Founded in 1891, at a time of political upheaval in both the North and South of Ireland, Belfast Celtic, the ‘Grand Old Team’, were far more than a football club. 

For more than 50 years, the team was a beacon of hope in a religiously divided land. Supported primarily by the Catholics of the Falls Road, and wearing the same green-and-white hoops as Celtic of Glasgow, on which it was based, the club stood out for fielding players of both religious denominations in a world in which your religion often dictated your employer, team, colleagues and friends. 

What’s more, Belfast Celtic were successful in doing it. 

During its lifespan, the Club won 14 league titles, 8 Irish Cups, 11 City Cups and a host of other tournaments. It was, in the words of the Belfast Celtic Society, “a leading light in Irish football”, gaining the admiration of football fans on both sides of the religious divide in Northern Ireland. 

Sadly it was the same religious divisions that the club hoped to overcome that effectively led to its demise when sectarian violence erupted during an important league match. 

Act I: Religion, Rivalry and Revenge

“When we had nothing, we had Belfast Celtic, then we had everything.”

Belfast Celtic historian Bill McKavanagh

In December 1948, Belfast Celtic lined up for a vital league game away against their fierce rivals Linfield at Windsor Park. Located in a predominantly Protestant area of Belfast, Linfield, unlike their rivals, were famed for their uniformity. Only Protestants played for Linfield, only Protestants managed the players and the fans who passed through the turnstiles to support them were predominantly Protestant. Unsurprisingly given the nature of Northern Irish society during these years, encounters between the two sides were often marked by sectarian disputes. From Belfast Celtic’s first encounter with Linfield in the early 1900s, games had been marred by disorder and violence between the fans.

Adding fuel to the fire in 1948 was the matter of that year’s league title.

Linfield were top of the table, three points ahead of Celtic and looking strong contenders for the title. A win over the Grand Old Team would effectively clinch the League, whereas a Celtic win would re-open the title race. The opening minutes of the match reflected what was at stake. Tackles flew in late, elbows slyly struck opponents in the back and every break of the ball was hotly contested. Cheers from the crowd amplified at every clash, urging the players to give more. It wasn’t long before such intensity resulted in injury.

Midway through the first half, a 50-50 challenge between Celtic’s Jimmy Jones and Linfield defender Bob Bryson resulted in Bryson being stretchered off the field. The agony visible on Bryson’s face did little to quell the anger of the Linfield fans, who responded by charging toward the Celtic supporters in the away stand in the hope of exacting revenge. Following several minutes of unrest, the Royal Ulster Constabulary marched into the stands, batons aloft, resulting in an uneasy calm eventually descending across the stands. 

Bryson’s injury reduced Linfield to 10 men and it was little surprise that Celtic were soon on the front foot. Compounding Linfield’s misery, their goalkeeper Alex Russell was soon forced from the field following a head-on collision while saving a shot. When the referee Norman Boal brought an end to the first half, Linfield entered the tunnel with only nine fit players. 

There were further skirmishes between rival fans at half-time when Linfield’s secretary, Joe Mackey, inexplicably announced over the Tannoy that Bryson’s leg had been broken thanks to Jimmy Jones’s tackle. “Mackey was guilty of inciting the crowd for more or less laying the blame on me for Bryson’s injury,” said Jones years later.

Jones had every right to feel aggrieved as, in the event, Bryson’s injury was not as serious as was first thought. However, Mackey’s half-time pronouncement made Jones even more of a target for the home crowd. When the teams returned onto the pitch for the second half, it was clear tempers hadn’t calmed. Even with nine men, Linfield, willed on by the roars from the crowd, launched wave after wave of attacks against Celtic. Passions boiled over and midway through the second half, Boal sent off Celtic’s Paddy Bonnar and Linfield’s Albert Currie following a clash between the two. 

The decision to reduce Linfield to eight players sparked further fighting on the terraces, as a sense that they were being wronged gripped the Linfield faithful. Once more baton-wielding police moved in and restored the peace. 

Despite the chaos in the stands, the game went on. While both teams continued to press in the second half, it looked as though the game had tipped Celtic’s way when, 10 minutes from full-time, they were awarded a penalty after Jackie Denver had been hacked down by Jimmy McCune. As Harry Walker stepped up to take the kick, an eerie silence fell across Windsor Park. It was soon penetrated by the cheers from the Celtic supporters as Walker slotted the ball home. A Celtic win would have reduced Linfield’s lead at the top of the table to a single point.

