Sunday Tribune 20/12/98
Belfast Celtic - The day a team died
It might be said that the team died of natural causes through violence, writes Eamonn Mc Cann.
It will be fifty years next Sunday since the day that Belfast Celtic died. It might be said that the club died of natural causes through violence. Celtic walked away from football at the end of the 1948/49 season, in protest against a mob assault on players at Windsor Park the previous 27 December.
The Celtic team had had to run from the pitch for their lives - literally - when Linfield fans poured over the terrace barriers at the end of a 1 - 1 draw. Centre forward Jimmy Jones was thrown over a parapet, kicked unconcious and left with a broken leg. Defender Robin Lawlor and goalkeeper Kevin Mc Alinden were also seriously hurt. At a meeting the same night Celtic's directors decided to withdraw from football once the season' commitments had been fulfilled.
It wasn't just the ferocity of the particular attack it was the fact that they saw no-one expected it. Belfast Celtic had been founded (by Falls Road cricketers, interestingly) in 1891, and was ambitious and successful from the outset. But it was in the second half of it's existence, between partition and 1949, that it enjoyed the footballing supremacy which has established it's memory, winning the Irish league 11 times.
Linfield, the second most successful club in that period, took the title five times. Celtic wore success with a swagger. They were the first Irish club to play on the continent ( a six match tour of Czechoslovakia in 1912, with future Fianna Fail defence minister Oscar Traynor in goal), and supplied seven players to one Irish international side, had a centre forward Peter O'Connor who scored 11 goals in a single game in 1941 (still a record in British or Irish football) went undefeated in all competitions for an entire season winning 31 matches in a row in the process (1947 - 48). The final triumphant flourish was to defeat the full Scottish international side 2 - 0 during a valedictory tour of the US in 1949.
Disdaining the assumptions of surrounding society, Celtic never saw themselves as second class. The directors spelled it out at regular intervals for Belfast's football establishment that respect was a condition for the club remaining in the league. On three occasions prior to 1948 they made preparations to pull out, alleging discrimination against them at various levels (There was more to this than paranoia, In a cup semi-final against Linfield in 1913, each side put the ball in the net four times. All four Celtic "goals" were disallowed, all Linfield's allowed to stand).
For Belfast's beleagured catholics, Celtic provided a thrilling counter point to the weary reality of day-to-day life. The club's veteran chronicler Bill Mc Kavanagh, say's "When we had nothing we had Belfast Celtic, and then we had everything". But if catholics across the North walked with a lift in their step when they thought of Belfast Celtic, there was an acrid stench of secteraniasm at "Paradise" the club's ground on the Donegall Road.
The club was supported, too, by a sizeable contingent of protestants (about 10% of home support according to most estimates). It differed from Linfield in not caring which foot a player kicked with. Six of the team attacked at Windsor, including Jimmy Jones and captain Harry Walker, were protestants. To some Celtic's positive approach was puzzlingly contradicted by the abrupt, as it seemed, decision to close the club down. Rumours have never been entirely dispelled of a rift within the board which couldn't be resolved. But it is hard to see how, even the most bitter split, could have produced a unaminous decision to resign from the Irish league. And even harder to accept that all concerned could have kept the story secret ever since - particularly along as gossipy a road as the Falls.
Linfield issued a strong statement denouncing the attack on Celtic. Dozens of Linfield supporters contacted the Nationalist Irish News to disassociate themselves from the thuggery. Significantly the Celtic statement on the night of the attack focussed blame, not on the Linfield club, but on the RUC which had been present in force at the ground. "During the whole of this concerted attack the protection afforded to the unfortunate players may be fairly described as quite inadequate".
"In the circumstances the directors wish to make the strongest possible protest against the conduct of those responsible for the protection of the players in failing to take measures either to prevent the brutal attack or to deal with it with any degree of effectiveness after it developed".
Frank Curran the doyen of Northern football writers observed last week "They knew that it wasn't a football problem, and that there was nothing they as a football club could do to end it. So they got out".
It wasn't hooligans in blue scarves that killed off Belfast Celtic half a century ago, it was society constructed to hooligan specifications. When league football returns to west Belfast we'll know change has come.
Sunday Tribune 20/12/98 Part One
Arguably the greatest club in Irish football was founded in the Falls Road area of Belfast on 14 March 1891. The club was named after Glasgow Celtic with the view of imitating the Scottish club "in their style of play, win the Irish cup and follow their example in the cause of charity". The club's initial subscription was nine shillings.
Admitted to the Irish league in 1896 they won their first championship in 1901. The club moved into it's own ground, Celtic Park, on the Donegal Road, later renamed Paradise for obvious reasons. The ground had a capacity of 50,000 (2,000 seated).
The club was controlled by the Barr family, and secretary Bob Barr is credited with having steered the club through the tortous religious and political circumstances surrounding it's formation. The club was run on strictly non-sectarian grounds.
It dropped out of senior football, for no publicly known reason between 1915 and 1917, but continued to have outstanding sucess as a junior club. It left senior football again in 1920, after an infamous Irish cup semi-final when a young man produced a revolver and fired shots into the crowd.
