Belfast Celtic 1891 - 1949

The Hero who Came to Tea



by Bernard Mac Laverty


Our two rented houses faced each other across the street - my father's at 73 and Aunt Cissy's at 54. There was another uncle, Father Barney, who used to call round most Sundays to Cissy's. In the evening they all played poker and Fr Barney would drink whiskey and do mock shouting and clowning. The others would roll their eyes. If the children were good and provided Fr Barney wasn't "beyond the beyonds" they were allowed to watch. My father always left early saying he had his work to go to in the morning. My mother said he just couldn't stand Uncle Barney any longer.

I knew my father's work had something to do with drawing and lettering. I'd found things in cupboards - small blocks of wood topped with grey zinc metal. If there was lettering on this metal it was always backwards, unable to be read. In cupboards there were pages of pink paper, thick as slices of bread, with lettering pressed into them and bulldog clips full of his newspaper adverts. At the moment he was illustrating a Bible for schools. He'd shown me a drawing for the Cure at Capharnaum and, as an exercise, made me read aloud the caption: "They could not get in because the house was crowded out, even to the door. So they took the stretcher onto the roof, opened the tiles and let the sick man down ."I was about eight or nine at the time. It was dead easy. It was a Sunday and felt like a Sunday. Family Favourites was on the wireless. My father sat beneath the window for the best light.

"What you doing ?" He held up the drawing. "Abraham and his son, Isaac," he said. A man with a white beard beside a boy carrying a tied-up bundle of sticks. "Where is the victim for the sacrifice? That's what the boy is saying." My father put on a scary, deep voice and said, "Little does he know ..." He drew quietly for a while. The pen scratched against the paper and chinked in the ink bottle. He had a pad on the table and sometimes he made scratches on it."Just to get the nib going." Sometimes the pen took up too much ink and he shook it a little. "You're no good if you can't make something out of a blot."


The hall door opened and footsteps came in off the street. My father stopped and looked up. It was my cousin, Brendan, who was a year and two months older than me. He was a good footballer."It's yourself, Brendy." Brendan stopped in the middle of the floor and said, "Charlie Tully's in our house having a cup of tea."

"Go on. Are you kidding ?"


My father gave a low whistle.

"This we will have to see." He wiped his pen on a rag, then rinsed it in a jam jar of water. He blew on his drawing then folded the protective tissue over it. "Come on." All three of us went across the road. The only car parked on the street belonged to Fr Barney. "Did Barney bring him?" Brendan nodded."And Terry Lennon."

Terry Lennon was a blind church organist. He had a great Lambeg drum of a belly with a waistcoat stretched tight over it. He would sit in the armchair by the fire smoking constantly, never taking the cigarette from between his lips. A lot of the time he stared up at the ceiling - his eyelids didn't quite shut and some of the white of his eye showed. Now and again he would run his fingers down the cigarette to dislodge the ash on to his waistcoat. 


Aunt Cissy called him Terry Lennon, the human ash-tray. When we went in Terry Lennon was in his usual chair. Fr Barney stood in front of the fire with his hands behind him. On the sofa was a man, still wearing his raincoat, drinking tea. His hair was parted in the middle. He was introduced to my father as Charlie Tully.

"You're welcome," said my father. "Is that sister of mine looking after you?" Charlie Tully nodded.

"The best gingerbread in the northern hemisphere," said Fr Barney."That's what lured him here."

"Where's the old man?" said my father. "The last I saw of him was heading up to the lavatory with the Independent." "He'll be there for a week." My father turned to the man in the pale raincoat. "I bet he was delighted to see you, Mr Tully - he's a bit of a fan."


"Oh he was - he was."

"So - how do you like Scotland?"

"It's a grand place."

"Will Mr Tully have a cigarette?" Terry Lennon reached out in the general direction of the voice with his packet of Gallagher's Greens. "Naw, he only smokes Gallagher's Blues," said Aunt Cissy and everybody laughed. "If you'll forgive me saying so Mr Tully," said Terry Lennon, "the football is not an interest of mine. You understand?"

"I do. You were making some sound with that organ this morning."

