Hockey Ireland celebrates its 125th birthday today, February 6th marking the day that the Irish Hockey Union first officially came into being in 1893.
It is the perfect time to celebrate with the Irish men and women’s senior teams both building up to World Cups later in 2018, a high point in the storied history of the game on the island.
The origins of the sport in Ireland and the organisation itself arose at a time of the formalisation of rules of the various stick and ball games played across the home nations.
In Scotland, there was shinty; in England hockey, while Ireland had “hurley” in the 1860s and 70s, an adaptation of the ancient sport of hurling run by the Irish Hurley Union.
The formation of the GAA in 1883, meanwhile, led to a revival of an older form of hurling which had previously been in danger of dying out, leading to a split from hurley.
Numbers dwindled but for a few supporters in two clubs at King’s Hospital and High School. But for the intervention of W.E. Paterson, the sport may have disappeared entirely. He was credited with introducing hockey to Ireland, starting a new club that adopted the new rules as laid out by the Hockey Association in England.
The game spread quickly with Dublin University taking on the sport, followed promptly by Three Rock Rovers, Corinthian, Dundrum, Donnybrook and Monkstown.
Representatives from the leading clubs duly convened in the Wicklow Hotel to form the Irish Hockey Union to look after the interests of the sport in the country.
The Irish Ladies Hockey Union would follow a year later – and will be celebrated in due course – beginning their international hockey life on a high with a 2-0 win over England in 1896.
The men’s Irish Senior Cup was inaugurated for the 1893-94 season, making it the oldest hockey cup competition in the world with the Irish Junior Cup following in a year later.
Regional branches of the Irish Hockey Union set up soon after in the four provinces, spreading the gospel with many leagues starting up in each region.
And, on January 26th 1895, Ireland would win the first ever international hockey match when they travelled to Rhyl to beat Wales 3-0.
In the early years, the Home Nations tournament was the be-all and end-all with the Triple Crown the most coveted award for many years. The first was won in 1904 while the golden era came either side of World War II with Ireland winning the Triple Crown three years in a row from 1937 to 1939 with Denis Coulson lauded as one of the greatest players in the world at the time.
Indeed, had the War not broken out, more glory may have followed but they did follow up with another clean sweep in 1947and they only missed out on another in 1948 due to a 2-2 draw with Scotland.
The 1949 success against England was played out in front of 7,000 fans at Londonbridge Road, the home of the Irish Hockey Union. The venue was purchased in 1929 at a cost of £3,000 and it would be the home venue of the Union until the 1980s.
Outside of the Home Nations, the Olympic Games was the other main event on the hockey calendar. Ireland was only able to compete in the 1908 edition where they ultimately won silver,
Initially, the Hockey Association (England) proposed a British team should enter, incorporating Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
This idea was not received favourably by the Irish Hockey Union who successfully argued that “Ireland should be regarded as a separate country in the Olympic Games”. They went on to beat Wales before losing 8-1 to England in the final.
A further invitation was extended and accepted by Ireland to the Antwerp Games in 1920 but hockey was subsequently removed from the list of events. As such, the wait for representation at the Olympic Games would go on for over a century to 2016.
Over the course of the 20th century, the international game was to expand, particularly with the International Hockey Federation unifying and evolving the rules of the game, opening up more opportunities to develop the sport. Ireland joined the FIH in 1950.
By the late 1960s, the players were calling for a “more professional approach” and George Glasgow was appointed the first coach with the task of selecting an Irish panel for the first European Championships in 1970. The side finished ninth of 19 teams.
With an Intercontinental Cup silver medal in Rome, they qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1978, playing the Argentinean hosts in Buenos Aires in front of 10,000 boisterous home fans.
Ireland qualified for the World Cup again in 1990 in Pakistan, losing 2-1 to the hosts in the vast Lahore stadium with 50,000 onlookers. It was part of an eventual 12th place finish.
Soon after, the Irish Hockey Union moved home to its next permanent home in Belfield in time for the centenary celebrations with the construction of the purpose-built National Hockey Stadium at a cost of an estimated £2 million for the women’s World Cup in 1994 and the men’s European Championships in 1995.
The two Unions merged in 2000 into the Irish Hockey Association and then the Hockey Ireland organisation that exists today.
It also hosted the sold-out Olympic qualifiers in 2012, the genesis of Ireland’s most recent rise and one of the golden eras for the men’s game. They missed out on a ticket to London in the most agonising fashion with a Korean goal seven seconds from full-time denying them their shot.
But it did spark the passion for future success, culminating in a glorious 2015. Olympic qualification was won via a fifth-place finish at the World League Semi-Final in Antwerp and was quickly followed by a maiden European Championships bronze in London, beating the hosts 4-2 for the medal.
Since then, the “Green Machine” secured top ten status with victory over Canada at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a ranking they have grasped firmly.
They backed up that status with a first-ever win over New Zealand last summer in Johannesburg to earn their ticket to the 2018 World Cup with the hope of making even more history in the 125th year of Irish hockey.