A difficult birth

The Irish Free State Olympic team poses for a group photo, during the 1924 Olympic football tournament 5 June 1924.
The Irish Free State Olympic team poses for a group photo, during the 1924 Olympic football tournament. © Pozzo Archive/FIFA Museum

100 years ago today, on 2 September 1921, the Football Association of Ireland was created at a meeting held at Molesworth Hall in Dublin. But rarely has the founding of an association been achieved in such difficult circumstances.

One issue dominated British politics in the 19th century above all else and that was the “Irish question”. Having joined forces with Great Britain in 1801 to create the United Kingdom, Ireland spent much of the rest of the century trying to get out of it, and it all came to a head in the aftermath of the First World War. In January 1919, 73 newly elected Sinn Féin members of parliament refused to take up their seats in Westminster and instead set up a rival parliament in Dublin, declaring independence from the United Kingdom.

The Dublin Evening Herald from 22 November 1920. The newspaper reports on the massacre at a Croke Park football match, shootings in Dublin, and the discovery of a priest's corpse in a Galway bog. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Dublin Evening Herald from 22 November 1920. The newspaper reports on the massacre at a Croke Park football match, shootings in Dublin, and the discovery of a priest's corpse in a Galway bog. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was a move recognised only by the Soviet Union, but it sparked the War of Independence, a guerrilla-style conflict waged by the Irish Republican Army – the IRA – against the British, the most notorious episode of which became known as Bloody Sunday. On 21 November 1920, 14 British intelligence officers were killed by the IRA, followed later in the day when the Royal Irish Constabulary fired shots into the crowd at a Gaelic football match at Croke Park, killing 14 spectators and wounding 60.

A ceasefire was agreed on 11 July 1921, on the understanding that a treaty would be negotiated which would see the creation of an Irish Free State. Two months earlier the Government of Ireland Act had created Northern Ireland out of the six predominantly Protestant counties in the province of Ulster, the heartland of the Unionist movement and the fiercest opponents of an independent Ireland. It was seen as a precautionary measure with the intention that when the treaty was signed both the north and south would come together again and that Ireland would stay united.

The Ireland team before a match against England in Belfast on 5 March 1898. England won 3-2. Back row, L-R: Gibson, Torrans, Scott, Milne, Cochrane, Anderson, Front row, L-R: McAllen, Peden, Pyper, Campbell, (captain), Mercer.
The Ireland team before a match against England in Belfast on 5 March 1898. England won 3-2. Back row, L-R: Gibson, Torrans, Scott, Milne, Cochrane, Anderson, Front row, L-R: McAllen, Peden, Pyper, Campbell, (captain), Mercer. © Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Controversial plans for a second association
It was in this environment that controversial plans were laid to create the Football Association of Ireland in Dublin. The Irish had been the last of the British nations to take to association football, preferring their own Gaelic football and hurling over what were known as the garrison games of rugby and association football, a reference to their popularity in the towns which housed British army garrisons. The Irish Football Association (IFA) had been formed in 1880 in Belfast, controlling association football in the whole of the island of Ireland and it was here that the power in the game lay. In over 40 years of international matches, Dublin had hosted just six Irish international matches compared to almost 50 in Belfast. A club from Dublin had never won the League and only four times had they triumphed in the Cup – Shelbourne in 1906, 1911, and 1920, and Bohemians in 1908.

It was the clubs in Dublin, anxious to emerge from the shadows of their rivals in Belfast, that were the prime movers behind the creation of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). In July 1921, they set about drawing up the rules and constitution of the new association. Not everyone was behind the idea. Mr AET Richey, a senior figure in the game in Dublin and of the Belfast-based IFA, felt he “could not conscientiously support the move to break away from Belfast”, and said he believed “the Dublin clubs were contemplating doing something wrong.”


Six Matches to Celebrate


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Stade Olympique de Colombes, Paris
Wednesday, 28.05.1924, 1,659
Referee: A Henriot FRA
Goal: Duncan 75

IRL • Paddy O'Reilly - Bertie Kerr, Jack McCarthy - Ernie MacKay, John Joe Dykes, Tommy Muldoon - Mick Farrell, Joe Kendrick, Paddy Duncan, Denis Hannon (c), Johnny Murray. No coach
BUL • Petar Ivanov - Aleksandar Christov, Simeon Yankov - Ivan Radoev, Boyan Boyanov, Geno Matev - Dimitar Mutafchiev, Nikola Mutafchiev, Todor Vladimirov (c), Konstantin Maznikov, Kiril Yovovich. Leopold Nitsch AUT

The Irish Free State made their international debut with a close win over Bulgaria, a nation playing only their second international match. Bizarrely, the Irish wore blue and the Bulgarians green! The Irish team had travelled for two days to get to Paris and had to raise the money to fund the trip as the FAI had little to spare. £250 was raised by playing a match in Dublin but the new government took a large proportion of it in entertainment tax! Ireland’s 36-year old captain Dinny Hanlon missed two penalties before Paddy Duncan scored a late winner; and with it the honour of being the first scorer in the Republic’s history.


