Three fates of the German League

In February 1956 the League of Ireland XI played an inter-league match against a team from the Oberliga Hessen, a German selection from the state of Hesse, home to cities like Frankfurt and Offenbach. Adorning the cover of the match programme is a photograph of a three-figured statue with a vaguely religious air and surrounding the statue are rows of men in suits and still others in uniform, all solemn onlookers. This photo seems incongruous with its subject matter, that of a simple football match. But perhaps it tells us something more about Ireland, Germany and the two country’s relationship in the 1950s.

Saint Stephen’s Green – Saturday 28th January, 1956

It was just over ten years after the end of the Second World War and on a cold January morning a crowd had gathered at the Leeson Street corner of St. Stephen’s Green park. Among their number was the 35 year old Minister for External Affairs, Liam Cosgrave, a future Taoiseach and opposite him stood the German Minister to Ireland Dr. Hermann Katzenberger, a man who had once presided over the upper house of the German parliament.

Katzenberger looked every inch the stereotypical German gentleman, with his rounded spectacles framing a bushy Edwardian era moustache. The left sleeve of his suit jacket hung empty, tucked into a pocket, the result of an arm amputated when he was barely out of boyhood and serving in the trenches of the First World War. As a conservative Catholic he was a member of the Zentrum (Centre) party of the late 1920s and early 1930s but had fallen foul of Franz von Papen who sought to move the party further to the right and ultimately assisted in bringing Adolf Hitler to power in 1933. When the Nazis came to power they viewed Katzenberger as “politically unreliable” and saw to it that he was removed from any position of influence during their murderous reign.

But Katzenberger prevailed, after the War he was involved in setting up the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) which became the most successful political party in the country. As a man with a passion for writing and journalism he was also involved in founding the Neue Zeit, the newspaper of the CDU, but that was years earlier – Here he was on a winter’s morning in Ireland, just months away from his final professional posting, with his retirement on the horizon. He stood before a statue of three female figures, the Three Fates of Norse mythology; Urd (past), Verdandi (present) and Skuld (future), they who control the destinies of Gods and men.

This theme is laid bare in the bronze plaque that the men must unveil in front of the waiting dignitaries and press corps, written in English, Irish and German it states “This fountain, designed by the sculptor Josef Wackerle, is the gift of the people of the German Federal Republic to mark their gratitude for Ireland’s help after the war of 1939-45. The bronze group portrays the three legendary fates spinning and measuring the thread of man’s destiny.”

Stephen's Green plaque three fates

Bronze commemorative plaque at the Three Fates monument

Absent from the gathering was Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who had passed away some four months earlier, the vice-chair of the Save the German children campaign which had helped give safe and secure homes to almost 500 German children in the years immediately after the war. Lynn had spent some of her early education in Germany in the late 19th century, like Katzenberger, and like Cosgrave’s father – W.T. she had seen violence first hand, had seen what a bullet or grenade could do to a body. During the 1916 Rising she had been Chief Medical Officer for the Irish Citizens Army, stationed at City Hall. As she moved away from politics she had devoted her life to helping children, through her work in founding St. Ultan’s children’s hospital and later through her wholehearted support for offering respite for children in post-war Germany.


The Three Fates statue in St. Stephen’s Green (photo Gerard Farrell 2019)

It was these actions that were primarily in the mind of the sculptor when the words “Ireland’s help after the war” were cast in bronze. When Katzenberger arrived in Ireland in 1951 to present his credentials to Sean T. O’Kelly as German minister, the generosity of Irish families in offering to host German children, (some of them orphans, most of them merely suffering the poverty of a vanquished, rubble-strewn nation), was foremost in his comments. For O’Kelly’s part he referenced with pleasure the role that German scholars had played in studying and documenting the Irish language and folklore, and cited this as a particular tie connecting the two nations. The Irish President would later be awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. When the award was created in 1951 its stated aim was to acknowledge achievements that served the rebuilding of the country in the fields of political, socio-economic and intellectual activity, and is intended to mean an award of all those whose work contributes to the peaceful rise of the Federal Republic of Germany.

So much for the political and diplomatic context, now on to football. While the February 1956 game was not organised to coincide with the unveiling of the “Three Fates” statue in Stephen’s Green an explicit connection between the fraternal relations enjoyed between the two nations was made by the use of the cover photograph on the match programme.

This can been seen as part of an ongoing football and political relationship between the two nations stretching back at least to the 1930s. I’ve written extensively elsewhere on this blog (here and here for starters) about Irish football connections with Germany during Nazi rule and the problems that this raises. The post- war relationship is one that I haven’t covered as much until now.


1956 cover

Cover of the 1956 programme showing the unveiling of the “Three Fates” statue

There is a popular footballing myth that the West German National team wore a green away jersey for many years out of a sense of gratitude to Ireland because the Irish were the first country to play them after the war. This of course is not true, the German national team did indeed play Ireland in October 1951 (Ireland won 3-2 thanks to a goal by Drumcondra striker Dessie Glynn) but the Germans had already played Switzerland, Austria and Turkey during the previous year and a half. The more prosaic origin for the green away kit was that green and white are the colours of the German FA’s (DFB) badge, with the colours symbolising the green and white of the football pitch.

