the media seize upon to present an image of the game as a dated league followed by trouble makers, hooligans and ‘casuals’. Such incidents are incredibly rare however, and unfortunately the media are never so quick to write of the successes of the game in decreasing violence among young, working class

The Setanta Cup for example, a cross border competition, has seen young working class football supporters from areas like the diehard loyalist Shankhill Road and Dublin working class suburbs travel all over the island and mingling among one another. The new-found understanding among many young football supporters from very different backgrounds goes unwritten of. I never imagined a day when I would find myself in an East Belfast housing estate asking locals for directions to a football stadium, but it has happened. Football has been to the fore in building peace. There is no story there in the eyes of tabloid journalists.

The future for Irish football looks bleak. Over the last couple of years, a bizarre situation has emerged where league winners and topflight clubs have found themselves in danger of economic collapse. Bohemian F.C, founded in 1890, are in serious economic trouble. Shelbourne F.C, one of the oldest clubs in the island, have never recovered fully from their economic difficulties almost a decade ago.
Clubs enjoy a precarious existence, tragic when one takes their histories and local importance into account.

No Al Calcio Moderno, a common slogan among football fans internationally, translates into: ‘No To Modern Football’. There is little modern about the local game in Ireland. It is surely time the national association turned their focus away from their beloved ‘Aviva stadium’ and towards working class institutions in danger of collapse.