Political Football by Barry Flynn by Barry Flynn - Read Online

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On 27 December 1948, rioting broke out during a match between Belfast Celtic and Linfield. Jimmy Jones, a prolific goalscorer for Belfast Celtic, was dragged from the pitch by the opposing fans, and beaten so badly that his career was ended. And with that ended the existence of Belfast Celtic after fifty-eight years in the game. In Political Football Barry Flynn traces the development of the team from its beginnings, in an attempt to discover the reasons behind the tragic events. Like that of every football club, the story of Belfast Celtic is one of victories and defeats. Theirs, however, is a story riddled with violence and hatred culminating in near-murder.Political Football reveals how the political and social unrest that took hold of the city of Belfast was refelcted in the history of the club, how tensions between two communities spilled onto both the pitch and the terraces, with devastating consequences.
Publicado: The History Press una impresión de Independent Publishers Group on
ISBN: 9780752481005
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When Belfast Celtic left Irish football in 1949, a void was created in the Irish sporting world that has not been adequately filled since. Their passing remains shrouded in a mystery that has still to be unravelled. Some observers will pinpoint the events surrounding the infamous 1948 Boxing Day clash with Linfield as the only reason the club quit the game. The savage beating that was endured at the hands of a small section of the Linfield fans by Celtic striker Jimmy Jones was indeed a truly shocking affair. Irish football was shaken to its very core by the incident and the theory exists that the Celtic Directors decided that very evening to leave Irish soccer. This notion, whilst credible, does not solve the conundrum.

The soccer club known as Belfast Celtic existed for fifty-eight years. Established in 1891, the team soon captured the imagination of the people of West Belfast and further afield. Home games at their ground Paradise saw thousands of loyal supporters flocking to the stands and terraces, with the streets around the Falls Road alive with excited fans. Away games saw trains depart from Belfast’s Great Victoria Street station packed with fans bedecked in green and white bound for grounds in Derry, Dublin, Portadown, Lurgan, Newtownards and Bangor. The fans had their heroes who were treated like gods on the streets where they lived. Mickey Hamill, Sam Mahood, Charlie Tully and Jimmy Jones were just a few of the names that found greatness amongst the Celtic support. The trophy cabinet at Celtic Park was ever-expanding, whilst the turnstiles were forever turning. In the late 1920s, they eclipsed every other team in local soccer and became the truly dominant force. Again in the 1930s, under the inspirational management of Elisha Scott, the club was beyond doubt in a league of its own. Linfield, their nearest rivals, and the rest of the Irish League could only look on in awe. Scott’s side was truly legendary and brought pride to their supporters, whilst setting the highest standards in the local game. However, for all their glory and fame, Belfast Celtic existed in a society that was split bitterly along religious grounds. The green and white hoops of Celtic were loved and despised by followers of football and politics alike. Belfast Celtic claimed the mantle of Irish football’s most prominent, successful and best-supported Catholic team – they were ploughing a very lonely furrow in this regard.

As football grew in popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so did the attendances at matches. It was sadly inevitable that the political upheavals in Ireland during that period would manifest themselves brutally on the terraces of local grounds. Whenever Celtic played Linfield or Glentoran, especially, the potential for sectarian violence always existed. Periodically, there was bloodshed on the terraces that tarnished the local game. These outbursts were not just mere hooliganism, but an expression of a deep-seated hatred that has scarred the history of Belfast. Political tension on the streets invariably provoked outrage within the grounds. In 1912, the Home Rule issue was the backdrop for one of the most serious riots in the history of Irish football. Ireland, and Belfast particularly, stood on the threshold of the political and sectarian abyss as the political temperature rose to dangerous levels. Celtic faced their old rivals Linfield on 12 September, in a game that was to have serious repercussions on the streets of Belfast and beyond. Shooting broke out inside the ground and violence spread throughout the streets and the game was abandoned. On the following Monday, Catholic workers were intimidated from the shipyards and factories of Belfast. The riot made headlines across the London papers just two weeks before Ulster Day, when almost half a million Unionists would sign the Solemn Covenant against Home Rule. In hindsight, the riot at Celtic Park was a premeditated attempt by persons unknown to provide a foretaste of what Belfast would be like in the event of Home Rule: simply ungovernable. Those whose political agenda was to highlight this fact achieved their political aims by instigating the riot.

The Celtic team pictured at the Triborough Stadium, New York, scene of the famous victory over the Scotland national team in May 1949.

