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Why we have to reassess our understanding of football's origins in Ireland

How new evidence suggests football arrived in Ireland three years earlier than we thought

By Martin Moore

A recent flourishing of interest in the history of Irish football has uncovered new evidence of the earliest association football matches played in Ireland, the first of which took place in Belfast in 1875.

Until these new discoveries, the story of how the game began in Ireland was believed to have been a straightforward one, centred on one man, John McAlery, who personally organised an exhibition match between two Scottish teams in October 1878.

This match sparked an interest that led to the formation in 1879 of the first club, Cliftonville, and in 1880 of the Irish Football Association - both on McAlery's initiative. McAlery - the 'father of Irish association football' - was a Belfast businessman who was understood to have encountered the new code while on honeymoon in Scotland.

Research published by historians since 2015, however, has called into question the neatness of this traditional account. In particular, three earlier matches are now known to have been played - two in Belfast and one, surprisingly, in County Cork.

The earliest known football match in Ireland is now known to have been played by members of the Ulster Cricket Club at its grounds at 'Prospect' in Ballynafeigh in front of some spectators on December 11, 1875. 'Prospect' was located on the west side of the Ormeau Road, behind where the Ormeau Bakery was later built and roughly where Walmer Street and Kimberley Street are today.

Brief coverage in the local press did not provide any description of the play, but the Northern Whig was impressed by 'the physique shown by the various players'.

These pioneer footballers intended to establish a new football club to play both association and rugby rules in its first season before deciding which of the two codes to adopt. This does not appear to have happened, however, as the Ulster Football Club was not established until the 1877-78 season, and then only to play rugby.

Fifteen months later, on March 3, 1877, another match was played in Belfast, this time by members of the Windsor rugby club, who were practising for an upcoming exhibition game against the Caledonian Football Club of Glasgow, scheduled for April 21, but which (for reasons unknown) never came off.

The Windsor players (among them at least four Irish rugby internationals) divided into two teams distinguished by blue and red coloured ribbons worn on the left shoulder, the Blues winning 5-2.

The Scots had been trying since 1876-77 to organise a match in Ireland, and this seems to have been the closest their plans came to fruition before Caledonian did make it to Belfast for the 1878 exhibition against the famous Queen's Park.

The third newly discovered match was played in Mallow, County Cork, on November 28, 1877 between two schools - Penn's and Lismore College. The association code was described in the Cork Constitution as 'the beautiful game proper' (surely one of the earliest ever uses of the now famous description), but unfortunately neither side was able to score a goal.

This new evidence necessitates a reappraisal of our understanding of how association football began in Ireland.

No longer can the 1878 exhibition be said to be the first match, and neither does it appear that it was the lone work of John McAlery, who is not mentioned in any of the contemporary newspaper notices, reports or correspondence. Rather, the match was described at the time as being staged 'under the auspices' of the Windsor and Ulster clubs.

The 1879 Scottish Football Annual emphasises the Scottish FA's efforts in arranging the match, and JA Allen, the secretary of Caledonian, is credited in the 1880 Irish Football Annual. The first occasion when McAlery was credited was a letter written by McAlery himself to the Dublin Sport newspaper in 1885, in which he proclaimed: 'Alone, I did it'. This was in response to a suggestion that James Calder, the secretary of Windsor, was the man who had introduced the code.

The fully embellished McAlery-alone story appears to have taken root after McAlery's death in 1925, when some of his obituaries gave him the sole honours, and mentioned his witnessing of the game in Scotland. The honeymoon aspect of the story came later, though this has since been debunked as McAlery did not get married until 1879.

None of this should diminish the standing of John McAlery as the single most important figure in establishing football in Ireland.

There is no question about his role as founder of Cliftonville and the first honorary secretary of the Irish FA; and he also played for Cliftonville and Ireland and was an international referee.

But we do now know that association football was played in Ireland before the 1878 exhibition, and it does seem probable that the traditional tale of one man's heroic endeavours to organise that match is an exaggeration, and that others - the Scottish FA, Caledonian FC, James Calder, Windsor FC, and Ulster FC - should also be duly recognised.

For the full story, see Martin Moore's (martin@mooremj.plus.com) article 'The Origins of Association Football in Ireland, 1875-1880: A Reappraisal' in the Sport in History journal, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17460263.2017.1319409

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