As a young lad the sporting geography of the city was always fairly fixed and familiar to me. You saw Bohs and maybe the odd Cup final at Dalymount. You saw Ireland in Lansdowne Road, the Dubs in the freezing expanse of Parnell Park in the league, and if things were going well, in Croke Park in the sun. Morton Stadium in Santry was an annual pilgrimage for the National Athletics championships and as for Tolka Park, well that was Shels’ home, and to the unquestioning mind of a child it was always thus.
But of course it wasn’t always so. Shelbourne were once of Ringsend and took their name from the Shelbourne Road next to the pub where they were founded. While they had spent seasons playing at Tolka in the past they only took over the lease of the ground in 1989. Tolka had originally been the home of Drumcondra F.C. a team that developed rapidly, whose success burned intensely, and who formed arguably one of Irish football’s most storied rivalries at the peak of the league’s popularity. And then almost as quick as their ascent, they disappeared from League of Ireland football.
The area around Drumcondra has always been fertile ground for sporting endeavour. As Dublin city grew beyond the traditional inner city district in the 19th Century the local and wider city population were also availing of greater freedom from the stresses of their work-life. Changes to the working week meant people finally had some proper leisure time, they had access to a growing rail network meaning that they could travel the country more easily. All this lead to the creation of many different local and national clubs and organisations, not surprisingly many focused around sporting activities.
In 1864 Alderman Maurice Butterly leased 21 acres near Jones Road, Drumcondra which for the next couple of decades would be known as the City and Suburban Sports Grounds and which could be hired out by a variety of sports clubs. In the early 1890’s these grounds were briefly the home of Bohemian F.C. they also were a venue for GAA matches. In fact the GAA liked the area so much that by 1907 they’d bought the lands and renamed them after their organisation’s patron Archbishop Thomas Croke.
As Drumcondra developed eastwards as a bustling suburb it should be no surprise that this sporting development continued as you crossed the river Tolka. By 1924 a group of enthusiastic locals including Tom Johnston, Christy Purcell, George Ollis, Paddy Dunne, Tom Cribben and Andy Quinn had founded Drumcondra F.C. and the club were quick to make progress. Even in their early years as a Leinster Senior League side Drums attracted prominent players, including former Bohemians stars Johnny Murray and Joe Grace. In 1926, despite still plying his trade for a lower league side Grace won his only Irish international cap against Italy in Turin. He remains to this day the only Leinster Senior League player to be capped by Ireland.
A year later, while still playing at Leinster Senior League level Drums began lifting serious silverware. They were winners of the inagural Intermediate Cup, then referred to as the Qualifying Cup as it qualified them for the 1st round proper of the FAI Cup. There followed wins over Jacob’s and Bohemians which saw the Drums through to the final where they faced Brideville. A 1-1 draw in the first game forced a replay, held in Shelbourne Park and an extra time winner from Johnny Murray secured the first of five FAI Cup wins for Drumcondra.
Drums got another cup final the following year, losing 2-1 to Bohemians before finally being accepted as a League of Ireland side a year later and shortly afterwards they moved away from their amateur ethos to paying players. It was later into the 1940’s before Drums began to emerge as a real force in the League of Ireland. These sides were built around a core of some exceptional footballers like Kit Lawlor, Benny “Rosie” Henderson and the young and ever versatile Con Martin. The final years of the decade also the emergence of their prolific centre forward Dessie Glynn. By the end of the 40’s Drumcondra had won two more FAI Cups (1942-43 and 1945-46) as well as their first two league titles (1947-48 and 1948-49).
It was perhaps this success that attracted new owners to the club. Father and son William and Walter Hunter had run the club up until the early 1950’s but they were soon to be replaced by another father and son team, that of Sam and Roy Prole. A younger son Robert Prole also became a club director while still a schoolboy and would later feature as a player for the club.
