AWAYDAYS: CLIFTONVILLE, BELFAST 1984

In the neat little town they call Belfast . . .’

Irishness is at the core of Celtic’s identity and from the club’s first visit to the Emerald Isle in 1889 it was a regular visitor to its spiritual homeland and its second city, Belfast.  The formation of Belfast Celtic in 1891, who were to become one of Ireland’s most successful and best-supported clubs, led to a close friendship being forged between the two Celtics both on and off the pitch – until, in 1949, the Belfast team were forced to withdraw from football after their players were subject to a vicious sectarian attack in a derby match against Linfield. 

Belfast Celtic, loved by the nationalist community in the North of Ireland and – like its Glasgow counterpart – non-sectarian in the players it signed, was no more.  Jimmy McGrory’s team returned to the city’s Celtic Park for a charity match in 1952 but then, decade after decade passed, as the Glasgow club became estranged from one of its true strongholds. 

Following the demise of Belfast Celtic it was a long time before another club in the city enjoyed the unqualified support of the city’s nationalist community.  The conflict that exploded in the late 1960s gradually led to a re-shaping of community boundaries in the north of the city.  Cliftonville FC, Ireland’s oldest football club formed in 1879 and based at the curiously-named Solitude, just 1.5 miles north of the city centre, was based in one area whose social make-up changed over time.  While many Belfast Celtic fans felt they could not forsake the memory of The Grand Old Team – nor abandon they hope they might one day be revived – Cliftonville began increasingly to attract support from nationalists in the city in the 1970s and within a few years were largely regarded as a ‘nationalist team’ – and treated as such on their travels throughout the north. 

In 1984 an invitation was sent across the water from Solitude to Celtic Park to take part in a friendly in north Belfast and end the club’s exile.  The invitation was supported by thousands of Celtic fans in the city and beyond, desperate to see their heroes in Belfast once again.  The Celtic Board, then led by Desmond White, were mindful of security concerns for both fans and players.  The hunger strikes were fresh in the memory, the British Army were on the streets and bombings and shootings remained a frequent occurrence in the city.  But the Board took assurance from the fact the game would take place in a safe area and the common threads of identity shared by the fans of both clubs. 

On 14th August 1984 Danny McGrain led the first Celtic team to visit Belfast in over thirtyyears onto a sun-kissed Solitude pitch before a crowd of 8,000.  The team received a rapturous reception from the supporters for whom no segregation was needed.  The Cage, a terracing behind one of the goals which was home to Cliftonville’s most fervent fans, looked just like The Jungle with an abundance of green and white hoops and the Irish tricolour prominent.  Fans could be seen climbing the mesh fence at the front which gave The Cage its name and some had already established base camp on the roof.

 

The good-natured atmosphere was best summed up when a skinhead (this was 1984 remember!) got onto the pitch and managed to get into the pre-match photo, standing next to a worried-looking Frank McGarvey. One picture taken from the back of The Cage during the game by the accomplished Belfast photographer Frankie Quinn perfectly captured the exuberance of terracings in the 1980s.

Frankie Quinn’s photographs can be viewed at http://www.frankiequinn.com

A strong Celtic side recorded a straight-forward 4-0 victory over Cliftonville’s part-timers with goals from Colquhoun, McGarvey and two from defender Graeme Sinclair.  The game should be a largely-forgotten footnote in Celtic’s history but it was a game that was never finished – the referee blew the final whistle early, many believe at the request of the Celtic players.  The friendly atmosphere had changed as early as the 20th minute to one of fear and loathing.  The Scottish media reported that the game had been abandoned due to “crowd trouble.”  This was a convenient mistruth.  The supporters were not in conflict with each other, a regular feature of games at the time.  The trouble at Solitude arose when members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the province’s quasi-paramilitary police force made up almost exclusively from the then-majority Protestant community, decided to make their presence felt. 

Cliftonville and Celtic players pre-match . . . the calm before the storm

No-one knows for certain what the spark was.  Some rumours claimed that Loyalists from the nearby Westland Estate were throwing stones at fans on the roof of The Cage.  The atmosphere in the city had been volatile since the previous weekend when Sean Downes, who was attending an anti-internment rally, was shot dead at close range by an RUC officer firing a plastic bullet.  Cliftonville FC understood that an agreement was in place with the RUC that their officers would remain outside of Solitude in order to avoid confrontation with the mostly nationalist crowd gathered inside. The RUC reneged on the agreement. 

