17 January 2020
As the 19th century drew to a close there was a consensus of opinion on both sides of the Irish Sea that a sporting club for Irishmen in London was badly needed. Part of the inspiration for this was the example of the exiles from the other home countries, London Scottish had been formed in 1878 and London Welsh seven years later in 1895. These clubs offered their countrymen a home away from home in London, a place to meet and relax while employment or education or other reasons took them away from their home country.
"So it was in 1898 that a group of Irishmen came together to form their own club, the London Irish Rugby Football Club"
So it was in 1898 that a group of Irishmen came together to form their own club, the London Irish Rugby Football Club. The founding fathers were an exceptional group of powerful personalities embracing politicians, lawyers and businessmen united by a sense of Irishness and passion for rugby. From the beginning London Irish was to provide a welcoming "home" and hospitable meeting place for all Irish people, regardless of creed or politics.
Fortunately for the founding fathers their inspiration off the field found equal inspiration on it through the arrival in London at the time of veterinary surgeon, Louis Magee, a leading Irish international. Magee represented Ireland 27 times between 1895 and 1904 at out-half. He was a vital recruit for London Irish and attracted others of his countrymen to the new club.
By late September 1898 London Irish was ready for action. The first game was played on 1st October against Hammersmith (alas long departed) at Herne Hill Athletic Ground in south-east London. London Irish won by eight points to three!
Louis Magee's presence together with that of the club's first captain R S Dyas, was to have a major impact on progress. Such was their influence that regular fixtures were soon arranged with most of London's leading clubs of that era including Blackheath, Rosslyn Park, Saracens and Wasps.
A decade later London Irish was firmly established. Of 28 matches played in the club's tenth anniversary season there were 15 wins and 13 defeats. 1911 saw the club's first foray into Europe, to France for a game against Le Harve. Sadly, it would not be long before London Irish members would be crossing the Channel for altogether different reasons that were to impact on the club.
Great Wars and Their Impact
Irish rugby was to be affected badly not just by the two World Wars during the first half of the last century but also by the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland. Many of the club's members were among the soldiers of the Irish Regiments that lost their lives in the 1914-18 war.
Like so many other clubs, London Irish drifted into the early 1920s. It was not until 1923 when the Irish Free State was established and peace returned that the club was able to welcome players from across the Irish Sea on a regular basis. For London Irish it was like starting all over again.
By the late 1920s the club boasted its first "home grown" Ireland international in a mighty forward, S J 'Cags' Cagney who won 13 caps in the green jersey between 1925 and 1929. This decade saw the inauguration of regular fixtures against great clubs such as Leicester and Cardiff. Cagney was captain of the club in the 1928/29 season when it did the double over the other two London exiles clubs for the first time.
Another link with Leicester at this time was the created by Cecil Beamish, a son of the famous Cork-based brewing family, who played for the Midlands club before transferring to London Irish in the early 1930s. Cecil's older brother George also joined London Irish in 1930.
He was a big man not just in stature but also in personality. He was to become captain of Ireland in 1932 and was to go on to become a famous Battle of Britain pilot in the Second World War.
Few matches were played during the war between 1940 and 1945. Many London Irish players found themselves in services' teams in far distant places. Nine of the players that played for the club in the 1938/39 season lost their lives and others never returned to England.
A Home of Its Own
London Irish's itinerant existence impacted adversely in playing and social terms so the club's officers decided that if their ambitions were ever to be realised the club needed a home of its own.
"The club thrived at Sunbury for almost a decade until the grounds were requisitioned by the Ministry of Agriculture shortly after the outbreak of World War II to grow food for the population of the Capital."
After looking at various options and locations 12 acres of land were eventually purchased at Avenue Road, Sunbury on Thames in south-west London. The transaction was completed on 16th June, 1931 for the princely sum of £1,280!
There followed a busy five months in agricultural terms! A pitch was prepared and the first game was played on 5th December against London Welsh, the result was an honourable 8-8 draw.
