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1948: Celts Mugged on Boxing Day
|On Boxing Day in 1948, opposition hooligans attacked one of Ireland's leading football teams, driving them from a Belfast pitch in the aftermath of a 1-1 draw with
Linfield. The club, realizing its inability to protect its players, decided
to quit, ending a remarkable 58-year record of sporting achievement.
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.
The 1949 Belfast Celtic team.
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.
Brief History of
Belfast Celtic, arguably the greatest club in Irish football, was founded
in the Falls Road area of Belfast on March 14, 1891. The club was named
after Glasgow Celtic with the view of imitating the Scottish-based
Irish club "in their style of play, win the Irish cup and follow their
example in the cause of charity."
|Badge of the Belfast Celtic team.|
Admitted to the Irish league in 1896, they won their first championship in
1901. The club moved into its own ground, Celtic Park, on the Donegal Road,
later renamed Paradise. The ground had a capacity of 50,000 (2,000 seated).
The club was controlled by the Barr family, and secretary Bob Barr is
credited with having steered the club through the tortuous religious and
political circumstances surrounding its formation. The club was run on
strictly non-sectarian grounds.
It dropped out of senior football, for no publicly known reason between
1915 and 1917 during World War I, but continued to have outstanding success
as a junior club. It left senior football again in 1920, after an infamous
cup semifinal when a man produced a revolver and fired shots into the
crowd. (Editor's Note: This was during the Irish War of Independence. In
October of that year, British forces opened fire on players and the crowd
at Croke Park, in Dublin.)
The club was persuaded back into senior football in 1924, and its return
marked the start of a glorious era for the club, which went on to win the
league championship 10 times in 16 years and also the first post-World War
II championship. -- Eddie Whyte
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
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
Running for their lives
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
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
|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
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
FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:
The Belfast Celtic webpage.
Books about Belfast Celtic.
Remembering Belfast Celtic.
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