The club was persuaded back into senior football by the Irish Football Association in 1924 and their return marked the start of a glorious era for the club winning the league championship 10 times in 16 years and also winning the first post World War II championship. The events on 27 December would finally signal the club's end.
It was a measure of the club's stature that it could refuse lucrative offers for players such as Jimmy Jones who scored 653 goals for Celtic. A number of players did, however, go on to fame in Britain including Jackie Coulter, Tommy "Bud" Aherne and the legendary Charlie Tully.
The name most associated with the club was Elisha Scott, an Anfield legend and manager of Celtic during the glory years from 1934 onwards. Even after Celtic's resignation from the league, he remained in it's employment, doing odd jobs and collecting rents from club properties, a manager without a team.
Sunday Tribune 20/12/98 Part Two
Jude Collins hears stories of Belfast Celtic's glorious past, before the developers paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Jimmy Jones and Sean Mc Cann are standing together in Paradise. Or what was Paradise, aka Celtic Park. Now it's the park shopping centre with a big image of a rabbit over the door. The photographer angles Jimmy, the centre forward, and Sean, the goalkeeper, towards each other, and they stand, stiff and smiling.
Afterwards the centre manager comes out and shakes hands; a woman shopper recognises Jimmy , rushes over to remind him of the glory days, and kisses him. Other people just glance at the two seventy somethings and hurry on. Sic transit gloria Celtic.
In the 1940's crowds of over 30,000 gathered at this same spot to roar approval at every save, every move, every kick by the two men. They're being photographed together because on 27th of December 1948 Sean saved Jimmy's life. When Jimmy disappeared under a hostile crowd of Linfield supporters, Sean was in the stands at Windsor park.
He'd moved on from Celtic and played for Ballymeana that morning, but had come back to support hisold team. Sean vaulted the stands and urged a policeman to use his baton. The policeman refused "Give it to me then and I'll use it" Mc Cann screamed. The policeman refused. Sean elbowed kicked and gouged his way through to Jimmy and Threw himself across him.
"I was wearing a big coat that day. I think some of the crowd thought I was a policeman. When I checked it afterwards it was covered in bootmarks from top to bottom". Mention Mc Cann's name to Jimmy today and he is emphatic. "That crowd intended to kill me - I'm certain of that. Sean Mc Cann is the reason I'm here today".
Mention heroism to Sean and he is embarrassed. "I never thought of it that way. It's just one of these things you do without thinking". All the former Celtic players I talked to have that same boyish modesty. When I call at the house with the taperecorder, their wives say things like "I hope you get what you want - he's not a great talker". But he always is, they always are. Belfast Celtic in the 40's is as sharpedged as yesterday for them. They remember details - the heaviness of the ball, the bundle of white fivers the manager pulled out the day he signed them, a grinning Celtic goalkeeper conductingthe Linfield crowd as they howled the sash.
Personal achievements are always glossed over; "I was lucky enough to score", "I managed to play not so bad". Money ? There wasn't much of it but that didn't matter. Pulling on the hooped jersey, being part of the warmth and might of Belfast Celtic - that was what motivated them. Sectarianism ? Among the crowds maybe, among the players never.
Jones and team mate Johnny Denver used to travel to training and games on the Lurgan - Belfast train. All the way up they would sit with local Linfield players, on their way to their fixture. When a game was over, the battle lost or won, it was handshakes all round.
A social life linked to the club ? Hardly. Once a game was played the players simply went home. The exceptions were players from the south like Bud Aherne from Limerick and Liam O'Neill from Cork, who managed to get round a few of the Belfast bars. Sean Mc Cann's first memory of the Celtic dressing room is Liam O'Neill, head in hands, moaning, nursing a viscous hangover. Celtic's manager Elisha Scott, the former Liverpool goalkeeper, used to spend Friday nights patrolling the better known drinking dens, looking for those required the next day. For players and supporters, amusement was limited in the 40's.
Lexie Moore from Derry played with the Celtic team which toured America and beat the Scottish national team. Lexie scored one of two goals on a day he considers the proudest of his life. Afterwards, writing in his diary he notes: "Had a feed, went to the pictures with Johnny Denver and the Lurgan boys."
Two supporters sum up what Celtic meant then and how much it is missed now. Joe Cassidy from Derry, later a well known player himself, remembers his boyhood and Belfast Celtic coming to the Brandywell. Even though it invariably meant a thrashing for the local team, the visit of the champions thrilled everyone. Fifty years later, Joe remembers standing at a side exit, waiting for the Belfast players to emerge. "You want to have seen them coming out "Jackie Vernon at the front, in a big tweed coat, tied with a belt at the waist. Not buckled. Tied. Immacukate - all of them ! They were - he pauses, searches for the word to fit the occasion - "They were like film stars. I'll never forget that as long as I live. Film stars."
Joe Reynolds grew up beside Celtic Park in Belfast, went to the games, loved the team. Now when he pases the Park centre he turns his face away. "They should never have built there - I hate the place. Wont even look at it. It was like a death. Belfast Celtic leaving the league. It was really like a death."