PAUL ROUSE: A landmark day for Irish rugby —beating England for the first time

Pic: Sportsfile

This was the day Ireland’s oldest international fixture, one which was first played in 1875, finally ended in triumph, writes Paul Rouse.

The final whistle brought scenes of delirium. Raucous cheering fills the air. Men jumped into other men’s arms.

Hats of all descriptions were thrown and lost and recovered and thrown again.

The Irish rugby team – finally – had managed to beat the English.

They had tried to beat England 12 times before and had failed every time. It is true that once they had managed a draw, but usually they had been well-beaten, the English being able to coast home to victory.

Not on Saturday, February 5, 1887. This was the day Ireland’s oldest international fixture, one which was first played in 1875, finally ended in triumph.

A huge crowd (possibly reaching 5,000) had made their way to Lansdowne Road for the match. Indeed, the takings at the gate exceeded £210 – and would have been still greater had not so many people climbed over the railings and escaped into the crowd for free.

The match kicked off at 2.45pm and saw the Irish defend the Railway Goal.

The first half was incredibly physically demanding but brought no score.

At half-time, the teams paused only briefly, sucked on some lemons and went again for the second half.

The English pinned the Irish near their line, but could not score. The Irish managed to create an attack where C.R. Tillie (Dublin University, TCD) scored a try and H.F. Rambaut (Dublin University, TCD) converted. When R. Montgomery (Cambridge University) added a second try with just moments remaining, the Irish victory was assured.

And the crowd went ‘fairly demented’, waving their handkerchiefs in the air. The players were chaired and cheered. Among them, the star full-back Dolway Walkington from Belfast, who captained Ireland twice and sometimes wore a monocle on the field.

Beside him was Thomas Lyle who would shortly emigrate to Australia where he took up the position of professor of natural philosophy at the University of Melbourne.

Although the match brought Ireland’s first ever international success over England, it was not entirely surprising. Indeed, in the week before the game, the anonymous rugby correspondent in the weekly newspaper, Sport, had predicted an Irish victory. He believed the team was poorly chosen, for sure, but still thought that the forwards were so powerful that they would break English hearts.

Even more crucially, he thought that Ireland would win because they had discarded the older players who were “old men overladen with the personal heritage and traditions of defeat saturated through them.” Against that, the new players who came in were not accustomed to accepting defeat as something that was a matter of course. And their freshness would allow them to thrive.

Naturally, even in victory, the rugby cognoscenti in the press were unhappy. As Sport’s rugby correspondent wrote: “Our forward game was downright bad, and the only thing that saved us was that the English game was worse.”

And more than that, those players who he had rubbished in the preview to the game and who actually played well were actually in debt to him. Indeed, he was — in his own head — responsible for their top-quality performances: “There is nothing like nettling a man of spirit and ability at a crucial time. I was only cruel to be kind, and I hope that they will all recognise it now.”

He had done such nettling despite the toll it took on him. In a classic moment of self-pity and self-indulgence, he lamented the fact that he was “tired of the Sisyphus job of eternally trying to push our men up the hill.”

Allowing for that — and to make sure that nobody missed the accuracy of the prediction — whole paragraphs were
reprinted from the preview to underline the capacity of the writer to see the future.

The celebrations that flowed from the victory spread out from Lansdowne Road and into the city. There was a little sourness that some people had tried to infiltrate the dinner that was put on for the teams in the Wicklow Hotel. But these interlopers had been instructed to take their rowdiness elsewhere and the night’s festivities had included food and drink and speeches and singing.

In accordance with the spirit of the times, however, the party broke up at 11pm and it appears the players headed at that point to their beds.

It was not just in Dublin that the victory was celebrated. After the match, telegrams had been sent from Dublin to Belfast and to other towns and cities to announce victory for the Irish.

And as the reporter on Sport wrote: “There is no doubt in the world that the victory was a great one. Without going into extravagant metaphors or poetic excursions, it will be hailed with delight by Irishmen all over the globe – from the North Pole to the South Pole, and from the East Pole to the West.”

But the best of the celebrations took place in Cork. On the day after the game, leading rugby players in Cork met and decided that such a momentous occasion should be fully celebrated in the city.

Handbills were distributed around Cork on Monday morning announcing there would be a procession through the streets that evening.

Members of the Bandon rugby club took a train into town and were met at the station by players from nine city clubs. Altogether some 500 rugby players gathered themselves into formation – togged out in their club colours – and set off through the streets, four abreast.

At the head of the procession was a huge tar barrel ablaze. Behind it was a marching band. And behind it, again, was a player walking with a 20ft pole aloft, on which hung a Chinese lantern and a rugby ball.

A banner proclaimed ‘Ireland Victorious’ and there were harps and shamrocks all around.

They passed down through South Mall, Grand Parade, Patrick’s Bridge, and King Street (now MacCurtain Street) and then York Street.

The crowds — men and many women — who lined the route cheered them as they passed, while fireworks exploded into the night sky.

At the bottom of York Street, some 2,000 people heard speeches, including one from J.S. Dick, the Queen’s College Cork student, who had starred in the Irish victory.

Almost inevitably – given the euphoria – Ireland went and lost to Scotland in a match played in Belfast a fortnight later. They did manage to beat Wales in front of 5,000 spectators over in Wales, but the loss to Scotland meant there was no Triple Crown (or Grand Slam as France was not yet part of the tournament).

Indeed, Scotland did enough to win out the championship that year, their first ever success in the competition.

It was a disappointing ending to the campaign, but the victory over England was deemed enough itself to render the season successful. And not for the last time.


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