The Proles had a long involvement with Dundalk F.C. having made their money through the Great Northern Railway which had its works and a main station in Dundalk. In progressive moves they improved Tolka Park, levelling the pitch, adding roofs to stands, introducing pitch-side advertising boards and in 1953 Tolka became the first stadium to introduce floodlights when Drums played an exhibition game against St. Mirren in March of that year. The Proles also placed a major focus on developing young players and among the early managers that they appointed was Billy Behan. He was Manchester United’s eyes in Ireland, helping discover a plethora of great young talents from Liam Whelan to Paul McGrath. Perhaps the words of George Orwell may have stuck in the minds of Drumds fans of the time, If There Is Hope It Lies In The Proles.
With Tolka Park now being developed into one of the better club grounds in the League there was plenty of drama on the pitch to keep supporters entertained. The 1950’s and into the early 1960’s in some ways signified a high watermark in the popularity of the League of Ireland. In an often grey and economically deprived Ireland the game offered a cheap and enjoyable spectacle and a stylish Drumcondra side were at the forefront. To this day recollections of their decade long rivalry with Shamrock Rovers has a misty-eyed effect on Irish football fans of a certain vintage and it’s not hard to understand why.
With little access to the English game apart from occasional touring sides and newsreel footage the League of Ireland was amplified in its sporting significance. It helped that there was a strict wage cap in England up to 1963 so many talented Irish players had less financial incentive to cross the Irish sea. Drums managed to develop and keep many of their talented players for longer than many League of Ireland sides could do today. During the 50’s they could call on Irish International Alan Kelly Senior in goal, “Bunny” Fullam in defence and an array of other young talents like Ray Keogh, Jimmy Morrissey, Stan Pownall and Tommy Rowe while club legend Kit Lawlor would return after a spell in England with Doncaster Rovers.
In just over ten years Drums picked up another two titles (1957-58 and 1960-61 while finishing runners up on a number of occasions) and two more FAI Cups and by this stage European competition had begun. Here again Drums were quick in making progress. In only their third season in Europe (1962-63) they became the first League of Ireland side to win a tie over two legs when they defeated an Odense city XI 6-5 in the Inter-city Fairs Cup. Jimmy Morrissey and Billy Dixon were prominent among the goals which secured Drums a tie with Bayern Munich.
Bayern weren’t yet established as the behemoths of European football that they are today but they were still an impressive side, many of whom would go on to win titles and cups with the Baverians. Drums lost 6-0 in the first leg in snowy Munich, German international Willi Giesemann as well as Bayern’s 3rd highest scorer of all time, Rainer Ohlhauser among those getting on the score-sheet. Drumcondra did manage to save some face in the return leg when the beat Bayern in Tolka Park 1-0 thanks to another goal from Billy Dixon.
The Drums had something of a habit of facing German sides, in their five seasons in European football they faced three other German sides as well as facing Atlético Madrid in that famous sides first ever appearance in European football. While never again progressing beyond the opening rounds as they had done against Odense there were other credible individual results such as a 1-0 home win against East German champions Vorwärts Berlin.
There would be one final, major trophy for Drums, a league title in the 1964-65 season but it was to be somewhat of a twilight victory. Within five years they would be bottom of the league and a couple of years after that, Drums as we would know them, were gone. After back to back last place finishes Sam Prole agreed to sell up, in a strange turn of events, Drums, a professional side were taken over and replaced by the amateur Home Farm side. A hybrid team name of Home Farm-Drumcondra lost its Drumcondra suffix after a single season and after 45 years of league football Drumcondra F.C. were gone.
It had been an eventful existence, five league titles and five FAI Cups had the Drums name etched against them. There were famous European nights under lights and the club had always tended to punch above their weight, whether as a Leinster Senior League side lifting the cup, or in their famous rivalry of the 50’s and 60’s with Rovers that lit up the league, or even going to toe to toe with some European heavyweights.
A Leinster Senior League club under the name Drumcondra F.C. reformed about ten years ago, wearing the traditional yellow and blue. They’re even based across the street facing their former home at Tolka Park. The memory of the glories of the Drums still lives on, preserved in the name Drumcondra F.C. that adorn a modest the clubhouse on Richmond Road, back where it all began. Up the Drums!
This piece first appeared on the SSE Airtricity League website and can be found here.