The socio-political complexities of the Irish Question ensured that the development of football in Northern Ireland would follow a different pattern to that in England and indeed other parts of the United Kingdom. Certainly, the political unrest and limited industrialization (and hence well-organized groups of workers able to achieve a Saturday half-holiday) meant that the chronology of development was somewhat delayed. However, after a relatively slow beginning, the formation of the Irish Football Association in 1880 heralded a rapid expansion, particularly in the Belfast area.
In this article, we shall examine the development of soccer in Northern Ireland up until the early 1880s, and consider the nature of the new clubs formed, the prevailing characteristics of football in the province during this period, and the early representative games.
Early History In The 1800s
Although a traditional form of football had survived in Ireland through to the second half of the nineteenth century, this was very much the property of the rural Catholic population. It was not until the formation of the GAA in the 1880s that a uniform set of rules was established for what became Gaelic football. While across the Irish Sea, rugby and football were developing.
Rugby was the code that held sway in Ireland throughout the 1860s and 1870s. Initially introduced to Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1850s by former pupils of Rugby School and Cheltenham College. The activity was limited to Belfast and Dublin until the mid-1870s. However, by the end of the decade, there was a unified Irish Rugby Football Union.
The association game developed at a somewhat slower pace. The traditional version of its introduction, as told by sources, mentions that John McAlery, a Belfast businessman, had witnessed a football match while on honeymoon in Edinburgh. He subsequently arranged for two leading Scottish clubs, Caledonian and Queen’s Park, to play an exhibition match in Belfast in October 1878.
Later in the same season, the Lenzie club from Lanarkshire paid a visit, and in the autumn of 1879, the first Irish football association club, Cliftonville, was formed. Other similar clubs emerged, leading to the formation of the Irish Football Association in November 1880. The first international against England was played in 1882.
Was Cliftonville The First Football Club In Northern Ireland?
While Cliftonville is recognized as the first football club in Northern Ireland, others have claimed an earlier beginning. Alexander Cricket Club from the small town of Limavady, close to Londonderry, may have had the distinction of being the first of these. The town had been initially called Newtownlimavady. The local cricket club also bore this title until changing their name to Alexander CC in memory of a former benefactor, John Alexander, who had died in 1872.
In 1876 the cricketers decided that it would be helpful to continue their sporting activities during the winter months, like so many others. However, unlike other clubs in Northern Ireland, they opted for the association version of soccer rather than rugby. Other clubs in the Belfast area also experimented with occasional games under association rules, notably Ulster FC.
Still, none took the formal step of establishing a club to play football. Ulster was formed as the Ulster Rugby and Association Football Club in 1876, although a lack of opposition at football meant their main activity was rugby. In 1882 they elected to play association rules, entering the Irish Cup in 1882-83.
The late 1870s was when a universal code for the association game had yet to be agreed upon. The London-based Football Association was in the process of effectively combining its rules with what were known as ‘Sheffield Rules.’ Still, north of the border, the Scottish FA was less compliant and determined not to become subject to English hegemony.
Indeed the Scots may have had some of their own ideas about empire building and, in the late 1870s, accepted both Toronto Carlton and the Canadian Dominion FA into membership. Against this expansionist background, the Scottish FA first considered arranging exhibition matches in Belfast and Dublin during the 1877-78 season.
Queens Park In Northern Ireland
These fell through, but 12 months later, Queen’s Park played Caledonian on the Ulster Cricket Club ground in October 1878. The arrangements were made jointly by the Ulster and Windsor Football Clubs. The Belfast newspapers welcomed the event, although there seems to have been little awareness of ‘Scottish Association Rules’ under which the match was played.
The occasion was a success, Queen’s Park winning 3-1, and the following April, the club Lenzie from Lanarkshire visited and defeated Ulster FC 5-3. Shortly afterward, Ulster played a 3-3 draw with Queen’s College, Belfast. The men on both sides were more used to the rugby code, and there were frequent interruptions for free kicks due to the players handling the ball.
The start of the following season saw the first Belfast association club, Cliftonville, established. The two founding members were John McAlery and Robert M Kennedy, who placed adverts in both the News-Letter and the Northern Whig inviting applications for membership. The rather romantic notion that McAlery ‘discovered’ the game while on honeymoon seems somewhat dubious, as his marriage to Susan McCredy had only just taken place in August 1879.
Perhaps just as important was the fact that Cliftonville Cricket Club made a brief tour of Scotland in September of that year, and the club members would have seen for themselves the advantages of football as opposed to rugby. Certainly, Cliftonville FC had strong links with the cricket club of the same name. Several early footballers were members of the cricket club, and McAlery was the club’s assistant treasurer.
