Tolka Park: A History- Part 1

The following article originally appeared in RI66, last June. Part 2 will feature in RI67 available at the end of this month. In the meantime, enjoy Part 1 here

Tolka Park: A History- Part 1

Just alotolka parkng from Drumcondra Bridge, on a bend in the river where today the faded facade of a football stadium remains, there was once a residence called Trout Lodge. The name evokes a time when the river flowed fast and was more abundant with life.

Soon the bulldozers will come for the stands and terraces, what life remains within condemned to history. The record of a stadium on maps will, for future generations, be a curiosity, providing a hint of almost a century of sport and entertainment enjoyed there.

Its story begins with the founding of Drumcondra FC in 1924, though there had previously been other Drumcondra teams which had disbanded. The location carries echoes of some of the earliest football in Ireland. In the late 19th century, Larry Sheridan was among those who formed the Drumcondra-Botanic club at a meeting on the waterfront where the Riverside stand rises today. He would go on to become an influential figure in the Leinster Football association and the FAI.

There would follow another incarnation of Drumcondra in the early part of the 20th century. The Richmond Road itself was something of a hotbed for football, with several teams already based out of the many playing fields there, including Frankfort who were founding members of the League of Ireland in 1921.

Despite the failures of previous such clubs, the founders of Drumcondra; Tom Cribben, Tom Johnston, George Ollis, Christy Purcell and Andy Quinn, were hugely ambitious for their side. They identified a patch of land, close to the Drumcondra tram stop as ideal for their club’s new home. They would be far from the last men with grand dreams to be seduced by this location. The grounds would become known as Tolka Park, though it would be as late as 1926 before this moniker was commonplace in newspaper reports.

Tolka’s fortunes were closely intertwined with the successes and failures of the clubs who came to call it home through the years. Drumcondra, though a newly formed side, were immediately accepted into the Leinster Senior League Division 1. They would finish runners-up in their inaugural season and repeat this placing the following year. It seemed Drums were in prime position to be admitted to the League of Ireland’s Free State League and applied at the first opportunity, when the retirement of Pioneers created a vacancy in 1926.

By this time Tolka Park already had a pavilion and, in preparation for top tier football, an enclosure was added around this. The pitch was levelled by steamroller and embankments created for spectators where possible. Their efforts were in vain as instead, Dundalk were elected to the League of Ireland. Undeterred, within months of this rejection further improvements were made. These included the addition of hot and cold baths to the pavilion and the press noted the club’s efforts in looking after both spectators and players. It was around this time that the first advertisements for games at the venue – with admission prices of 1s & 6d – appear in the evening newspapers.

In 1927, success in winning the Free State Cup (the forerunner of the FAI Cup) as a “second grade” side and Leinster Cup pressed their case further. En route to a second cup final in succession in 1928, a record crowd of approximately 10,000 passed through the turnstiles for a game against Bray Unknowns. Though they would lose the final against Bohemians, Drumcondra’s claim to a place at the top table could no longer be ignored. In June 1928, they were duly elected to the Free State League and on August 26th of that year a large crowd witnessed a 1-1 draw between Drumcondra and Shamrock Rovers in Tolka’s first League of Ireland match.

The rising popularity of the venue was evident with a letter to the Evening Herald in the name of “Safety First” noting the need for upgrades to the footpath along the football ground side of the Richmond Road due to the increasing traffic.

Up to this point the top games in Dublin had been the preserve of Shelbourne Park and Dalymount Park. Important matches like the Free State Cup semi-finals had been always been fixed for these venues as they were the only grounds with adequate capacity. However, early in 1929, a dispute arose between the clubs and the FAI about gate receipts. Shelbourne and Bohemians asked for 10% of the gate, but the association were only prepared to offer 7.5% With neither side prepared to back down, the decision was taken to move the game between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers to Tolka Park barely 48 hours before kick-off.

The late change of venue was problematic enough, but just a week earlier 13 spectators had been injured at Tolka Park. Wire fencing at one end of the ground collapsed, unable to support the weight of the 100 or so youths using it as vantage point to watch a game against Shelbourne which was already above capacity. Tolka’s capacity at this time was estimated at 10,000 – 12,00, less than half of the Ringsend and Phibsboro venues and considered far too small for the anticipated turnout, with the lack of a covered stand being a further drawback.  For the semi-final itself, many stayed away due to the fear of overcrowding and a boycott by members of Bohemians and Shelbourne. This resulted in reducing takings at the gate of just £300, far less than the £1600 the previous year’s final had generated.

