By Colman Stanley (@ColmnStanley1)
‘It was the first appearance in public of the Bohemians eleven, but it was impossible to judge of their merits, as the heavy sod was not by any means in their favour.’
This match report from the Irish Examiner on the 14th of October 1907, from which this quote was taken, describes Cork Bohemian’s first official match, one in which they lost 3-0 at Turner’s Cross to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Fortunes certainly improved for the team from Cork City, as trophies and success would come as the club matured, but this ‘heavy sod’ would eventually return in the form of financial hardship and lead to the demise of the club in the early 1940s.
The club had a defining role in enhancing the reputation of Cork football in its early days, along with the likes of Cobh Ramblers, and Fordsons/Cork FC. In their formative years they competed in the Munster District League and the Irish Intermediate Cup. Trophies would come later in the Munster League and the Free State Intermediate Cup, but their greatest accomplishment was gaining entry into the Free State League in 1932 for two seasons. With it they became the second Cork club to compete in the top tier of Irish football.
Their club colours consisted of a red top with a yellow collar, similar to the Cork county colours. Over the course of their existence they played in Turner’s Cross, and at the greyhound park in Munster’s Agricultural Society Showgrounds in Ballintemple.
The Free State League Years
In 1932, Cork Bohs began their two season stint in the Free State League. These years highlighted the outstanding growth of football in Cork, since the early 1900s, with two teams in the top tier of Irish football, but they also laid bare the misery and hardships of unemployment which plagued the country at the time.
Waterford FC voluntarily resigned from the League before the 1932/33 season, due to financial reasons, which left a vacancy for Cork Bohs. They were successful with their application, having enhanced their reputation nationally in the years since their founding, twice winning the Intermediate Cup, and adding an array of Munster Senior Cup trophies to their collection. They also took advantage of Waterford’s demise by signing a number of their players for their debut season in the Free State League.
Their first season in the League was relatively successful, with the team eventually finishing 7th out of 10 teams. One of the high-points of the season was their much anticipated league derby with Cork FC at the ground they were leasing from the Munster Agricultural Society in Ballintemple. The match took place on 16 October 1932, with Cork FC winning by two goals to one. A match report from the following day remarked on the attendance, exclaiming that there was ‘a crowd conservatively estimated at 15,000’. The report summed up the enormity of the game within the City; ‘along the route by the Blackrock Road buses laden with passengers, and private or hackney motor cars hooted their way through a long crush of pedestrians who preferred to foot it rather than risk missing a conveyance. The turnstiles have rarely clicked to such an immense gathering’. The Butter Exchange Band, known locally as Da Buttera, provided music on what was a sunny day with a captivating atmosphere.
In the background to this uplifting occasion however, were far more serious realities. Ireland in the 1930s was in the midst of a worldwide depression. Éamon De Valera had introduced unsustainable protectionist policies, and a trade war had erupted with the UK. There was a high rate of unemployment and emigration. Furthermore, there was the reintroduction of the entertainments duty, which took a large chunk of the club’s gate receipts, leaving them to fight an uphill battle right from the beginning of their Free State League experience.
While the club was rocked by the conditions in society at the time, it did its best to fight back and provide some semblance of respite and entertainment for the unemployed in Cork City. A columnist with the Evening Echo, nicknamed ‘Shandon’, whose articles covered football in Cork, wrote about the role of football in Cork City, writing that ‘football is going to play a part in the meritorious work of helping the unemployed in the sad times we are now going through’.
And along with rivals Cork FC they showed, with an abundance of class, that ‘Shandon’ was correct, and that they were more than willing to play their part when the two teams agreed to play a charity match to raise funds for the city’s unemployed. The game was played on 23 November 1932, for a set of medals that were presented by a local city firm. To add prestige and allure to the event, the game was kicked off by champion boxer Jack Doyle, who hailed from Cobh. ‘Shandon’ of course had his say on the occasion, noting that while it was a great display of sportsmanship, there were a lot of empty spaces in the ground.
The fortunes of the club quickly declined with more financial struggles. To combat this, Bohemians tried a range of methods to raise funds. A raffle was held at matches, a supporter’s club was set up and ‘whip arounds’ organised, and most successfully, they cleared out all but two of their professional players.
The next season would prove to be a disastrous one for the club. In December 1933, they were suspended from the League for being unable to pay league fees, and were unable to send team to play Bray Unknowns. The ban was lifted within a week but they were fined £25 and Bray were awarded the victory. Life at Cork Bohs was further disturbed when they changed ground mid-season from the greyhound Park back to Turner’s Cross. Their home attendances were dropping and the cost of travelling to away matches was putting serious strain on the club aswell.They finished the season in last place and withdrew from the league. Shelbourne also withdrew from the league that season thus reducing the number of clubs from ten to eight, which was unprecedented. While Bohs continued to play in the Munster Senior League, financial woes still followed them and they eventually folded in 1943, not at all helped either by the effects of the Second World War.
Trophies and Honours
Over the course of their existence, they did win plenty of silverware and had full senior internationals on their books at various points.
The club won three Munster Senior League titles, six Munster Senior Cups, and three Free State Intermediate Cups. They picked up their final trophy in their last season when they defeated Richmond Celtic by two goals to nil in the final of the Munster Senior Cup. They enjoyed their most successful season in 1930/31 when they won the treble of the two aforementioned cups, and the Munster Senior League. In the final of the Intermediate Cup (referred to at the time as the Free State Qualifying Cup) that year, they faced off against Dublin side Rossville. In what the Irish Independent described as a ‘splendid show’, the two sides drew 2-2 at Harold’s Cross Park. The replay was played in the Mardyke where the Cork were victorious in a game that finished 3-2. The win made them the first side to win the trophy for a second time.
Players of Note
Their most celebrated player was Miah Lynch, who played with the club for eleven seasons, and was the only man to represent Ireland while at the same time playing for Cork Bohs. In 1934 he lined out for the Free State team in a 4-4 draw against Belgium in a World Cup Qualifier, and he also represented a Free State League XI. In 1939, near the end of his career, the Irish Independent wrote of him, ‘How many recognised on the Cork Bohs’ team playing against Distillery in Dublin, the Irish international left full back? Lynch has dropped out of premier soccer for some years now, but he is considered just as good as ever, with many clubs only too willing to accept his services’. And indeed he was signed soon after by the reigning League of Ireland champions Shamrock Rovers. Such was his stature that there was a benefit match organised for him in 1940, between Cork FC and Cork Bohs, after Lynch had suffered a broken leg the previous week.
Without a doubt the most recognisable player to represent the club was ex-Ireland international and Liverpool legend Bill Lacey. Lacey joined Bohs as a player manager after performing the same role at Shelbourne. He also represented both the whole island Ireland side and the Free State, and went on to coach the Free State side in the mid-1930s.
Other internationals to have played for Bohs include Mick McCarthy, Jackie O’Reilly, and Billy Harrington.
There is very little written about the final year of the club’s existence. It seems that they just went away. It is a pity that the memories of fans of the club cannot be heard, and the many great days out which the club provided for their hundreds of followers are largely forgotten. The list of trophies that they won reminds us that there were plenty of these great days, and that the club did experience success. But perhaps their crowning achievement was providing an outlet of entertainment during what were times of mass unemployment and great financial hardship.
In the end however, as it has been for most seasons, there was only room for one major side in Cork City.
Many thanks to the esteemed Cork football historian Plunkett Carter, for lending me his knowledge. The piece would not be half as good without his help.
Many thanks also to David Toms, whose book Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937 was a fantastic resource, particularly those parts regarding Cork Bohs in a social context of 1930s Cork.