England vs Republic of Ireland at Goodison park on 21 September 1949. © Imago/Colorsport
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Goodison Park, Liverpool
Wednesday, 21-09-1949, 51,847
Referee: John Mowat SCO
Goals: Martin (2) 34p 86

ENG • Bert Williams – Bertram Mozley, Jack Aston – Billy Wright (c), Neil Franklin, Jimmy Dickinson – Peter Harris, Johnny Morris, Jesse Pye, Wilf Mannion, Tom Finney. Selection Committee
IRL • Tommy Godwin – Johnny Carey (c), Tom Aherne – Billy Walsh, Con Martin, Tommy Moroney – Peter Corr, Peter Farrell, Davy Walsh, Peter Desmond, Tommy O’Connor

A landmark match for both nations. The English suffered a home loss for the first time to a side from outside of the United Kingdom with Aston Villa’s Con Martin scoring a first half penalty and Peter Farrell, playing on his home ground, making sure just before the end. It was to be four years before the Hungarians matched the achievement of the Irish. Sir Stanley Rous, the secretary of The FA and future FIFA president had been instrumental in trying to foster better relations between the UK associations and the FAI, but it wouldn’t be until the 1960s that the Republic played against either Wales or Scotland, and even longer for a first meeting with Northern Ireland.


There was no picture available from the match Wales - Republic of Ireland. This picture shows a scene from the match France vs Republic of Ireland shortly after on 11 October 1973 at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. © Imago/Zuma Press/Keystone
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Women's Football

The Republic of Ireland’s first officially recognized women’s international was played after the formation of the Ladies Football Association of Ireland (LFAI). The team won 3 – 2 against Wales and Paula Gorham scored a hat-trick in her women’s senior team debut. This year, she was inducted into the FAI’s hall of fame. Initially independent of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) the LFAI gained full status on the Senior Council of the FAI in 1991. In 2001 the association changed its name to the Women’s Football Association of Ireland (WFAI). The FAI made headlines recently when they announced that the players on the senior women’s and men’s teams would receive equal pay on international duty.


Allan Hunter (Northern Ireland - on the right) and Frank Stapleton (Republic of Ireland) at the game Republic of Ireland vs Northern Ireland on 20 September 1978. © Imago/Colorsport
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Lansdowne Road, Dublin
Wednesday, 20-09-1978, 55,000
Referee: Francis Rion BEL

IRL • Mick Kearns – Tony Grealish, Mark Lawrenson, Noel Synnott, Jimmy Holmes – Gerry Daly, Johnny Giles (c), Liam Brady – Paul McGee, Frank Stapleton (Mick Walsh 54), Steve Heighway (Don Givens 64). Johnny Giles
NIR • Pat Jennings – Pat Rice, Allan Hunter (Bryan Hamilton 71), Chris Nicholl, Sammy Nelson – Sammy McIlroy, David McCreery, Martin O’Neill, Jimmy Nicholl –– Gerry Armstrong, Derek Spence (Terry Cochrane 68). Danny Blanchflower

The two Irelands were bound to meet eventually, and it was the qualifiers for the 1980 European Championship that finally brought them together for the first time, 56 years after the creation of the Irish Free State. The gardai in Dublin were well prepared for a game played at the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland – a nine foot high wire fence was erected around the pitch in preparation for the two sets of fans, 8,000 who crossed the border from Northern Ireland. There were a few minor scuffles and a dozen arrests but the gardai stated “we had about as much trouble as we would have at any major sporting event nowadays.” As to the game itself… Pat Jennings proved himself a world class goalkeeper once again, making three outstanding saves while Northern Ireland coach Danny Blanchflower called the 0-0 draw the “perfect political result.”


Tony Cascarino's (Ireland, 3rd from right) header against Ioan Lupescu (Romania, centre). Imago/Sven Simon
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Luigi Ferraris, Genoa
25-06-1990, 17:00, 31,818
Referee: José Ramiz Wright

IRL • Pat Bonner – Chris Morris, Mick McCarthy (c), Kevin Moran, Steve Staunton (David O’Leary 94) – Ray Houghton, Paul McGrath, Andy Townsend, Kevin Sheedy – Niall Quinn, John Aldridge (Tony Cascarino 22). Jack Charlton ENG
ROU • Silviu Lung (c) – Gheorghe Popescu – Mircea Rednic, Ioan Andone, Michael Klein – Iosif Rotariu, Ioan Sabău (Daniel Timofte 98), Gheorghe Hagi, Ionuț Lupescu – Gavril Balint, Florin Răducioiu (Dănuț Lupu 74). Emerich Jenei

Perhaps not the best game in the history of the Republic of Ireland but one of the most memorable which had the considerable contingent of Irish fans in raptures at the end. A tense penalty shoot-out victory saw the team qualify for the quarter-finals of Italia ’90. Pat Bonner guessed correctly for all five Romanian penalties and finally got his hands to the last one from Daniel Timofte. That left David O’Leary to fire home the winner. It’s the only time that the Republic of Ireland have won a knockout game at the World Cup or European Championships.


