F ew in the Irish sporting annals command the respect of the great Kevin Heffernan. In addition to his lengthy career with St Vincent’s, Heffernan enjoyed a successful Gaelic football career with Dublin, which included captaining the capital to an All-Ireland victory in 1948.
In May 2004, Heffernan was awarded the Freedom of the City of Dublin at the Mansion House. Someone joked that he was no stranger to the venue, and he quipped that there were “many celebratory occasions” there in the past.
Beyond his own achievements on the pitch, Heffernan is best remembered as the manager of Dublin’s footballers throughout the glory days of the 1970s. His time as manager is synonymous with the fierce rivalry that developed between Dublin and Kerry on the pitch, and also with the remarkable rise of a youth phenomenon off it, as the 1970s brought Heffo’s Army to Hill 16.
Not everyone welcomed the new influx of young supporters; in 1975, a letter to the Irish Independent complained of the arrival of “silly, tribal chanting, foul language and a terrible attitude of hostility … Just like Old Trafford, White Hart Lane or Highbury! When the match ended the Dublin captain’s speech was drowned out by ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It could have been the Kop or Wembley.”
With Dublin taking to the field of play for six consecutive All-Ireland Football Finals between 1974 and 1979, the team brought a certain feel-good attitude to the city, reflected even in the pop-music charts. The year 1974 is remembered for the hit single The Likes of Heffo’s Army, which captured the appeal of Dublin’s football stars right across the city:
They came marching in from Ringsend and from Ballyfermot too From East Wall and Marino to support the boys in blue For eleven years we’ve waited and there’s nothing left to do Now hear it now for Heffo, Heffo’s army’s on the move.
In scenes more familiar to soccer stadiums on the neighbouring island, homemade banners appeared on the hill, two sticks which often appeared in the newspapers themselves alongside match reports.
Some borrowed from the lingo of British football supporters, insisting that “Dublin are magic, Kerry are tragic”. One sports journalist wrote in 1974 that “the people were there on the terraces – the real Dubliners, Joxer-like characters out of O’Casey”, but there was also a new and younger element.
Lee Dunne, writing in the Evening Herald, captured the new appeal of the team perfectly; from a family who supported soccer, he now found himself suddenly enthralled by this sport, which had been there all along.
To him, “one day, Gaelic was Gaelic, but suddenly that was changed by the emergence of Dublin’s own team … the identification with the team was one of the best things to happen in Bla Cliath since the Danes bailed out.”
The willingness of Heffo’s Army to invade the playing field caused headaches for GAA officials, and by 1975 the press were reporting that “Croke Park’s notorious Hill 16 may be surrounded by a 12-foot-high barbed-wire fence.”
It was also reported that the GAA were looking to British soccer clubs for guidance, with approaches made to Manchester United for information on fencing arrangements at Old Trafford.
Pitch invaders and drunk terrace brawlers were frowned upon, and one Dublin GAA official went as far as to say that “a large proportion of the present Dublin following consist of hooligans, louts and foul-mouthed ruffians who have absolutely no interest in Gaelic football or the GAA”.
In a similar vein, a man who claimed to have been a regular at Croke Park for decades was disgusted in 1974 by the “louts and hooligans who never stood in Croke Park until this year’s Dublin vs. Galway All-Ireland Football Final”. He attacked their “absurd flags and banners and their stupid and inane songs and chants”.
Yet many of those who arrived on the scene against the backdrop of the period were committed GAA supporters, which was reflected in the incredible travelling support of Dublin throughout the decade.
One regional newspaper was baffled by the huge following brought to Longford on one occasion, insisting that “it was like being in the Kop or at Old Trafford. ‘Give me a D, give me a U, give me a B, give me an L, give me an I, give me an N!’ roared the conductor perched high up in the steel girders on the roof of the stand and the sound reverberated all around the ground.”
The GAA, which had been suffering from declining attendances in the capital, had to tread carefully.
Keen to enforce new safety standards in the ground and to control and contain the growing Dublin support, GAA officials certainly welcomed the new revenue generated by the influx of supporters, not to mention the knock-on effect it had on Gaelic football at club level right across the city and county.
Fortunes waned in the 1980s, with Dublin taking a single All-Ireland Football Final victory in 1983, but many of those who first experienced the Hill in the glorious 1970s remained.
In many ways, Heffo’s Army was a social phenomenon of a decade when many new youth cultures and movements came to the fore.
When Hill 16 witnessed major redevelopment in the 1980s, parts of it were destined to find their ways into the homes of Dubliners, and as Brendan Nolan has noted, “Broken bits of that old terrace currently lie in Dublin homes, where they have assumed the status of religious relics, and may become family heirlooms in times to come.”