I love a good Western and among many great practitioners of that ultimate piece of cinematic Americana was John Ford, born John Feeney in Maine to two Irish-speaking immigrants. Ford was a man who knew how to mythologise himself and he did plenty of myth-making in his movies as well. For better or ill his film The Quiet Man has probably influenced the American view of rural Irish life to this day. While, his westerns are far from historical documents of frontier life for European settlers in the American west, rather they are among the founding myths of American exceptionalism.
Of course Ford knew this, in one of my favourite of his films, The man who shot Liberty Valance a world-weary newspaper man utters the immortal line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. Ford ackowledges that very Irish trait of preferring the entertaining story to the truth. And so it is with football, there are plenty of myths that grow legs, that persist to the present day despite constantly being debunked. I mentioned the old chestnut of Germany wearing a green away kit as a “thank you” gesture to Ireland in a recent post, but in this piece I’m going to address the notion that Bohemian Football Club bought the iconic Dalymount pylon-style floodlights second-hand from Arsenal, and that these same lights once adorned Highbury Stadium.
The origins of the myth
There are several fairly authoritative accounts, including one on the club’s own website, that perpetuate the story that the lights were either sold or gifted by Arsenal to Bohemians. I had in the past shared this story on social media myself before doing a bit of digging on the subject. This myth seems to have arisen from the fact that Arsenal played Bohemian F.C. in an inaugural match for the new lights in March 1962.
This simple inaugural match has somehow morphed into a story that Arsenal sold the lights to Bohemians. There are a few ways to dispel this myth so lets begin with the idea that these were the floodlights that once adorned Highbury.
The Highbury dilemma
Arsenal began playing matches under floodlights from 1951, at which time league matches under lights were not even permitted by the F.A. They did however play a number of high profile friendly matches including one against Glasgow Rangers. While the glorious old ground of Highbury has since been turned into modern apartments large sections of the stadium received listed status and still exist.
Anyone who ever visited the stadium will likely attest to its architectural beauty, it was however, also known for the compact nature of its dimensions, including an infamously narrow pitch, well exploited by managers like George Graham. Simply put Highbury didn’t have the space for large pylon towers like those that stand in Dalymount today. In the photo below you can see Highbury Stadium from that 1951 game against Rangers. This is verified both here and also here on the official Arsenal website.
From this early photo it is clear that there are no floodlight pylons, all the lights are roof mounted. It is worth noting that this photo is from a mere 11 years before the lights were supposedly “sold” by Arsenal to Bohemians, which would mean that any floodlight pylons would have to have been installed after 1951, survived less than ten years, and then been removed and replaced by another roof mounted lighting system.
From later photos it’s clear that there were no pylons at Highbury and indeed very little space in such a tight stadium for the location of large pylon tower lights. The two photos below are from circa 1960 (roof mounted floodlights again) and secondly from the last season that Arsenal played at Highbury in 2006. As before, roof-mounted lights.
The only connection between Highbury and Dalymount is that they are both tight grounds located in residential areas and that portions of both stadiums shared a stadium architect in the early decades of the 20th century, namely Archibald Leitch.
The story of the lights
The insertion of the Arsenal Football Club and Highbury Stadium into the history of Dalymount is really by accident. Bohemians had organised a fundraising subcommittee to look at the cost and feasibility of installing floodlights at least as early as 1959. It also quickly became clear that once the lights were ordered that some form of inagugural game would prove popular.
To be clear, the Dalymount Park floodlights were not the first set of lights used in Dublin. Stadium lighting was temporarily installed in Croke Park for the Tailteann games of 1924, while Ruaidhrí Croke has written recently about the first games under lights in Tolka Park back in 1953 when it was home to Drumcondra F.C.
However, Dalymount Park was the de facto home ground of the Irish national team and the lack of floodlights meant that international games had to have earlier kick-offs, even when scheduled for mid-week which had an obvious impact on crowd numbers.
Taking inspriation from another national football stadium a preferred design and supplier emerged after from a visit to Hampden Park in Glasgow who installed their own floodlights in 1961. In a report in the Dublin Evening Mail from November 14th 1961 it was reported that the contract had been signed with “a Scottish firm” for the lights and that these would take approximately three months to manufacture, transport and install. The firm in question was Miller and Stables of Edinburgh who, apart from Hampden, had also provided floodlights (or drenchlights as they dubbed them) for Windsor Park, Celtic Park, Easter Road and many others.
