Robert Goggins takes a moment to think about what it is he does as a volunteer for Shamrock Rovers Football Club.
“Denis?” he says, from the boardroom table in Tallaght Stadium, leaning back with his arms folded.
He directs his voice toward an office in the corner of the room. “What do I volunteer for here in this club?”
“A lot, Robert,” replies the voice of club CEO Denis Donohoe. “A lot.”
“A lot,” Goggins says, nonchalantly.
Goggins is editor of the Rovers match programmes. He has authored five history books on the club.
In more recent years, his concerns have extended to memorialising players at risk of being forgotten, making sure their graves are marked.
Right now, he is focused on James Syms. Syms was a defender who played on the team from 1914 to 1915, when he died, drowning while at work in Dublin Bay. He was only in his mid-20s.
Sym’s final resting place is unmarked, says Goggins, who has taken it upon himself to try to get, after 107 years, a gravestone put up.
“He was the first serving player I am aware of from Shamrock Rovers who died,” Goggins says. “It would be nice to have something put up in his memory.”
Goggins became a devotee of Shamrock Rovers in his teens, he says.
The first match he attended was a home fixture against Galway Rovers on 27 January 1980.
The game was held in Glenmalure Park, the club’s former home pitch in Milltown. Shamrock Rovers won by two goals and finished fourth in the 1979–80 league.
“I started volunteering soon after going to that match,” Goggins says.
Four years later, he witnessed the club win their first League of Ireland cup in two decades. They converted that feat into a four-title streak. That later became the subject of Goggin’s third book, in 2009, The Four-in-a-Row Story.
In Tallaght Stadium, Goggins stops by a row of glass cabinets in the merchandise store. He has been talking about the club’s “homeless period”, as he puts it, after Glenmalure was sold in 1987.
In the cabinets are trophies, photographs, plaques and commemorative plates. There’s also a 1990 fanzine, the Glenmalure Gazette. Its Xerox print cover shows a snap of the club directors at a conference, with the headline reading “BASTARDS”.
Rovers fans had only learned of the directors’ decision to sell the stadium through the papers, Goggins says. “It was two days before the last day of the season. The last game was on that Sunday.”
On display in a separate cabinet is a photograph of supporters invading Glenmalure pitch, protesting the sale.
“I hadn’t been on the pitch myself,” says Goggin. “I was volunteering, and the club said it mightn’t be a good idea. So the fans had a spontaneous protest.”
Among the cabinet’s miscellany is an old player trading card from a cigarette package, a Rovers-themed Russian doll set discovered in Prague, and a portrait of Paddy Moore.
Moore was a striker for Rovers between 1929 and 1939. “Maybe one of our most famous players,” Goggin says. “He was very skillful and absolutely loved by anyone who had seen him play.”
Moore scored four goals for Ireland in a World Cup qualifier in 1934, the first to achieve that record, says Goggin. The player died in 1951 and was buried in a family grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.
But the site did not have a gravestone. Around 2013, Paddy Moore’s son wrote to the club, says Goggin. “He was asking the club to assist himself and his family to get a gravestone put on the burial place.”
At the time, Goggins was involved in the club’s heritage trust. The then-chairperson assigned the task to him. “Given how famous he was, I thought it was worthwhile to get it done.”
In October 2015, a new gravestone was unveiled. It bore the names of Moore, his wife and relatives, and had two portraits of Moore himself, wearing both a Rovers and an Irish jersey.
Working on the Moore grave gave Goggins a keener understanding of how to commemorate other players.
The idea for his James Syms project came as he was in the middle of updating his 2012 book, Chronological History of Shamrock Rovers.
Goggins was aware that the young centre-back had died young. But he knew little of Syms’ biography beyond the tragedy.
He created a portrait of Sums by delving deep into genealogical, church and census records. He dug into newspaper archives and trawled birth and death certificates.
“I think the story gripped me,” he says, “It was a tragedy. He had a whole career ahead of him.”
Syms had been born in Ringsend in 1891, according to records from the St Matthew’s Church of Ireland in Irishtown.
Records show that his father, Thomas, was a fisherman, and that the family lived at one point on Thorncastle Street.
They appeared to change addresses regularly, however. Renting was the norm among dockland workers, Goggins says. “They moved around from room to room in their district.”
Aged 16, James Syms got a job in the docklands, with a ship’s log listing him as a crew member in 1907.
Seven years later, in 1914, Syms joined Shamrock Rovers. When the Herald reported on his death in September 1915, it described him as a “popular centre-half”.
Among his achievements, listed by the paper, were when the club won the Irish Junior Cup, the Leinster Junior League and the Leinster Junior Cup.
It was on the eve of the 1915–16 season when Syms was involved in the shipping accident that cost him his life, says Goggins.
“James supplemented his income with a practice known as hobbling,” Goggins says.
This was a dangerous job, which involved sailing several kilometres out to sea, where crews would either guide incoming ships into the harbour or help them to unload cargo.
“The docks weren’t developed like they are now,” Goggins says. “They couldn’t take all the ships.”
Syms and two other men took their hobble boat out to assist an inward-bound steamer on the morning of 10 September, the Herald reported.
Approaching the ship, their vessel was split in two by its propellors. Syms was the only crew member who couldn’t be rescued. “He was presumed dead,” Goggins says. “His body only washed up eleven days later.”
Syms’ death certificate says that on 21 September 1915, his body was found on the South Strand in Rush. The cause of death was accidental drowning.
One key detail that eluded Goggins was Syms’ final resting place.
Census data told him that Syms was a member of the Church of Ireland. But there was no indicator towards any gravesite.
In late April, Goggins chanced his arm on social media, asking Ringsend Facebook groups if they knew of any potential relatives.
A few people would reply, saying they knew of a Syms family who lived on Pigeon House Road. But no solid leads ever surfaced.
Goggins took a shot in the dark, emailing Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross. In May, they came back to him with a yes.
Syms was interred in an unmarked grave there on 24 September 1915, a spokesperson for Mount Jerome says, verifying this story.
But putting up a gravestone is tricky, says Goggins. He now needs to find one of Syms’ living descendants. “If I don’t get over that step, I’m not sure what we could do.”
A new custodian owner of the burial rights must be registered before a monument can be installed, says the Mount Jerome spokesperson.
“This custodian owner will need to be the nearest surviving relative to the original 1910 owner Thomas Syms,” they say, referring to James’ father.
Says Goggins: “I just think, given the circumstances of James’ death, given that he was so young and talented, it would be nice to do something in his memory.”
The project, Goggins says, is a personal undertaking. It’s not led by Shamrock Rovers.
Daniel Cleary, the stadium announcer for the club, says Goggins’ devotion to the club cannot be overstated.
“He has done and continues to do absolutely Trojan work behind the scenes with the phenomenal coverage he gives to our Academy,” says Cleary.
“He has also massively contributed to preserving the history of the club for generations to come,” he says.
Goggins’ historical research has helped Cleary too. He learnt that his own familial ties to Shamrock Rovers go back to the early 1900s.
In the boardroom, Goggins observes a rare framed team photo of the 1904–5 squad. He points to one moustachioed player, listed as P. Cleary.
According to Daniel Cleary, he and Goggins were in the stadium one day during the pandemic, packaging match programmes.
Goggins showed Cleary this same photograph, telling the announcer that Philip Cleary looked strikingly similar to his dad.
“I immediately saw the resemblance to my father,” says Cleary.
He left to check if in fact this was a relative, Goggins says. “And he came back saying, he couldn’t believe it.” It was one of his ancestors.