Club football in Ireland in has rarely tasted glory recently. ANTON RIPPON looks back to a long-lost club that united communities and won trophies
It is more than 20 years since they took a bulldozer to the foot of Donegall Road and flattened what was left of Paradise. In its place they built the Park Centre, where todayâ€™s Belfast shoppers can expect â€œa terrific all-round family experience in a clean, caring environmentâ€.
They call it the Park Centre because it stands on what used to be Celtic Park, for 58 years home to Belfast Celtic, then the greatest club in Irish football. To the fans, though, it was known simply as â€œParadiseâ€.
And itâ€™s actually 60 years since the club itself was bulldozed out of existence, in a wave of sectarian hatred that even sport could not conquer. Today, only a small plaque in the foyer of the Park Centre marks where the centre-spot was situated when Belfast Celtic were winning titles and cups galore.
From 1891 to 1949, there was no bigger football club in all of Ireland, nor one that provided such a focal point for the community it served.
Because Celtic Park – pictured above – sat on a thoroughfare that ran up to the Republican Falls Road on one side and into the loyalist Donegall Road on the other, it formed an appropriate cultural junction for a club like Belfast Celtic which drew its support â€” and its players â€” from both sides of a yawning divide.
But if the â€œGrand Old Clubâ€ was killed off by the very bigotry it sought to overcome, its memory â€” and its ideals â€” are kept alive today by a group of Irish folk led by a former BBC man.
Last year, after 17 years with the corporation, PÃ¡draig Coyle left his job as a senior producer with BBC Sport in Belfast to pursue a career as a freelance broadcaster and writer. He has just launched a podcast service centred around Gaelic games.
But the story of Belfast Celtic remains central to his life: he is chairperson of the Belfast Celtic Society, and has written a book about the club, Paradise Lost And Found: The Story Of Belfast Celtic (Mainstream Sport).
The clubâ€™s story is one of the gameâ€™s most remarkable tales. Despite twice being forced to withdraw from competitive football, Celtic won the Irish League on 14 occasions, the Irish FA Cup eight times, the City Cup 10 times and the Gold Cup seven times. They maintained a constant flow of players into the Irish national team, and a steady trickle of footballers who were to enjoy good careers on the other side of the Irish Sea.
In 1912, when they were the first Irish club to play in Europe â€” they visited what, six years later, would become Czechoslovakia â€” their goalkeeper was Oscar Traynor, who would become a hero in the struggle for Irish freedom and, eventually, defence minister in a Fianna Fail government.
In January 1941, Peter Oâ€™Connor scored 11 of the 13 goals that Belfast Celtic put past Glenavon, an individual tally never equalled in a senior league game in the British Isles. In 1947-48, they went undefeated in all competitions for an entire season, winning 31 matches in a row.
But, more than all this, Belfast Celtic was a beacon to a beleaguered community, for although they were never a sectarian club, the fact that they, and most of their supporters, were based in West Belfast meant that many saw them as a pro-Nationalist organisation, even though a sizeable number of fans came from Unionist backgrounds.
It was the Nationalists, though, the working class Catholics, who felt most drawn to Celtic. So much so, that the club’s veteran chronicler, Bill McKavanagh, once said: â€œWhen we had nothing we had Belfast Celtic â€” and then we had everything.â€
St Patrick’s Day riot
Between 1915 and 1917, Celtic dropped out of senior football for no reason that was ever made public. In 1920 they again left senior football, this time for a reason that was only too public. On St Patrickâ€™s Day that year, a semi-final replay of the Irish Cup between Celtic and Glentoran was abandoned when the crowd rioted and one spectator fired a revolver. Belfast Celtic closed down once more.
In 1924, the Irish FA persuaded the club back into senior football again. Their return marked the start of a glorious era with 10 championships in 16 years. Celtic were champions again when football resumed after the Second World War.
Then came the events of December 27, 1948. Local derby matches are never more highly charged than when religion or nationalism is involved, and it was one such game, before 40,000 spectators at Windsor Park, that ignited the flame that would signal the end of Belfast Celtic.
By Christmas, the top two teams in the Irish League were Celtic and Linfield, a club supported mostly by people sympathetic to the Unionist cause. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, but that was academic. Each team had a man sent off, two Linfield players were carried off, and almost on the final whistle, hundreds of home fans invaded the pitch.
Celticâ€™s centre-forward, Jimmy Jones, was thrown over a parapet, kicked unconscious and left with a broken leg, while goalkeeper Kevin McAlinden and defender Robin Lawler were also seriously hurt as the RUC looked on, either unable or unwilling, to intervene.
