By Eddie Whyte
Belfast -- The Belfast Celtic Football Club was the pride of Irish football until it was forced out of competition after the dramatic game against Belfast rivals Linfield on December 26, 1948, Boxing Day in Ireland, Britain, and the Commonwealth.
The legendary Belfast Celtic team was the leading light in Irish soccer from 1891 to 1949. Despite being twice forced to withdraw from competition due to the political upheavals of the time, the Celtic team won numerous trophies and gained the admiration of the sporting community in Ireland and further afield before withdrawing from League competition for good in 1949.
During their nearly 60 years in competition, Celtic had won the Irish League 14 times, the Irish Cup eight times, the City Cup 10 times, and the Gold Cup seven times.
The events on December 26, 1948, would finally signal the club's end.
The game in question was a decisive one between the two top teams of the time. Linfield was the established team, which was largely supported by people with pro-unionist or pro-British sympathies. Celtic was commonly regarded as a team representative of people with pro-Irish or nationalist sympathies.
|ALL PHOTOGRAPHS ARE COURTESYwww.belfastceltic.org.|
Celtic were a creative and flamboyant team. Their record was one of outstanding sporting achievement. They were the first Irish club to play on the European mainland (a six-match tour of Czechoslovakia in 1912, with future Fianna Fail defence minister and War of Independence hero Oscar Traynor in goal).
They once 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 Irish football), and 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 one of the top teams in international football -- a full Scottish international side 2-0 during a valedictory tour of the United States in 1949.
For Belfast's beleaguered Nationalists, Celtic provided a thrilling counter point to the weary reality of day-to-day life. The club's veteran chronicler Bill McKavanagh, once said: "When we had nothing we had Belfast Celtic, and then we had everything." The club was supported, too, by a sizeable contingent of people from a unionist background. It differed from Linfield in not caring which religious or political persuasion a player or supporter had. Six of the team attacked that day, including Jimmy Jones and captain Harry Walker, were from a unionist background.
That triumphal victory over the Scottish national side was several months ahead when the Celtic team took to Linfield's pitch at Windsor Park, in staunchly unionist South Belfast, on Boxing Day 1948. Tension at matches between the two sides was always at a high. The match ended with the Celtic team having to run from the pitch for their lives 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 McAlinden were seriously hurt.
At a meeting the same night, Celtic's directors decided to withdraw from football once the season's commitments had been fulfilled.
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 focused blame, not on the Linfield club, but on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the local police) present in force at the ground.
The statement asserted: "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."
|Celtic Park, later renamed Paradise, in its glory years.|
|All that is left on the site of Paradise, a plaque on the wall of a shopping center.|
Frank Curran, the doyen of Northern football writers, observed recently: "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 was not the first occasion on which sectarianism had forced Belfast Celtic to withdraw from competitive football, but it was to be the last. The city of Belfast never recovered from its loss and neither did Irish football.
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. Immaculate -- 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."
Eddie Whyte, the editor of the Belfast Celtic website, was born 11 years after the Celtic team withrew from competition for what was to be the final time. Nevertheless, like many young people of his generation, Whyte grew up in Belfast surrounded by stories about the "The Grand Old Team." Browsing the Internet, Whyte was surprised that there were few references to one of Ireland's greatest ever sporting teams. The website is gathering a people's history that hopefully will provide new generations access to a history the official historians have chosen to ignore. Whyte can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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