‘On alien soil like yourself I am here;

I’ll take root and flourish of that never fear,

And though I’ll be crossed sore and oft by the foes

You’ll find me as hardy as Thistle and Rose,’

So goes the verse recited by the Irish Patriot Michael Davitt at the symbolic planting of Irish turf and shamrocks in the new pitch at Glasgow’s Celtic Park in 1892. Composed from the point of view of the turf, this is an early example of the longstanding and potent relationship between football clubs in Scotland and Ireland and the capacity of sport and conflict to intertwine. On a broader level it reveals how the spread of football, not unlike the spread of religion, has the capacity to absorb new and distant places into local lore, in this case into the tradition of clubs and their grounds. The drawing together of football fandom and Catholic and Protestant identity through the Old Firm in Glasgow has been reciprocated in Belfast through some of the city’s senior football clubs. For the Catholic, nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the genesis of Celtic and its development into one of Europe’s most storied clubs has been the inspiration for the formation of Belfast clubs taking on the Celtic name, colours and customs. This essay looks at the impact of the Celtic identity on Belfast football and the wider city. 

A note on the maps that accompany the sites discussed in this essay:

The importance of football in Belfast is not easily defined. The sport is immensely popular yet its senior clubs are small and face significant challenges. The teams themselves are not selected through exclusionary policies but there is no club that can be identified as truly mixed in terms of its support. The city has suffered from years of conflict and remains divided yet footballing competition between the two main communities has endured. Today, two of the strongest club sides in Northern Ireland, Cliftonville and Crusaders, are situated in predominantly Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods of North Belfast separated by a so-called ‘Peaceline’ (the walls that divide Belfast), Belfast’s football clubs are, to varying degrees, associated with one or other of the city’s conflicting communities and affected by their location within a divided city. It is important here to note that branding Belfast’s football clubs with overarching ethno-national identities requires caution. The city’s clubs do not operate exclusionary policies with respect to the players that represent them rather the association with Protestant and Catholic communities reflects the predominant demography of the club’s fan-base. The location in the city is intrinsically linked to this given the highly segregated working class neighborhoods in which most of Belfast’s football clubs are based.

The disappearance of Belfast Celtic, one half of the city’s ‘Big Two’ along with Linfield until its disbandment in 1949, is a notorious example of the impact of urban conflict on sport. Yet despite its death as a sporting entity over 60 years ago, the club has followed an unusual trajectory and maintained a presence in today’s Belfast. In British cities football clubs have proven to be enduring institutions and their grounds resilient urban spaces. It is accepted wisdom that attempting to move a club’s ground beyond the area of its local fanbase will be met with major resistance. It is difficult to even countenance the notion that a club and team can completely disband. So for a major football club and its ground to be completely erased as with Belfast Celtic is unusual and traumatising for both the sport and the city. 

Established in 1891, three years after Celtic of Glasgow, the club were based in Catholic West Belfast and for the most part at Celtic Park off the Falls Road. Belfast’s own ‘Paradise’ was said to hold up to 50,000 and have one of the finest playing surfaces of the time. Belfast Celtic enjoyed a significant level of sporting success including 14 league titles and 8 Irish Cups in their fifty-eight year history. Such was the standing of the club in the 1940s that striker Jimmy Jones turned down an offer from Matt Busby to join Manchester United. Inextricably linked to the Belfast Celtic story was the sporting rivalry with clubs supported by predominantly Protestant communities, most notably Linfield, who played a short walk away across Donegall Road.

Windsor Park, the home of Linfield, is situated in the Belfast neighbourhood of The Village. During Linfield’s rivalry with Belfast Celtic, this was a predominantly working class Protestant neighbourhood. Furthermore Linfield operated a longstanding, unofficial sectarian recruitment policy, the only club to do so over an extended period, and despite the prominent signing of a local Catholic player in 1992, Windsor Park has long been identified as an iconic site for unionists and in turn an inhospitable place for most nationalists. 

In 1920, Belfast Celtic along with football clubs from Dublin withdrew from competitive football during the Irish War of Independence as a consequence of violent flashpoints at matches. This cartoon depicts such an incident at an Irish cup semi-final between Glentoran and Belfast Celtic at Solitude in 1920. The club returned to the Irish League in 1924, now severed from the south, and a trophy-laden period followed until their board took the decision to leave the League again after the annual Boxing Day/St Stephen’s Day fixture against Linfield in 1948. The match at Windsor Park pitted Belfast Celtic, the reigning champions against their closest rivals. Linfield scored a late equaliser despite astonishingly being reduced to eight men through a series of injuries. The tragedy was that this full-blooded, high stakes sporting encounter erupted into a violent pitch invasion by the home supporters. Several Celtic players were attacked, most notably Celtic’s Protestant centre-forward Jimmy Jones who was pulled from the pitch into the terraces and suffered a broken leg. 

