‘It Was Strange, But Tough!’: American Football’s debut in Ireland, 1953

By Guest Contributor David Toms

In Ireland, when people think of the connections between the America and Ireland, most often their minds will turn to the role of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in Irish emigrant communities, or perhaps to first, second and third and multi-generation Americans who played baseball, basketball, and American football.[1] Rarely do Irish people think of the role of American sport in Irish life at home. Since the advent of global satellite television broadcasts, however, American sport has found a more prominent place in Irish life. Many Irish people will these days profess to having a particular American football team they follow, or through meeting study-abroad students while in university, will come into contact with the world of college football. But American sport has a much longer and deeper tradition in Irish life than perhaps many Irish, or Americans, may be aware. In the first of two posts on the subject of American sport in Ireland, I am going to look at an American football game played in Ireland in 1953 at the home of the GAA, Croke Park, in Dublin.

Early tourists: Baseball in Ireland

Touring sides have long been a part of the history of many sports and while many people will be familiar with the 1888 ‘American Invasion’ tour by the GAA, when Irishmen went to display the national games of Ireland to an American audience, a tour that is less well-known on both sides of the Atlantic is two baseball tours to Ireland in 1874 and in 1889. On the first occasion, the teams were the Philadelphia Athletics and the ‘Boston Champions’. These games were played at the athletic grounds at Lansdowne Road, today the AVIVA stadium, home of Irish soccer and rugby. The tour in 1889, part of a bigger tour of the United Kingdom, organised by that most-famous of sporting manufacturers, Albert Spalding, saw games in both Belfast and Dublin.

The Dublin match, watched by among others then Commander-in-Chief of Ireland, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, a correspondent for the Irish Times felt excitement was decidedly lacking in this game but praised the fine catching of the outfield players who put on a fine display in front of the crowd of 2,000 spectators. The American-ness of the event was commented upon, the correspondent saying they ‘played for blood’ and complaining that the bickering and challenging of umpires’ decisions  ‘reminded one of the disputes and unpleasantness sometimes associated with a hotly-contested football match in Yorkshire.’ In the pages of the Freeman’s Journal there was a greater welcome for the men, whom they describe as ‘the nicest lot of fellows to have come here for a long time’.

Baseball returned to Ireland during the First World War when US Navy ships were based in the harbour of Cork. As part of an attempt to raise funds for the war, an exhibition baseball game was played in Cork city between the men of the USS Trippe and USS Melville. Once again, the novelty factor was large in the press coverage of the event. A crowd estimated at 3-4,000 turned out to watch the game, and as one reporter put it:

The game was certainly a novelty and if there was confusion, it was only in the minds of the uninitiated. People generally were highly amused both at the antics of the players – the runners trying to elude the fielders – and also at the comments of the supporters of the teams. There was a great deal of American talk which Corkonians failed to comprehend and this, coupled with the strangeness of the game gave an air of mystery to the proceedings.[2]

As we’ll see shortly, much the same view was taken in the 1950s of American football. This wasn’t the last appearance of baseball in this era, either. Another touring side came to newly-independent Ireland in 1924. In 1924, only months after the country hosted its first Tailteann Games (A kind of Irish race Olympics which took place in 1924, 1928 and 1932) Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants came to play in Dublin as part of a European tour. The game though was played in poor conditions in front of a small crowd – the game had been arranged to start in the afternoon but due to the bad weather conditions, it started in the mid-morning. On heavy ground, the Giants beat the White Sox in a low scoring game by 4-3.[3]

American Football comes to Ireland

Fifteen years after the Giants beat the White Sox at Croke Park, in 1939 an article appeared in the pages of the Irish Press talking about the huge distances covered by some teams in college football in the United States. This was part of an article on the attempts by a former French rugby union international Jean Gallin to bring American football to France. Gallin invited Judge Glin Carbery and ‘Sleepy’ Jim Crowley, then head coach at Fordham, to organise an exhibition tour in France. Both men were interviewed on a stop-over in Dublin. Later that same year, the Irish Independent noted that a planned European tour by two American football teams would take in not just continental Europe, but Britain and Ireland too. Two games were planned in Ireland: at Cork and at Dublin in Ireland; London, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh in England and Scotland. Other cities where the tour planned to visit included Paris, Berlin and Rome.[4] The tour, if it ever went ahead following the outbreak of the Second World War, never came to Ireland. It would be eight years after the end of the Second World War before Irish people finally got to see American football up close in 1953.

The arrival of two American football teams in Ireland to play an exhibition in 1953 was a direct result of the war. With many American soldiers still stationed in Britain and Europe, organised sport was a part of life for the US Army abroad. The game to be played in Dublin at Croke Park was a US Air Force League game, with the proceeds due to go the Irish Red Cross Society.[5] The approaching game generated a huge amount of coverage from all of the major Irish newspapers. In preparation for the game, several Irish journalists were even brought by the US Air Force to England to view a match so that they could familiarise themselves with it ahead of the Croke Park fixture.[6]

As the home of Gaelic games, the choice of Croke Park, was not without some controversy. Since 1905, the GAA rulebook included a rule which barred members of a GAA club from either playing or watching ‘foreign games’ i.e. rugby, soccer, cricket or field hockey. Equally, it was not permitted for any ‘foreign’ sport to be played at GAA grounds, including Croke Park. But as we’ve already seen with the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox in 1924, what was ‘foreign’ was often what the GAA chose to view as ‘foreign’, usually, something British. While some saw this as a hypocritical stance, others felt that ‘it is no more inconsistent to have the American game played on a GAA ground than it would be to have baseball, lacrosse, pitch and putt or athletics.’[7]

