Published in Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2023), Volume 31

By James Quinn

Above: Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac of Zagreb (right) was imprisoned by the Titoist Yugoslav government in 1946 for cooperating with the pro-Nazi independent state of Croatia during the war, a case well known in Ireland; by 1955, however, Stepinac was rarely mentioned in Irish newspapers.

When in 1950 and 1952 the Yugoslav FA offered to bring its highly rated football team to Dublin, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) showed an uncharacteristic reluctance to accept. Normally the FAI took up such invitations with alacrity. International matches were its main source of income and prestige and were hard to come by for a country on the periphery of Europe. FAI officials were usually unconcerned about the political systems of opponents; during the 1930s Ireland had played teams representing Nazi Germany three times and, when international football resumed in 1946, six of the first seven matches that it played were against the national teams of the right-wing dictatorships of Spain and Portugal.

Yugoslavia, though, was a communist country which was regularly accused in the Irish press of persecuting Catholic clerics. In 1950 the FAI declined the invitation without ceremony and in 1952 thought it advisable to seek the advice of John Charles McQuaid, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin and the most influential member of the hierarchy. McQuaid was a meticulous administrator who closely supervised the social and cultural life of his diocese and expected official bodies to defer to his opinions. When asked about playing Yugoslavia, he rather dismissively claimed to have no interest in soccer but advised the FAI that it would be better not to proceed with the game if it could be done discreetly. His opposition was primarily motivated by the imprisonment in 1946 by the Titoist government of Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac of Zagreb for cooperating with the pro-Nazi independent state of Croatia during the war. Stepinac was released from prison in 1951 but remained under house arrest. His case was well known in Ireland, and on 1 May 1949 over 100,000 people gathered in O’Connell Street in Dublin to protest against his treatment and that of Cardinal József Mindszenty of Hungary. The FAI bowed to McQuaid’s advice and the match did not go ahead.


Above: Archbishop John Charles McQuaid—instructed his flock not to attend. (Dublin Diocesan Archives)

When the offer was renewed three years later, however, the FAI decided to accept, without referring the matter to the archbishop. Circumstances had changed: by 1955 Stepinac was rarely mentioned in Irish newspapers and, as both Ireland and Yugoslavia were affiliated to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) founded the previous year, the FAI was keen to cultivate friendly relations with a fellow member. After the announcement that the match would be played on 19 October 1955 at Dalymount Park, the FAI secretary, Joe Wickham, was contacted by Fr John O’Regan, chancellor of the Dublin diocese, who expressed his concern that the match had been arranged without consulting the archbishop and suggested that it should be cancelled. Wickham, however, insisted that it was too late to cancel and the match would proceed as planned.

Taken aback by the attitude of the FAI, McQuaid instructed his flock not to attend and privately contacted Taoiseach John A. Costello, a pious Catholic and Knight of Columbanus, who readily agreed that the government, an inter-party coalition, would publicly oppose the match. Costello advised President Seán T. O’Kelly to cancel his earlier acceptance of the FAI’s invitation to attend, and two other government ministers also cancelled, including the Labour Party tánaiste, William Norton. O’Kelly, although a devout Catholic and a Knight of Columbanus himself, was deeply unhappy at this turn of events: when he had originally received the FAI invitation, he had consulted the government before accepting and no objection had been raised. He could not, however, defy Costello’s advice without creating a constitutional crisis. In private, he wrote to his friend Oscar Traynor, president of the FAI, to assure the association of his ‘continued esteem’. Traynor, a former professional footballer, senior IRA officer and former Fianna Fáil government minister, was then an opposition TD.

Pressure was immediately brought to bear on the FAI by the Department of Justice, with Wickham and Traynor summoned to a meeting with its secretary, Thomas Coyne. Coyne advised that proceeding with the match was unwise and that he was reluctant to grant entry visas to the Yugoslavs, whom he believed might take the opportunity to defect to the west. The FAI delegation maintained that the visit was a sporting rather than a political matter and that the Yugoslavs were ‘good friends who had always fought the Irish cause in football’. They also made the point that the FAI team had earned considerable goodwill for Ireland over the years and that any cancellation was likely to create an international incident that would tarnish its image. Rather grudgingly, Coyne agreed to grant visas to the Yugoslavs, but insisted that the FAI guarantee to cover the expenses of any who might choose to remain in Ireland.


