The average attendance at League of Ireland matches in 2014 was just 1,559. In the same year, 120,000 Irish fans travelled to attend Premier League games, accounting for 15 per cent of overseas fans in England’s top division. Despite the high number of people playing football in Ireland, the game’s widespread popularity and the rich history of clubs involved, the League of Ireland has remained impervious to the masses. Meanwhile, 275,000 fans have applied for Ireland tickets for Euro 2016 games.

However, rather than 30,000 Irish supporters cheering on the country in an international tournament, as will be the case this summer, there was a time when League of Ireland games attracted 30,000 spectators. Dalymount Park, rather than Stade de France, once housed Irish fans in their tens of thousands. The 1950s has been called the ‘golden era’ of the League of Ireland, where games, particularly the Dublin derbies, captured the imagination of football fans and offered a vibrant, exciting spectacle. Featuring local heroes and engaging rivalries, it offered refuge from the drudgery of an otherwise bleak decade.

The league began to stagnate during the 1960s, and a pattern of crowd decline began that has never been arrested. To understand how this occurred, one must look beyond incompetent administrators, underdeveloped facilities, the rivalry of other field sports and poor marketing. Crowd decline at Irish domestic football games, in addition to the aforementioned issues, was the result of significant societal changes during the ‘60s and the depopulation of Dublin city centre. It also correlates to a wider decline in attendance at sporting events in Ireland and England during this period and its effects are still being felt today.

To understand why football was such a popular spectator sport in Ireland during the 1950s, one needs to put in context the sheer bleakness of life in the country at the time. Between 1951 and 1961, 412,000 people emigrated. Job opportunities were scarce for those who remained behind. Industry decreased by 14 percent between 1951 and 1958, and agricultural employment fell by 200,000 between 1941 and 1961. In Dublin there were over 86,00 people unemployed and living off benefits of 50 shillings a week. Live sport offered a brief, relatively cheap, escape from this desolate environment

In January 1953 a game in Cork between Evergreen and Cork Athletic recorded an attendance of 8,317. Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers played at Tolka Park in August 1954 in front of over 11,000, earning gate receipts of £850. The 1955 FAI Cup semi-final between Drumcondra and Waterford drew a crowd of 28,504 at Dalymount Park, and a gate of £3,002.

However, it was the Dublin derby between northside team Drumcondra, and southsiders Shamrock Rovers that would bring the biggest crowds and gate receipts, and most effectively capture the imagination during this period. Eamon Dunphy, the former professional footballer turned journalist, grew up yards from Tolka Park stadium in Drumcondra, and remembers the fixtures as events that gripped the city. “Long queues stretched back down Pearse Street, full of fans anxious to make kick-off. All week I’d worry about the outcome of the game.”

By the late 1950s, demand to see the games had surpassed stadium capacity. This led to the first all-ticket fixture in Irish club football in January 1958, when 19,053 crammed into Tolka Park. However, the match was abandoned twenty minutes into the second-half, when the ‘ticketless army’, as they were referred to in the Irish Independent match report, removed a fence and entered the ground. The crowd then pushed onto the pitch and referee was forced to end the game. A week later, a replay of the Leinster Senior Cup final took place at the same venue between the teams. This time the official attendance was 16,500 and the game passed peacefully due to increased security. The problem at this point for Irish football was keeping fans out, rather than enticing them to attend.

However, by 1962, a Sunday Independent journalist was writing about potential solutions to the problems besetting the league, and how to combat falling attendances. “Last Wednesday’s match between Drumcondra and Munich as a prime example. Granted the night was cold and wintry, but I would say that four years ago under similar conditions, the attendance at Tolka Park have been far greater.” Ireland had experienced significant change within those four years.

Never mind the Easter Rising of 1916, the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1922, or becoming a Republic in 1949, modern Ireland was born in the late 1950s when the country let go of its protectionist economic policies and joined the institutions of global capitalism. Ireland opened up to the world, and the 1960s saw the birth of contemporary Irish society. The League of Ireland was left behind during this transition.

Government policy of pursuing Eamon de Valera’s fantasy of a self-sufficient, pastoral Ireland had proved to be an abject failure. Seán Lemass was now Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and the country began the process of modernisation. Ireland joined the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, opening up lines of credit, and initiated a low-tax policy for multi-national corporations in an attempt to fuel industry. The measures yielded almost instant success, and economic improvement was evident in the early ‘60s.

Emigration, a staple of Irish life for over a century, virtually stopped and the country recorded a population increase for the first time since the Great Famine of the 1840s. The process of Ireland opening up to the world is symbolised by the advent of television, and the effect it would have on society. In the case of the League of Ireland this would prove to be detrimental.

