Ireland’s footballers at the Paris Olympics, 1924

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2012), Volume 20

The Irish Free State side that beat the USA 3–1 on 14 June 1924 in Dalymount Park, a friendly following their return from the Olympic Games. Back row, from left: Johnny Murray, Paddy Duncan, Tommy Muldoon, Francis Collins, Charlie Dowdall and Tony Hunston. Front row: Michael Farrell, Ned Brooks, Bertie Kerr, Tom Murphy and John Thomas. (Irish Independent)

The Irish Free State side that beat the USA 3–1 on 14 June 1924 in Dalymount Park, a friendly following their return from the Olympic Games. Back row, from left: Johnny Murray, Paddy Duncan, Tommy Muldoon, Francis Collins, Charlie Dowdall and Tony Hunston. Front row: Michael Farrell, Ned Brooks, Bertie Kerr, Tom Murphy and John Thomas. (Irish Independent)

The Paris Olympics of 1924 represented the official debut of Ireland on the Olympic stage. Although Irish representatives competed in some of the artistic events that preceded the games proper (see Jack B. Yeats’s Liffey Swim, pp 26–7), the first sporting competitors for the new nation were sixteen footballers, culled from four clubs playing in the League of Ireland. They had a double distinction: not only were they independent Ireland’s first sporting Olympians but they were also the original Irish senior international football side. The breakthrough that facilitated their participation in the 1924 Olympics took place in Paris in June 1922, when the annual congress of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognised Ireland as an independent nation for Olympic purposes. And whilst the election of Irish representative John J. Keane as a delegate to the IOC signalled the arrival of Ireland on the Olympic stage, there was still much political and administrative work to be completed before the footballers could make their debut.At the time, there were two significant players in the administration of international football—the International Football Association Board (IFAB), involving the four ‘home’ nations, and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). In the wake of partition, the then Football Association of Ireland was engaged in a complex political struggle to achieve recognition from the powerful ‘home’ nations of the IAFB. A major breakthrough occurred in August 1923, when FIFA formally recognised the newly renamed Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS). With FIFA organising the football tournament at the 1924 Olympics (and recognising it as a World Football Championship), it paved the way for the FAIFS to field a team, through the auspices of the Irish Olympic Committee.

One of captain Denis Hannon’s caps from the 1924 Olympic Games. In 1999 FIFA ruled that all Olympic Games football matches between 1908 and 1940 be regarded as full internationals. (Ann Hennessy)

One of captain Denis Hannon’s caps from the 1924 Olympic Games. In 1999 FIFA ruled that all Olympic Games football matches between 1908 and 1940 be regarded as full internationals. (Ann Hennessy)

Financial difficulties

Political difficulties, though, were only some of the obstacles facing the FAIFS in entering a team  in the Olympics. Finance was also a major impediment. An official from the Football Association wrote to the Irish Independent, pointing out that:
‘To send this team to France will cost more money than the Football Association possess, but it has issued an appeal to every footballer and ex-footballer in the country to contribute to a fund specially created for this purpose’.
The estimated cost of sending a squad to the Olympic Games was £817. A friendly between a League of Ireland representative side and Glasgow Celtic, who were free to visit Ireland after the four ‘home’ nations lifted their boycott of the FAIFS in late 1923, was organised as a vital element of the fundraising plan. A huge attendance of some 22,000 at Dalymount Park paid gate receipts of £1,200, but after expenses, Glasgow Celtic’s payment and a controversial entertainment tax to the government were deducted, the game yielded only £250 towards the fund. Before the Olympics there was even a suggestion that the team might not have sufficient funding to remain in Paris if it was to progress to the later rounds of the competition. The Evening Telegraph reported:
‘Every team that will enter the Olympic arena from every corner of the earth has been to the Games richly endowed financially. The Irish team goes into this journey in debt. The Association is honour bound to send it.’
Despite the difficulties in raising the finance, preparations continued and clubs were requested to nominate available and eligible players. Two trial games were organised in Dublin in late April and early May, after which a sixteen-strong squad was named, including five players from each of Athlone Town, Bohemians and St James’s Gate, as well as a lone representative from Brooklyn, a then League of Ireland club. The official list sent to the French Olympic Committee also included six other players who did not travel. The adventure began on Saturday 24 May, when players and officials departed from Westland Row via Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead. After a gruelling almost-48-hour trip, the squad set up base in a city centre hotel rather than in the official Olympic village. Disagreements over the definition of amateurism had meant that the UK football associations did not participate in the Olympic Games. Nonetheless, the football tournament, comprised of 22 teams, was a major event in the history of football. Indeed, their experiences of running the event in 1924 and the difficulties relating to amateurism persuaded FIFA to organise their own world championships, the first World Cup, in 1930 in Uruguay. (Seven of the Uruguayan squad that triumphed in Paris were also among the winners of that first World Cup six years later.)In Paris, the Irish contingent laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and formally unfurled the tricolour at the Arc de Triomphe.

