The Irish Football Association was set up in 1880 by clubs in the Belfast area and played their first international two years later, when they were beaten 13-0 by England. Based in Belfast, the IFA was responsible for the organisation of association football throughout the island of Ireland (then part of the United Kingdom) until a bitter dispute between Glenavon (based in Belfast) and Shelbourne (based in Dublin) over where a drawn Irish Cup replay should be held led to a split in the IFA and the formation of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) in 1921.
Ireland's original colours were "St Patrick's Blue" and white rather than the more familiar green and white we associate with Irish teams. In fact the association between Ireland and blue goes back to Norman times whereas green has been associated with Irish republicanism since the 1790s. Although the few team photographs to have survived appear to show the team in pale tops, The National Football Museum has an original shirt worn by Andrew Gara in 1902 that is a deep shade of blue, suggesting the contemporary photographs are misleading due to the peculiarities of the emulsion used.
Ireland's first game was against England at the Knock Ground in Belfast when they suffered a 0-13 defeat, a record that stands to the present day. In 1883 the Home International Tournament was inaugurated, which provided the four home nations with matches against each other every season. Ireland were the whipping boys of this competition for the rest of the century, finishing last on ten occasions and third on four.
Records of what the Irish team wore are very sketchy but it is known that they changed for some of their games against Scotland and they are thought to have worn both white and green shirts as an alternative to their usual blue. Both white and dark knickers are evident in some team photographs suggesting that Ireland followed the practice of the English FA and required players to provide their own equipment apart from the shirts.
Blue remained the Irish team's first choice but the national amateur side wore green. A change kit was required every other year for the match with Scotland and possibly England and I believe the first team borrowed a set of green tops from their amateur colleagues. A rare match programme from 1903 indicates that the Irish team wore green shirts in the match with England. Players provided their own club stockings. Generally Ireland remained the weakest of the four British teams but their performances did improve steadily. In 1903 they tied for the championship with England and Scotland and in 1914 they won it outright for the first time. It is established that the Irish wore blue throughout this campaign.
International football resumed after the First World War in October 1919 when Ireland drew with England in Belfast, Ireland finishing last in both 1920 and 1921. A match worn shirt used by Patsy Gallagher confirms that the shade of blue worn remained deep blue.
In 1921, shortly before the partition of Ireland, the clubs playing in what would become the Irish Free State broke away from the Irish FA when that body ordered an Irish Cup replay between Glenavon and Shelbourne to be played in Belfast rather than Dublin. Ostensibly this was because of the security situation in the south but to the southern clubs and the Leinster FA, it was symptomatic of how the IFA neglected the development of the game in the south and discriminated against the clubs from outside Ulster.
See Northern Ireland 1922-1939
: Republic of Ireland 1922-1939