Former Ireland and Leeds United footballer John Giles, a childhood fan of Drumcondra, the team his father managed, was enamoured with great English footballers of the 1940s and early 1950s: “They lived in my imagination, in another country, but I could actually see my Irish heroes for real”, the Dubliner recounts in his autobiography. However, in the 1960s, the feats of great players in England could actually be seen by Irish fans from the comforts of their homes or their local pub.

It is difficult to overstate the effect television had on Irish society, with its great success owing to its availability across the social spectrum. By 1963, there were 221,874 licensed television sets, accounting for 1,228,000 people, out of Ireland’s population of 2,818,341. By 1971 there were 433,000 licensed sets in Ireland, and eighty-eight percent of urban areas could receive a signal. The growth in television was fuelled by the increase in disposable income, a symbolised a shift from the austere 1950s. Post-war pastimes, such as the cinema and attending sporting events, suffered during the 1960s. Almost three million fewer spectators attended football games in England in 1960 than 10 years previous and by 1965 the average crowd had declined by 10,000 per game in 15 years.

The BBC began televising highlights of Division One games in 1964, but it was the 1966 World Cup which captured the imagination of Irish football fans to the greatest extent during the decade. Five students at an Irish language school on Arranmore, the spiritual heart of Gaelic Ireland, were expelled because they were twenty minutes late for class. They had been watching England play Portugal in the tournament’s semi-final and, in a show of solidarity, the other 220 students went on strike. Poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote a weekly column on the event in the RTE Guide magazine, where he bemoaned the advent of possession based football and claimed the host nation ‘haven’t a chance’. England defeated West Germany in the final 4-2 after extra-time. Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft was the feature image on the front page of The Sunday Independent the following day, with the headline ‘Magnificent England’.

In truth, the interest in English teams had always been there. Forty-eight thousand packed out Dalymount Park to see Manchester United defeat Shamrock Rovers 6-0 in 1957, just a few months before the Munich air disaster. It was understandable that Irish fans would have their heads further turned by English football during the 1960s. The success in cross-water football in the 1960s extended to Celtic and Manchester United, who won the European Cup in 1967 and ‘68 respectively. United featured George Best, the ‘Fifth Beatle’ most glamorous, and tragic, player of the era, a Belfast native who became an iconic pop culture figure.

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Read  |  The fleeting career but eternal brilliance of George Best

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In comparison, Irish teams struggled to make it past the first round of the competition and players, the majority of whom were semi-professional, had to report for work the day after games. The League of Ireland was not colonised by the English game during this period, but just became bypassed by a superior product that was now more freely accessible. It was also vulnerable to the significant social changes occurring at the time. Ireland experienced the of spread consumerism during the decade, and young people, in particular, had a level of disposable income unprecedented to previous generations. There was also a thriving youth culture, embodied by The Beatles, and Best on the football pitch. The past was akin to another country.

The increase in disposable income altered consumer expenditure. Just as alcohol negatively affected many young Irish footballers, there is evidence to suggest the League of Ireland could also not compete with the lure of the public house during this period. Alcohol had always been a staple of Irish life, but evidence suggests it became deeper embedded in culture during this period. Between 1948 and 1970, alcohol consumption rose by 60 percent, and by a full litre per person in the final half of the 1960s. In 1970, seventy-two percent of male adults, the key demographic of the football terraces, consumed alcohol. It could be argued, the prospect of watching Match of the Day on television in the pub became more appealing than a winter afternoon on the terraces.

In addition to a significant culture shift during this period, the League of Ireland attendances were affected by the population shift within Dublin, the epicentre of the league, boasting the most clubs, biggest population and highest attendances. If one looks at a map of League of Ireland clubs in Dublin, it is notable how their stadiums are within close proximity to the two canals that run through the city. However, this area was depopulated during this period.

From the early 1950s, a series of housing schemes began to be developed on the outskirts of the city. The government came under pressure to clear the inner-city slums, remnants of a time when Dublin was the second city of the Empire, but were left to fester for over forty years of independent Irish rule. While Dublin’s population grew during the decade, the inner-city emptied. In 1936, the wards within the two canals that circled the city contained 54.4 percent of the country-borough population. By 1971 the population within this area was just 18.9 percent and the population of the new estates was double that of inner-city.