It was clear that, despite the rapid improvements, further development would be needed to meet the growing attraction of football at Drumcondra’s home and to establish the ground as an equal of other Dublin venues. The challenge of such growth in its residential location was spelled out in yet another letter to the Evening Herald, lamenting the difficulties caused to locals by badly parked vehicles, inadequate policing, and spectators trying to gain access without paying via gardens. A first step was taken later in 1929, with the formation of a new public company; Drumcondra Football Club. This allowed the club to take on the debt necessary to upgrade the grounds and create a more professional setup.

The 1931-32 season was pivotal in laying the foundations for football as enjoyed in Tolka Park today. Drumcondra were among the first to experiment with Friday evening games in the early part of the season, while daylight allowed. It was certainly a change from afternoon games during the Winter in the 1920s which had to be shortened to 30 minutes a half due to bad light. The late summer evening exhibition games were reported to be popular with spectators and generated large attendances and profits which would be crucial for the largest building project at the ground yet.

In January 1932 excavations began on the river side of the ground. A covered stand was finally built. Like Noah’s Ark, it’s dimensions are faithfully recorded. The Irish Independent reported it would measure 160 feet long and 46 ft. 6 in. wide, with a covered frontage of 14ft. The estimated capacity of the stand was 5,000 but within a few years, it was reported that it held as many as 8,000. The pitch was also widened by 5 yards with plans to further lengthen it also.

The record attendance swelled first to 16,000. Then in 1935, with additional terracing in the Riverside stand and Richmond Road enclosure, and as many as 12 turnstiles in operation helped create a new record attendance of 18,000 for a cup semi-final, where despite the new facilities, numbers behind each of the goals were so great that the fencing was broken by the volume of the crowd. Photos from this era show a stand that is as recognisable to anyone who has seen the league’s newest sides like Cabinteely or Wexford Youths at Tolka as it would be to those who witnessed that semi-final between Drumcondra and Dolphin.

It wasn’t just football that drew crowds to Tolka Park. Almost from its earliest days it has been what is described in modern parlance as a multi-purpose arena. From 1929 it was a boxing venue with open air bouts fought every few years. In 1934 it hosted a contest for the national lightweight title. Probably the earliest footage of the ground is of the respected American heavyweight Tony Shucco defeating the great Irish hope Dom Lydon in 1938. For most of the next decade a boxing card would be a fixture of the summer, with the Drumcondra chairman even acting as promoter and the football club itself putting up the purse.

The most notorious fight at the Drumcondra venue during this era did not take place within the boxing ring. In March 1942, a “riot” broke out between two rival gangs, swiftly dubbed by newspapers as the “Battle of Tolka Park”. It happened during the semi-final of the Junior Combination Cup between St. Stephen’s and Mountview. The teams and Football Association were keen to point out the violence was not related to football. Nevertheless, the events that took place that day are be extraordinary enough as to be worth retelling even now.

The two gangs involved were the “Ash Street Gang” and the “Stafford Street Gang”. It was suggested in court that if the clash was not pre-arranged it was certainly expected, with weapons drawn on both sides. The Ash Street Gang had arrived at the match and reportedly entered without any of them paying admission. The Stafford Street Gang commandeered a flotilla of boats and rowed up the Tolka, mooring the boats near the Ballybough end. After fording the river, they scaled the boundary partition and attacked their rivals.

Players and spectators quickly fled and later witnesses described seeing knives, swords, crowbars and bayonets, as well as corner flags and bricks being adapted for combat. One participant was being treated for head injuries in the pavilion when two men climbed through a window to finish him off, only being prevented from doing so by some of the players who were attending to him. Another antagonist was rescued after being thrown over the wall into the river. Unsurprisingly the match was quickly abandoned, but the clash continued and spilled on to the road outside. Ultimately ten young men were arrested and tried. Nine of them were found guilty and given sentences of between 6 and 18 months.

The entertainment on offer at Tolka Park went beyond sports, marking it as a venue of wider cultural importance for Dublin. In 1931, a programme of music and dance took place there as part of Wolfe Tone Week. A charity fête in 1933 featured such diverse events as a story-telling contest and a fairy cycle race. Long before floodlights arrived, there were illuminations of a different sort during the Tolka Park Carnival in 1937. Attractions included Dodgems, a Ghost Train and Donkey Rides. You could also have your palm read or take a motorboat ride on the river. Music and dance were catered for with acts such as Charlie Nutty’s A1 Combination playing the “Big Ballroom” and a ceilidh in the hall that had both been specially set up for the occasion.