That the myth persisted does demonstrate the sense of a sporting connection between the two nations however, Ireland were the last country to play Germany before the outbreak of the war, at a time when the abuses of the Nazi regime were almost impossible to ignore (though ignore it the FAI did), and between 1951 and 1960 Ireland played West Germany five times in international friendlies, more than any other nation over that period.

From a League of Ireland point of view, more than six months before the international sides would meet in that October 1951 match a League of Ireland XI had faced off against the first visiting Hessenliga selection in a game that took place in Dalymount Park on St. Patrick’s Day of that year. The Hesse selection was only picked from two German clubs on that occasion, Kickers Offenbach and FSV Frankfurt, however this selection was sufficient to run riot over the hapless League of Ireland players, trouncing the Irish 7-0 in front of 24,000 spectators in Dalymount.

A further game against the Hessenliga was played in 1954, this time a well-taken, chipped finish from Drums’ Rosie Henderson gave the League of Ireland a measure of revenge for their humiliation three years earlier. There followed a double-header of away matches (in Frankfurt and Kassel) in 1955 with the Hessenliga winning both.

1954 lineups

Starting teams fromt the 1954 game

There was a return to success for the League of Ireland XI in 1956. A strong Irish selection ran out confortable 4-1 winners after the Hessenliga had taken an early lead. This was a strong selection from the Hessenliga with at least two full German internationals; Gerhard Kaufhold, who made his debut against England two years earlier and Richard Herrmann who had been part of West Germany’s World Cup winning squad in 1954, in the starting XI.

Apart from internationals there was good quality throughout the side, centre half Adolf Bechtold was a club legend at Eintracht Frankfurt where he was a league winner and club captain who also featured in the European Cup. At centre forward was Helmut Preisendörfer, a prolific striker for Kickers Offenbach he had been called up by West German coach Sepp Herberger to the national team but never won a full cap.

1956 team

Starting line-ups from the 1956 fixture

The Hessen League actually took the lead through a Kraus goal in the first half. He was unlucky not to double their advantage as his powerful header hit the bar a few minutes later, however, before half-time the League of Ireland took the lead through Waterford’s Jack Fitzgerald who scored two in quick succession. Early in the second half Shamrock Rovers’ Liam Touhy made it 3-1 before Fitzgerald secured his hat-trick 15 minutes from time. Despite the comprehensive nature of the victory in front of the bumper crowd of 23,000 there was some controversy.

Many reports in the following days were critical of the performance of Ignatius Larkin the referee in the game, criticising an undue leniency towards the League of Ireland side, particularly an apparently obvious foul by Shay Gibbons in the build up to Fitzgerald’s second goal. Despite the suggestion of hometown bias it seems clear from the match reports that the League of Ireland were the deserved victors on this occasion. This was probably one of the strongest sides available at the time with Liam Tuohy, Eddie Gannon, Tommy Hamilton, Shay Gibbons, Gerry Mackey, Dinny Lowry and Ronnie Nolan all being present or future Irish internationals.

There would be one further game against a Hesse selection in 1960, this yielded yet another victory for a League of Ireland inspired by the brilliance of Alfie Hale securing a 5-2 scoreline but by the early 1960s changes were afoot in German football which led to a major restructuring of the league, by the start of the 1963-64 season a truly national top division, the Bundesliga was formed, eventually the regional leagues would give way to a national competition across the highest divisions in German football.

Why particularly the Hesse league was always represented poses an interesting question. Perhaps this was because of the German FA are based in the Hessen city of Frankfurt? Early reports ahead of the first game in 1951 suggest that the arranging of that match was quite a haphazard affair based on informal discussions after the arranging of a series of amateur boxing contests between German and Irish fighters. It seems that the idea might even have been something pushed by a couple of intrepid German sports journalists. Initially it seemed that a game set for St. Patrick’s Day would be unlikely. Even as late as February Kurt Schaffner of the DFB suggested such a game wasn’t expected to take place as it was in the middle of the footballing season, however, just a month later the first Hessen League XI made their appearance at Dalymount Park.

This snapshot of time gives an interesting insight into Hiberno-German relations, like the statues of the Three Fates they showed the past, present and future of a German nation and their football culture. From the past, the deeply dubious sporting relationship cultivated between the FAI and the DFB during Nazi rule, to a post-war present where a vanquished Germany tried to rebuild literally and figuratively and sought to rekindle associations with Ireland. This was done in a sporting sense through the numerous friendly games between the Leagues and the national teams, but also away from sport through the fostering of German children by Irish families, redevelopment of trade connections, and through cultural and artistics ties, whether through gifts like public art or through German support for the study and research of the Irish language and culture. These connections are at least tacitly acknowledge by the match programme from 1956.

It might seem strange for Ireland to have been in a relatively more influential position than Germany but that is to underestimate the scale of post war destruction. Of course as we know now the scale and pace of German rebuilding was rapid, both in economic terms, with the Wirtschaftswunder economic miracle as it became known, and in footballing terms with the triumph in the 1954 World Cup, but in the immediate post-war years these successes were far from obvious or preordained. The third fate, that of the future, was perhaps echoed in the “Miracle of Bern” victory in 1954 and in the creation of the Bundesliga, or even with West Germany’s role in the Treaty of Rome and laying the foundations for the modern European Union.


With special thanks to Kevin Haney for providing the images of the match programmes shown above and sparking my interest in researching these games. You can follow Kevin on Twitter at @29Palmateer – he regularly shares excellent football history content.


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