As you probably know by now, Ireland became an independent state in 1922. As well as the GAA, athletes competing on the world stage at the Olympics, often under the flag of the United Kingdom, also did their part in promoting a separate national identity – especially in displays at the Olympics. That story is best told in Kevin McCarthy in his wonderful book Gold, Silver, Green: The Irish Olympic Journey 1896-1924 (Cork: 2010).
The Olympics got under way this evening with the women’s football and although football isn’t considered to be really what the Olympics is all about (it’s about this and this and this mostly), it is historically at least, very important to the story of Irish soccer.
When Ireland became an independent nation, it had been pre-empted by the soccer association on the island, when due to long-time wrangling the Irish Football Association and Leinster Football Association split from each other, with the latter taking control of the 26 counties and taking the eventual name of the Football Association of the Irish Free State. Under this guise they sent a football team to the Paris Olympics in 1924, only months before back home the very first Tailteann Games got under way. The Tailteann Games, the brainchild of Cork-man JJ Walsh was something of a state-building exercise. The Tailteann Games were not seen as being a challenger to the Olympics nor was that the intention behind them. But those Games’ heavy emphasis on all things Gaelic naturally meant at that time that soccer was not part of the programme of events.
The Irish soccer teams turn in the Olympics was relatively brief, but their game against Bulgaria was hugely significant. Why you ask? Because it was the first time an Irish international side won a match in an international competition.
Although the game against Italy played on March 21st 1926 in Turin (just four days after the domestic Cup final between Fordson and Shamrock Rovers in which six of the first eleven had played!) is recognised in some reference volumes as the first proper international Ireland played as a free state, and consequently our win over Belgium in 1928 our first in a full international, some four years previously at the Paris Olympics of 1924 we had beaten the Bulgarians 1-0. Having been recognised by FIFA, Ireland were eligible for the games and were drawn against the Bulgarians in their first match. To read the match reports in the Irish Times and Irish Independent leave you in no doubt that the game was far from a classic. The poor display of the Irish, despite the win, meant that the consensus amongst the pressmen was that the Irish wouldn’t stand much of a chance in the tournament. At the Games they established a precedent familiar now with many fans of the Irish international team: they got knocked out at the quarter-final stages beaten by the Dutch 2-1. In the Bulgaria match, the winning goal and thus the first goal scored by an independent Irish soccer team was Paddy ‘Dirty’ Duncan who played his football for St. James’ Gate in Dublin.
The full line out that day was: O’Reilly; Kerr; McCarthy; Dykes (captain); McKay; Muldoon; Farrell; Hannon; Duncan; Kendrick; Murray.