It may seem perfectly feasible in contemporary Dublin for a person to travel from the suburbs to attend a game, however it was considerably more difficult in the 1950s, and arguably less appealing in the 1960s. There was little to do in these suburbs, and feelings of alienation were common in the new housing estates, particularly Ballymun on the northern outskirts of the city. Heralded as a feat of modernisation, the seven Ballymun tower blocks, each 15 stories high, and named after the signatories of the 1916 proclamation, created 3,265 housing units. They were seen as a triumph over the tenements, but instead created a myriad of social problems, and displaced a community from the tightknit, if destitute, inner-city.

Ballymun was built without sufficient amenities, few commercial or educational facilities and devoid of a town centre. It would become one of the most disadvantaged areas in the city and plagued by crime and drug abuse in the decades to come. According to historian David Dickenson, it was ‘a landscape without trees, gardens or adequate recreational space’. However, it did have a football team.

Ballymun United were founded in 1969, two years after the tower blocks were erected. Ballyfermot club Cherry Orchard was founded in 1957 and Ballyfermot United by 1958. Crumlin United in 1967, St John Bosco, in nearby Drimnagh, in 1957. Swords Celtic in 1962 and Verona in Blanchardstown in 1967. The pattern repeats time and again. New housing is built, people move from the inner-city, there are few, if any, leisure amenities, and within a few years some of the residents establish a football club.

It could be argued that these amateur clubs were formed as a response to the alienation in these new areas, but also a manifestation of prior interest in the League of Ireland. Unable, or perhaps no longer willing, to attend games in Dublin’s inner-city, the residents put their energies into these amateur clubs or schoolboy teams. These teams, along with English clubs they watched on television, featuring brilliant Irish players such as Best and Giles, would earn their support. If not, the pub was at their disposal.

In addition to these social change, Irish football was, and remains, inherently fractured. The Dublin District Schoolboy League was formed in 1943 and caters for the best youth teams in the city. However, even in the 1950s, the best young players in the league were being scouted by English teams and brought over in their mid-teens, thus bypassing the League of Ireland. Between 1946 and 1966, English clubs signed one hundred and twenty-three Irish players, more than any other nationality in the immediate post-war period. The odds of ‘making it’ in England were improbable, but not impossible for a talented youngster. Billy Behan, a Manchester United scout, was a ‘Dublin legend’ according to Dunphy, and is conveyed as a dream maker in his autobiography. The League of Ireland was always a consolation prize, and, with the ever increasing wages in England following the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961, compared with the meagre spoils offered in Ireland, it became a distant consolation. An Irishman, Best, was even the first player to earn £1,000 a week in England.

No pyramid structure existed in Ireland, the step from schoolboy was, ideally, to England. This had a double-fold effect on the League of Ireland. Firstly, it severed a link between the fan and teams. If Irish football fans wanted to watch the best Irish footballers, they found them in England and on their television sets. It also meant Irish domestic teams missed out on a cash windfall by losing the best players to a rival league. In essence, the League of Ireland was vulnerable to social change, and Irish football was a fractured, muddled system.

Roy Keane, who joined Nottingham Forest from League of Ireland side Cobh Ramblers in 1990, perfectly illustrated the fracture within Irish football when he said: “People always talk about me coming from Cobh Ramblers, but I was only with Cobh for a season. I’d spent nine great years with Rockmount.” To Keane, his loyalties lay with his schoolboy side.

However, the League of Ireland could have undoubtedly did more to maintain the crowds, but the clubs stood still as society changed. Daire Whelan’s book Who Stole Our Game? charts the fall of Irish domestic soccer, and cites incompetent administrators, poor facilities and the lure of the English game as causes. Most of the clubs were treated as cash cows and long-term planning was non-existent. However, these inherent flaws were exposed by significant social changes during the 1960s.

From the league making a profit in 1953, the end of the ‘Golden Age’ was finally confirmed when Drumcondra sold Tolka Park and joined amateur football in 1972. The decline would accelerate through the decades, and reached its nadir when Shamrock Rovers, the Manchester United of Irish football, sold their Milltown stadium to property developers in 1987. By the standards of the bleak years to come for the league, the 1960s does not seem so bad in comparison. However, this was the decade when the decline began.

When one looks at the high attendances in the 1950s it is as though they were something of an oasis on an otherwise desert-like landscape for the league. It required little effort on behalf of the clubs to attract spectators, and the matches offered an escape from the destitute environment of urban life in 1950s Ireland. However, it could be argued the large attendances were merely a product of their time, and times change.

Just as contemporary Irish society was born in the 1960s, the reasons why the league stopped attracting large crowds is the same now as it was 50 years ago. Television, Manchester United and the population shift to the suburbs, in addition to the structural and administrative problems, poor facilities and fractured nature of Irish football, meant the league has never been able to regain the mass following it once had.

By Robert Redmond. Follow @RobRedmond10