The coming of the Great War postponed the anarchy that was to eventually prevail in Belfast from 1920 to 1922, by which stage Celtic had wisely withdrawn temporarily from local football. A serious riot in March 1920, when a Celtic ‘fan’ fired shots into the Glentoran crowd during an Irish cup-tie, showed the potential for violence that existed. Wisely, Celtic opted out of football as Belfast turned in on itself and the state of Northern Ireland was eventually born in communal violence. In 1924, things had settled down sufficiently for Celtic to return to football. Thereafter, there were to be periodic outbursts of violence, but not on the scale that been witnessed previously. Despite the perception that Northern Ireland was ‘at peace’ with itself, the religious chasm was deepening. Attending a Celtic match away from Paradise was a dangerous affair. The stories of Celtic supporters being ‘chalked’ inside grounds are legion, with a discreetly-placed white mark on the back of a jacket having serious consequences for an individual in the streets outside where the mobs waited. However, as with everything in Belfast, violence was always a two-way thing when religion was brought into the equation. In reality, Belfast Celtic always had its own fair share of ‘hangers-on’.

Celtic dominated football in the run up to the Second World War and were virtually untouchable with their ‘new-fangled’ scientific method of play. Soccer was to be curtailed during the war years, but in 1947/1948 it was business as usual as the club took the league title. As Celtic’s final season dawned, the side was truly in its ascendancy. The attendances at football grounds across Britain and Ireland were rocketing as the sport enjoyed a boost in the post-war years. Then, on 27 December 1948, Celtic and Linfield clashed at Windsor Park in a do or die clash that would in all probability decide the championship. What happened that day is well-documented in this book and is now part of the folklore of Belfast. Suffice to say that the scenes witnessed after the game put Belfast back on the world sporting map for all the wrong reasons. Four months later, Celtic had left Irish soccer, never to return. One question remains: why did this happen?

In reality, the Linfield game in 1948 did not occur in a vacuum. Politics and sectarianism, as always, were coursing through the veins of the citizens of Belfast. The period leading up to the ‘Jimmy Jones Incident’ saw relations between Unionists and Nationalists hit rock bottom, yet again. Southern Ireland, or the ‘Free State’ was in the process of declaring itself a Republic, while Unionists feared for the future of Northern Ireland. Bigotry and hatred were stirred up by those who should have known better. The combination of sectarian hatred, a ‘do or die’ match, alcohol, two players being sent off and an irresponsible announcement about the extent of an injury to a Linfield player, whipped the mob into a frenzy. All these factors contributed to incite a number of individuals to exact on Jimmy Jones their own form of Belfast justice. Despite the fact that Jimmy Jones was from a Protestant background, the colour of his shirt and undoubted brilliance made him ‘fair game’ to the rampaging Linfield mob. What happened that dark December day was truly shameful, but the episode in itself leaves a lot of questions unanswered regarding Celtic’s withdrawal. So, what was going on within the Board of Directors at Celtic Park? Inconveniently, the minute books of the club for that crucial period are ‘missing’. The ‘men in the know’ took their secrets and their shares to the grave.

One point I would like to emphasise regarding the scenes that Boxing Day, is the perception held in some quarters that the blame lay squarely with Linfield Football Club. This is somewhat unfair. The mob that attacked Jimmy Jones were the type of ‘hangers-on’ that have attached themselves to many clubs over the years. The problem that day was that everything that could have went wrong, did go wrong. Whether the finger is pointed at the police, the stewards, Linfield, drink, bigotry, whoever or whatever, the ultimate responsibility must lie with the rabble that ran rampage on the pitch and terraces. The vast, vast majority of decent Linfield fans, and each and every last one of their players and officials, were disgusted by the attacks on the Celtic players. There is also little evidence of a conspiracy theory against Celtic in the smoke-filled committee rooms of the Irish Football Association. The blunt truth was that, in sheer financial terms, both Linfield and the IFA would have preferred Belfast Celtic to stay in existence. This leads us back to the question of how a financially viable club could lift its proverbial ball and walk off the field.

The departure of Belfast Celtic from local football in 1949 is Ireland’s own equivalent to the Marie Celeste mystery. A perfectly functioning and profitable club just upped sticks and left the scene. If the incidents at Windsor Park had forced the Directors’ hands, then why did they wait until April 1949 to break the news of their withdrawal? The answer might lie in the fact that, behind the scenes, nobody knew what was going on. Celtic then undertook a tour of the United States and Canada in May and June of that year, and on their return had been replaced in senior football by intermediate club Crusaders. The game was up and the IFA was not going to persuade Celtic to return. Had a game of brinkmanship backfired on the Celtic Directors, or did they really want out?