Beating Bulgaria

After a brief training session, under the guidance of Bohemians trainer Charlie Harris, on the following day, Wednesday 28 May, they went into action against Bulgaria. Both sides had received a bye in the opening round and the winner of the second-round clash was guaranteed a quarter-final spot. Ireland lined up in blue jerseys with white shorts and black stockings with blue tops. A spray of green shamrock was embroidered on a white shield on the breast of their jerseys. Ironically, the Bulgarians wore green. There was surprise, too, when the Irish entered the arena to the tune of Let Erin Remember. In Ireland there was no significant media or public clamour regarding the footballers’ involvement in the games. The scheduling of the football tournament at the start of the games may have contributed to the lack of awareness. And domestic media coverage was also keenly focused on the ongoing planning of the infant Irish Free State’s own Olympic-style event, the Tailteann Games. Also known at the time as the ‘Irish Race Olympics’, the Tailteann Games took place in Dublin in August 1924 and were seen as a sporting festival of the ‘Celtic race’.There were some, though, who understood the significance of the event in Paris. The weekly newspaper Sport had advised the players to
‘. . . battle on to the last gasp, as though life and limb depended on their efforts even to the risk of never being fit to play another game in their lives . . . To be the first Irishmen to compete in the Olympiad is great . . . They must not think of themselves. Their uppermost and inseparable thought must be of their country. Their country expects them to do their duty to play as Irishmen, to win as Irishmen and, if the worst comes to the worst, to lose as Irishmen fighting unflinchingly to the last.’
Captaining the side was 36-year-old Athlone solicitor Denis Hannon, a vastly experienced inside-forward who had spent most of his career with Bohemians. Just two months previously he had scored the winning goal as his hometown club Athlone Town secured the Free State Cup (now FAI Cup). The significance may have been lost on the Irish public back home, but in Paris there was no mistaking the sense of occasion in the air as the team went through the preliminaries. The referee later commented that he had never seen a more nervous bunch of players.If history was in the making, however, there were few there to see it. The official attendance in the 45,000-capacity Stade de Colombes was just 1,659, including 1,137 complimentary tickets. The surreal atmosphere may have contributed to Ireland’s sluggish performance as they struggled to deal with the occasion, the hard-ground conditions, the unfamiliar tactics of their opponents and what was described as ‘well nigh unendurable heat’. As the game progressed, the Bulgarian goal enjoyed a charmed existence, with Kendrick, Farrell and Hannon all striking the woodwork. It fell to centre-forward Duncan to finally break the deadlock and register Ireland’s first international goal on 75 minutes when he thumped home a Murray cross, from a position that numerous newspaper reports judged to be offside. Sport remarked that Ireland had failed to capitalise on a series of opportunities: ‘The score does not represent the true run of the game or the superiority of the winners’. The official Olympic report said that the contest was close, and while the victors were more scientific in their play they could not translate their superiority and had prevailed thanks to a fortunate goal.