Republic of Ireland's Aiden McGeady's shot towards the Italian goal at the 2016 UEFA EURO Group E match versus Italy. © Imago/ANP
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Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, Lille
22-06-2016, 21:00, 44,268
Referee: Ovidiu Hațegan ROU
Goal: Brady 85

ITA • Salvatore Sirigu – Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci (c), Angelo Ogbonna – Thiago Motta – Federico Bernardeschi (Matteo Darmian 60), Stefano Sturaro, Alessandro Florenzi, Mattia De Sciglio (Stephan El Shaarawy 81) – Simone Zaza, Ciro Immobile (Lorenzo Insigne 74). Antonio Conte
IRL • Darren Randolph – Seamus Coleman (c), Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh, Stephen Ward – Jeff Hendrick, James McLean, James McCarthy (Wes Hoolahan 77), Robbie Brady – Shane Long (Stephan Quinn 90), Daryl Murphy (Aiden McGeady 70). Martin O’Neill

The Republic of Ireland’s record at international tournaments is played 23 and won just four, but perhaps that’s not too surprising given a population of just five million. Two of those victories have been against Italy – at the 1994 World Cup in the USA and here at Euro 2016. With five minutes left Ireland were heading out of the competition but a swift break up field saw Wes Hoolahan send in a perfect cross for Robbie Brady to head home a dramatic winner and send his team through from the group stage for the first time at the Euros.




By the start of September, however, Richey had been converted to the idea and on that historic day 100 years ago he was elected as the first president of the FAI. The clubs wasted no time in kicking off the new League of Ireland – just three weeks later. It was won by St James’s Gate, who finished ahead of Bohemians and Shelbourne, and they achieved the double when they beat Shamrock Rovers – the third of the triumvirate of Dublin clubs that would go on to dominate club honours in future years.

A difficult start for the new association
The early days of the new association were not easy. The War of Independence may have been over, but the political situation remained far from resolved. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 16 December 1921 provided for the creation of the Irish Free State a year later in December 1922, but the fact that it was to remain a Dominion within the British Empire, like Canada, and not a republic, split the IRA resulting in a year-long civil war from June 1922 to May 1923. Maintaining control over football in such a febrile atmosphere was a challenge.

The FAI’s position was enhanced when the six counties of Northern Ireland withdrew from the Irish Free State two days after its creation in December 1922, ending any hopes of a unified Ireland and although both associations claimed control over the whole of the island, their power was limited to the geographical areas they covered.

Northern Ireland captain Allan Hunter (left) and Republic of Ireland captain John Giles (right) before kick off of the first match between the two countries in September 1978. The game ended 0 – 0.  © Peter Robinson/EMPICS/Getty Images
Northern Ireland captain Allan Hunter (left) and Republic of Ireland captain John Giles (right) before kick off of the first match between the two countries in September 1978. The game ended 0 – 0. © Peter Robinson/EMPICS/Getty Images

It was to be over 50 years before the Republic of Ireland, as it became known in 1948, played Northern Ireland in an international match. Before that game – a 0-0 draw in Dublin in September 1978 – relations between the FAI in Dublin and the IFA in Belfast were often tense. The Irish Free State first fielded an international team at the 1924 Paris Olympic football tournament, the year after being affiliated to FIFA. Their 1-0 victory over Bulgaria was the first time an Irish team had played an official international outside of the British Isles. The tensions resulted from the fact that Northern Ireland continued to play under the name of “Ireland” and insisted on choosing players from the whole of Ireland.

Playing for both Irish teams
This led to the extraordinary situation in the 1950 World Cup, where Con Martin, Davy Walsh, Tom Ahere and Reg Ryan played for both teams during the qualifying campaign! It wasn’t until a qualifier against Portugal in the 1958 World Cup that the IFA fielded a team under the name “Northern Ireland” and they continued to use the name “Ireland” in the annual British Championship well into the 1970s.

The question often asked is will there be a united Ireland team once again in the future? There is one in rugby, which didn’t go through the same split as association football with the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, but both football teams are now so well established and have written their own distinct histories, with heroic performances at World Cups and European Championships, that it won’t be easy. Only time will tell.