The establishment of the Collingwood Cup in 1914 as an intervarsity soccer competition to be played between the universities of Ireland was made possible by the decision of Bertram Collingwood to donate a cup for its winners.
Prof. Collingwood - a newphew of Charles Hodgson, the Oxford mathematician who wrote Alice in Wonderland under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll - had come to work in the Department of Physiology in University College Dublin (UCD) in 1912.
Prof Collingwood had come to UCD as Professor of Physiology after a brilliant career at Oxford University. While in Oxford he had also played soccer as right-half for New College Team. Later, he also played for the most famous amateur soccer club in the world, the London-based Corinthians.
During his time in UCD, Collingwood enjoyed the reputation of being a fine lecturer, who succesfully engaged with his students, and who was interested in their development in more than narrow academic ways. It was this combination of factors which led him to support the endeavours of the UCD Association Football Club.
The universities began to play matches against each ther. In the 1911-12 and 1912-13 academic years UCD played Queen's University Belfast (QUB) in intervarsity matches, while both clubs also played in their local leagues.
Establishing a competition between the Irish universities was an entirely logical step. Firstly, the precedent was there already through competitions in Gaelic football and hurling, both played for trophies donated by university professors.
Secondly, soccer was by then well-established in the universities of Ireland, having progressed since its initial growth in the 1880s. Indeed, the club founded in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in 1883 was the second ever to be founded in Dublin. That the game should also be played in QUB was somewhat inevitable given the fact that it was in that city that soccer had first prospered in Ireland and it remained the powerhouse of the game on the island into the twentieth century.
That soccer thrived in the universities was despite the strong nationalist pull of the GAA and the formidable roots spread by rugby. More than that, soccer was already being characterized as the game of the working-class poor, the game of the streets. That it should also have been thriving amongst the elite of Irish society, who were fortunate enough to attend university (there were after all, just 500 students in UCD in 1914), gives the lie to any claim that soccer was not also a game of the middle classes. It is notable that the establishment of the Collingwood Cup flies in the face of received wisdom about the nature of soccer in Ireland.
Four teams entered the first Collingwood Cup competition - UCD, QUB, TCD and University College Galway (UCG - now NUI Galway) - when it was staged in Dublin in February 1914. In the semi-finals played at Prospect Park in Galsnevin, UCD beat TCD 5-2 and QUB beat UCG 3-1.
The final of the first compeititon was played at Dalymount Park, loaned for the day to the universities by Bohemians FC. It was described in the press as "a hard, fast game", and it ended in a 2-1 victory for UCD over QUB. That first compeitition was also the only to be played in that decade. Within six months, the world was at war and amongst the millions of men who enlisted to fight were university students and soccer players. By the war's end in late 1918, more than 50,000 Irishmen were amongst the estimated 17 million soldiers and civilians who died in the war.
Sport in Ireland during the Great War was severely disrupted. Some sports such as horseracing were successful in keeping operations going - at least at some level - but others such as rugby and hockey were abandoned for the course of the war.
Soccer did not stop entirely for the war; local competitions were still played but national cup and league competitions were eventually shelved. Accordingly, it was not until 1920 that the next Collingwood Cup was played. That competition began in Dublin, with a match between UCD and TCD in Terenure, which UCD won 8-1. The only other team that entered the competition that year was QUB and the remaining two matches - played as a round robin tournament - saw UCD and TCD travel to Belfast. The upshot saw QUB emerge as the second winners of the Collingwood Cup.
For the rest of the 1920s, UCD and QUB shared the spoils in the competition, with UCD winning it outright on five occasions and QUB achieved the same feat twice. As if to emphasize the dominance of the pair over the competition they also shared the Cup on two occasions, following drawn matches. After one of the draws in 1927, a replay was attempted but abandoned after 20 minutes due to appalling weather.
Unlike during the great War, the COllingwood Cup was played throughout WW2. From then until 1955, UCD and QUB monopolized the spoils, except in 1947 when a drawn final between TCD and QUB led to the cup being shared.
The return to the competition of UCG after the war was followed by the return of UCC for the 1954 competition - the first since the inaugural competition to have an entry of five universities.
The impact was immediate, in 1955 UCG - backboned by nine players from Co. Galway - caused a major shock by beating UCD in the final. It did not signal the dawn of a new era. UCD and QUB quickly reasserted control and they shared all victories between them until TCD broke the run with a victory in 1967.
From then until 1985, UCD and QUB won the competition more times than anyone else, but the cup was more widely shared than previously. UCG were winners three time in four years from 1968 to 1971, and, importantly, UCC won the competition for the first time in 1974, a feat they repeated in 1978. TCD also won the competition in 1979 and Ulster Polytechnic won it for the first time in 1980. The victory of Ulster Polytechnic was in keeping with the expansion and modernization of the competition. Under the stewardship of the Irish Universities Football Union (once known as the Universities and Colleges Football Union), the Collingwood Cup has grown as third-level education has grown. This expansion has drawn in new sponsorship and unprecedented media coverage.
In the modern era, UCD remained the most successful team - but only just. UCC and University of Ulster Jordanstown (as the Ulster Polytechnic was renamed) both enjoyed repeated successes, while St. Mary's University Belfast and NUI Galway also claimed victories.
Despite the pressures faced by students - financial and academic - the competition continues to thrive. Its traditions stand in stark contrast to so much of the modern world of soccer, but perhaps it is the very fact that it is so unique that explains its attractions.
Back in 1989, Dr. Tony O'Neill - whose name is synonymous with football in UCD - wrote a short history of the Collingwood Cup and paid it a tribute which is an eloquent testimony to its history: "The Collingwood Cup is more than a football tournament. It is an annual expedition for players and officials, alike. As an All-Ireland competition, the Collingwood has maintained a unique tradition which has transcended the boundaries of religion, politics and other elements which have resulted in the demise of other sporting competitions in this country."