Today, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm passed away at the age of 95. Hobsbawm’s quest for writing history that mattered led him to write about everything from shoemakers, tradition, jazz and sports while also providing us with one of the greatest multi-volume histories of Europe ever produced and ever likely to be produced.
On news of his death I was put in mind of a quote from his Nations and Nationalisms, where Hobsbawm wrote “what has made sport so uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings, at all events for males, is the ease with which even the least political or public individuals can identify with the nation as symbolised by young persons excelling at what practically every man wants, or at one time in his life has wanted, to be good at.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about nation-forming and football recently and that first decade of sporting strife experienced by the Football Association of the Irish Free State between 1922 and 1932. I’ve written before about the team at the Olympics in 1924 (and in History Ireland it has been written about too). The first recognised Irish international played by a Free State team came in 1926.
But a series of games about which I’ve been thinking a lot are those old Inter-League games, which for the Free State League in the middle of the 1920s may as well have been national representative games, given the intimate ties between the Association and the League in those years.
So far as I can make out, the first Inter-League game which a Free State League side played was against the Welsh League in 1924 (I’m completely open to correction on this one, by the by). The game was set to be played on 9th February 1924 in Dalymount Park and the Irish team was made up of Bohemians, Jacobs, St. James’ Gate, Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers players. The Welsh side was made up of players from Cardiff City; Swansea; Llannelly; Newport and Pontypridd.
The news that the game be arranged was hailed by the Irish Independent, saying it was ‘gratifying to see that the Free State Association has received seperate recognition from another country’, hoping that it wouldn’t be too long before the Free State be recognized for full international status. The game was a thrilling 3-3 draw; The Indo wrote that the players for the Free State ‘literally and physically’ rose to the occasion and some occasion it was too.
This game would begin a series of games between the two Leagues, both very much the poor cousins of the four home nations Leagues. A fixture was then set for another match between the two sides on March 14th in 1925. As well as a Dublin fixture, a date was set a few months later for a match on November 7th in Swansea. The importance of these games to the Free State League and by extension the Football Association of the Irish Free State must have been considerable. This third fixture was another draw, this time 2-2 and around 6,000 people turned out in what were very poor conditions for the game.
Though far from the full International recognition so desperately sought after by Football Association of the Irish Free State, those Inter-League games were a first recognition, from Wales, an expression of just why in Hobsbawm’s words sport was so ‘uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings’. Here was a League more or less parading as a nation, in the hope of being recognised as such.