Belfast Celtic F.C.

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Belfast Celtic
Full nameBelfast Celtic Football Club
Nickname(s)The Celts; The Grand Old Team
GroundCeltic Park
LeagueIrish League

Belfast Celtic Football Club was a football club in Ireland that was founded in 1891,[1] and was one of the most successful teams in Ireland until it withdrew from the Irish League in 1949. It left the league for political reasons, as the team and its supporters were largely Catholic and Irish nationalist, and its players had been violently attacked by a mob against its main rival Linfield in December 1948.[2][3] Belfast Celtic were one of four clubs that made the biggest crowds in the Irish League, the other three being Linfield, Distillery, and Glentoran.[3]


Early years[edit]

The club, formed in 1891 simply as Celtic, was named after Celtic Football Club of Glasgow. Upon incorporation as a limited company in 1901, however, the club adopted the name Belfast Celtic, the title "The Celtic Football & Athletic Coy Ltd" already being registered by the Glasgow club.[4] Their home from the same year was Celtic Park on Donegall Road in west Belfast, known to the fans as Paradise.[1] Celtic won their first league title in 1900 after beating fierce rivals Linfield by a single goal.

The political violence that engulfed Ireland in the 1920s spilled onto the terraces of the Irish League. In 1920, the Irish Football Association fined and suspended the club following violent incidents at the Irish Cup semi-final. Celtic was forced to abandon the 1920–21 season, and did not rejoin the league until 1924–25 season.[5] Celtic's support base was strongly Irish nationalist and Catholic, but also enjoyed support from Belfast's Protestants, who accounted for about 10 percent of the fan base.[2]

Despite this, the club went from strength to strength and the inter-war years proved to be Celtic's strongest: they were league champions four years running after their return. The club also produced some of the greatest players of their generation and at one stage had five international goalkeepers in their squad. Charlie Tully of Celtic, learned how to kick a ball with Belfast Celtic.

1948–49: Withdraw and North American tour[edit]

The end came on Boxing Day 1948 at the annual Linfield-Celtic game at Windsor Park. Celtic were winning for most of the match but Linfield equalised in the last minute. Linfield fans invaded the pitch and attacked several Celtic players, including centre-forward Jimmy Jones, who suffered a broken leg and was kicked unconscious, and Robin Lawlor and Kevin McAlinden, who were both seriously hurt.[6][7]

Linfield issued a statement in which they blamed the attack on Celtic. However, Celtic's statement did not put blame on Linfield or its supporters, but instead on the police present, who sat back and made no arrests: "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."[2]

Celtic also felt the response from the IFA was inadequate as well. The team's management met the night of the match and decided to withdraw from the league after the end of the 1949 season.[2][7] Northern Irish journalist Frank Curran later commented, "[Belfast F.C.] 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."[2]

Belfast Celtic played their final Irish League match on Thursday April 21 1949 when they defeated Cliftonville 4-3 at Celtic Park. [8]The club then went on a 10-game tour of the United States and Canada in May and June 1949. The dates of the tour forced the team to withdraw from the County Antrim Shield after qualifying to the semi-final, in which they were replaced by Linfield, whom they had earlier beaten 4-0.[9] While the team was preparing to set sail for New York, it was announced publicly that Celtic would leave the league, pending the final decision of the team's shareholders at their annual meeting in June.[5][10][11]

In New York City, the team were embraced by Irish nationalists. The team were introduced to New York City Mayor William O'Dwyer, a native of County Mayo, at New York City Hall on 4 May. They were presented by then-Deputy Commissioner Sean P. Keating, an IRA member, and present Mayor O'Dwyer with a silver sugar bowl. Manager Elisha Scott fastened the club's pin, featuring the team's green and gold harp logo, upon the mayor's lapel.[12] The first match was played 8 May against a mixed team of players from the Greater New York professional American League clubs Brookhattan, Brooklyn Hispano and Brooklyn Hakoah at Triborough Stadium in New York City.[13]

There was an uproar in Northern Ireland when a photograph of the team marching behind an Irish tricolour flag before a match in New York was published in the Belfast Telegraph on 11 May. Likely fearing the incident would ensure the end of the team in Belfast, the Protestant Elisha Scott[3] sent a letter signed by seven of the players in which he explained the incident and claimed the team was loyal to the United Kingdom:

"Before the game the team was requested by the American Soccer League officials to parade in single file round the Stadium, led by myself. Half-way round Mr Connolly, editor of the Irish Echo, New York, took down a Tricolour which was flying in front of the enclosure. He requested me to carry one end and proceed in front of the team. We considered it better to carry on with the parade. Since then steps have been taken to ensure against a recurrence. On the other side of the picture, which has apparently received no publicity, I may say that while the team was in Toronto, the King was toasted at a dinner given in honour of the Belfast Celtic Club, and further, before the match in Toronto, both teams stood to attention while the British National Anthem was play."[14]

On 29 May, Celtic upset Scotland 2-0 in front of 15,000 fans at Triborough Stadium in New York City, where fights broke out during the second half, including Scotland's Willie Waddell and Celtic guest Mick O'Flanagan throwing punches. The New York Times reported that the American crowd was overwhelmingly partisan in favour of the Scots, cheering ref decisions against Celtic. Reported The Times, "The game held the crowd spellbound from beginning to end. Part of the reason was that it had come to see a highly favored Scots eleven—a team that had won the British Isles triple crown before 97,000 at Wembley Stadium last month—take the Irish into camp. Instead, the throng saw an inspired Belfast combination score once in the opening session and again in the second half to sew up the decision."[15][16] It became one of the most famous games in Celtic's history, and Scotland never played a club team again, and Belfast Celtic left the league.[17]