Following the events at Windsor Park, Belfast Celtic’s position was deemed untenable by their board who set about selling the team’s leading players to English and Scottish clubs before announcing a withdrawal from the league. The club’s board and Irish Football Association may not have envisaged the decision to be permanent, but once the team had disbanded in 1949 Belfast Celtic never reformed competitively. A combination of factors meant there was never a ‘right time’ for the club to reform: sectarian tensions would have needed to de-escalate and logistically there were administrative procedures to undertake for the club to re-enter senior football (Crusaders from North Belfast had taken their place). A select team of former players, mostly now plying their trade for English clubs, returned to Belfast in 1952 for an exhibition match against Celtic but this proved to be a final goodbye rather than the sign of a homecoming.

After the club’s demise, Celtic Park functioned as a greyhound track until 1983, when the ground was redeveloped as a shopping mall called the Park Centre; a long, slow death for a major urban institution. Commemorative plaques at the entrance to the centre now mark the site of the former ground. Despite not kicking a ball for over sixty years, Belfast Celtic lives on through a society established in 2003 that maintain an active website and social media presence. The society, largely comprised of people that never saw the team play claims that is is ‘living proof that the Grand Old Team is not forgotten’ (www.belfastceltic.org).

The cultural activity of the Belfast Celtic Society centres on commemoration of the club in West Belfast, the focal point of which is the Belfast Celtic Museum. Incongruously located within a commercial unit in the Park Centre between a clothing and gift card store, the museum exhibits tell the story of the club from the society’s collection of club memorabilia and archival material.

In 2012 the society launched the Belfast Celtic Trail in West Belfast comprised of fifteen commemorative green plaques called ‘Belfast Celtic Circles’ that were erected along the length of the Falls Road. The plaques take in the broad hinterland of the club including the Park Centre, the graves of its most famous players (both Catholic and Protestant) along with clubhouses, bars and shops historically associated with the club. Belfast Celtic are not a living football club but they remain rooted in the urban memory of the city and are actively commemorated in the streets, bars, cemeteries and commercial spaces of West Belfast. 

Donegal Celtic are a nascent footballing institution, establlished in 1970, situated in and founded during the urban expansion of West Belfast during the Troubles. The club have not come close to the success of Belfast Celtic but have enjoyed several seasons of top-flight football and were playing in the Irish Premiership as recently as 2013. The club’s identity and name emerged from the Catholic, Nationalist community settling into the surrounding housing estates named after places in County Donegal. A renewal of the city’s longstanding association with the Celtic football tradition was embodied in the team’s colours, crest and pre-match huddle and captured in a mural at the entrance to their ground. Although the similarities between Donegal and Belfast Celtic are evident, Donegal Celtic was never conceived as a revival of the Belfast club. The club’s importance grew during the Troubles as Catholic communities avoided travelling outside their neighbourhoods making the clubhouse and its facilities an important social hub for the local area. Unsurprisingly the team’s identity led to flashpoints at fixtures during the Troubles. The clubhouse was also also subjected to arson attacks and shootings and the two-foot deep masonary wall that shielded the entrance from gunfire during the Troubles is a stark reminder of darker times.

Belfast’s football fanbase was eroded and fragmented in a number of ways by the impact of the conflict on their sport. This no doubt contributed to many fans, from both communities, looking overseas to British clubs and a great number to Glasgow. Among Belfast’s numerous bars and pubs with declared Old Firm affiliations, certain establishments celebrate their heroes, sportsman and combatants alike, loudly and in tandem. In these instances, such as this Rangers Pub in North Belfast, the shop fronts and drinking rooms are transformed into shrines for fallen combatants while the ‘proxy warriors’ of sport are depicted alongside them. Possibly the most significant impact of Belfast Celtic’s disbandment is that the city lost a great inter-communal sporting rivalry but the sport did not lose its sectarian rifts. Now the major sporting rivalry between Belfast’s conflicting communities is played out through a footballing frontier in Glasgow and separately within the social clubs of Belfast. 

This essay is part of an independent piece of research investigating the role of sport in cities affected by conflict. Nonetheless, the work is closely related to and partly funded by the ESRC Large Grant project, ‘Conflict in Cities and the Contested State’ (RES-060-25-0015).