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College Football Classic – Ireland’s relationship with American Football

  • Wed, 6 Apr 2016
As many of you will know, this September 3rd Boston College and Georgia Tech will be taking to the Aviva Stadium to compete in the Aer Lingus College Football classic.

There are going to be over 20,000 American football fans crossing the Atlantic for the game and tickets for Irish fans go on sale from April 6th. American football has been growing in popularity here in Ireland in recent years, if you visit any Dublin pub late on Super Bowl Sunday you can see that but there is a longer history connecting Ireland with the Gridiron game. In this post we take at some of those connection…


The Beginnings

aer-lingus-college-football-classic-(2)The first ever College Football match took place way back in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers Universities. President of Princeton at the time was the Scottish philosopher James McCosh, his Belfast-born son Andrew James McCosh attended the University in the 1870s and was part of the Princeton College Football teams that were College Football national champions in 1874 and 1875. So even way back at the beginnings there was a bit of an Irish connection to College Football.


American Football Comes to Ireland

aer-lingus-college-football-classic-(3)There are reports of an American football game taking place in Ravenhill, the home of Ulster Rugby back in 1942 when two teams of American armed forces personnel played each other in front of the reported crowd of 8,000 spectators. The first game to take place in Dublin happened in 1953. Again this was between two teams of American armed forces personnel who were still stationed in England after the end of the Second World War. The two teams were called the Burtonwood Bullets and the Wethersfield Raiders, with the bullets running out easy 27-0 victors on the day. The size of the crowd was estimated at 40,000 and this was one of the first occasions that sports other than those controlled by the GAA were played in Croke Park since it became the organisation’s home.

Seeing as it was the first time that the sport had been in the city the American embassy even organised lessons for the press about the rules of the sport and ran special screenings of football games in the embassy offices. The game was organised as a successful fundraiser for the Red Cross and was even attended by the President of the day Sean T. O’Kelly.


More Games for Dublin

Ireland_VIP's_take_part_in_the_opening_coin_toss.There was quiet a gap between the game of 1953 and other visiting teams coming to the city. The next big game featured one of this year’s competing teams, Boston College, taking on the Army team of West Point Academy in Lansdowne Road in 1988, the year of the Dublin Millennium. There have been four further games since then, including two of the classic encounters between Notre Dame v Navy (in 1996 and 2012) as well as most recent game which took place in Croke Park game 2014 between Penn State and UCF. Croke Park also hosted NFL sides the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears in a pre-season game back in 1997.



The League of Ireland Footballer Who Made a Career in the NFL

st-louis-cardinals-neil-o-donoghue-474-topps-1982-nfl-american-football-trading-card-72155-pNeil O’Donoghue grew up in Clondalkin, Dublin in the 60’s and 70’s and did what many young men did, he kicked a ball around the streets of his home town. At the age of just 18 he was good enough to make his debut for Shamrock Rovers in the 1971-72 season. On the back of his performances he won a soccer scholarship to Saint Bernard College in Alabama, however the school soon closed down it’s scholarship programme and Neil moved to Auburn College, also in Alabama where he started to play football of the American variety. During this time he won “All American” honours as a place kicker  in 1976 (this means they were selected by media and  as the best players, in a season, for each position) before being drafted into the NFL by the Buffalo Bills in 1977. His spell at the Bills was short-lived and he moved to the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978. After two years in Florida Neil moved to the St. Louis Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) for the longest stay of his career. In 1984 he set a Cardinals record by scoring 117 points in a single season and he finished his NFL career the following season having played 110 matches and kicked 576 points. He remains the most recent Irishman to play in the NFL.


Irish Teams Taking Up The Game

17In the early 1980s American Football began to get greater coverage in Ireland and interest from Irish people, and American ex-pats in playing the game began to develop. By 1986 such was the interest that the Irish American Football League had been established. The following year the first full season was played with 11 teams participating with the top two teams competing in the annual “Shamrock Bowl”. The league is an All-Ireland affair and the most successful side to date have been the Dublin Rebels who have won 7 titles.



Watching Football

As interest in American Football has grown in recent years so has the demand to see games, especially the Super Bowl each February. Plenty of venues around the city now show the game, and its famous half-time show live, for the recent 2016 edition (Super Bowl 50) some of our favourite places like the Living Room, Harry’s on the Green, the Woolshed, The Boar’s Head, Doyle’s, and Sam’s were all showing the game, often providing American themed food and entertainment.