A Brief History of American Football in Ireland (Pre-2000)

The first American football game in Ireland took place in 1942. Two teams of U.S.servicemen played before 8,000 spectators at Ravenhill in Belfast.

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This game was staged to raise money for the Red Cross. In 1946, a similar game, involving US servicemen on the way home from the Second World war, was played in Croke Park, Dublin. This is believed to be the first time a “foreign” sport was played at the GAA’s historic venue.

In the early 1980s, some of the television stations available in Ireland; including RTE, Channel 4 & Screensport; started covering the NFL, CFL and College football. As a result, interest in American football began to develop. In 1984, a group of American football fans in Dublin advertised for players in the national press. Sixty-five players attended the first training session in the Phoenix Park, Dublin and Ireland’s first kitted team – the Dublin Celts, was formed. Over the next few years, the Dublin Celts would become Ireland’s most dominant team. In October 1985, the Dublin Celts played their first competitive match. They beat the Bristol Bombers (British League) 32-0 in Dublin. The progress of the Celts encouraged other teams to start up around Ireland. The first ever game between two Irish sides also took place in 1985 – the Tyrone Tornadoes played the Coleraine Chieftans at Omagh Rugby Club in Co. Tyrone. In Spring 1986, the Dublin Celts travelled over to Britain and defeated the Wirral Wolves 14-0 and Newcastle Senators 16-14. The first domestic match in Dublin took place at Blackrock College, when the Dublin Celts maintained their unbeaten record by defeating the Belfast Blitzers in a game which attracted over 4,000 spectators. In the summer of 1986, a four-game tournament took place between the Dublin Celts, Belfast Blitzers, Craigavon Cowboys and Coleraine Chieftans. The competition received sponsorship, and the Jack Daniels Summer Bowl, as it was known, was won by the Celts. 1986 also saw the arrival of the Shamrock Bowl – Ireland’s National Championship. The Craigavon Cowboys defeated the Dublin Celts 6-0 in Shamrock Bowl I to become Ireland’s first National Champions.

In 1987, 11 teams joined the Irish American Football League (IAFL) and the first full league season was played. The Dublin Celts posted an unbeaten regular season and defeated the Craigavon Cowboys in Shamrock Bowl II. Victory for the Celts gained them entry to the prestigious EuroBowl (European Championship) in 1988. Unfortunately, the Celts lost 36-12 to Austrian Champions, the Graz Giants in the first round game, played in Austria.

After retaining their title in 1988 (with a 34-6 victory against the Belfast Blitzers in Shamrock Bowl III), the Celts again qualified for the EuroBowl.

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This time they would have to face the British Champions, the Birmingham Bulls. The Bulls won 29-3 at Alexander Stadium, Birmingham.

In 1989, most of the Irish teams played in the British based Combined Gridiron League (CGL), playing in Irish conferences, but with the winners qualifying for the UK playoffs. The Dublin Celts won the Irish Conference of the Premier Division (Duke), and then narrowly lost 18-13 to the Manchester Heroes in the quarterfinals. The Antrim Bulldogs had greater success in the First Division (Baron). Having won their conference, they trashed the Furness Phantoms 34-6 in the quarterfinals and then lost to the Severn Valley Warlords in the semifinals. The Celts took the IAFL title for the 3rd straight year and won Shamrock Bowl IV. In 1990 the Dublin Celts recorded their first victory in the EuroBowl. They hosted the Barcelona Boxers in the first round and won 30-0. They then hosted British Champions, the Manchester Spartans and put in a great performance before eventually going down 28-12. The Antrim Bulldogs won the IAFL in 1990, but lost to the Craigavon Cowboys in Shamrock Bowl V.

The Dublin Celts did not contest the IAFL in 1990, instead opting to play in the fledgling NCMMA. In 1991, the Craigavon Cowboys hosted Belgian Champions, the Brussels Raiders in the EuroBowl, but lost 16-6. The Dublin Celts returned to the IAFL, going undefeated and winning the their fourth Shamrock Bowl with a 44-0 victory against the Antrim Bulldogs.

In 1992, the Dublin Celts again travelled to Birmingham to play the Bulls in the EuroBowl. Two late touchdowns from the Bulls sealed a 20-0 victory. The Craigavon Cowboys won Shamrock Bowl VI, defeating the Antrim Bulldogs in the final. The first ever American football game played in College Park, part of Trinity College Dublin’s historic city centre campus also took place in 1992. The Dublin Tornadoes defeated the Antrim Bulldogs, courtesy of a last minute field goal, in this game which was played as part of the college’s 400th anniversary celebrations.

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In 1993, a new force emerged in Irish American football. Coach Dave Curran, who previously coached the Celts, guided the Dublin Tornadoes to their first league title. The Tornadoes defeated the Celts in Shamrock Bowl VII – the first Shamrock Bowl final contested between 2 Dublin teams.

In 1994, the Tornadoes went undefeated in the IAFL and beat the Carrickfergus Knights in Shamrock Bowl VIII which was played in Newry, Co. Down.

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In 1995, the Tornadoes again went unbeaten in the IAFL and again defeated the Carrickfergus Knights in the Shamrock Bowl – this time played in Dublin.

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1995 also saw the formation of the Irish National Team. Ireland were defeated 22-0 by Great Britain in their first ever International, played at Saffron Lane, Leicester.

Dublin Lightning, who were only formed in 1995, became the first “new” team to win the Shamrock Bowl in 1996 – all previous Shamrock Bowls had been won by founder members of the IAFL. Irish National Team quarterback, Eddie Goggins led them to a 26-8 victory over the Dublin Tornadoes 26-8 at St. Mary’s RFC in Dublin.

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In 1997, most of the teams joined the newly formed AFAI Senior League. Over the next 2 to 3 years a lot of teams dropped out of league football.

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The Carrickfergus Knights defeated the Dublin Bulls in Shamrock Bowl XIII, which was played in Belfast. The Knights, who by now were the strongest team in Ireland, won the Shamrock Bowl again in 1998, defeating the Dublin Tigers.

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In 1999, only 3 teams played competitive football. The Dublin Tigers defeated the Carrickfergus Knights in a very evenly matched Shamrock Bowl XIV. The AFAI Senior League ceased operations after the 1999 season.