The sterility of modern British football stadia – package trips, plastic seats, plastic fans – is a dystopian Thacherite vision of a broken society. The fan is an individual, paying top dollar to be entertained by lowly taxed high net worth athletes who are the playthings of foreign billionaire oligarchs. Donal Fallon says it’s little wonder there has been a wave of nostalgia for the visceral terrace culture of the football ‘casuals’.
The reactionary craze for casual culture in Britain has seen endless books (most of them totally forgettable) and even the odd blockbuster film dealing with the subject. Who could forget Elijah Wood ofThe Hobbit fame decked head to toe in Stone Island clothing running with West Ham casuals in Green Street? Yet despite all of this happening on the island next door, the history of football casuals and football violence in Ireland remains largely unwritten.
In his book Casuals, Phil Thornton places the explosion in casual fashion and football violence in the context of other British youth subcultures, noting that “first came the Teds, then the Mods, Rockers, Hippies, Skinheads, Suedeheads and Punks.” Football casuals in Britain were defined not only by the violence of the terraces, but also the style, with working class British youths taking to expensive brands and a uniform of Adidas, Pringle and the like. The clothing was a mix of golf course chic and three-stripe runners. The violence wasn’t necessarily anything new of course, as Gary Armstrong has noted, it has its roots in “the age-old masculine pursuit of revelry.” So great was the fear of football violence in Britain that Labour ministers contemplated the idea of detention centres for known hooligans in the 1970s, believing that well-known troublemakers should be locked away on match days.
Of course, in time, all youth trends would leap across the Irish sea, and casuals were no different. Violence in Irish football stadiums was nothing particularly new. The Munster Express complained in November 1968 of the “Half-witted gutty element” at Richmond Park, a “minority lunatic fringe” who had attached themselves to Saint Patrick’s Athletic, clearly provoking the wrath of one journalist who had followed Waterford United to Dublin.
In the 1970s groups like the Bootboys at Sligo Rovers appeared, with organised clashes between fans away from stadiums as well as totally unpredictable hooliganism inside grounds. The Sligo Rovers fans were particularly notorious in their day, with the club warned in 1976 by the emergency committee of the League of Ireland that there was a “strong possibility” of their ground being closed and the club heavily fined if they could not improve security arrangements there.
The nature of competitive European football ensured that not only could young football fans here read about their equivalent in Britain, they could even come toe-to-toe on occasion. A considerable amount of the trouble witnessed in Irish stadiums in the 1970s and 80s involved the visits of sides from Britain or the north to the Republic, giving things a political dimension. In 1979 an infamous clash in Louth between supporters of Dundalk and Linfield saw well over 100 people injured, and the return leg played in Holland, banished to the continent by football authorities terrified of any repeat of the scenes in Louth. Dermot Keely remembered that “it was like playing a football match in the middle of a street riot”.
Similarly, Glasgow Rangers’ visit to Dublin in 1984 is remembered as much for the action off the pitch as much as the fixture on it, with thousands of visiting Scottish fans backed up by a huge contingent of travelling Loyalists from the north. The clashes were not confined to Phibsboro, with local youths in Dundalk taking the chance to attack the coaches heading back north after the game. The result, 3-2 to Bohemians, remains the stuff of legend among the Dalymount faithful, even if the newspapers were more interested in clashing youths the day after.
Of course, Ireland knows more than one sport by the name of ‘football’, and the native games were not devoid of violence either. Dublin GAA fans were more than capable of matching their League of Ireland equivalent. In September 1984, following an All-Ireland final defeat, it was reported that 250 youths were involved in fighting running battles with Gardaí along Dorset Street and on O’Connell Street. Rather incredibly, it was the GAA scene which produced a far-right threat, in the form of the ‘Dublin City Firm’ of the early 1990s. The use of the word ‘firm’ gave some indication of the influence of British hooligan culture. Anti-fascists clashed with this group on occasion, and fascism was not allowed to grow on the terraces of the GAA.
Today, there is a marked decrease in violence around sports events in Ireland. One contributing factor is the peace process of course, removing some of the hostility from the occasion, with cross-border competitions like the Setanta Cup in recent times bringing northern teams to Dublin quite often. The casual scene does still exist in Ireland and across the Irish Sea, though increased security precautions and the like have moved the action out of the stadiums.