Armed officers appeared at the terracing opposite the Main Stand midway through the first half.  Their presence was neither called for nor in any sense necessary in the absence of any disturbances.  Supporters of both clubs who were mixed on the terracing confronted the interlopers.  The RUC achieved their aim:  hand-to-hand fighting broke out and the small number of police officers in the ground were quickly over-ran, with one becoming isolated and losing his hand-gun.  (One story goes that the gun fell into the hands of the IRA who offered to return it to the RUC – bullets first).  All too predictably, more armed reinforcements arrived from vehicles located in the streets behind The Cage.  And then the plastic bullets made their appearance.     Their target was the fans in The Cage and on its roof – the fans responded with bricks and stones.  A full-blown riot was soon underway – although most of the rioters in this instance happened to be in uniform. 

RUC officers appear at the back of the terracing next to The Cage

There were moments of bleak humour during what turned into a dark day.  Years later, Frank McGarvey recalled that “To cap it all, someone threw a transistor radio onto the park and Mark Reid thought it was a bomb.  I had never seen him run so fast as he bolted out of its way!”  The game certainly left its mark on McGarvey: ‘That was the most frightened I’ve been in my life. It was a full-scale riot.  I just remember standing on the park and the police charging fans everywhere. I couldn’t tell you anything about the actual game itself and whether I played well. I just wanted off the park.” 

There was a cessation in the violence at half-time.  Some fans had already retreated from The Cage to other parts of the ground.  Some had chosen to leave the ground entirely.  When the second-half got underway however the RUC decided they wanted to clear out The Cage.  With plastic bullets being fired indiscriminately and fans battoned and hauled along the terracing either by their hair or their hands, the Royal Constabulary got their way.  There were pockets of resistance.  Dated and largely unfocused photos taken by a Cliftonville fan captured the full horror of what occurred, as did footage shown on the ITN News that night:  fans on the terracing cowering in terror from plastic bullets fired over their heads and individual supporters being dragged along the ground by packs of RUC men liberally administering beatings along the way.  One fan in a Celtic scarf was clearly unconscious while being man-handled.  By the end of the game the chant of “SS-RUC” went up – it would become a staple chant of The Jungle for years afterwards.  

RUC attack The Cage – and any fans in their way

A friendly encounter being played in a convivial atmosphere on a summer’s evening had been ruined.  The game abandoned, Celtic’s return to Belfast became headline news for all the wrong reasons.  An RUC press release claiming their officers had intervened after coming under attack was slavishly reproduced in the media.  The Glasgow Herald reported, incredulously, that “fans began fighting and baton-carrying police stepped in to separate them.”  Utter nonsense.  Celtic’s Chairman, however, knew where the blame lay and wasn’t slow to say so when being interviewed by television at Glasgow Airport on the team’s return: 

“Cliftonville had been promised early on that there would only be a shadow police presence at the game.  There was certainly more than a shadow police presence. There were riot squads there.  Celtic were playing Cliftonville – half the Cliftonville supporters are Celtic supporters.  There could have been no trouble at the match at all because it was between two friendly sets of supporters . . . violence was artificially created in my opinion.  Neither Cliftonville nor Celtic are part of that violence.  If there had been only a very, very shadow police presence at the match in my opinion there would have been no trouble.” 

Twenty four more years would pass before Celtic returned to Belfast in 2008 to play Donegal Celtic in the west of the city.  The city was much changed.  The RUC had been replaced by the PSNI.  Celtic’s return passed without incident and the following year the club returned to Solitude, a quarter century on, led by coach Neil Lennon to face The Reds once more. 

Memories remain of one of Celtic’s worst ever away games when supporters from outwith the North of Ireland had a taste of what daily life was like then for nationalists in what one of its founders infamously referred to as a “Protestant state for a Protestant people” – policed by a Protestant militia. 

‘SS – RUC!’

This article first appeared in The Shamrock – Celtic Retrospective fanzine


To buy The Shamrock and for more information click here.


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