The club thrived at Sunbury for almost a decade until the grounds were requisitioned by the Ministry of Agriculture shortly after the outbreak of World War II to grow food for the population of the Capital.
Such was the state of the grounds after the War that the Club had no choice but to abandon Sunbury temporarily and continue to play its first team rugby at the Rectory Field in Blackheath
Lows and Highs
The immediate post war period was to prove difficult for the club as it struggled to put together a consistent first team in the 1945/46 season.
Things slowly improved as players returned, however as 1946 turned into 1947 Europe and the United Kingdom in particular suffered one of the most horrendous winters of the century. Grounds were frozen with the result that London Irish played only 20 games.
The club's fortunes were to change dramatically in the following season as key players joined including a new captain in Des O'Brien, one of the great back row forwards of his time. He went on to manage the 1966 Lions tour to New Zealand. The first XV played thirty games losing only nine, winning 19 and drawing two to record the most successful season in the club's history to date and a fitting way in which to celebrate its 50th anniversary. A bonus for the club was that four players - Kevin O'Flanagan, Jim Corcoran, John Daly and Des O'Brien played for Ireland in that season's Five Nations.
It was also in this remarkable season that London Irish decided that given the undeveloped state of Sunbury, it would be in the club's best interest to combine with Blackheath and share the facilities at the Rectory Field in south-east London.
As the 1950s dawned, the club was fielding six teams most weeks making it a thriving hub of London rugby with a growing reputation for the fun to be had off the pitch as well as the commitment and organisation on it. It was also at this time that the club began a schoolboys' section that was to be important in the years that followed.
In 1951 London Irish became the first club in Britain to host a touring Italian team when Roma came to town and played at Blackheath. Indeed the early 1950s saw a host of great rugby teams coming to Rectory Field to play either Blackheath or London Irish. The only problem from an Exiles' perspective was that the club was split in two with the junior teams using the steadily improving facilities at Sunbury and the senior team playing in the south-east of the capital.
By the mid-fifties the club had started to put together the nucleus of a squad that would one day provide the club with its finest season in its first hundred years. Prominent among the players was a young scrum-half called Andrew Mulligan who played his first season at Irish in 1952-53 when he was only 16! He was to go on to play for Cambridge, Ireland, the Lions and the Barbarians.
Andy was one of three famous members to play for the Lions during the mid-fifties - Robin Thompson captained the touring party to South Africa in 1955, the other was a certain A J O'Reilly of whom more later.
It was also at this time that doubts began to surface about the first team's residence at Blackheath. By 1957 Bill Morgan, the club's formidable administrator, in his end of season review reported that the "committee have considered ways and means whereby our ground at Sunbury can be made into a first-class playing condition with a stand." The decision was taken to return to Sunbury when the lease at Blackheath finished in 1959. A major fund-raising drive was launched to ensure some capital was raised as a down payment on the loans that would inevitably be needed to build the stand. The money was raised and Sunbury prepared for the return of the senior team. The final game was played at Rectory Field on 11th April, 1959 - a "home" victory over Old Merchant Taylors.
Swinging Sixties and Seventies
The Sixties started at London Irish on 9th September, 1959 with a suitably "swinging" festive opening of the new facilities at Sunbury.
A combined team representing the three Exiles clubs in London played a fifteen selected by K H Chapman, a Harlequins member! That first season back at base was to be a record-breaking one as London Irish did not lose a game. At the end of the season, however, the club agreed to play an abandoned game against Northampton, only to lose 10-5 and with it the unblemished record at Sunbury.
That success and others were celebrated in the immortal Fitz's Bar, an old wooden shed that once stood at the end of the ground. It originally served as changing rooms and a tea room, however it became the place to drink when the new stand opened. The bar was ruled over by Fitzy himself who tried to keep a happy, respectable house despite the best efforts of many over the years to compromise the reputation of his unique hostelry.
The rest of the decade was a period of mixed fortunes for London Irish. There were good wins but many defeats, an inconsistency that belied the many talented players such as Mike Gibson, Tony O'Reilly and Ollie Waldron, who graced the Sunbury pitch. Famous opponents such as Coventry began to make regular appearances on the fixtures' list.
