The three-year GAA trial which sees the All Ireland finals pulled back by three weeks each has its champions and its detractors. They will all get their opportunity soon enough to debate the efficacy of the experiment and, after 2020, we may see things returning to the normality to which we’ve all become accustomed.
But it was not ever thus! Tradition, by definition, takes a while to become established—except on social media when fifteen minutes or so does it nicely—and so it was with the All Ireland schedule.
The Gaelic Athletic Association has been around since 1884 and after a decidedly rocky start in life became a stable fixture in the 1890s and started to move towards national treasure status thereafter. The part it played in the achievement of Irish nationhood is unchallenged, and its subsequent role in entertaining and exasperating the people of Ireland is equally incontestable. If you doubt me, just wander into any public space during an Irish summer and eavesdrop on the conversations. If you don’t hear the Dublin football team being slagged off outside of the Pale then you need your hearing tested.
The first fixture described as the All Ireland Football final was played three years after the formation of the GAA at a meeting in Thurles attended by seven men. Quite an oak has grown from that little acorn. The match was staged on 29 April 1887 in the iconic confines of … Beech Hill in Clonskeagh on the fringes of Donnybrook. It was contested between Commercials of Limerick and Young Irelands of Louth, both winners of their respective county championships. There were forty-two players involved as each had had twenty-one players. Think of the teams and the benches of today all on the pitch at the same time. It must often have resembled the only recently abandoned Donnybrook Fair, whose own ‘robust exchanges’ had caused it to be brought to an end. For the record Commercials won, making Limerick the first-ever All Ireland FOOTBALL champions. Now there’s an interesting and unusual sentence. Though, in fairness to the Treaty County they won it again in 1896. Since then they’ve been a tad better at the old hurling!
Over the next five years of the football championship, it was decided at a variety of Dublin venues, including Phoenix Park in 1893. No one, however, seemed to care that much, with crowds never topping five thousand. Until that is, it returned, in 1895, for the 1894 final—don’t ask, it got a bit out of kilter in 1890—to the home of the GAA, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. There ten thousand people saw Dublin take their third title, beating Cork—well, sort of. The game was a replay after a drawn match in Dublin and it never actually ended. Some of the Dublin players were attacked by Cork supporters and the match was abandoned. The GAA awarded the trophy to Dublin, although, as Cork were leading at the time, inhabitants of the Rebel County still claim that one to this day.
The following year the final moved to a location on a Dublin thoroughfare known as Jones’ Road. You may be familiar with it! However, the so-called City and Suburban Racecourse was not yet exclusive to the GAA. Bohemians soccer club played their home games there in the 1890s, and in 1901 it hosted the Irish Football Association final between Belfast’s Cliftonville (still with us today) and Freebooters F.C. from Sandymount in Dublin, who have sadly migrated to that great changing room in the sky. The football final kept moving around until the ‘venue that would be Croke Park’ became exclusive GAA territory in 1908.
Even after that, there was one celebrated break in a tradition that now goes back over a century. This came in 1947 when the All Ireland final wasn’t even played in Ireland. It moved to the Polo Grounds in New York for the encounter between Cavan and Kerry. Cavan had become the first Ulster team to win the All Ireland in 1933. In a four-point win over Kerry, they became the first Ulster team to win two All Irelands. Nobody outside Kerry had much sympathy for the vanquished Munstermen. They already had sixteen titles to their credit and Bomber Liston wouldn’t even be born for another ten years.
Incidentally, the first September All Ireland final wasn’t played until 1902, and the September date didn’t become fixed until the late 1920s.
So, the notion that the All Ireland football final has always been played in the vicinity of Jones’s Road in September, is way off the mark.