When Harry Sloan was killed in action at Combles, near the Somme, on 21 January 1917, Irish football lost one of the most celebrated players of that era.
He was one of very few Dubliners to have plied their trade at home and also to have represented Ireland regularly. The fact that he did so as an amateur competing against professionals only added to his status.
Sloan was one of many prominent Irish sportsmen that fought during the First Word War and his death was heavily mourned in Irish football circles. His exploits have been largely forgotten, however, due not only to the passage of time but also the polemics of Irish history and the evolution of Dublin sporting culture.
A native of Castleknock, Sloan attended The High School located on Hardcourt Street before embarking on a career as a civil servant. He represented Ireland eight times at international level, scoring five goals at a time when international fixtures were restricted to the Home Nations Championship.
A quick-footed forward, Sloan led the line for Bohemians for over a decade. He scored the first ever goal at Dalymount Park and captained his club to the Irish FA Cup in 1908. While he married and had one son after his retirement, Sloan enlisted in the British army in January 1916 and was dead within a year at the age of 34.
Bohemian Football Club had been established in Dublin on 6 September 1890 by a cohort of young students in their late teens and early twenties. Newspaper reports indicate that Sloan made his breakthrough at the top level of Irish football with the club from around the turn of the century. At this time, rugby was the dominant sport in Dublin while football was more popular in Belfast. It is also important to note that one team represented all of Ireland at international level.
News of Harold Sloan’s first international selection was announced in the Freeman’s Journal of 11 February 1903. He was named at inside left in the Irish side that were defeated 3-0 by England at Wolverhampton. This was Ireland’s opening fixture in the 1902/03 Home Championship, and Sloan was the sole Dublin squad member named among representatives from the northern clubs and English-based players. The result was not unexpected either as prior to the 1903 game, England had won twenty of the twenty-one matches played between the two sides.
Sloan’s strongest individual display for Ireland came in a 4-4 away draw to Wales in April 1906. Again, the only Dublin-based player named in the starting eleven, he scored a hat-trick to keep Ireland in the game. This resulted in Sloan being named as captain for the opening fixture of the 1906/07 Home Championship against England at Goodison Park. The Irish team was described by The Irish Times as ‘one of the strongest ever put in the field’ but were ultimately defeated 1-0 by their hosts in a poor game.
Sloan’s goals proved decisive again for Ireland side in the final fixture of the 1907/08 campaign, scoring the winner in a 1-0 victory over Wales at Aberdare. His final cap for Ireland came in a dismal 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Scotland at Ibrox Park during the following season’s campaign.
The highlight of Sloan’s club career came in 1908, when Bohemians embarked upon a hard fought campaign to win the Irish FA Cup. The trophy had become the club’s holy grail and they had suffered final defeats in 1895, 1900 and 1903. Their route to the final in 1908 required replays in every round of the competition.
While the precise date and reason for Sloan’s retirement from club football cannot be ascertained, it can be stated that he ceased to be mentioned in match reports and squad announcements from the 1911/12 season.
If his debut season is included in his list of honours, Sloan won five Leinster Senior Cups, three Leinster Senior Leagues, one Irish FA Cup and eight international caps, captaining the side once, during his twelve seasons as a Bohemian player; two of which were as club captain. It should also be noted that international fixtures were limited to the four-team home nations championship at this time; similar in structure to the modern six nations in rugby if Italy and France were omitted.
Sloan married Mabel Fitzgerald Jones on 6 September 1911 at All Saints church, Grangegorman and built a new home on Green Road in Blackrock in the same year. During the time prior to Sloan’s enlistment in the army the couple had one son, also named Harold, who was born on 21 December 1913. Before the following year was out, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had triggered the drift to total war which would engulf Europe and wipe out a generation.
Sloan did not immediately join up to fight but he would eventually play his part in the conflict. He was deployed to the western front on 25 November 1916 and remained there until his death on the 21 January 1917. During this campaign, he fought with an artillery division although the exact circumstances of his death are unknown.
A letter written to his widow on 16 February 1917 informed that he was buried in the guard’s cemetery at Combles near the Somme, in a grave marked by ‘a durable wooden cross with an inscription bearing full particulars’.
Harold Sloan’s story has fallen victim to the often quoted “intentional amnesia” of Irish history. He has no direct descendants as his only son, also named Harold, was also killed in action during the Second World War.
Sloan spent his entire career playing for the Bohemian Football Club; a religiously diverse organisation where political agendas came second to the higher calling of Association football during a fraught time in Irish history. He was unquestionably a product of his era; an amateur sportsman and a forgotten soldier, who found it increasingly difficult to withstand the pressure felt by a lost generation to collude in their demise and join the war effort.
Harry Sloan was above all else a man of his times who did his utmost to stand apart; a Dubliner who played for his club and country with distinction.
Ciaran Priestley, Pundit Arena