Some aspects of the pomp around American football clearly bemused and intrigued the Irish newspapers in the run up to the game: not least, the peculiar cheerleader culture of the game. As one caption under a photograph of cheer leaders (incidentally, an all male group) in the Irish Press had it ‘American football is not the same without the “cheer leaders” who exhort, praise or debunk their heroes from the side-line… Burtonwood Bullets, one of the American Air Force teams who play at Croke Park on Saturday… will have the support of a special cheer party who fly in for the match.’ On the same day, the Irish Independent carried a photograph of the (female) cheer leaders of the Burtonwood Bullets under the headline ‘”Good Cheer” is their watchword’.[8]

The extraordinary depth of coverage provided by the national daily newspapers took in everything from explanations of the rules, to reminders of the good cause being supported, all amounting to a good deal of boosterism for the event. When both teams arrived, the Burtonwood Bullets and the Wethersfield Raiders, the papers were on hand to cover the event. Among the party of around 130 personnel, met by among others Lord Killanin of the Irish Red Cross and a deputation from the American Embassy in Ireland, was 3rd Air Force chaplain, James C. O’Connor, originally of Tralee, Co. Kerry who apparently ‘while looking forward to to-day’s game he professes greater interest in the fortunes of the Kerry Gaelic Football team.’[9]

Burtonwood Bullets v Wethersfield Raiders

The game itself received some mixed reviews. This was hardly helped by the fact that the game was a dead rubber – Burtonwood Bullets beat Wethersfield Raiders 27-0 in front of an impressive estimated crowd of 40,000 people. In the reports of the game, much was made of the appearance of the players: ‘a child’s conception of visitors from Mars’ according to the Irish Independent, ‘dressed apparently as space-men’ according to the Irish Times.[10]

This was undoubtedly in part due to being unable to say anything much about a one-sided game, or without much expertise as to why it was so one-sided an occasion. W.P. Murphy of the Sunday Independent may have made the best effort to understand the game as a sporting contest and not just a curious novelty in his report that gives this post its title, when he wrote that

‘We heard many new phrases for here it was yardage that counted as the team taking the offensive had four downs… in which to make ten yards. It was definitely a man’s game, though, grinding, battering stuff, but hardly an Irish spectators “dish”.[11]

The sheer strangeness to Irish eyes of the game must have accounted for the fact noted by the Irish Times that much of the crowd left early. On top of that, almost no team field sport that was popular in Ireland then would have lasted the length of time as an average game of American football when all stoppages and breaks were added. Nonetheless, this rather ignominious debut for American football deserves its place in sports history. Thirty years later, the first ever Shamrock Bowl was contested in Ireland between home-grown American football teams in 1986. This year will be its twenty-ninth. The competition has grown, while many more Irish people now also throw an annual Super Bowl party. Croke Park too has continued to host American football. From the ‘Shamrock Classic’ between Notre Dame and Navy in 1996, followed by the ‘American Bowl’ that saw Pittsburgh Steelers face off against the Chicago Bears in 1997 and most recently the ‘Croke Park Classic’ between Penn State and UCF. In a country where so much of the popular culture is a shared Anglophone one with Britain and the United States, it is no wonder that since those early tours going back to the 1870s and the visit of the Burtonwood Bullets and the Wethersfield Raiders in 1953 up to the access provided today by satellite television, American football has bedded down with a real presence in Irish popular culture, getting frequent coverage from journalists in the Irish Times and a well-organised domestic league.

David Toms is an occasional lecturer in the School of History at University College Cork, Ireland. His book, Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937, will be published in May by Cork University Press.

Notes:


 

[1] On both of these counts see for example Darby, Paul, Gaelic Games, Nationalism and the Irish Diaspora in the United States (UCD, 2009) and Redmond, Patrick R., The Irish and the Making of American Sport, 1835-1920 (McFarland, 2014).

[2] Cork Constitution, July 26 1917.

[3] Irish Times, October 27 1924.

[4] Irish Press, January 3 1939; Irish Independent, August 5 1939; Irish Press, August 5 1939.

[5] Sunday Independent, November 8 1953.

[6] Irish Independent, October 12 1953.

[7] Irish Independent, October 21 1953.

[8] Irish Press, November 18 1953; Irish Independent, November 18 1953.

[9] Irish Independent, November 21 1953.

[10] Irish Independent, November 23 1953; Irish Times¸November 23 1953. Similar language was also used in the British Pathé newsreel covering the Wembley final of the USAFE American football season the same year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1Z25hetb2A

[11] Sunday Independent, November 22 1953.

3 thoughts on “‘It Was Strange, But Tough!’: American Football’s debut in Ireland, 1953

  1. Pingback: Skateboard Mecca? Early skateboarding in Ireland | Sport in American History

  2. Have only just found this post, which I stumble on after reading the entry on American Football in Cuba. However I understand the first American Football game to have taken place in Ireland was in Belfast in 1942 and the first fixture in the Republic was at Croke Park in 1946. Belfast of course is in Northern Ireland which remains part of the United Kingdom. There is some info on these games from the Irish American Football League website http://www.americanfootball.ie/a-brief-history-of-american-football-in-ireland-pre-2000/

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