In the event, the Yugoslavs managed to resist the temptations of 1950s Dublin and returned to Belgrade with a full complement. Far from being prospective defectors, the Yugoslav football team were the pride of Tito’s state and enjoyed a privileged status. They were one of post-war Europe’s most consistent teams, reaching the quarter-finals of three consecutive World Cups (1954–62), and winning silver medals at three consecutive Olympics Games (1948–56) and gold in 1960. At home, they were regarded as important international ambassadors, their willingness to play all comers forming a conspicuous part of Yugoslavia’s non-aligned foreign policy that set it apart from the Soviet bloc. In a country ripped apart by bloody ethnic warfare in the 1940s, their success was highlighted by the regime as evidence that former enemies could unite and put the past behind them. The team that played in Dublin came from a variety of backgrounds: Liam Tuohy of Shamrock Rovers, who was making his international début, recalled that several of the Yugoslav players made the sign of the cross as they ran onto the pitch and that ‘there were nearly more Catholics on their side than there were on ours’.

The Irish State made its disapproval of the match clear in various ways. Not only was there to be no presidential or government representation but also the Army No. 1 Band was instructed not to attend. The Irish team trainer Dick Hearns, who was a member of the Gardaí, also withdrew his services. The Radio Éireann soccer commentator Philip Greene declined to cover the match (with the backing of his employer), and it went ahead without radio commentary. There was also opposition from some members of the public: well-known players such as Con Martin were stopped in the street in the days before the match and asked not to play. While McQuaid was careful to remain outside the fray, lay organisations such as the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland weighed in to condemn the FAI for entertaining ‘the tools of Tito … in the capital city of Catholic Ireland’ and warned young people not to attend the match on pain of mortal sin. Joe Wickham (a devout Catholic, two of whose sisters were nuns) was denounced from the pulpit by his parish priest in Larkhill as ‘a Judas who had sold Christ the King for a mere game of football’.

On the day of the match, fears of large-scale protests from Catholic groups did not materialise: outside the ground there was a small picket from members of the Legion of Mary carrying anti-communist signs, and a solitary protestor waved a yellow and white papal flag. In the absence of any musical bands, recorded versions of both national anthems were relayed over the loudspeaker system. Since no government figures attended, Oscar Traynor was presented to the teams and he and the Yugoslav team were loudly cheered. The official attendance was 22,000, supplemented as usual by the lithe legions who scaled Dalymount’s walls without paying, and they saw the skilful visitors thoroughly outplay the Irish and win 4–1.

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The attendance was probably less than would have been expected for a fixture against top-class opposition. Comparisons are complicated by the fact that it was a friendly and was played on a Wednesday, which tended to draw smaller crowds than matches played on Sunday, the usual day for FAI international matches. The only other home internationals played on Wednesdays around this time were World Cup qualifying matches on 28 October 1953 against Luxembourg and on 3 October 1956 against Denmark, which were watched by crowds of 20,000 and 32,600 respectively. The two previous friendly internationals played on Sundays at Dalymount, against Norway on 7 November 1954 and lowly rated Holland on 1 May 1955, drew official crowds of 34,000 and 16,800 respectively; a friendly against Spain on Sunday 27 November 1955, five weeks after the Yugoslavia match, drew 35,000.

While the controversy had probably reduced the crowd, it had not done so drastically, and thousands of soccer supporters had been prepared to defy the wishes of Ireland’s most powerful Catholic cleric. Most probably just wanted to watch a football match against one of Europe’s best teams, but for some at least it is likely that there was more at stake. While the numbers who attended to make a point cannot be definitively ascertained, as the opinions of spectators were not canvassed and received little public expression at the time, many observers were surprised at the size of the crowd. Ireland in 1955 was, after all, a deeply religious country: 95% of the population was Catholic and attendance at Sunday Mass was almost universal. Large crowds attended Catholic religious devotions, festivals and pilgrimages, and Catholic values permeated everyday life. Those seen to oppose these values risked denunciation and isolation. In 1954 Archbishop McQuaid established a ‘Vigilance Committee’ to monitor communist activity in Ireland and, in the polarised atmosphere of the Cold War, some clergy took every opportunity to rail against the evils of Godless communism and stoke the ‘Red Scare’.