"Loud ones are great." Terry Lennon laughed. "Or Bach. Bach is great for emptying the place for the next mass. The philistines flee."

There was a ring at the door and Brendan went to answer it. When he came back he said it was Hugo looking for a drink of water. "And run the tap for a while," said Aunt Cissy laughing. "Bring him in." "The more the merrier," said my father.

"Wait till you hear this, Mister Tully. Our Hugo." Brendan went into the kitchen and ran the tap very fast into the sink. He carried a full cup into the room and called Hugo from the door. Hugo edged into the room and accepted the cup. There was silence and everybody watched him drink. Hugo was a serious young man who was trying to grow a beard. Fr Barney joined his hands behind his back and rose on his toes. He said, "So you like to run the tap for a while ?"

"Yes, Father."

"And why's that?"

"The pipes here are lead. And lead is poison. Not good for the brain."

"The Romans used a lot of lead piping," said Fr Barney, winking at Charlie. "Smart boys, the Romans. They didn't do too badly."

"No - you're right, Father. But maybe it's what destroyed their Empire," said Hugo. "Being reared to drink poison helps no-one."

Fr Barney sucked in his cheeks and rolled his eyes.

"I need a whiskey after that slap down." Aunt Cissy moved to the sideboard where the bottle was kept . "Cissy, fill her up with water, lead or no lead. Will anybody join me? What - no takers, at all?" He held up his glass. "To Mister Tully here. God guide your golden boots."

Granda came downstairs and had to push the door open against the people inside. "What am I missing?" he said.

"A drink," said Fr Barney. Granda looked around in mock amazement.

"He's getting no drink at this time of the day," said Aunt Cissy. Granda was still wearing his dark Sunday suit and the waistcoat with his watch-chain looped across it. On his way to mass he wore a black bowler hat.

"It's getting a bit crowded in here," Granda said, looking around the room. "Reminds me of the day McCormack sang in our house in Antrim. There was that many in the room we had to open the windows so's the neighbours outside could hear him."

"Count John McCormack?" said Charlie Tully.

"The very one."

"How did the maestro end up in your house?"

"Oh, he was with Terry there, some organ recital."

"And what did he sing? "

"Everything. Everything but the kitchen sink. Down by the Sally Gardens, I hear you calling me."

"It was some show," said Terry Lennon, putting his head back as if listening to it again.

"Would you credit that?" said Charlie. "I met a man who knows Count John McCormack."

There was a strange two note cry from the hallway, "Yoo- hoo."

"Corinna," said Cissy and pulled a face. The door was pushed open and Corinna and her sister, Dinky, stood there. "Full house the day," said Corinna. She eased herself into the room. Dinky remained just outside.

"The house is crowded out, even to the door," said my father.

"Is there any chance of borrowing an egg, Cissy. I'd started the baking before I checked." Cissy went into the kitchen and came back with an egg which she handed to Corinna.

"Thanks a million. You're too good." Corinna stood with the egg between her finger and thumb. "What's the occasion?" She vaguely indicated the full room.

"Charlie Tully," said Cissy. "This is Corinna Coyle. And her sister Dinky." Cissy pointed over heads in the direction of the front hall. Dinky went up on her toes and smiled.

"A good looking man," said Corinna.

"Worth £8,000 in transfer fees," said Fr Barney.

"He's above rubies, Cissy. Above rubies." And away she went with her egg and her sister.

"So," said Granda, "will we ever see Charlie Tully playing again on this side of the water?"


"Internationals," said Hugo.

"But it's not the same thing," said Granda, "as watching a man playing week in, week out. That's the way you get the whole story."

"There's talk of a charity game with the Belfast boys later in the year," said Charlie.

"Belfast Celtic and Glasgow Celtic?" Granda was now leaning forward with his elbows on the table. "There wouldn't be a foul from start to finish."

"Where'd be the fun in that?" said Fr Barney. "Cissy, I'll have another one of those." Cissy went to the sideboard and refilled the glass.


"Remember you've a car to drive." Barney ignored her and pointed at my father, "Johnny there would design you a programme for that game. For nothing. He's a good artist."

"Like yourself Charlie," said Granda.

"Is that the kinda thing you do?" Charlie said.

