Irish Post 16/5-2001
Of soccer and sectarianism
Peter Carberry reviews the ill-fated history of Belfast Celtic.
Sixteen years ago the bulldozers moved into Celtic Park - known to its fans as Paradise - and flattened the remnants of what had been a cornerstone of West Belfast life. Imagine Rangers without Celtic and you get some idea of the catastrophic loss suffered by the domestic game when Belfast Celtic was forced to withdraw its membership from the Irish League in April 1949.
It’s a poignant irony that, while the patrons of Glasgow’s Celtic Park prepare to salute a domestic treble with this Saturday week’s Scottish Cup final against Hibernian, their numbers will be swollen by a travelling support from Northern Ireland who once had their green-and-white-hooped heroes a little closer to home.
Padraig Coyle’s Paradise Lost & Found: The Story of Belfast Celtic, the paperback version of which has just been published, is a salutary reminder of how football is never “just” a game when club and community become inextricably entwined. Formed in 1891, three years after its Glaswegian role model, Belfast Celtic quickly established itself as a beacon for the city’s working-class Catholics and the biggest rivals to Linfield, the standard-bearer of the Protestant establishment.
Belfast’s version of the Old Firm attracted sell-out crowds. But the sectarian and politically unstable nature of post-World War I Irish society ensured that Celtic fans were literally marked out as targets:
“Anyone showing visible support for the club would be assumed to be a Catholic and could, unknowingly, have their coat marked with chalk. As they made their way home through the infamous Dee Street that led from the Oval [Glentoran’s ground], they would be set upon by Protestant
Such common episodes of violence during a time of civil war on the island led Celtic to quit the league in 1920, unable to guarantee the safety of officials or fans. They left as champions and returned four years later to embark upon a run of incredible success, winning the title and wartime regional league
15 times between 1925 and 1948. Coyle, though, is understandably eager to cut to the chase and arrive at the defining moment of Celtic’s history, the 1948 Boxing Day meeting with Linfield at Windsor Park.
Two Linfield players carried off, one from each side sent off, a late Celtic penalty and an even later equaliser for eight-man Linfield proved too much for the home fans, who invaded the pitch at full-time. They attacked the Celtic players, breaking the leg of Jimmy Jones while the RUC looked on either unable or unwilling to intervene.
It was the final straw for the club’s directors. Within four months they had sold off their most valuable assets - including Ireland international Bud Aherne to Luton - and had thrown in the towel. First-hand recollections of the affair provide the bones of what would make a cracking screenplay, and if Jim Sheridan fancies directing it, may I suggest the working title My Left Footers? Jones was once on Linfield’s books but was not rated enough to be given a contract.
He left to join Celtic, where he became an instant hit. He was then approached by the Linfield secretary Joe Mackey, who tried to get him to leave “those Taigs” and come back to his “natural” home. Jones, a Protestant, was disgusted and gave the official short shrift, a response that was to have grave repercussions during the Boxing Day encounter.
An innocuous challenge involving the winger and Linfield’s Bob Bryson resulted in the latter being carried off with a leg injury, but Mackey put a dangerously different spin on affairs when he commandeered the PA system during the interval. “Mackey was guilty of inciting the crowd for more or less laying the blame on me for Bryson’s injury,” recalls Jones.
Little wonder, then, that the Celtic man found himself the chief target during the ensuing violence.
He was lucky, to a certain extent, in that a double-fracture did not stop him from resuming his career. The club had no such reprieve. Perhaps the directors planned a temporary exile, as had happened in 1920, but the conditions for a return were never quite right and, come the civil rights protests of the 1960s, there was no way such an overtly Catholic and nationalist sporting body could have survived the social upheaval. Sad to say, nothing’s changed much on that score.
Paradise Lost & Found: The Story of Belfast Celtic by Pádraig Coyle is published by Mainstream, £7.99.