Debate is raging at present as to whether the current Dundalk F.C. team are the greatest that has ever been produced in the history of the League of Ireland. There is plenty to recommend this Dundalk crop for that accolade; they’ve won three consecutive league titles, they won a double in 2015 and most notably they have had (by Irish standards) significant success in European competition. In terms of overall trophies Dundalk are second only to Shamrock Rovers in the medals table, having won 12 league titles and 10 FAI Cups. In this regard I’m sad to say that in recent seasons Dundalk have overtaken my own dear Bohemian F.C. in terms of League titles won despite Bohs having been 13 years longer in existence than even the earliest incarnation the Louth team.
However Bohemian F.C. as one of the earliest founded and most prominent clubs certainly played a role in the growth of football in Dundalk. For example it was a former Bohs player, Steve Wright who led Dundalk to their first league title way back in the 1930s. The
focus of this article however, is another former Bohs player who was one of the a number of men instrumental in helping to organise the sport of association football in that town and helped to found one of the first proper leagues there.
That this is the case shouldn’t be too surprising, in research for this piece I came across a Sunday Independent article from 1956 which declared of Dundalk that “Soccer stopped at the half-way house” as Dundalk occupied the geographic midpoint between the early footballing hot-beds of Belfast and Dublin, it seems only reasonable that Dublin would have some baring on the games development.
As well as its location there were plenty of other reasons for football to take root in the town. These included presence of a British Army barracks staffed with many active young men, many of whom would already have been familiar with the game, as well as the growth of the railway industry, specifically what became the works side of the Great Northern Railway (GNR) from which the present Dundalk F.C. developed. One of the biggest games in early Dundalk football history was the arrival of the Bohemian F.C. side to take on a local Dundalk AFC side in the Leinster Senior Cup on St. Stephen’s Day 1895. Bohs emerged as the victors from a 3-1 scoreline, however the Dundalk side had competed well and the significant crowd despite the particularly cold winter weather had shown that there certainly was an audience for the sport in the Louth town.
One of the Bohs men who had an influence in shaping the football landscape of Co. Louth was Vincent J. O’Connell. A local lad, Vincent was born in Dundalk in 1882 as fourth son of Henry O’Connell a grocer, of Dundalk, and his wife, Mary. Vincent was a good student and pursued a career as an architect which was what brought him to Dublin to study with the Hague & McNamara firm who were based on Dawson Street. He had been involved with various scratch teams in Dundalk around the turn of the 20th Century and also featured with a side named Dundalk Rovers F.C. who competed occasionally in the Leinster Senior Cup. Vincent would have been roughly 20 by the time he moved to Dublin to study with Hague & McNamara and continued to pursue his interest in the sport by joining Bohemian F.C. in 1902. There is mention of him lining out as a half-back for Bohs in a December 1903 match against the Dublin University club from Trinity College. The Bohs starting XI was described as “not at full strength” and they suffered a heavy 6-1 defeat. O’Connell remained a Bohemians member until 1907 by which stage he had returned to Dundalk and had set up his own architectural firm on Earl Street in the town.
Like many Bohemians of this area his talents weren’t limited just to football and he was also a well know cycling enthusiast. In the business world Vincent prospered and in 1909 he was appointed to the position of engineer at Newry Port, he even branched out by opening a new office in Newry by 1911. As an architect he designed the stores along the Albert Basin not too far away from the Showgrounds where Newry City AFC currently play. Despite these increasing work commitments his
interest in football maintained and he was recorded as the Vice Captain of the St. Nicholas football team for the 1910-11. St. Nicholas had been training at the Dundalk polo grounds and had competed in local leagues and in the Leinster Junior Cup for a number of years by this stage, and by 1910 were a well established side on the local football scene.
Vincent continued this involvement with local football when he served on the board of the of the Dundalk and District league in the tumultuous year of season of 1920/21. The War of Independence was raging in Louth and in the sporting boardrooms the Leinster Football Association had formally decided to cede from the IFA. At the AGM of the Dundalk and District league the member clubs were encouraged to align their loyalties to the Leinster association, Vincent was at this stage the Dundalk and District League vice-president. Perhaps most surprising to note was that the league that season consisted of six teams, three of which were representatives sides drawn from British Army regiments in and around the town.
By 1926 the Dundalk GNR (Great Northern Railway) club had become a League of Ireland member and in 1930 they renamed to become the Dundalk F.C. we know today. In the 1932-33 season they became the first provincial side to take the title out of Dublin but they had done so at great financial cost to the club. Led by former Bohemians player Steve Wright as their trainer/manager Dundalk had taken advantage of the fact that the FAI were not recognising player registrations of clubs in Britain or Northern Ireland meaning that players could freely move to Ireland without Irish clubs having to buy out these registrations. Effectively free transfers.
Dundalk brought in a number of British pros, men like forward Jimmy Bullock who had lined out for Manchester United before moving across the Irish Sea or the veteran former Celtic star Joe Cassidy. These signings were won through the charm of Steve Wright and the bankbook of Dundalk F.C. and coupled with the beginnings of a generation of young local players such as Joey Donnelly had begun to bring success. There was a Cup final appearance in 1930/31 with a league title following in 1932/33. However a number of factors such as the professional wages paid to these new players, the unpopular entertainment tax levied on football matches by the Irish government, a loss of revenue due to the cancellation of previously popular cross-border matches with Northern clubs, and the continuing effects of the Great Depression meant that money was extremely tight and there was even some chance that the club might go under.
By the time all this was taking place Vincent O’Connell was busy operating his main business premises out of 15 Earl Street in Dundalk, one of his most recent projects had been the design of the new chapel for St. Mary’s College in 1933, a school that had been central in popularising the game of football in the town. Vincent had maintained his own interest in football long after his playing days were done. In January of 1934 he joined a fundraising committee to keep Dundalk F.C. going in their time of need and he personally was one of the largest financial donors, donating a guinea, a similar sum to that donated by Dundalk board members like Bob Prole and, my own great-uncle, Peadar Halpin. Through their fundraising efforts sufficient finances were raised to keep the club afloat.
Vincent maintained his interest in football and many other sports for the rest of his life, the 1956 article quoted above described him as the “prominent Dundalk architect whose enthusiasm for all forms of sport has left him with an invaluable store of memories.” Less than a year after that interview Vincent passed away in July 1957, he was survived by his wife and three children. He had remained active as an architect into the 1950’s where he was joined by his son Daniel (trading as V.J. O’Connell & Son), and over the course of his more than 50 year career he worked on projects as diverse as monasteries, to hospitals and cinemas. However at his passing the various obituaries tended to spend as much time discussing his many sporting successes, especially his time at Bohemians and his early role in helping to develop the sport in his native Dundalk.