Joe Wickham: Radical, Bohemian and FAI chief

Joe Wickham (top left) with Eamon de Valera, Douglas Hyde and Oscar Traynor


Fifty years ago, on 30 October 1968, Joe Wickham died in service as Football Association of Ireland secretary. He suffered a heart attack at half-time in a Poland v Ireland match in Katowice.

Wickham was at that time FAI chief and the public face of football in Ireland for 32 years. He was an internationally respected football administrator. He was also popular in his own country, being awarded the Soccer Writers’ Association Personality of the Year in 1964, described by one of those writers, Tony Reid, as having “administrative genius”, but being “extremely humble”.

Joe Wickham from newspaper cutting

Wickham is often associated with big moments in Irish football (and political or social) history. In 1938, he invited the new president, Douglas Hyde, to a match against Poland in Dalymount Park; Hyde’s attendance there led to him being removed as patron of the GAA.

In 1955, he set up a match against Yugoslavia despite Archbishop McQuaid’s known opposition (the FAI had in 1952 yielded to pressure from that source to call off a planned game against the same Yugoslavia). Over 20,000 defied the church to attend the 1955 match, and Wickham was denounced from the pulpit in his local church in Griffith Avenue.

Yet Joe Wickham did not push himself into the foreground; almost all available pictures show him in the company of other officials, welcoming visiting dignitaries, or behind political leaders such as De Valera at international games.

He was born Joseph Ignatius Wickham in 1890 – also Bohemians’ birth year – and attended St Peter’s National school, beside Dalymount Park. He was one of 11 surviving children of Mary and John, a railway engine driver with Midland and Great Western Railway (MGWR), working out of Broadstone station. The family lived in Monck Place and Connaught Street, always close to the station and to Dalymount Park. Joe later lived in Botanic Avenue and Griffith Avenue

Other members of the extended Wickham family also worked in MGWR, which Joe joined in 1905 as an apprentice coach builder. He became an active trade unionist when he completed his apprenticeship and went on to become secretary of the Joint Committee of the 12 unions in MGWR and a member of the executive of the National Union of Vehicle Builders.

In 1919, he signed up with 200 others to take classes at the James Connolly Labour College (JCLC). This was set up by Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union and Socialist Party of Ireland members to commemorate James Connolly and to promote socialist ideas.

Trade union activist and long-time Bohemian supporter Tom Crean considered the college “unique in Irish labour history in that its outspoken revolutionary socialist outlook received such high-level trade union support”. The college was supported financially or in kind by Constance Markiewicz and George Bernard Shaw, as well as by trade union leaders and Connolly family members.

Wickham paid two shillings to take the classes in political studies. Other subjects covered included economics, industrial history, law and public speaking. The lecturers included Cathal O’Shannon, editor of the ITGWU paper, Voice of Labour, and George O’Brien, later professor of economics at University College Dublin.

The college operated from the Socialist Party of Ireland (SPI) premises at 42 North Great George’s Street in Dublin city centre, coincidentally close to number 46, where Bell’s Civil Service Academy had been based. Several students of that academy were among the twelve founding members of Bohemian FC.

The JCLC was raided during 1920 by the British military and struggled to raise the funds and wider union support to keep going. By 1921, it had ceased to operate.

Joe Wickham with visiting VIP

In October of that year the SPI gave birth to the Communist Party of Ireland.

In the year he joined MGWR, as a 15-year-old, Joe Wickham helped found Midland Athletic, a Broadstone works football team. He played for that club, then for several others in Dublin, Glasgow and Wolverhampton before returning to play for Midland, including in the 1920 Leinster Senior Cup final.

A leg injury he incurred in 1922 while playing for the Bohemian B team put a stop to his playing. He had also been a track athlete with Clonliffe Harriers, winning many medals over short and middle distances.

On his appointment in 1924 as a foreman in the wagon shop at MGWR Wickham ceased to be an active trade unionist. When he stood down from his representative positions Voice of Labour noted that “in bad and good days … [he] worked voluntarily and enthusiastically for six years on behalf of the workers”. The unions’ success in securing a better deal was “largely obtained as the result of Joe’s untiring energy … We can ill-afford to lose him”.

Wickham then devoted that organisational energy to various positions on the Bohemian FC committee, as assistant secretary, treasurer and secretary, over a decade before he became FAI secretary in February 1936.

According to Tony Reid, his name became “household in every centre of world football and the sheer volume of the tributes that poured into Merrion Square [FAI address at the time] at the news of his death in 1968 were sufficient testimony to the high regard that the games administrators held him in”.

His funeral took place on 5 November 1968 in the church where he was previously denounced with President de Valera in attendance. Wickham’s son Commandant Tom Wickham predeceased him, shot in June 1967 while serving in Syria with the UN Truce Supervision Organisation.

Thanks to historian Francis Devine for assistance, including sight of an unpublished paper on the labour movement and football.

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