Nevertheless, not everyone bowed to clerical dictation and an Irish tradition of anti-clericalism had periodically been fed by events such as the Catholic hierarchy’s strictures against Fenianism, its condemnation of Parnell in 1890–1, its excommunication of anti-Treatyites in 1922 and its opposition to the 1951 ‘Mother and Child’ medical scheme. The fact that Fianna Fáil was in opposition in 1955 allowed it greater leeway to defy McQuaid: even the legendary IRA gunman Dan Breen, a GAA devotee who professed little interest in soccer, attended the match to show solidarity with Traynor and ‘fire his last shot for Ireland’. McQuaid received considerable correspondence from the public, much of it critical of his intervention, including a letter from ‘a Cheerful Heretic of no particular denomination’ who suggested that, ‘since you are required to love your enemies, may I suggest that there are worse—and bloodier—ways of doing it than taking them on at football? And giving them the father and mother of a hiding. If you can.’


Above: Radio Éireann soccer commentator Philip Greene declined to cover the match, prompting a Dublin Opinion headline—‘Reds turn Greene yellow’. (RTÉ Photographic Archive/Roy Bedell)

In the mid-1950s anti-clericalism was very much a minority view, and most of those who disobeyed McQuaid were probably practising Catholics. Nevertheless, while they were prepared to accept their church’s teaching in matters of faith and morals and its firm control of educational, health and correctional institutions, many believed that it was not the business of Church or State to dictate what sporting events they could attend. For many soccer supporters, attending international matches was an important affirmation of national identity, and the famed ‘Dalymount Roar’ was never louder than on these occasions. Ireland in the 1950s was a deeply conservative country, but it was also a long-standing parliamentary democracy in which civil rights such as freedom of association and assembly were broadly accepted. Any attempt to interfere with these rights was always likely to provoke some opposition. There were no anti-Catholic political banners or placards displayed at Dalymount Park on the evening of 19 October, but the presence of over 20,000 people at a football match represented a rare act of public defiance and a forthright reminder to the Catholic Church to confine itself to its proper sphere. Characteristically, though, this was not the lesson drawn by McQuaid. Having been compelled to take a greater interest in soccer, he now appreciated that it was a popular sport among altar boys and clerical students in his diocese and decided that he needed to exert greater control over the FAI. He set up a committee of four priests under the chairmanship of Fr George Finnegan to attend to the spiritual needs of players and bring influence to bear on FAI council members. The former objective had some success and McQuaid was encouraged by the growing numbers of young footballers attending religious retreats.

Two years later there was the possibility of a re-run of the controversy when the FAI agreed to play a B-international match against communist Romania in October 1957. Events in Romania had received far less publicity in Ireland than those in Yugoslavia, but in the run-up to the game some extreme Catholic organisations such as Fírinne (formerly Maria Duce) began to highlight the persecution of Catholics by the government in Bucharest. Archbishop McQuaid sadly concluded that the FAI had learned nothing from the Yugoslavia match and asked Fr Finnegan to approach the association to ensure that no further games would be arranged against communist countries. Fearful of offending McQuaid, the Department of Justice had held off issuing visas to the Romanian team but was left with little choice when it received ‘peremptory instructions’ to do so from the new minister for justice, Oscar Traynor, who had taken up office in March 1957. Traynor was still president of the FAI and threatened to issue the visas personally if the Department delayed. In the end, the match went ahead without incident on Sunday 20 October 1957 at Dalymount Park, where a crowd of 21,500 saw the teams draw 1–1. In the following year, Ireland played home and away matches against Poland and did the same against Czechoslovakia in 1959. McQuaid made no attempt to intervene, apparently accepting that there were limits to his influence, even in the Ireland of the 1950s.

James Quinn is former Managing Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Further reading
J. Cooney, John Charles McQuaid: ruler of Catholic Ireland (Dublin, 1999).
L. Fuller, Irish Catholicism since 1950: the undoing of a culture (Dublin, 2002).
J. Quinn, No foreign game: Association Football and the making of Irish identities (forthcoming from Merrion Press, Autumn 2023).


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