Irish football has been a poorer entity since Belfast Celtic departed. In reality, Linfield have been supreme, with Glentoran only occasionally offering resistance to their position. Belfast Celtic’s former home is now a shopping centre, from where on Saturday afternoons the cheering from Linfield’s Windsor Park can still be heard. However, they have become part of the folklore of Belfast and their legacy has never been filled. The sad truth is though that if Belfast Celtic had have stayed in football after 1949, they would never have survived the onslaught of the Troubles in 1969. Celtic Park stood on the interface between a Protestant and Catholic area. Football, as the greyhound fraternity would soon discover, was a non-runner in the district. Belfast Celtic have, however, left us with their memories and, sadly, the mystery of their departure.

This book is primarily about football. However, the spectre of politics and history impinges on the story. The history of Belfast Celtic cannot be told without placing the club and its ethos in its proper historical context which is the fraught history of the city from where they came. Unfortunately, this book will not answer the question as to why Celtic left Irish football. It will, hopefully, provide a fascinating glimpse into the divided world of Belfast pre-1949. The more things change in the city, the more they stay the same, and this book illustrates this fact. On the Falls Road and beyond, an ever dwindling number of people saw Celtic in the flesh: that number gets fewer and fewer with each passing year. The name and the team live on in the folklore of Belfast and will forever remain in the history books as one of the greatest exponents of Irish football. I hope that this book will in some small way help to preserve in the collective memory of the name of the Belfast Celtic Football Club.

The Same Old Story – Fighting on the Streets of Belfast

O’ the bricks they will bleed and the rain it will weep

And the damp Lagan fog lulls the city to sleep

It’s to hell with the future and live on the past

May the Lord in His Mercy be kind to Belfast

Maurice James Craig, ‘Ballad to a Traditional Refrain’

There’s a joke that’s almost as old as the Antrim Hills concerning a Jewish tourist who is walking through Belfast when he is approached by a local thug. Immediately the thug pulls a knife and enquires of the visitor: ‘Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?’ In the belief that he would be afforded a fool’s pardon, the visitor replies: ‘I’m sorry my friend, but I’m Jewish.’ This throws the local somewhat and after a short pause he responds: ‘Ah, but are you Catholic Jewish or Protestant Jewish?’ So goes the tale.

Whilst this may seem to be a slightly absurd yarn, it is mildly amusing in that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that such an event could occur in Belfast. The fabric of the city, its foundations, bricks and mortar, are built on religious division. Indeed, when you consider the history of Belfast, it doesn’t take a leap of faith to imagine how sport, and soccer in particular, could become embroiled in both religion and politics. As a visitor to the city, you won’t have to stay for long to sense that you have arrived in a truly divided place. A proverbial blind man on a galloping horse could discern that Belfast has a legacy of fear, distrust and loathing. Murals celebrating a triumph of one side over the other adorn gable walls, whilst tribal displays commemorating ancient victories or defeats are etched permanently into the yearly calendar. This reality is no accident. Most of the streets of Belfast, its schools, pubs and workplaces are regarded as either Catholic or Protestant in their make-up. In essence, the history of Belfast has been plagued with strife and disorder; the city is famed for it. Many citizens would like to argue differently, but the fact is that a significant number of the city’s tourists are attracted only by its history of strife.

The city is truly a geographical wonder. Built around the mouth of the Farset River at the foot of the Lagan Valley, Belfast spreads out around its wide expansive Lough. It is then enclosed strikingly between the imposing Black and Divis Mountains on the Co. Antrim side, with the rolling Castlereagh Hills providing a softer image on the Co. Down fringe. Beyond the mountains to the north are the spectacular sights of the historic Cave Hill and McArt’s Fort, with their dramatic basalt cliffs sweeping down towards the shoreline. Formerly within the lands of the O’ Neill of Clandeboye, Belfast was a merely a glorified hamlet when it came into the possession of Sir Arthur Chichester in 1603. At that stage, it was noted by a travelling writer ‘that Belfast consists of five streets and five lanes, totalling 150 houses’; but the quaint hamlet was to soon expand. Belfast grew in importance throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and soon eclipsed in size its northern neighbour, the Norman settlement of Carrickfergus.

However, for all its geographical splendour, Belfast was soon to harbour deep rooted sectarian division between its Protestant and Catholic inhabitants. Between the two religious persuasions, it was always a case of ‘us and them’ with the hatred palpable in the cobbled and segregated streets. This virtual apartheid stretches back almost 300 years, but became more acute as the industrialisation of the town saw a massive influx of migrants from the outlying counties in search of work.

However, in 1798, a number of Presbyterian idealists based in Belfast and counties Antrim and Down, were instrumental in the failed rebellion of the United Irishmen. The rebels sought to unite all Irish men and women, be they Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter (Presbyterian), in the cause