Even animals graced its hallowed turf. As part of that 1937 carnival the “All Sorts of Dogs Show” took place, awarding prizes to the “Dog That Can Wag Tail Fastest” and “Nicest White Dog”. Dog shows continued to grow in popularity throughout the forties and by the middle of the decade a record 925 entries competed in the Combined Canine Club’s contest at Tolka Park. The Jeserich circus brought with it Horses, Bears and Lions while Reco Bros featured crocodiles and pythons.

These events were as practical as they were entertaining, ensuring the grounds were in continuous use, even outside the football season. The Hunter family, who owned the club at this time, were successful contractors, providing many Drumcondra players with employment, but the economic reality of 1930s Ireland followed by the lack of resources during the years of the second world war made further development of the ground fitful and incremental. The completion of terracing for the Riverside stand by 1938 meant that the focus was now on erecting the ‘reserved’ stand on the Richmond Road side, but an application to the FAI for a loan to complete these works in 1939 and again in 1940 was rejected on the grounds of “the precarious state of football today.”

By the end of the 1940s the Hunters had succeeded in developing the stadium to be one of the premier venues in Dublin and finally achieved the club’s dream of winning the League of Ireland, bringing the trophy home to Tolka for the first time in 1947/48 and retaining their title in 1948/49. Success on the pitch made the club an attractive proposition and the stage was now set for the next great era in Tolka’s history.

From RI25 (September 2005)- Interview – Tony McCarthy

He might be better known nowadays as the only man on the Ireland bench with half a clue, but once upon a time Tony McCarthy was our cultured, intelligent, all-clearing, all cross-handling rock at the centre of our defence. 7 years ago, we caught up with our then recently-retired centre half.

RI: What’s your current position? Retired? Physio? Assistant physio? What’s your title?

TMcC: “Yeah I’m retired. I just spoke to Pat about it last week. I’ve had a bad injury (hip). It’s OK to a point, but when I sprint or kick a ball it’s too sore really, so that’s it…there’s an exclusive for you!!!

He asked me to help Larry with the physiotherapy when we were over in Iceland and I’ve been training in that end of things. I’m qualified now, so I’m glad to help out in that department.”

RI: Is it hard to accept that your playing days are now over?

TMcC: “A lot of people have asked me that recently, especially with the club being so high profile over the last while, but I haven’t missed it too much to be honest. I’ve been very busy as well, so I haven’t had time to think about it. But since I’m still involved I don’t feel left out, I still feel apart of things around the club. I don’t think I miss it yet, I’ve had eighteen good years of football and I’ve enjoyed my time playing. I’m sure [maybe] in a few months or years I’ll miss it, but I’m happy at the moment.”

courtesy of Fingal Independent

RI: There’s some good competition at the back now, how do you rate the current rake of defenders?

TMcC: “Well you at look at the full-backs, Owen is smashing, we all know that. Dave (Crawley) has been tremendous this year; I think everyone will say that. Cover wise, you can still put Dave Rogers out there. He’ll probably argue with me, but he’s probably a better left-back than he is centre-half. Also, you’ve Kevin (Doherty) sitting out at the moment, he’s been unlucky, but he’s so committed to it, he’ll definitely come back in. Then you’ve Jamie (Harris), who has been outstanding. He really landed on his feet when he came here. He’s been brilliant. Alan McDermott has come in as well; he’ll be good too. Pat will probably look to bring another one in, but even now there’s good options there and it would be hard to find a stronger defence elsewhere.”

RI: Being the longest serving player here, you’ve seen a lot of changes around the club, but do you feel privileged to be involved in the current set-up?

TMcC: “Yeah, absolutely. I was here in 1991 and had a really good season. I got player of the year and we won the league. It was the start of something special at the club. When I came home from England, it was great, but still there was that part-time mentality. There were a few of us that were full-time, but other parts of the club weren’t there yet and it’s only looking back now, I realise the privileges of being here. A few managers have come and gone and the club has had good success, but it could and should have had more really, considering twice on the last day of the season we lost the league. It’s a bit clichéd, but it is the disappointments that make you appreciated all the success, so yeah it’s great to still be involved.”