The Irish side beaten 2–1 (after extra time) by Holland in the 1924 Olympic Games quarter-final. Back row: Bertie Kerr, Jack McCarthy, Ernie McKay, Johnny Murray and Tommy Muldoon. Front row: John Joe Dykes, Denis Hannon, Paddy O’Reilly and Paddy Duncan. Missing from the photo: Michael Farrell and Frank Ghent. (IOC Lausanne)

The Irish side beaten 2–1 (after extra time) by Holland in the 1924 Olympic Games quarter-final. Back row: Bertie Kerr, Jack McCarthy, Ernie McKay, Johnny Murray and Tommy Muldoon. Front row: John Joe Dykes, Denis Hannon, Paddy O’Reilly and Paddy Duncan. Missing from the photo: Michael Farrell and Frank Ghent. (IOC Lausanne)

Quarter-final against Holland

The squad trained daily in advance of the quarter-final against Holland. The Dutch had hit six without reply in their second-round contest with Romania and were tipped to advance. The game kicked off at 5pm French time, on Monday 2 June, in the Stade de Paris in Saint Oeun. This time the official attendance was even smaller, with 613 complimentary tickets boosting the 893 paying customers. Indeed, the attendance at the two Irish games was the lowest in the football tournament.In the only change to the side that defeated Bulgaria, Frank Ghent replaced Joe Kendrick at inside-left, bringing Athlone’s representation to five players. In an astonishingly open game, both sides attacked throughout. The Dutch raced into an early lead through Feyenoord striker Formenoy on seven minutes, but Ireland equalised on 38 minutes when Ghent netted following a Murray corner. Holland dominated the second half but stout Irish defending ensured that extra time was required. This time it was the Irish turn to boss proceedings, but against the run of play Formenoy struck again just before the interval. The second period of extra time represented one long struggle for Ireland to equalise, but the Dutch held on to reach the semi-finals, where they were defeated 2–1 by the eventual winners, Uruguay. The Irish adventure was over and Hannon later remarked that he had never seen such a disappointed team.

An official Olympic scroll was presented to all participants, this one to Irish footballer Frank Ghent. (Alf Harvey)

An official Olympic scroll was presented to all participants, this one to Irish footballer Frank Ghent. (Alf Harvey)

Friendlies against Estonia and the USA

Nonetheless, the Irish lined out for a friendly against Estonia the following day. The four players who had yet to feature—John Thomas and Christy Robinson from Bohemians and Tom Murphy and Charlie Dowdall from St James’s Gate—were all included. Goals from Muldoon, Duncan and Robinson  ensured a 3–1 victory for a side captained by Sligo man John Joe Dykes. On Wednesday evening, 4 June, Cercle Athlétique de Paris, a Parisian club with strong Irish connections, hosted a formal dinner for the Irish delegation, which was attended by Jules Rimet, then president of FIFA and after whom the first World Cup trophy was later named. Newspaper reports referred to A Soldier’s Song being lustily delivered late in the evening.There was a pleasant postscript to Ireland’s involvement in the football tournament, when the USA team stopped off in Dublin on its return from Paris to take part in an international friendly. The game on 14 June resulted in a number of changes of personnel, with three players, Francis Collins and Tony Hunston (Jacobs) and Ned Brooks (Bohemians), who were ineligible for the Paris trip added to the team. Dubliner Brooks scored a hat-trick in Ireland’s 3–1 victory in Dalymount Park. The game was preceded by the unusual spectacle of the visiting players gathering in the centre circle and performing a battle cry routine to the bemusement of the 4,000-strong crowd.The team’s status as Ireland’s first international football side has not always been fully accepted, however. At the time the games against Bulgaria, Holland, Estonia and the USA were regarded by both FIFA and the FAIFS as full internationals, but over the years they slipped from the record books, with most sources citing Ireland’s game away to Italy in March 1926 as the first international. Finally, in 1999, FIFA ruled that all Olympic Games football matches between 1908 and 1940 be regarded as full internationals. For Ireland, it meant restoring these forgotten internationals to their rightful place.  HI
Tadhg Carey is the author of When we were kings: the story of Athlone Town’s 1924 FAI Cup triumph (Athlone, 2009).

Further reading:

P. Byrne, Football Association of Ireland: 75 years (Dublin, 1996).International Federation of Football History and Statistics, England (1872–1940), Éire (1924–1940) and England/ Amateurs (1906–1940) (2000).International Olympic Committee, Official Olympic Report 1924.

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