The improving quality of fixtures demanded a change in attitude to training and playing as the sixties became the seventies. Under the leadership of the great hooker Ken Kennedy, with the assistance of exceptional players like Mick Molloy and Barry Bresnihan, London Irish became a force to be reckoned with once more. In 1976-77 the Rugby Football Union introduced proper club merit tables and in that season London Irish finished first in the London Division with six wins out of seven.
Pre-season tours became fashionable in the second half of the decade, Irish made visits to France and famously to South Africa in 1977 where the club became the first touring side to play so many mixed race teams.
80s and Early 90s
1980 was an exceptional year for rugby in England. The national team won the Grand Slam and London Irish reached the final of the John Player Cup at Twickenham and finished top of the RFU Club Merit Table for London.
The Cup final team was captained by another great forward and Ireland international, John O'Driscoll, who was disappointed to lose that match - the club's first ever appearance in the final of a national competition - to an outstanding Leicester side.
In 1981 the club undertook its first transatlantic tour to Canada, a very successful and enjoyable experience for all concerned. Reports on the pioneering visit to Nigeria the following year were less enthusiastic!
In playing terms the eighties were another period of inconsistency. The first team struggled to find reliable form as work pressures made more demands on players' time making them unavailable for regular training and matches. Happily, at the lower levels and socially London Irish continued to thrive. Among the most exciting developments was the advent of mini-rugby at Sunbury and the launch of a related tournament that continues to set the standard for similar events throughout these islands.
The new pavilion at Sunbury, next to the main stand, was officially opened on 6th September, 1986. The building whose construction was facilitated by the generosity of Eddie Lawlor, an exceptional member and benefactor of the club, greatly enhanced the hospitality facilities at the club.
1985-86 saw the introduction of the John Smith's Merit Tables in England and with them came a more disciplined approach to senior rugby. Michael Gibson, who ranks among the great Ireland No 8s took over the captaincy that season. Despite the arrival of other outstanding internationals like Hugo MacNeill, Brian McCall, Brian Spillane (an Australian), and Brendan Mullin, Irish failed to find any form in the new leagues and languished in the lower reaches of division two as the decade drew to a close.
In 1990-91 London Irish was promoted to the first division with a side containing four new Ireland internationals: Simon Geoghegan, Jim Staples, David Curtis and Rob Saunders, the youngest ever captain of his country at 22 years of age.
The harsh financial realities of playing at the top end of the game in England gradually became clear to all the country's senior clubs including London Irish in the early years of the decade. Operating losses mounted and but for the generosity of key benefactors at the time, the club would have struggled to survive.
The financial struggles were reflected on the pitch where London Irish failed to make any impact in the leagues despite employing the services of a number of high profile coaches.
The 1995-96 season was to prove to be one of the most eventful in the history of rugby union with the Rugby World Cup in South Africa providing an exciting and emotional curtain-raiser. The pronouncements by the sport's ultimate ruling body, the International Rugby Board and the Rugby Football Union, on the crucial issue of "professionalism" at the start of the season, started a period of uncertainty about the future direction of club and international rugby.
The RFU decided that the two national leagues that made up the Courage Clubs Championship should expand and become more competitive effectively committing the clubs involved to going professional with all that implied. Given its history and desire to compete at the top level of club rugby not just in England but also in Europe, it was no surprise that London Irish accepted the challenge posed by the new era.
London Irish training facility at Hazelwood
London Irish moved into their brand new £12 million training complex on the 1st July 2014 to begin the new era of London Irish Rugby Club.
The new 63-acre site is four times the size of the Avenue training facility and features 17 pitches, five full-size pitches, one of which is an artificial 4G surface, and 12 junior pitches. The clubhouse is state-of-the art and includes elite equipment required for a professional rugby team.
The training facility was also named as a Rugby World Cup training facility and hosted Wales and Fiji during the group stages of the tournament.