After football arrived in Ireland in the late eighteen seventies, existing tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities found an outlet in football grounds in Belfast and beyond. In 1886 Linfield Football Club was formed by workers at the Linfield Spinning Mill and became the favourite club of Protestants from the Shankill Road area of the city. Then, five years later another team was born, Belfast Celtic, who fulfilled the same purpose for the people of the Catholic Falls Road district.
By the early twentieth century their rivalry was firmly established and in 1912 they would square off at Belfast Celtic’s ‘Paradise’ ground, just months after the Titanic – built in Belfast – had sunk in the North Atlantic Ocean. Fistfights between fans broke out in the stands. Then, incredibly, a gunshot rang out, and then another. Ten thousand Belfast Celtic fans – some waving Sinn Fein flags – and eight thousand Linfield fans were locked in pitched tribal panic. The match was abandoned. Gunfire and the discharging of revolvers at football matches in Belfast became common.
During an Irish Cup match on St Patrick’s Day 1920 between Belfast Celtic and Glentoran, from east Belfast, largely supported by Protestants, a man fired a bullet into the section where fans of the latter club were standing. Another match was abandoned, and Belfast Celtic left Irish football for several years due to concerns for their safety. When they returned in 1924 the sectarian situation had calmed enough that it was possible to do so.
Ireland had been partitioned into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. Football had been divided too. The Irish Football Association retained control of the game in Northern Ireland, while the Football Association of Ireland took control everywhere else. This meant there were two national teams as well, both claiming the name Ireland and sometimes the same players. Between 1925 and 1948, Belfast Celtic won the Irish League eleven times and the Irish Cup on seven occasions. But a painful new chapter in their history was opened just after Christmas in 1948 when they faced Linfield at their opponents Windsor Park ground. Tensions between the Protestant Unionist and Catholic Nationalist communities were rising once again; Irish Taoiseach[TEE-SHAW] John Costello had declared Ireland a republic and announced that it would be leaving the British Commonwealth, sparking fears among unionists in Northern Ireland about the future of their young nation.
Twenty-seven thousand fans turned up for what, even halfway through the season, was seen as a league deciding match. Jimmy Jones, Belfast Celtic’s top scorer that season – already with twenty-six goals to his name – was the main target of abuse from Linfield fans. He was a Protestant playing for a team associated with Irish Nationalism, a fact which marked him as a traitor to some. Even his own cousin Jack was a former Linfield player. Early in the game he collided with Linfield’s Bob Bryson, breaking the latter man’s ankle. This left Linfield with nine men when the half time whistle blew, as Alex Russell had also left the field injured, in an age before substitutes were permitted. By the end of the match Belfast Celtic’s Paddy Bonnar and Linfield’s Albert Currie had been shown red cards, so just eighteen players remained when Linfield fans spilled over the barriers around the perimeter of the pitch, the final score at 1-1. Jimmy Jones was the player furthest from safety as they headed toward the Windsor Park changing rooms.
All trace of festive goodwill had evaporated as the verbal abuse of the young man turned physical; a sustained battering of someone an element of the crowd saw as ‘fair game’, his mother and father only able to look on as he disappeared under a mass of bodies. When he arrived at the Musgrave and Clark clinic his life was saved, but the same could barely be said of his leg. Esteemed Northern Irish football journalist Malcolm Brodie described it as ‘probably the most vicious assault on any player in the history of British football.’ Officially a minor in the eyes of the law at that time, Jones father had to lodge an appeal for compensation from the Belfast Corporation, receiving £4,361, or about £143,000 in today’s money. For Belfast Celtic, it was the beginning of the end. They would limp on until the end of the 1948/49 season but began selling star players to English clubs with everything pointing to a club who were winding up their affairs.
Whether they wanted to drop out of the game forever – or not – is not known but when they returned from a tour of the United States the club did not re-enter the Irish League, replaced by Crusaders of north Belfast. The original Belfast Big Two rivalry was no more. Linfield had won the title by five points in Belfast Celtic’s final season and west Belfast had lost what former player Jimmy Donnelly described as ‘a facet of life that was part of the social fabric of the local area.’ Decades later, a Belfast Celtic devotee remembered it as being ‘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.’.