RI: What about the current set-up? Full-time football really is the way forward isn’t it?

TMcC: “Definitely. Even where I am now with the medical end of things. Any team in Europe would be proud of the set-up here. The lads are well catered for in all areas; the travel, the kit, it’s all sorted. It definitely reflects when we play. Especially now, as even when we don’t play well, we’re expected to cruise through games. The Cork game the weekend after we played in Lansdowne was a great example of that, as without playing particularly well, the lads got the result and that’s the level you have to be at.”
RI: You’ve played under a few managers here, who’s been the most influential?

TMcC: “That’s a difficult one. I think Pat has been most influential for the club. Keely couldn’t handle the full-time set up, no questions asked. Richardson was the same, he also couldn’t handle it. Pat has really brought the club forward. I know there’s only one sure thing for managers and that’s the sack, but Pat has done well. Like I say, he works hard. He wants the club to do well and he’s fully committed to that. Even his involvement at schoolboy level shows his desire to see the club progress. He puts the time in and I think that has been reflected around the club.”

RI: You came back in 1997, we were having a great season and then it went horribly wrong, what happened?

TMcC: “We lost three cup finals if you like. Just on managers, Rico never appealed the suspensions of two players when we were to play Dundalk, he was more interested in the winning three in a row in the cup, which was a bit strange really. We ended up losing anyway, so it was a disaster. I think most people would have settled for a league win, even if it meant losing the cup. We were very close to being a treble winning team, but that’s the thin line for you. I did enjoy that year though; it was nice to come back. You don’t enjoy losing, but overall it was an enjoyable season.”

RI: Of course, the league win led to the Champions League. Obviously, you didn’t play, but it was fucking amazing wasn’t it?

TMcC: “It’s been beyond relief really, a bit surreal I suppose. The coverage has been amazing, there was so much hype and again it’s cliché time, but it probably won’t hit us until we’ve settled back into the league and we’ve come back down to earth. I just hope that there will be repercussions and there will be a knock on effect. Obviously, confidence will be high, as we know we CAN reach that level. The potential is here though, the lads have shown that and let’s hope we can get back there again.”

RI: The best Champions League moment?

TMcC: “That’s a tough one. Eh…well obviously the Hadjuk game here was something special. There were a lot of tears that night, but for me I think Lansdowne was special. Sitting on the bench and every so often the crowd would be up in arms, getting behind the team. It was better than an Ireland game. There was no badness there; people showed up to see us do well and it was quite an emotional night really. Even if we were having bad spells, no one turned on us, it was all encouragement and there was a great feeling of warmth that night, something that I don’t think will be replicated.”

RI: You’ve played a bit in Europe yourself, Rangers 98’ (sorry Tony, but it had to be said!!!) what happened?

TMcC: “I was waiting for this! I don’t know what happened. I do still think about it though. It’s strange, because otherwise I felt I was having a very good game, but I think it was just nerves. Being 3-0 up against Rangers, I think it was playing on my mind: ‘what is happening here?’ I suppose I just lost the head and unfortunately it’s one of those things I’ll always be remembered for. On the other hand, all publicity is good publicity!!! No, it was a bit upsetting to be honest; it doesn’t bring back good memories for me. The whole night was a bit bizarre, as we were on the edge of madness really. It’s something I find hard to explain. I wasn’t even booked, it was just a bit weird!”

RI: You’ve been busy rubbing mens groins for a living, what’s all that about? How did you get involved in physiotherapy?

TMcC: “When I was at Millwall, I had a lot of injuries and I was working with an osteopath, which is what I do now. I’d always been interested in that side of things, so when I came home I did a two year sports injury course, then I did a five year osteopath course, so for the past seven years I’ve basically been training to be an osteopath and I’ve been doing sports injuries in between. Just from playing and been injured, I think that’s how I got into it. It’s keeping me involved, so obviously I’m enjoying it at the moment.”

RI: Do you hope to stay involved with Shels long-term?

TMcC: “Yeah hopefully. Any move away from here in Irish football would be a step down in my view. Pat has told me there will be something on offer over the next year or so, obviously a lot depends on finance, but I hope to stay here. If I have to, I’ll work at another club, but ideally I want to stay with Shels.”

RI: What about management/coaching?

TMcC: “No, it’s never been something I’ve been particularly interested in to be honest. Not too sure why, but I haven’t really gone down that road. Like I said, I like the sports injuries side of things and I think a lot more players want to learn about this sort of thing as well. But no, don’t think management is for me.”

