Croke Park lies on the Northside of Dublin and an eight-minute walk takes you to Dalymount Park; two stadiums synonymous with two very different sporting codes that for some have, at times, divided a nation. The area separating the two is filled with stories of how Irish football and politics are closely intertwined.
“When I die, Dublin will be in my heart…” James Joyce
On Fitzroy Avenue, a stone’s throw from “Croker” sits No. 87, a modest two up two down terraced house, which today would set a first-time buyer back nearly half a million euros for the pleasure of living close to the city. It’s incredible to think that in the early 1900s a family of twelve lived on the premises. That family was the O’Connells.
Patrick Senior and his wife Emily had moved up the road to Fitzroy from Jones Terrace, now the entrance to Hill 16, a terrace at Croke Park created from the rubble of the 1916 Easter Rising. Their son Patrick was a talented footballer and would become the first Irishman to captain Manchester United and help an All-Ireland team win its first title in 1914: the British Home Championship.
As a manager, the great Fred Pentland would make Racing Santander aware of Patrick’s talents and, by 1928, O’Connell had led the Spanish club to five regional titles and helped it to become one of the founding members of La Liga. The name Isidro Langara may not mean much to the Sky Sports generation, but the Basque who lined up for O’Connell at Real Oviedo would go on to become one of Spain’s great strikers of the 1930s. In Brian Clough style, O’Connell spent twenty minutes on the pitch with the then seventeen-year-old and signed him immediately, ignoring the wishes of the club directors.
By 1935, Patrick of Fitzroy had become ‘Don Patricio’ of Seville as he led Real Betis from the green half of the city to its only La Liga title to date. FC Barcelona came calling, and the Dubliner became boss of the Catalan giants during the Spanish Civil War. During a money-raising foreign tour that took in games in Mexico and New York, Don Patricio would rub shoulders with the left-leaning President Cardenas of Mexico and be given the title of Ambassador of the last Republican Government of Spain. This role saw him deliver pre-match speeches promoting the Republican cause.
Sadly as the Camp Nou opened in 1957, the man they say saved the club was drawing national assistance and living in an attic in Argyle Street in London, spending his final days drinking the pain away. Two years later, O’Connell would be taken from St. Pancras Hospital to be buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Kensal Green. His brother was the sole attendee.
O’Connell had honed his youthful skills with local club Frankfort which was founded close to Dublin’s Amiens Street, a location which also sired another famous son: Oscar Traynor. Traynor would follow in O’Connell’s footsteps by turning out in the green and white stripes of Belfast Celtic. The future Irish Minister of Defence net-minded for Celtic between 1910 and 1912 and for his efforts won the inaugural Gold Cup the same year the Titanic left the cranes of Harland and Wolf behind. This success led to Traynor touring Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, with Belfast Celtic becoming the first Irish football club to set sail for Europe’s mainland.
In the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’ Traynor and Celtic settled well, winning five and drawing the other of their six games. Slavia Prague was one of the opponents they faced and this famous old club was managed by an ex-Celtic player, Johnny Madden, who had lined up for the hoops in their first competitive Scottish game in 1888. Many regarded Madden as the ‘Father of Czech football’ for the quarter of a century he spent managing Slavia after retiring, a spell that brought Czech title successes in 1925, ‘29 and ‘30.
Traynor may have been with O’Connell receiving a gold pocket watch for winning the British Home Championship at Windsor Park in 1914 had it not been for his desire to be involved in the fight for Irish Independence. Two months after Traynor and Celtic returned from their journey, Irish nationalists sought Home Rule at Westminster to counter the recent Ulster Solemn Covenant that had been signed by half a million Unionists – some using their own blood – in Belfast.
A year later, the Ulster Volunteer Force was running guns from Larne, while in Dublin the Irish Volunteers reciprocated with the Howth gun-running as Ireland seemed on the brink of collapsing into an abyss. Oscar Traynor hung up his boots to strive like many others to free Ireland of British rule. By 1916 Traynor and his comrade Harry Boland, involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, would track O’Connell down to Silvertown munitions factory in the East End of London.
O’Connell was still Manchester United captain even though the Great War meant football was suspended, but was guesting for Clapham Orient (Leyton) and helping the British war effort. However, little did his employers know that some of the armoury was headed for Dublin as Traynor and Boland convinced ‘Don Patricio’ a Socialist himself, of Ireland’s great need.
Boland, a keen hurler, was born the same year as O’Connell and lived up the road in Dalymount Terrace close by Dalymount Park. Dalymount is the home of the Bohemians Football Club and where the national team played all its matches until the early 1980s. Some of the games greatest names in the game played on the hallowed turf from Matthews to Pelé and a young dreadlocked Ruud Gullit. In fact, on the 6th of July 1980, the famous dreadlocked musician Bob Marley arrived at Dalymount, proclaiming to the locals: ‘Trenchtown rock when it hits… you feel no pain…’.
Patrick O’Connell made his Irish International debut in the stadium in 1912 as England ran riot, winning 6-1. In the winter of 1920, O’Connell’s young son Patrick Junior came home from Manchester to see his grandparents on Fitzroy Avenue. Patrick Junior befriended a boy from down the road named John William Scott and as both loved sport, on Sunday 21st of November, the boys took the short walk to Croke Park for a Gaelic Football match between Dublin and Tipperary.
The stadium was full to the brim causing the match to be delayed by thirty minutes with the ball eventually thrown in at 3:15. That morning Michael Collins ‘squad’ had assassinated twelve British Intelligence agents in their homes in suburban Dublin, and tension was high as fears grew of reprisal by Crown forces.
Five minutes into the game, an airplane flew over Fitzroy and Croke Park, circled the ground twice then shot a red flare. This was a signal for the R.I.C., Auxiliary Police and Military to storm Croke Park and as the forces opened fire, John William Scott was hit in the chest by a ricocheting bullet. John William Scott from Fitzroy Avenue, aged fourteen, was killed and his twelve-year-old friend Patrick was inconsolable. Thirteen other civilians also died, including the Tipperary footballer Michael Hogan. In remembrance, the Hogan stand at Croke Park is named after him.
Next to no. 87 on Fitzroy is Margaret’s corner shop. It’s something from a bygone era where smokers bought their woodbines and kids hovered at the counter for penny sweets. Each November, Margaret walks down the road to where John William Scott’s family lived and leaves a bunch of flowers. Someday they might put a plaque on the house, she thinks.
Nearly seventy years after the atrocity, a Bus Eireann( National Irish Bus Service) navigated its way through the back streets to Dalymount Park on a cold November night in 1987, while on the stereo ‘Sean South Of Garryowen’ boomed out. Onboard was the Republic of Ireland football team and at the front of the bus sat its new manager Jack Charlton, born in the town of Ashington in the north east of England whose football club Patrick O’Connell had managed before his departure for Spain.
Charlton was a year in the job, and that night a little under ten thousand souls watched the Irish dispatch opponents Israel 5-0 with David Kelly of Walsall netting on four occasions. It was a journey under Charlton that would lead to a European Championship participation in 1988 and World Cup appearances in 1990 and 1994. Jack Charlton, like Patrick O’Connell before him, became a God-like figure in an adopted country.
Today along the streets between Croke Park and Dalymount Park you may come across Aódhán Ó Ríordán TD (Member of the Irish Parliament) and Gary Cooke of Aprés Match RTÉ television outlining the football history of the area on their Dublin football tour. As part of it they bring their guests along Fitzroy Avenue and past the two up and two down terrace that once housed ‘The Man Who Saved FC Barcelona’, it seems apt.