The fight to Save Tolka Park

Trinity News speaks to the campaign group about the importance of preserving this historic amenity, home of Shelbourne Football Club

“The ethos of the movement is not based on trying to torpedo the club’s move to Dalymount, which all principal stakeholders have agreed to. The ethos and the campaign’s clarity of purpose is around preserving Tolka Park, not just for Shelbourne FC or its fans, but for a generation of Dubliners who would be deprived by the loss of a cultural and sporting landmark.

“At a time when so much of our city is gobbled up by hotels, co-living spaces, student accommodation and other vacuous buildings, it is right for every citizen of this city to ask: can Dublin afford to lose Tolka Park?” 

These words appeared on a Shelbourne Football Club match day programme from April, and succinctly capture the ethos of the Save Tolka Park campaign. The movement emerged earlier this year and calls for the preservation of Tolka Park on the grounds of keeping public land for public use, and supporting sustainable community development, and the sporting and community potential of the site.

Situated on the northern bank of the river after which it is named, Tolka Park has been used as a football ground since the 1920s. It has been the home of Shelbourne FC since 1989, when the club obtained a long-term lease on the pitch. While the property is currently owned by Dublin City Council (DCC), the council’s leadership has proposed demolishing Tolka Park and is asking that councillors vote to rezone the land. Ultimately, the council would like to sell the land for private development. The funds from this would then be used to fund the improvement of Dalymount Park in Phibsborough, where the Shelbourne team would move. Dalymount is already the home of Bohemians FC. 

When this plan was initially announced in 2016, the development of Dalymount was to cost €20 million. This has now risen to €35.6 million, with the planned capacity reduced by 4000 seats from the initial proposal. 

In January 2020, Owen Keegan, DCC Chief Executive included Tolka Park in his proposal to sell off council-owned land across Dublin in order to fund DCC capital projects. Embedded in this plan was a pledge to put €15 million towards the redevelopment of Dalymount Park. This was rejected by councillors, given a previous agreement to only approve the sale of such amenities or sites if they were then used to build social housing. 

Lee Daly, a spokesperson for the Save Tolka Park campaign spoke to Trinity News about the history of the project, and the direction it hopes to take. Daly described the campaign as  “a coalition of football fans, residents and activists dedicated to the preservation of Tolka Park in public ownership.”

The campaign argues that “with the right planning and investment, this historic football ground can play a key role in the local area by providing a home for Shelbourne Football Club.”

“A lot of us are Shelbourne fans; the campaign isn’t about any one particular club.”

Daly describes the genesis of the campaign as being “a few of us football fans looking at what was going on within DCC…the fact that councillors were looking at rejecting the sale of public land.” While the threat to Tolka Park primarily concerns the home team, Shelbourne FC, Daly stressed that while “a lot of us are Shelbourne fans; the campaign isn’t about any one particular club.” 

Instead, it is about the shared belief that the grounds are “something worth saving, and worth keeping.” The proposed demolition of Tolka Park, and relocation of Shelbourne to Dalymount, would also pose a threat to women’s football. Daly says: “we have won league titles, and we’ve taken women’s football very seriously.”

Currently there are two senior teams based in Tolka Park, one men’s and one women’s. Daly went on to say that “Bohs [Bohemians Football Club], to their credit, have introduced a women’s team, but their team wasn’t playing in Dalymount Park until recently. We have a real concern that scheduling for four senior teams could get messy.

“We don’t want to see women’s teams excluded, not necessarily because of any per-se sexism, but because at the moment, games for women are lower than those for men, in terms of attendance.” 

This is another of the campaign’s arguments in favour of retaining two stadiums, rather than funnelling the funds from the sale of Tolka Park into Dalymount stadium. “That’s why it’s important to have two facilities,” says Daly. “We don’t want girls being taken to games to have to use inferior facilities.”

Of the predicament the club has been forced to face, Daly said that it is an “unprecedented situation Shels fans are facing. There isn’t a single parallel in the entire world where a stadium is about to be sold, and the proceeds used to renovate a rival ground.”

But the issue with this doesn’t come down to just club rivalry. Daly explains that: “We have no objection to the redevelopment of Dalymount Park –  we think it’s good, but we want better.”  

On the proposed “build-to-rent” housing that may materialise were Tolka to be demolished, Daly says “We want proper housing developments that are affordable, and for the state to not have to continue to cut bad deals because it has no capital to make these things happen. “This is a perfect example of that: ‘finance for this’ and ‘capital for that’ should come from sources that are not the sale of Tolka Park.”

Opposition TDs including Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald recently objected to a 1,600-apartment build-to-rent development in Drumcondra, on the basis that these schemes are often proposed by investors looking to exploit the demand for accommodation in Dublin city and in turn, driving up the cost of land. 

The Save Tolka Park Campaign also made a submission opposing the aforementioned development. A post on their Twitter reads “this development reverses gains in land ownership made since independence. Absentee landlords brought much pain to this city in times gone past, and we cannot return to those days.” 

“If political parties are making hay of the idea of land for public use, there is no question that this should apply to Tolka Park.”

On this topic, Daly argued that “if political parties are making hay of the idea of land for public use, there is no question that this should apply to Tolka Park. Football fans…sometimes we’re politically not really taken seriously. We want to be taken very seriously. That’s why we set about this campaign.”

The Save Tolka Park group is adamant that the destruction of this amenity is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a broader trend in Dublin of destroying public space, selling public land, and pricing out local residents. Daly says that “the reason why that’s happening is the exact same reason we’re seeing a load of other developments in the city. It’s about a maximisation of profit, and it’s about an inability on the part of the state because of a very deliberate policy to have capital, to maintain land for public use, and to have a sufficient housing policy.”

Following the campaign’s meeting with the government’s department of sport, Daly claims “we looked very closely at what the parties have been saying, and what the stances of the political parties are. Public land for public use should apply to Tolka Park as well.

“It wasn’t good enough for it to be sold, it wasn’t good enough that two stadiums were going to have to be traded off against each other, and that communities and clubs were going to have to be pitted against each other.”

Where is the campaign going, and what is to be done? For Daly, the answer is simple. “This can all be ended reasonably quickly,” he says. “If the funding is found for the Dalymount project, and there’s some space for Shels as primary tenants, and the community around Tolka to come together and decide exactly what the future of the site should be.” 

While the campaign unequivocally wants to see Tolka Park remain in public ownership, they say this would require “that the central government make the funding available, and not keep burdening us with this austerity that’s pitting people against one another.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there are two senior women’s teams which play in Tolka Park. There is in fact one men’s and one women’s. The article was updated 20/9/2021 to reflect this. 

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the current Assistant Editor of Trinity News. She studies English and Philosophy and was previously Deputy Comment Editor.