"Yeah sure," said my father. Barney started mock shouting as if he was selling programmes outside the ground. Some of his whisky slopped over the rim of the glass as he waved his arms. My father smiled.

"Have you been somewhere - before here?"

"On a Sunday morning?"

Barney looked over to Charlie Tully. "Johnny does work for every charity in the town. The YP Pools, the St Vincent de Paul, the parish, even the bloody bishop - no friend of mine - as you well know - his bloody nibs. Your Grace." He gave a little mock inclination of the head. Cissy ordered Brendan out of his chair and told Barney to sit and not be letting the side down.

"So Charlie," said Granda, "the truth from the insider - is there no chance of Belfast Celtic starting up again?"

"Not that I know of."

"We gave in far too easily. In my day when somebody gave you a hiding, you fought back."

"Aye, it's all up when your own side makes you the scapegoat," said Aunty Cissy.

"I mean to say," Granda's voice went up in pitch. "What were they thinking of ?"

"The game of shame."

"A crowd of bigots."

"They came streaming on to that pitch like .. like .. bloody Indians."

"Indians are good people," said Hugo.

"…and they kicked poor Jimmy Jones half to death. Fractured his leg in five places. And him one of their own. It ended his career."

"Take it easy, Da," said Fr Barney and slapped the arm of his chair.

"You were at the game?" said Charlie Tully.

"Aye and every other one they've ever played," said Granda. "I don't know what to do with myself on a Saturday afternoon now. I sometimes slip up to Cliftonville's ground but it's not the same thing. Solitude. It's well named." Granda was shaking his head from side to side. "I just do not understand it. What other bunch of people would do it? The board of directors," he spat the words out. "The team gets chased off the pitch, its players get kicked half to death and what do they do? OK, we're going to close down the club. That'll teach you. In the name of Jesus…" Granda stopped talking because he was going to cry. He looked hard at the top of the window and he kept swallowing. Again and again. Nobody else said anything. "Why should we be the ones sacrificed? Is there no-one on our side who has any guts at all?"

"Take it easy," said my father. "They have the sectarian poison in them." He reached out and put his hand on Granda's shoulder. Shook him a little. Granda recovered himself a bit and said, "It would put you in mind of the man who got a return ticket for the bus - then he had a row with the conductor - so, to get his own back, he walked home. That'll teach them."

There were smiles at that. The room became silent.

"It was a great side," said Charlie Tully at last. "Kevin McAlinden, Johnny Campbell, Paddy Bonnar …"


"And what a keeper Hugh Kelly was."

"Aye and Bud Ahern…"

"Billy McMillan and Robin Lawlor."

"Of course."

"Jimmy Jones and Eddie McMorran and who else?"

"You've left out John Denver."

"And the captain, Jackie Vernon."

"And yourself, Charlie," said Granda. "Let's not forget yourself, maestro."

Sometime later that year - which became known to Granda as "the year Charlie Tully called" as opposed to "the year McCormack sang in the house in Antrim" - I noticed drawings and sketches of my father's lying about the house. They were of players in Celtic hoops in the act of kicking or heading a ball. Their bodies were tiny but their heads were made from oval photos of the real players.

It was many years later - half a century, in fact - before I would remember these drawings again. My father died when I was 12 and my mother was so distraught that she threw out all his things. If she was reminded of him she would break down and weep, so every scrap of paper relating to him had to be sacrificed.

Recently, I was in Belfast and I wondered if there might be a copy of the programme lying around Smithfield market. I found a small shop entirely devoted to football programmes, so I went in and told them what I was looking for - a Belfast Celtic v Glasgow Celtic match programme from the early 1950s.

The man looked at me and said: "Put it this way. I'm a collector and I've never seen one." I was disappointed. Then he said, "If you do catch up with it, you'll pay for it."

"How much?" I was thinking in terms of 20 or 30 quid.

"A thousand pounds. Minimum."

I'm not really impressed by that kind of rarity value - but in this case I thought, "Good on you, Johnny. After all the work for charity." If that price is accurate I don't want to own the real thing - but I wouldn't mind seeing a photocopy. A photocopy would be good. Above rubies, in fact.