Original lighting console from Dalymount plyons showing the name of the manufacturer, Miller & Stables (pic Graham Hopkins)
Earlier in January 1961 an edition of the Irish Times confirmed that the FAI had accepted the recommendations of their own Finance Committee in guaranteeing major matches for Dalymount Park for at least the next ten years in order to assist with Bohemian F.C. in funding the purchase of new floodlights. Even by that stage the lights had been costed at £17,000 including import duty and transportation costs. This figure rose slightly when the lights were installed early in 1962 and were reported as costing £18,000 or even £20,000 according to one report.
The floodlights themselves are 125 feet high and originally featured three banks of ten lights on each pylon and a special transformer station had to be constructed to meet with the power supply demands. With the new lights it meant that mid-week games could be played in the evenings, for internationals this should mean bigger crowds and with Bohemians getting approximately 15% of the gate from international games this meant greater revenue for the club.
Despite the expected future return on investment this was still a huge outlay for the amateur club. Initial notices suggested that the lights would be in place by September 1961, which was then extended to October and ultimately until February of 1962. In the words of Club Secretary Andy Kettle, as quoted by Ryan Clarke in his recent series on Dalymount, it also meant that Bohs could “invite many top clubs to Dublin from time to time”.
The first of which ended up being Arsenal, though they weren’t first choice. But before these glamour matches could be paid Kettle had to deal with some level of internal dissent from Bohs members about the level of expenditure and even had to engage in a little bit of what might be termed “crowdfunding” in the modern parlance. Kettle elaborated in the Dublin Evening Mail that the club had “approached their bankers, the Munster and Leinster Bank, their members, players, traders, FAI and League of Ireland for financial assistance”, before adding “Bohs are keeping open their fund and will only be to happy to receive any further contributions. No matter how small…”
The Arsenal Game
As Andy Kettle had hoped the installation of floodlights would help Bohemians raise additional funds by playing friendly games against some of the “many top clubs” that could be invited to Dublin. But the question remained which team should receive the honour of being first? There were suggestions from media commentators that Shamrock Rovers should be invited although the preferred option emerged as a game between a League of Ireland selection against a British based Irish XI. However, as this would require multiple clubs across England and Scotland to release players it quickly because clear that this was unfeasible.
Among the other clubs sounded out by Bohemians to fulfil this fixture were Sunderland and Leeds United, as well as Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers (both of whom declined due to FA Cup committements). Attention was then turned to Arsenal, Celtic or Wolverhampton Wanderers with Arsenal finally being chosen from that shortlist of three.
From this is it clear that Arsenal, despite being a famous First Division side were realistically a fifth or sixth choice on behalf of the Bohemian’s committee for the role of opponents for this inaugural game. Arsenal were ultimately chosen and played in Dalymount on at least their third occasion (the previous two being in 1948 and 1950) and fielded a strong team including Welsh international goalkeeper Jack Kelsey, George Eastham, and future Cork Hibernians player-manager Dave Bacuzzi. The Bohemian XI featured players like Tommy Hamilton from Shamrock Rovers, Eric Barber and Tommy Carroll from Shelbourne as well as Ronnie Whelan Sr. and Willie Peyton from St. Patrick’s Athletic.
Arsenal would ultimately win an exciting game, played in poor weather, 8-3. However, throughout all the media coverage during the build-up to the game and afterward there was no mention of any Arsenal or Highbury connection with the lights other than their being chosen as the opposition.
Maybe it is a little bit of an inferiority issue with Irish football fans that we’d rather believe that we bought the most iconic set of floodlights of any stadium in the country, second-hand from a big English club rather than believe that an amateur club, working in partnership with the League, the FAI and ordinary fans and players managed to successfully fundraise a huge amount of money for a major infrastructural project.
For me that’s a bigger story than any mythic historical connection with a defunct football stadium in London. But as they say “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” I’d rather it be shine your own light rather than bathe in reflected glory.