Frank McNally: The Pisser Dignam’s field

An Irishman’s Diary on Bohemian FC’s holy ground at Dalymount Park

As even people who only pretend to have read Ulysses will know, a key event in the novel is the funeral at Glasnevin Cemetery of the fictional "poor Paddy Dignam". But it seems to me to be one of the book's minor mysteries, given its encyclopaedic detail of 1904 Dublin, that it didn't mention a real-life character of the same surname who must have had a certain fame even then.

About the only thing we know now about “the Pisser Dignam” is that he once owned a field in Phibsborough, a vegetable patch, apparently. And we can infer that the field was behind where the ghastly 1960s shopping centre is, because in time it was to become the holy ground known as Dalymount Park.

That has, since 1901, been home to Bohemians FC, until then nomadic. But it must have taken a while for the rebranding campaign to work, because the stadium’s less glamorous original title “the Pisser Dignam’s field” – survives in folklore even today.

And there are at least four good reasons why James Joyce might have mentioned it too. One is that he lived beside Dalymount for a time, at St Peter’s Terrace. Another is that his friend Oliver St John Gogarty (aka Buck Mulligan) played for Bohs in the 1890s.

Then there’s the fact that the stadium hosted its first international match (Ireland v Scotland) in March 1904, less than three months before the most famous day in Irish literature. But above all there is the Pisser’s nickname, which would have fitted right in with a book that caused a prim HG Wells, when reviewing it, to complain about the “cloacal obsession of the Irish”.

Joyce might have alluded to it, for example, in Episode 17 of his masterpiece, which is also set in Dublin 7 and, among other things, describes Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus urinating in Bloom’s back garden while pondering the universe.

If he had mentioned it there, Joycean forensic detectives would have been on the case ever since and we would now know exactly who the Pisser Dignam was, how he acquired his nickname and, probably, what vegetables he grew. But Joyce didn’t, so we don’t.

Oh well, maybe we’ll find out more about this other Dignam in the coming weeks as Bohemians FC approaches its major anniversary. It will be 125 years in September since the combined members of Bell’s Academy, a college for civil servants, and the Hibernian Military School combined in its foundation.

From 1890 to 1901, befitting the name, the club led a vagrant existence, playing first in the Phoenix Park Polo Grounds and later in Whitehall and Drumcondra, before reaching the promised land at Phibsborough. But even in its homeless years, it made a big impression on Irish soccer, then very much dominated by Belfast.

In fact, when Bohemians reached the final of the Irish Cup in 1895, it created quite a stir among what The Irish Times called "our northern friends". In a detail with a certain resonance for the weekend that's in it, the paper suggested Belfast was transfixed by the terrible thought of a Dublin side "upsetting all tradition and taking the Irish Cup across the Boyne".

If so, the concerns were premature. Linfield won the final, held in Belfast, 10-1. It would be 1908 before Bohemians followed through on its early promise and took the trophy south (or rather kept it there, since that game was played in Dalymount).

Anyway, these and other glory days may be recalled at commemorative events including a gala dinner on August 15th, and a panel discussion as part of the Dublin History Festival in September. There will even be a tour of Glasnevin Cemetery to visit the graves of Bohemians’ famous dead. Maybe they’ll find the other Dignam there too.

Drama

In the meantime, I’m asked to mention an unrelated event happening in Dalymount tomorrow afternoon. It’s a play rather than a football match and it will be in the members’ lounge rather than on the pitch. Even so, I’m told it could be the greatest one-man show at the stadium since Don Givens scored a hat-trick against the Soviet Union.

The play is called Foot, by Lebanese-born, US-resident Ismail Khalidi, who won a raft of awards including the Mark Twain prize for a previous sports-related piece: Tennis in Nablus. His latest work tells the story of Palestinian football, set against the backdrop of a refugee camp in 2007. The event is part of Palfest 2015 (see palfestireland.net). Admission is free, but donations welcome.

@FrankmcnallyIT

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