Pic From Fingal Independent

RI: Over the years, who’s been your preferred partner at the back?

TMcC: “Every player is different I suppose. Pat (Scully) was good to play with, but I really enjoyed playing with Jamie last year. We had a few good games together. Kevin as well, he’s easy to play beside, because he does all the work and I can just stand there! But it is a pity I didn’t get to play beside him a bit more, that is one regret I have. It takes time to build up a good partnership, but I’d say Kevin was the best anyway. (RI: Is he keeping you the job!)Yeah that’s true enough. Certainly when I first came into it I was working a lot with him. He has been very unlucky with injuries, but he’s getting there and is nearly fully fit, which is the most important thing.”

RI: Another customary question, who is the “maddest pox” in Irish football – the Scouse or Geogho?

TMcC: “Probably Geogho’s missus! Nah, Davy is mad, he’s an absolute lunatic. But Geogho was…eh well he was Geogho! Fucking spacer! (RI: Jayo reckons Dave Crawley is up there too?) Actually yeah, he’s definitely come out of himself anyway. Think they’re all a bit mad though, but the scouser IS in a world of his own. He’s great he gets the place going. Geogho had his moments too, then we had the two of them together, which was frightening!”

RI: Your best and worst moment with Shels?

TMcC: “Winning the double was my best anyway. When we won the cup that night in Dalymount, I really found it hard to contain my excitement and I wouldn’t usually be like that, so it was a memorable occasion. My worst? Not the Rangers game believe it or not! Dundalk 98’ was painful. We were so close, we’d beaten them six times that year, they hadn’t even scored a goal against us and it was sickening to see the effort they put in to stop us winning the league. To be fair, we weren’t good enough on the night, but that’s football. Definitely a low point anyway.”

RI: Finally, can we win the league again this year and do it all again in Europe next summer?
TMcC: “It’s gonna be tough. Definitely a lot tougher than everyone thinks. There’ll be a few twists and turns along the way and we have to be sharp, especially after everything we’ve done in Europe. If you look at the table, Drogheda have a head of steam now and we have to be wary of them. Whether we’re still in Europe or out, we have to raise our game domestically. Every team we play makes it difficult for us, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks. We’re expected to win it, but it’s not going to be easy.”

From RI12 (May 2001)- Retort to the U2 Fanzine- Hot Press

When Hot Press was out of touch with what was happening with real people in Ireland. What do you mean which time??? Re-visit a classic polemic from the one and only Gnarled Führer from RI12, May 2001

By the Gnarled Führer


Recently an article in Hot Press was brought to my attention by Gerry RI. It concerned the protest by a few young LOI fans outside the official opening of the Man U Superstore. Boss Hogg, or whatever pseudonym that arsehole, Stokes, uses, accused the protesters of, wait for it, being Nationalistic and possibly even Fascist. Oh yeah, what a load of absolute shite. The young lads should have been congratulated for making a protest against this insidious form of sporting hegemony.

What other country in Europe would have a leader who fucks off to support teams in foreign countries? Good old Bertie, supporter of the Dubs, Man U and Celtic, that unholy trinity beloved of all Dub arseholes. Pity he missed out on Rovers though. In what other country would you get fans booing players from their own country in favour of players from teams from the country of their biggest historical enemy. “You’ll never beat the Irish” – my arse. Even English fans I have spoken to find this daft.


The “Suede Denim Street Police” (copyright Jello Biafra) of Hot Press should get their collective tongues out of Bono’s hole before they have the neck to slag other people. I have always hated that right-on rag and their poxy pseudo-left wing stance. Remember their slogan, “Keeping Ireland safe for rock and roll”, well it is my contention that the young protesters were in their own way making a point about “Keeping Ireland safe for live football”.

So as the reactionary sections of Irish society, the poxy GAA, Fianna Fáil, and certain sections of the media (The Evening Herald, take a bow) continue to persecute all domestic football fans, now is the time to attack back at every opportunity. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the eircom Park debacle, it showed these revolutionary bastards at their bigoted worst. One of the great things about following Shels is that all the old-school brigade have a pathological hatred of the GAA Mafia and their fellow travellers in the Dáil.

P. S. Sick of Britball.
Next time you see someone getting Sky Digital in, go and ask them for their old analogue dish and get some sham to put it up for you. Then sit back and enjoy all the great German football on the dish. FREE TO AIR.