Football – today, it means many things to many people. It is played with oval balls and round balls. Fifteen-a-side, eleven-a-side, five-a-side and six-a-side. Under floodlights. On Friday night, or Saturday or Sunday mornings, afternoons and evenings. It is a summer game. It is a winter game. It can mean rugby union, rugby league; it can mean soccer, Gaelic football, Australian rules, American football, Canadian football and other points in between.
Much ink has been spilled on the emergence of various forms of football in the late middle and late nineteenth century in Britain. There were folk games with long histories, going back into the mists of time there was versions of football played in Britain’s elite public schools. There was great local variation in sizes of teams, lengths of time that games lasted, what constituted a score and so on. When you see football notices in the newspapers around Munster in the period 1860-1880, things were no different. In the period before the GAA, the IRFU or the IFA, football was a highly localised affair with many variations. Historians, myself included, have traced the move from these various disparate forms of football into their respective codes. The work of Conor Curran, Liam O’Callaghan, Neal Garnham and Paul Rouse, among others, has done much to aid our understanding this process in the Irish context. In this blog post though I wanted to take a look at some of the early reports of various football matches – where rules were unspecified and highly localised – to give you a flavour of what football in Munster was like before the rules were firmly established.
The highly localised nature of the game, and the fact that various kinds of football were all reported under the heading “Football” make it difficult to say just what these games might have looked like. Very often though they were two teams of anywhere between ten and thirty men playing from one end of a field to another with the aim of scoring a goal – getting the ball across the goal-line of the other team. The games were often messy affairs, with no clear winner emerging frequently.
There is evidence that football matches were used a means to cover up Fenian meetings as well in the 1860s. Take for instance these descriptions from the Cork Examiner:
As well being used as a cover for Fenian organisation and drill, football was sometimes a cover, or an excuse for faction fighting, as this report of the police attending a game of football in Coachford suggests:
As the 1860s gave way to the 1870s and rules were set for rugby and the association code, rugby began to make an appearance more and more in Cork and Limerick, and by the early 1880s in Waterford as well. In Cork, the Cork Football Club were the main driving force behind the emergence of the rugby code in the 1870s. They make their first appearance in the pages of the Cork Examiner in late 1868.
Rugby would take a firm hold in Cork in this period, with teams including the Cork FC, Knickerbockers, Montenotte, Queen’s College Cork and Rushbrooke all making regular appeareances. Indeed, a first inter-provincial game between Munster and Leinster would be played in late 1878.
Football in Waterford was similar to Cork in that there was local variation in the 1870s. Consider this game of football which took place in 1876 in Riverstown in Tramore, which was twenty-a-side and contested between married and umarried men:
In 1878, this game which took place near Kill, was like the game in Coachford, put on the radar of the authorities:
Previously, I had put the earliest reported game of rugby in Waterford as one between the Waterford Boat Club and the Waterford Bicycle Club in 1884. However, with the expansion of the Munster Express archive online at the Irish Newspapers Archive, I have been able to find new evidence of rugby being played in Waterford, centred chiefly around a city team and a team from Tramore in 1882.
The Waterford team also took on the Carrick Athletic, Cricket and Football Club. This club had been established in August of 1879 and had among its members future co-founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Maurice Davin. This club organised their first athletics day in November, which saw an estimated 3,600 people turn out to watch, according to the Munster Express. Among the prizes for the various races were a claret jug, a butter dish, silver lockets, a champagne knife, a breakfast cruet, a silver pin, an asparagus helper and a silver ring. When they played the Waterford FC, it was noted that while it was the Carrick men’s first time having a go at the rugby game, the Waterford players, despite their “juvenile appearance” next to the Carrick men, when it came to rugby they “had few superiors in the south of Ireland.”
By the middle of the 1880s, while most games are still being reported under the general heading of “Football”, the distinctions between the games being played is a good deal clearer, as this notice of the Carrick-On-Suir Athletic, Cricket & Football Club annual sports day shows in 1883, even before the founding of the GAA. There is a distinction between the “Irish game” and the “rugby union” code.
And then we have this game in between Callan and Ballyneal which explicitly states itself as being held under GAA rules in 1885.
And so it was that in Munster by the middle of the 1880s, a much clearer picture of the various codes of football that would be played emerged. Within twenty years football in this part of Ireland, as in the rest of the country, had changed from an amorphous, highly localised affair into various organised sports with distinct rules and organisations to help them develop.