At the time, no public reason was given for the team's withdrawal. Belfast Celtic's owners quietly sold its players to other teams. Crusaders replaced the team in the league, but fans were left without an explanation. In a 2011 profile, The Guardian spoke with a Celtic fan Jimmy Overend, then 86, about the void left by the team's exit:

Of the demise of the club, which had lit up the lives of politically oppressed, impoverished Catholics such as himself, a general labourer, Overend laments: "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."[3]

Post-exit from league[edit]

The club would never again play a competitive match but played several friendlies, including a match at home to Celtic on May 17, 1952, when a team of ex-Belfast Celtic players took the field under the name of 'Newry F.C.' in aid of De La Salle Boys' Home in County Down. A final match—a testimonial—was played at Coleraine on June 24, 1960.

Celtic Park continued to function as a greyhound stadium until 1985, when it was bulldozed and replaced by the Park Centre, a small shopping centre.[1]

Club heritage[edit]

Today, a small museum has since been opened in the Park Centre by the Belfast Celtic Society, and a plaque reminds shoppers a football team played there.[18]

Padraig Coyle wrote a play, Lish and Gerry, about Elisha Scott and Linfield trainer Gerry Morgan. According to The Guardian, the play was performed to acclaim at Windsor Park in 2010, supported by the IFA and Linfield. The play concerns the team rivalry and the subtle irony of the fact that Elisha Scott of Celtic was a Protestant, while Gerry Morgan was Catholic.[3]

A new amateur club called Belfast Celtic Young Men was founded in 2013.

In 2018, third-tier Belfast club Sport & Leisure Swifts F.C. announced plans to revive the Belfast Celtic name.[18]


Senior honours[edit]

Intermediate honours[edit]

  • Irish Intermediate League: 7
    • 1916–17†, 1917–18†, 1931–32†, 1933–34†, 1934–35†, 1935–36†, 1936–37†
  • Irish Intermediate Cup: 5
    • 1913–14†, 1934–35†, 1935–36†, 1936–37†, 1939–40†
  • Steel & Sons Cup: 5
    • 1912–13†, 1916–17†, 1917–18†, 1934–35†, 1935–36†
  • McElroy Cup: 7
    • 1916–17†, 1932–33†, 1934–35†, 1935–36†, 1936–37†, 1942–43†, 1943–44†

† Won by Belfast Celtic II

Junior honours[edit]

  • Irish Junior League: 3
    • 1893–94, 1894–95, 1895–96

Selected former players[edit]

Selected former managers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Belfast Celtic". Groundtastic. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 11 February 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d e McCann, Eamonn (20 December 1998). "The day a team died". Sunday Tribune. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e Conn, David (23 February 2011). "Memories of Belfast Celtic reawakened as IFA tries to soothe old wounds". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 August 2017.
  4. ^ Belfast Celtic F.C. – Souvenir History 1891-1939 (1939) (unknown author) (unknown publisher). Available at: The Grand Old Team. Accessed 12-12-14.
  5. ^ a b "Irish Club May Quit Football". Dundee Evening Telegraph. 22 April 1949. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  6. ^ "The History of the Grand Old Team". Belfast Celtic Society. Retrieved 11 February 2009.
  7. ^ a b Doyle, Paul (4 July 2017). "Linfield making strides against sectarianism and hoping to tackle Celtic". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 July 2017.
  8. ^ The infamous day a 'savage mob' broke bones and a club died, BBC, 27 December 2018
  9. ^ "Swifts in Final - Belfast Celtic withdraw from Shield". Northern Whig. 16 April 1949. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  10. ^ "Irish League – Regret at Celtic's Decision". Belfast News-Letter. 22 April 1949. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  11. ^ "Celtic's Decision". Belfast News-Letter. 21 April 1949. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  12. ^ "Belfast Soccer Players Give Bowl to O'Dwyer". The New York Times. 5 May 1949. Retrieved 8 August 2017.
  13. ^ "Belfast Team Due Tomorrow". The New York Times. 2 May 1949. Retrieved 8 August 2017.
  14. ^ "Celtic manager and the march behind Eire flag". Northern Whig. 24 May 1949. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  15. ^ "Fights Mar Tour Games". Dundee Evening Telegraph. 30 May 1949. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  16. ^ Strauss, Michael (30 May 1949). "Belfast Celtic Eleven Sets Back Scottish International Team, 2-0; Campbell Gets Two Goals in Soccer Before 15,000 at Randalls Island -- McAlinden Stars for Winners on Defense". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  17. ^ "Belfast Celtic player also made history with Ireland". The Irish News. 31 October 2015. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  18. ^ a b "The other Grand Old Team: Belfast Celtic's return could open old wounds in Northern Ireland". The Herald. 17 August 2018. Retrieved 18 August 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mark Tuohy, Belfast Celtic, 1978 ISBN 0-85640-139-0
  • Flynn, Barry, Political Football: The Life and Death of Belfast Celtic, 2009, Nonsuch Publishing
  • Padraig Coyle, Paradise Lost & Found: The Story of Belfast Celtic, Mainstream Publishing 1999
  • Padraig Coyle, Alex Moore's Almanac: A Young Man's Diary of a Sporting Farewell, Marine Media 2005

External links[edit]