When Linfield’s Isaac McDowell burst down the wing with only four minutes remaining, heartbeats began to quicken. Jinking around the desperate tackles from the Celtic defenders, McDowell floated a cross into the box which was met by the boot of Linfield’s Billy Simpson. As the ball flashed into the net, home fans poured onto the pitch in jubilation. Songs echoed through the stadium as a parade began on the sidelines. Such innocence was not to last. 

As more and more fans entered the field, a small section of Linfield supporters began to target Celtic players. Verbal taunts soon turned to threats, which then turned to physicality. For the third time, the police were forced to employ their batons. The remaining four minutes of the game were played in an atmosphere of danger. 

When the final whistle blew, Linfield fans once more spilled onto the pitch and resumed their targeting of Celtic players. This time the police force was slow to respond. 

Sensing an opportunity to exact mob justice, a group of 30 Linfield fans charged toward Jimmy Jones. In a desperate attempt to avoid the crowd, Jones rushed towards the safety of the dressing-room but was intercepted by the mob. Manhandled by the supporters, Jones was dragged over the parapet into the terraces below the main stand. Punches and kicks began to rain down on Jones’s body.

When a policeman warned the attackers, “If you don’t stop hitting him, I’ll use my baton!”, he too was assaulted. On the other side of the field, Jones’s parents watched in horror as Linfield fans began jumping on their son’s legs. Commenting on the attack in 1989, Jones still remembered that “a fella jumped off a wall onto me leg.” He had every reason to recall the incident vividly. The attack left Jones with a broken leg and was only ended when a friend, Sean McCann, somehow managed to retrieve him from the attack. 

Jones wasn’t the only Celtic player who found himself at the mercy of the mob. As the rest of the Belfast Celtic players ran towards the dressing-room, the goalkeeper Kevin McAlinden and the defender Robin Lawler were caught by the oncoming crowd and left seriously injured. 

In the dressing-room, the Celtic players frantically began to grab any shovel, broom or makeshift weapon they could find, in anticipation of an oncoming attack. When they learned of Jones’s fate, they had to be restrained by the club’s directors from re-entering the battle zone. Their anger soon turned to despair when Jones’s limp body was carried in by McCann.

When the Celtic chairman Austin Donnelly came in soon afterward, he could barely contain his anger. The normally austere Donnelly told the players, “We can’t let you boys put up with the likes of that…”

Unbeknown to the players, Donnelly intended to stick to his word.

Act II: Ending an Institution

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.

Bill Shankly

Disgusted by the ferocity of the violence exhibited in the Linfield match, Celtic’s directors called an emergency meeting on the night of the game. There, the directors took the fateful decision to with-draw Celtic from the League once the 1948-49 season had finished.

An air of resignation hung in the room. They were putting an end to an institution, a club that, as the legendary Celtic trainer Michael McGuigan once said, was a part of the community, part of the lives of every man, woman and child living on the Falls Road.

The directors would have been well aware that it wasn’t the first time such an action had been taken by Celtic. Between 1912 and 1917 the club had taken similar steps as sectarian violence had increased in the face of demands for Home Rule and, subsequently, independence from the southern part of the country. Likewise from 1920 to 1924 the club chose to remain inactive following a flurry of gunshots during a cup game during Ireland’s War of Independence.

Outside of the Belfast Celtic boardroom, the responses to the Linfield violence echoed the complicated world of Northern Irish politics. Catholic supporters raged against the inability of the police force to protect the Celtic squad while retorts from the other side argued that the police had done their best. The often-ignored middle ground cited the thuggish behaviour of a small minority.

The conversation about who was to blame extended far beyond the footballing world. Football acted as a microcosm of the greater societal trends in the North. For nationalists, the Linfield attacks were seen as symbolic of the greater discrimination Catholics faced on a daily basis. When the North’s footballing body, the IFA, eventually closed Linfield’s home ground for a month and fined them as punishment, Catholic politicians such as Eddie McAteer brought the matter to the parliament at Stormont in a bid to gain further retribution.

Angered at the reluctance of Protestant politicians to ascribe blame to the police, McAteer, perhaps unwisely, remarked in the Government Chamber that the police were too fond of using their batons on political opponents, but not Linfield supporters. Amidst the uproar and hubbub from the ruling party members, it became clear that justice would not be forthcoming for Celtic. 

Celtic’s first game after the Linfield debacle saw them put 10 goals past Distillery, with Johnny Campbell, Jimmy Jones’s replacement, scoring six. Any celebration among the Celtic fans soon became muted as it became clear that something was occurring behind the scenes. 