Even before the match there had been a lot of bad blood. Jones had been released by Linfield but when he became a success at Celtic, his old club wanted him back. He says that the Linfield secretary, Joe Mackey, had tried to get him to leave â€œthose Taigsâ€ and come back to his â€œnaturalâ€ home.
Jones gave the official short shrift, a response that unwittingly sowed the seeds of the riot. Linfieldâ€™s Bob Bryson had been carried off with a leg injury following an innocuous looking tackle from Jones, but during half-time secretary Mackey commandeered the public address system and, according to Jones, â€œwas guilty of inciting the crowd by more or less laying the blame on me for Brysonâ€™s injuryâ€. It was hardly surprising that, when violence erupted, Jones was found himself the main target.
That evening, Celtic’s directors decided to withdraw from football at the end of the season. The Linfield club issued a statement condemning the thuggery. Dozens of their supporters also wrote to the Nationalist Irish News, disassociating themselves from the violence.
Significantly, Celticâ€™s statement heaped blame not on the Linfield club, but on the RUC officers at the ground.
Belfast never recovered
In April 1949, Belfast Celtic resigned from the Irish League, went on tour to the United States â€” where they beat the Scotland national team, 2-0 â€” and then disbanded.
Belfast never recovered from its loss and neither did Irish football. A few Celtic fans drifted over to watch Cliftonville or Glenavon. Most, though, wouldnâ€™t cross the road to watch an Irish League game after the death of their beloved club. Instead, they transferred their affections fully to the Glasgow equivalent, worshipping another Paradise from afar.
It was in November 2003 that a small group of die-hards formed the Belfast Celtic Society to encourage an awareness of the historical and cultural heritage of the Grand Old Team.
The society is a non-sectarian, anti-racist organisation in the spirit of the club whose memory it seeks to maintain.
Coyle (pictured left) explains: â€œOur objectives are to raise awareness of the traditions of the club, and to raise funds for worthy causes because that is what the football club was all about.â€
It will come as a pleasant surprise to those who despise the greed displayed in todayâ€™s football, but Belfast Celtic was an almost unique entity: a football club that wanted to do good in its community and wasnâ€™t really interested in the money.
â€œBelfast Celtic werenâ€™t just the most successful club of their day. They provided a huge distraction for a disenfranchised, uneducated community,” Coyle says. “When they werenâ€™t playing football, they were organising athletics meetings, boxing tournaments, carnivals, even donkey racing.
“They played a lot for charity, helping local good causes and people down on their luck. And they were known to turn down big fees from English clubs when they considered a playerâ€™s value to the community to be beyond price.
â€œThe players who are still alive are treated like heroes, even by people who never saw them play but whose parents and grandparents have told them about these men who lit up their otherwise dull, sometimes depressing, existences.
â€œJimmy Jones is still revered. People still want to shake him by the hand whenever he walks into a room. Once, when we took some of the surviving players to Glasgow, the reception they got before a Celtic game was incredible. Martin Oâ€™Neill was delighted to meet them and said that Jimmy Jones was up there with Jock Stein when it comes to talking about football legends.â€
Last month, two major events marked the 60th anniversary of the clubâ€™s demise. The last resting place of the great Liverpool goalkeeper Elisha Scott, Belfast Celticâ€™s iconic manager, was refurbished by the Belfast Celtic Society and unveiled by his son, Billy, on his 90th birthday. A wealth of fans and famous figures turned out to pay their respects.
Afterwards, a new mural featuring legends Charlie Tully, Paddy Bonnar and the Belfast Celtic Society president, Jimmy Jones, was unveiled (pictured above).
Coyle says: â€œThese gatherings allowed us to touch the past and ensure the memory of Belfastâ€™s Grand Old Team will live long across the generations.
â€œWatching Elisha Scottâ€™s son, Billy, unveil his fatherâ€™s refurbished headstone was very poignant and weâ€™re delighted that he came with his family to share his 90th birthday with Belfast Celtic fans.
â€œSimilarly, star striker Jimmy Jones unveiled his own portrait on the mural painted by local children in honour of Belfast Celtic. Afterwards he was mobbed by fans and wellwishers.
â€œCharlie Tully Junior and Paddy Bonnarâ€™s granddaughter, Ciara, also unveiled portraits of the legends. To see hundreds of Celtic fans enjoying the occasion was an amazing and touching sight.”
Coyle also thanks Malcolm Brodie, a veteran and highly esteemed SJA member, and the Scott Family “for making the day so memorable with their presence, 50 years after the passing of the great Elisha.â€
Today, they come only to shop at Paradise, but itâ€™s probably fair to say that the Grand Old Team once also tried its best to provide that terrific all-round family experience in a clean, caring environment.
Further details of the Belfast Celtic Society can be found on www.belfastceltic.org
Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form