‘Men lovingly at war’ was how the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack, described the early games of Gaelic football. Unbeknownst to many, the most prestigious of these ‘wars’ took place on the outskirts of UCD itself.
At the back of the Thornton pitches on Belfield campus there is a gap in a wall, about a foot wide. Behind it is a rundown basketball court, a football pitch, a block of flats, and an old-fashioned Dublin housing estate. This is Beech Hill, hidden away in the heart of Dublin 4, and the site of the very first All-Ireland Football Final. It feels strange that the scene of such a monumental moment in our sporting and cultural history is not more widely recognised.
Only for a plaque at the estate entrance, one would not be aware that this unassuming place had such a rich sporting history. Not only is the match important for being the first of the main event in the Irish sporting calendar, but the events surrounding it reflected the wider political and social issues of Ireland in the late 19th century.
The concept of an All-Ireland competition was born out of a need for funds, and to increase the popularity of Gaelic football, and thus the GAA decided to launch the hurling and football All-Ireland Championships in 1887. The plan was that clubs would compete in their county championship and the winner would represent their county in the main tournament. Nine counties competed in the first Championship, with some games also being played in Elm Park, just a five minute walk from Belfield.
A large aspect of Irish politics at the time was the differences and disagreements between different groups. On one side, you had the Parnellites who were aligned with the clergy, and the other side were the Fenians. This was no different within the GAA, and the rift between the two sides threatened the survival of the Championship and the GAA itself. Thankfully there was a resolution, with the Parnellites and clergy forming a new committee, and the competition, which was scheduled for 1887, was able to reach a conclusion the following year.
The two teams involved in the final reflected the dominance urban clubs had in football at the time, while the rural clubs dominated hurling and athletics. The two teams involved in the inaugural final were the Limerick Commercials, and the Dundalk Young Irelands. The Commercials had been founded by and for businessmen of Limerick City and their employees. Their team featured the best footballer of the time, Malachi O’Brien, then only a teenager. On their way to the final the club defeated the representatives of Meath, Kilkenny, and Tipperary.
The Dundalk Young Irelands had been founded by the Young Ireland Society to help revive Irish national identity, language, and culture. Their route to the final featured wins against the champions of Wexford and Waterford.
At the time, the venue for the final was known as ‘The Big Bank’ or Byrne’s field, and was home to Benburb Football Club. It was played on Sunday the 29th of April 1888, and was a somewhat disorganised affair. The Dundalk Democrat claimed that their team only found out about the fixture on the Friday before it was played, and the Freeman’s Journal commented that while a crowd of 3,000-4,000 was respectable, it certainly would have been larger had the competition not been postponed. Despite these setbacks, the event was a success, and as was written at the time “the remembrance of an unpleasant past [referring to the rift in the GAA] is completely obliterated.”
The game was played in ‘glorious weather’, and refereed by future MP John Cullinane, who had recently been in prison over his participation in the Land War. The Dundalk team took a 0-3 to 0-1 lead into half-time, with their ‘hand punting’ being a stand out feature of their play. The Commercials fought back in the second half with ‘fast, determined charging’, and won 1-4 to 0-3. However, there was controversy for both sides following the match. The Dundalk Democrat wrote of contentious decisions from the referee, and went as far as to say he was cheering after Limerick had scored. The Dundalk club also attempted to get the result overturned as Commercials player, William J. Spain had previously played for the Dublin Kickham’s Club. The Limerick club remained bitter towards the GAA for years regarding transport costs, and for not receiving their winner’s medals until 1912.
Only a few weeks later, on the 21st May, the same ground hosted the ‘Whitsuntide Athletics Carnival of the Gaelic Athletic Association’, to which another large crowd showed up. The staging of these events cements Clonskeagh’s place in the history of the GAA and Irish sport. This townland that is now associated with tennis and rugby clubs was once the home of one of the nation’s great pastimes.
‘The … meeting at Clonskeagh was of absorbing interest … to those of every county … of every supporter of our National pastimes’. Freeman’s Journal, 1888.