Although the Board’s decision to withdraw the team from the league had been made in secrecy, evidence of their decision quickly began to trickle out. The morning following the Distillery game, the nationalist newspaper the Irish News, reported that Celtic’s Paddy Bonnar was in talks with West Bromwich Albion. Fans were re-assured that such talks were tentative, but they were warned by the paper that more was likely to follow on the transfer front with several key players earmarked for moves abroad. 

The paper’s prophecies came true in March when Robin Lawler and Johnny Campbell were sold to Fulham for a knockdown price. Writing in the Irish News, Ben Madigan summed up the confusion of the Celtic faithful: “The quick-fire transfer of Robin Lawler and Johnny Campbell to Fulham in the London Club’s bid for promotion against the challenge of West Brom and Spurs has left the soccer world guessing. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether Celtic will carry on in Irish League football.”

Two weeks after Madigan’s article, Celtic’s full-back Tom Ahearne was sold to Luton Town. In less than a month, three of Celtic’s core had been offloaded without any explanation to the fans. The remainder of the season would see Madigan continually lament the actions of the Celtic board, accompanied by various guesses as to their motives. 

Madigan was a well-respected journalist who often had the inside scoop on the internal dealings of Belfast Celtic. His inability to decipher what was going on troubled fans. 

On April 16, Belfast Celtic informed the Irish Football Association that they would be unable to fulfil reserve games for the remainder of the season due to “congestion and an upcoming tour of the USA”. Journalists and fans alike suspected that there was more to the story. 

On April 21 their suspicions were confirmed when the Northern Whig broke the news that Celtic’s directors had issued a formal letter of resignation to the IFA. When confronted by reporters about the future of Belfast Celtic, the Celtic chairman Austin Donnelly grimly told the press, “We have gone from the Irish League”.

The remaining weeks of the season saw Celtic lag behind Linfield, who eventually clinched that year’s title. It mattered little to fans, who were much more concerned about whether the club would survive another year. Before Belfast Celtic embarked on a summer tour of the USA, fans were informed that the board would review the decision to withdraw from the League following the tour.

While the Belfast Celtic players and directors enjoyed a warm reception from US audiences, fans at home anxiously awaited news of the club’s future. Madigan’s reports in the Irish News began to descend into more and more outlandish conspiracy theories. Arguments were put forward that Celtic’s resignation was a display of brinkmanship from the club. It was posited that the IFA would beg the Grand Old Team to return to the league as they had reportedly done in 1924. The fact that the IFA had accepted Celtic’s resignation, albeit with great sympathy, did little to stop Madigan’s theories from gaining traction.

Four decades after Celtic’s withdrawal, the former player Paddy Bonnar told reporters that internecine fights among the board were to blame for the club’s decisions. Others would cite supposed financial issues. Nowadays members of the Belfast Celtic society are unequivocal that the Club’s decision was down to the failure of the IFA to guarantee the safety of Celtic players.

When Celtic returned from their summer tour, any hope of them rethinking their withdrawal from the league was dashed. Within a week of their return, the Irish News was reporting that Paddy Bonnar, Harry Walker and Charlie Curry had all accepted moves elsewhere. They were soon followed by George Hazlett and others. By late June, it became clear that Celtic wouldn’t be returning to the Irish League. 

When the 1949-50 season kicked off, it did so without Belfast Celtic.

Act III: Gone but not forgotten

“Belfast Celtic will be missed…”

Belfast Telegraph, 1949-50
Season Preview

While the directors’ decision to withdraw the club from football had been a difficult one, the club historian Bill McKavanagh says, “There was total support from the supporters at the time.”

That was not to say that fans were not upset by the decision. Reflecting on the demise of Belfast Celtic in the late 1980s, the Celtic fan Jimmy Overend recalled his sadness: “It was like a black cloud coming down, as if there was nothing to live for or look forward to on a Saturday. It’s a grief which never went away.”

Overend wasn’t alone in his despair. When Ulster TV commissioned a documentary on Belfast Celtic in 1989, interviews from former fans revealed how the club had given fans a belief in the future, something that the people of the Falls Road could be proud of. Since the early 1900s, Celtic fans had always publicised the importance of the Grand Old Team. In 1901 a fan known as Crossbar wrote a verse that summed up the club’s place in the community

“Out of seeming nothing;
Out of shadow and gloom;
Out of a hollowed vacuum
Came something to keep us in tune.
Something to interest and please us;
Something we call our own;
Something we almost worship;
Loving beyond control.
Boys by practice and training;
Diligently keeping fit;
Men by planning and scheming
Built it bit by bit.
Loyally working together;
Faithful to their scheme;
Out of little or nothing
Came the champion Celtic team.”

