The playing of rugby in Ireland dates to the 1850s with the establishment of a club at the Dublin University which was formed in 1854 with the support of Cardinal Cullen. The early history of rugby In Ireland is closely associated with schools and colleges. Indeed, even the founder of the GAA, Irelands largest sporting organisation, Michael Cusack was himself a strong proponent of the game.

The spread of the game quickly mirrored the sporting revolution which was occurring all over Ireland at the time. The formation of a national rugby body was amongst the earliest of the sporting bodies to emerge in this period. However, even prior to the establishment of a national body there were teams formed in Dublin including Wanderers founded in 1869 and Lansdowne four years later. The game quickly spread throughout the country. Clubs were established at Dungannon (1873); UCC (1874); Carlow (1873); Ballinasloe (1875), and Queen’s University (1869) usually centred on schools and colleges.

As with the administration of the game of soccer in Ireland, in the early years of the association there were two Unions. The Irish Football Union had jurisdiction over clubs in Leinster, Munster and parts of Ulster, while the Northern Football Union of Ireland controlled the Belfast area. While the Irish Rugby Football Union was formed in 1874 it was not until 1879 that the two unions on the island came together.

Representation of players on the national team reflected the spread and strength of the game at that time. Some areas provided stronger representation than others. When the first International was played against England in February 1875, the teams were twenty a side and the Irish team included 12 players from Leinster and eight from Ulster. The first fifteen a side match was in 1877, while the first Munster players were chosen in 1879. Within a decade there were 26 clubs across the country with a branch of the IRFU formed in Connacht in 1886.

Conflict in the early 20th century internationally had an impact on the progress of the game in Ireland. Both the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the Frist World War (1914-1918) had an impact on the game. Rugby officials, particularly in the north of Ireland supported the British War effort in 1914 encouraging members to enlist in the conflict. Throughout these early years of the twentieth century, and indeed for some time afterwards, international games were played at Lansdowne Road and Ravenhill. There were many highlights in the early years of the twentieth century including the first visit of the All Blacks in 1909 and the Springboks (South Africa) who inflicted a record defeat on Ireland in 1912 of 38-0.  

Emerging from the devastation which saw members from virtually all of Ireland’s rugby clubs take active service, rugby once more thrived. For exampl e, during the War of Independence, over 25,000 people witnessed Ireland play England in Lansdowne Road in 1920 in a thrilling game in which England just snatched victory at the death, 14-11.

Ireland remained somewhat down the pecking order in international rugby, although in 1926 and 1927 they went closing to winning the Grand Slam. The major breakthrough eventually came in the late 1940s. In 1948 when, inspired by Jack Kyle, Ireland beat France in Paris, England at Twickenham and a 6-0 win over Scotland at Lansdowne Road. They clinched their first Grand Slam in the Five Nations with a win against Wales at Ravenhill, Belfast. More success followed in 1949 when Ireland were Triple Crown winners again. In 1951, Ireland were once more crowned outright Five Nations champions and were unbeaten going into their final game. However, they failed to win the Grand Slam or Triple Crown following a 3-3 draw with Wales in Cardiff.

There was great excitement surrounding Irish rugby in 1952 with the announcement of an overseas tour to Argentina. There was off field controversy in the early 1950s despite the recent success and in 1954 a row erupted over the playing of the British national anthem at games held in Belfast. By and large however the association has prided itself on the fact that religious and political differences would not become a feature of the game.

The development of the game in Ireland was also helped by the decision to undertake these international tours and indeed to facilitate visiting teams. Amongst the visiting teams was Australia who were defeated for the first time by three points (9-6) at a game played in Dublin in 1958.

Much of the 1960s saw little success on the international front, although the game continued to grow at grassroots level. In 1967 Ireland beat Australia and later that year became the first of the ‘home nations’ to win in the Southern Hemisphere when they beat Australia in Sydney.

In what might surprise younger readers and given the recent strength of the Wallabies, the following October 1968 Ireland made it four successive wins over the Wallabies with a 16-3 win at Lansdowne Road.

The onset of the ‘Troubles in Northern Ireland had an effect on the IRFU in the early 1970s and games were disrupted in 1972 when both Scotland and Wales refused to travel owing to threats from the IRA. Despite these setbacks, more success was at hand. Following a draw with the mighty All Blacks in 1973, Ireland claimed the Five Nations

Championship in 1974 bridging a twenty-four gap.

The Irish rugby team were also embroiled in the ongoing conflict in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s when owing to Apartheid it was questioned whether games with that country should take place. In 1981 the IRFU defied a worldwide sporting boycott on South Africa and sanctioned the controversial tour, despite condemnation from the anti-apartheid movement and across the political spectrum. In 1982 Ireland beat Scotland, Wales and England to

 win the championship and their first Triple Crown in 33 years. Three years later Ireland triumphed once more.

The emergence of the Rugby World Cup in 1987 brought new excitement to Irish Rugby. In the inaugural tournament Australia proved to be too difficult in the quarter final, running out winners 33-15. It was the same lot for Ireland four years later when Michael Lynagh scored the winning try to clinch a 19-18 win for Australia. Despite a good showing in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, Ireland fell to France at yet another quarter final appearance 36-12.

The late 1990s saw the transition to the professional era in Rugby and international success was limited during this time. However, change was around the corner and in the early 2000s the success of the provincial game took hold.

The change in fortunes was to be found in the decision to play better opposition in friendly matches and the annual tour to the southern hemisphere was a feature of that. With the game becoming more scientific, the IRFU chose a more professional approach which would quickly bear fruit.

A defining moment in IRFU history and by extension, Irish sports history came in 2007 when the Irish Rugby team played in Croke Park for the first time, the home of the GAA. The defeat of England at Croke Park, 43 to 13, was seen by many as one of the greatest moments in Irish rugby history.

In 2009 Ireland won the Six Nations Championship and Grand Slam by beating Wales at the Millennium Stadium 15-17 on 21 March 2009, the first time they had won the championship since 1985, and the first time they had won the Grand Slam since 1948.

The twenty first century has also witnessed the continued growth of school’s rugby and as more and more schools compete the game continues to thrive. Schools’ rugby has been an integral feature in the playing of rugby from the 1870s. Indeed, one of the oldest cup competitions in the game is the Ulster Schools Rugby competition dating back to 1876. Mention of some of these names such as Clongowes, Blackrock, St Mary’s and Terenure and one quickly associates them with the game of rugby. A feature of the game today is that it has spread outside traditional strongholds and where once the rugby fraternity of Ireland was centred on one class, the game today is universal in its play and support. Indeed, supporting the Irish rugby team has become a popular pastime for many.

Backed by the success of the provinces in the first twenty years of this century, Rugby has never been stronger on the island of Ireland. Prior to the emergence of the profession the real strength of rugby in Ireland lay in the club and the All-Ireland League. In some provinces the keenest competition is to be found in the Provincial Towns Cup and other competitions.

The game of rugby is also now thriving with young females across the country. The Irish Women’s Rugby Football Union was founded in 1991 and from humble beginnings has tasted recent success on and off the field. Ireland won the 2013 and 2015 Women’s Six Nations Championship, while they also achieved both a Triple Crow and Grand Slam.

The playing of Rugby in Ireland has certainly come a long way from the somewhat humble beginnings in the early 1870s. Certainly when one considers the modern scientific approach to the game and the preparation of players it is in stark contrast to the past. For example, when county Limerick born John Macauley, referred to in the 1950s as ‘the Grand Old Man of Irish Rugby’, played in his first international in 1887 against England struggled to get off work and it looked as if he would not be able to play the match!