What Caused the 1921 Split in Irish Football?

November 8, 2007 at 2:55 am 7 comments

If football is to thrive in Ireland, we need an all-island football league. To debate this properly, we first have to dispel a stubborn myth – that the split between the two Irish Football Associations came about because of the political partition of the island. This myth has no real basis in fact. At the time, Gaelic and rugby remained organised on an all-island basis, and cricket and athletics actually unified their organisations for the first time after partition. Soccer alone was divided, the political timing was largely co-incidental, and the reasons were mostly internal to the Irish FA. Here is a quick summary. >>>

The Early 1900s

In the early 1900s a split was developing within Iriish football. In Belfast it was evolving into a professional, working-class game, and in Leinster it was remaining an amateur, gentlemen’s game.

The Leinster Football Association, like other regional Football Associations outside Belfast, were unhappy with the how the Irish FA was run.

In 1904, Belfast clubs had registered bogus junior clubs to get more votes at IFA meetings. This issue was resolved, but Belfast delegates still dominated the organisation.

They picked mostly local players for international matches, and favoured local clubs in many disciplinary decisions.

Also, the IFA refused to allow games to be played on Sundays, and at one stage had even banned the playing of football on a pitch that other people used for Sunday sports.

The 1921 Cup Semi-Final

These long-running tensions culminated in 1921, when Shelbourne drew with Glenavon in an Irish Cup semi-final. The game was in Belfast, so the replay should have been in Dublin.

But Glenavon did not want to travel to a city under curfew, where six republican prisoners were due to be executed two days before the replay. Shelbourne responded that they had already traveled to Belfast, a similar city where twelve people had already been killed that year.

The IFA ruled that the replay, like the first game, would take place in Belfast. Shelbourne refused to travel, and were dismissed from the tournament. Within months, in September 1921, the Football Association of Ireland was formed.

Two Rival Football Associations

But the FAI did not see itself as the football body of the new Irish Free State. It was a rival to the Irish FA, with both Associations claiming the right to organize football throughout the island.

The new FAI hoped that some northern clubs would defect, including Belfast Celtic who had recently withdrawn from the Irish League because of civic disturbance, and two Belfast teams competed in the first two FAI Cups.

Conversely, it seemed for a while that Shelbourne and Bohemians might rejoin the original IFA. The Irish FA banned its clubs from playing FAI clubs, and the FAI tried but failed to join the international football body FIFA.

1921-22 was a momentous season in Irish football. St. James Gate won the League and Cup double in the first ever League of Ireland, while Linfield won an astonishing seven domestic trophies in Ulster.

Attempted Reconciliation

The new FAI’s all-island ambitions were emphasised when Alton United, a Belfast club composed mainly of Belfast Celtic players, won the second FAI Cup in 1922. However, because of the political tensions at the time, the FAI refused to let Alton bring the Cup back to Belfast.

Also in 1922, the new FAI elected as its president Sir Henry McLoughlin, a Belfast man recently knighted for recruiting British soldiers during the War. The Irish FA soon sought a meeting to heal the split, and Linfield offered to play a charity match in Dublin. But the meeting, in Dublin in February 1923, could not agree on a compromise.

The Split

In September 1923, the FAI finally joined FIFA, but it had to rename itself the Football Association of the Irish Free State. And in October, at further peace talks in Liverpool, the two rivals finally compromised: each would run football on their own side of the border.

So that, and not political partition, was the reason for the split in Irish football. Which means that there is one less barrier than many people think in the way of a reunification of the two Associations.

There is, of course, the other matter of the FAI being run by self-interested clowns, which is a far more difficult barrier to overcome.

Note: You can read a much more detailed version of the reasons for the split in the book Association Football and Society in Pre-partition Ireland, by Neale Garnham, published by the Ulster Historical Foundation in 2004.

Entry filed under: Ireland, Sports.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Liam  |  November 8, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Fascinating. Would’ve never guessed.

  • 2. Shane  |  November 9, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Agreed. Getting the Peace Process in place was child’s play in comparison to getting the FAI to sort themselves out.

  • 3. Donal Cullen  |  November 18, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    I have also covered this portion of Irish soccer history in my book FREESTATERS (published November 2007) and it is indeed a fascinating subject. I have to disagree that the Split was a result of the LFA breaking away from the IFA that caused the dispute. I make the point in the book that the breakaway was merely an internal dispute within the IFA and it was the political situation within Ireland that caused a permanent seperation.

    An example I use was that which hit Norwegian football on or about the same time. Today we don’t remember that split as it was resolved after a number of years. The same thing would have happened in Ireland had we been united under British or Irish rule.

  • 4. Ger Siggins  |  December 17, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    On the off chance that Donal Cullen reads this page again – could he tell us where to buy his book? Scoured the town today but no sign. His previous work ‘On the Ball’ is a fabulous read.

  • 5. Donal Cullen  |  December 17, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    The book is available from Waterstones in Ireland (the only book store at the moment in Ireland to have it), e-bay or from the publishers at http://www.desertislandbooks.com. We have tried to get it into Eason’s and the like but with no luck. If you don’t want to order it over the net, I am sure most booksellers can get it for you in Ireland. Thank you for your interest and your comments on “Ireland on the Ball”.

  • 6. Niall MacSweeney  |  August 4, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    A very interesting book (well worth getting) not only for info re the Split but for very comprehensive coverage of all Internationals up to World War II (very different to now, with most international players then from the League of Ireland).

    There seem to have been problems with distribution of the book – I’ve never seen it in an Irish bookshop and only learned of its existence months after publication – it’s worth seeking out, tho.

  • 7. ira  |  May 1, 2013 at 10:20 am

    So you are looking to rid your girl of these unwanted stalkers when you are drawn to Willow
    Creek’s Black Mirror Castle. The game was released on August 3, and is in stores now, but probably is where it will remain, sad to say. Now, one of my co-workers was applying to the Secret Service and I knew that I was down as a reference for her.


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A blog by Michael Nugent

Welcome to my blog about living in the maddest country on earth. Please feel free to leave a comment.

I also write Bionic Bohs, a blog about following Bohemians football club in the 1970s.


November 2007
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Bionic Bohs

As mentioned above, if you like Irish football and/or cultural nostalgia, I also write Bionic Bohs, a blog about following Bohs in the 1970s.

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