So how did fans cope? Denial.

McKavanagh believed that Celtic fans comforted themselves with the idea that Celtic’s withdrawal was simply a temporary measure. Withdrawal was seen as a tactic in a game of brinkmanship with the IFA. After all, the club had withdrawn and come back twice before in its history over that very matter. How were the fans to know that this time history wouldn’t repeat itself? Rumours began to emerge that the club was seeking to join the football league in the Republic of Ireland, an option that was quickly dismissed by the FAI, the governing body in the South. 

While the Celtic fans waited in limbo, the players began to forge new careers across the British Isles. Some remained in Northern Ireland, while others joined the likes of the former Belfast Celtic legend Charlie Tully, in moving across the Irish Sea.  

By the 1950s, it appeared fans of the former Belfast Celtic were left with two choices: to renounce their allegiance to Celtic and support a new club, or to become neutral spectators. It was a decision that few football fans want to take. As time passed however, former Belfast Celtic supporters began to flock to nearby clubs to get their weekly fix. Others began to undertake regular pilgrimages to Glasgow to support Celtic or, in later decades, make the 60-mile journey to Derry City or Coleraine. A minority dropped their interest in football altogether. 

As the players and fans moved on, Celtic Park, or Paradise as it was affectionately known, continued to stand just off the Falls Road, a powerful and poignant reminder of past glories.

It continued to function as a greyhound stadium run by the former Celtic manager and Liverpool legend Elisha Scott. During his time with the club, Scott won 10 league titles and oversaw the development of players like Charlie Tully. For 10 years Scott would look on as dogs ran alongside the grass where he had tasted both victory and defeat, or at games between junior football teams who had rented the pitch. It was a far cry from the heyday of the 1920s, when Belfast Celtic had won four League titles on the trot. 

Three years after Celtic’s dissolution, hope briefly flickered. 

In aid of De La Salle Boys Home in County Down, a Belfast Celtic XI, under the name Newry FC, took on Celtic at Celtic Park in 1952. An unsurprisingly emotional affair, the game featured the former Belfast Celtic star Charlie Tully leading out the Glasgow team to face off against Belfast. Tully’s career had begun at Belfast Celtic under Elisha Scott. To return to Paradise after everything that had happened was overwhelming.

While Celtic of Glasgow would eventually win the game 3-2, the result mattered little to the fans. The chatter and jokes among the supporters felt like tribute to times past. For 90 minutes, fans of the Grand Old Team were offered the rare opportunity to step back to a time when Belfast Celtic were the Kings of the Falls Road. 

Towards the end of the game, Belfast Celtic fans in the home stand unfurled a large banner pleading with their former team: “Will ye no come back again?”

Soon after the crowd broke into singing of the well-known ballad,

“Will ye no come back again?
Will ye no come back again?
Better lo’ed ye canna be;
Will ye no come back again?”

They wouldn’t. Two years went by before a benefit game for the former Manchester City inside-left Peter Doherty would see the Grand Old Team reassemble once more, again to play Celtic. In 1960, Belfast Celtic played its final game, a testimonial against Coleraine. 

As the Troubles developed in the late 1960s, Belfast Celtic faded further into the memory. By then the big rivalry in Northern Irish football was between Linfield and Glentoran – or their Scottish equivalents, Celtic and Rangers. Indeed, it is often remarked that those Belfast Celtic fans who moved to support the Glasgow version did so with the zeal of converts. Throughout the Troubles, former Belfast Celtic fans travelled to Glasgow, first on cattle boats and later by ferries. Whenever the ferries didn’t run, it wasn’t unheard of for fans to hire fishing vessels to make it to Glasgow.

The 1980s saw the end of greyhound racing at Celtic Park and eventually the stadium was sold to property developers. Paradise was bulldozed and replaced with a shopping centre. The decision caused uproar among the club’s veterans, with several former players refusing to enter the shopping centre as a matter of principle, even after a small plaque dedicated to the club was installed.

The construction of the shopping centre did serve to stoke the embers of the Grand Old Team. In 1989, a lavish reunion was held for former players at the Threepenny Bit, King’s Hall in Belfast. The occasion was documented by Ulster TV and helped pass on the memory of Belfast Celtic to a new generation. In 2003 a handful of committed fans established the Belfast Celtic Society as a tribute and, in 2010, secured the opening of a club museum in the shopping centre over Celtic Park. 

While the club may no longer grace the field, the Society has ensured that the memory of the Grand Old Team will last. It is a fitting tribute to a team that for 50 years provided joy to the people of the Falls Road.

This article appeared on Episode Sixty of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.