Irish Football Association First Secretary
John McAlery was born about 1850 in Rathfriland, Co Down. The son of a farmer, he became a successful businessman and proprietor of a prominent tailors and outfitters store in Belfast. John became the first secretary of both Cliftonville FC and the Irish Football Association, serving the latter body from 1880 to 1887. He played the game in the fullback position, captaining Ireland in their first international match against England in 1882. A contemporary described him thus: “splendid back, kicks well with either foot and is a remarkably good tackler.”
Less is known of Robert Kennedy, a prominent member of the Ulster FC rugby team before switching to football and was also an active member of Cliftonville CC. He played in goal for Cliftonville and rejoined Ulster when they changed to association rules. He appears to have been employed as a clerk.
The association game quickly attracted support in the Belfast region, with Banbridge Academy, Knock, and Moyola Park forming clubs. Several rugby union clubs also experimented with the new rules, notably the Albion club.
Over the next few seasons, football expanded rapidly, but only within Ulster. The game had virtually no presence in the Dublin area, where it was greeted with a certain amount of contempt.
What Were The Origins Of These New Clubs?
Alexander, Limavady Wanderers, Cliftonville, Distillery, and Oldpark were all formed by cricketers. Knock, Wellington Park, and Chichester Park were established by lacrosse teams. Some clubs transferred their winter activity from rugby to association rules, notably Ulster FC, Hertford, and York Road.
The earliest football clubs were middle-class institutions, especially Cliftonville. Their 1883 Irish Cup-winning team comprised five medical students, two clergypersons, a barrister, two clerks, and a tailors’ outfitter.
However, when the game expanded, it did so amongst the Belfast working class. The Distillery club was formed by employees of Dunville’s Royal Irish distillery. Queen’s Island was created by EJ Harland of Harland & Wolff for the company’s shipyard workers. The Spencer club of Fortwilliam comprised workers in the employment of Messrs Workman, Clark & Co.
One of the chief characteristics of association football in the north of Ireland in the late 1870s and early 1880s was its Scottishness. Perhaps this link prevented the game from spreading to Dublin and the rest of the country. The earliest clubs were formed to play “Scottish Association Rules.” When the Irish Football Association was established in November 1880, it adopted the Scottish FA rules as they stood. Indeed, it was not until England sent an international team to play in Belfast in February 1882 that the Football Association rules were seen. On that occasion, the local newspapers had to explain the marginal differences between the two codes to their readers.
The exhibition game between Queen’s Park and Caledonian proved the springboard for the widespread introduction of football. Scottish clubs became regular visitors each year, especially over Christmas and New Year. The first inter-club match played by Cliftonville was against Caledonian. They also met Portland (Kilmarnock) and Ardee of Ardrossan in their inaugural season.
Over the New Year holiday of 1883, the visitors included Queen’s Park (Hampden), Southern, Hamilton Academicals, and an Ayrshire representative team. However, the Anglo-Irish middle-classes in Dublin continued to look down on football, and rugby remained ‘King.’
When Was The Irish Football Association Established?
The Irish Football Association was established at the Queen’s Hotel Belfast in November 1880. John McAlery was the first secretary. There were seven clubs present. Five clubs from Belfast (Avoniel, Cliftonville, Distillery, Knock, and Oldpark), Alexander from Limavady, and Moyola Park from Castledawson. The Irish football association is the fourth oldest national football association in the world
Having adopted a standard set of rules for play (Scottish rules), they introduced a cup competition, the Irish Cup. The first winners were Moyola Park. However, it was not until the 1881-82 season that representative fixtures were introduced.
Full internationals followed against England (13-0 loss) and Wales (7-1 defeat), suggesting there was some considerable way to go before the Irish Football Association would compete on equal terms with any level of opposition. However, the following season, substantial progress had been made. They lost to England 7-1 and held Wales to a 1-1 draw.
Irish Football Association Split
As soon as Ireland was partitioned, in 1921, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) was founded as a rival association to regulate football in what would become the Irish Free State.
A federation based in Dublin, the capital of the Irish Free State, should regulate football, according to the FAI. Additionally, the Irish Football Association was accused of neglecting the development of the game in the south of the country.
During this period, both associations proclaimed that they represented the entire island. They competed internationally under the name “Ireland” and used players from their respective national leagues, which also split at this time.
FIFA intervention gave the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) de jure organizing rights over the 26 counties of the Republic while limiting the Irish Football Association to Northern Ireland. The Irish Football Association ceased to claim it represented Ireland as a whole in the 1950s. The governing body was a member of FIFA between 1911-20, 1924-28 and joined once again in 1946 after the end of World War 2.
After moving to Windsor Avenue in south Belfast in 1960, the association moved into a building that had been owned by Thomas Andrews. Since 2016, the headquarters has been situated at the National Football Stadium in Windsor Park, Belfast.