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Belfast Celtic FC Museum – Glory & Tragedy

No good story ever starts with “I was eating a salad”. Neither does this. I got to meet Marty, one of the volunteers running the museum of Belfast Celtic Football Club, a few years ago at one of my many trips to the North of Ireland. We bonded by exchanging the state of the art of our respective drinking cultures: Marty brought along a lemonade bottle with no lemonade in it but Poitín, my coke bottle contained Mexikaner, straight from Jolly Roger.

Thus, it was only a brief phone call and our group made up of myself and about 15 more of St. Pauli CSC, 2nd Senioren FC St. Pauli, and Babelsberg were inside the shopping centre that hosts the museum – although it was outside the opening hours – to get a personal tour and lecture about the history of the club and the museum.

The history of Belfast Celtic is as proud as it is sad. Set up by the example of Celtic FC in Glasgow, and with some money sent from the same people, it quickly became the dominant force in Irish football. While securing titles galore on the pitch and drawing fans from all over Ireland, the club from West Belfast’s Falls Road area was also a very open and inclusive club. Despite the Catholic background of the founders of the club, many of the players and their most iconic manager were Protestants – which is actually another similarity to Glasgow’s Celtic FC. The team featured the first ever Jewish player in Ireland (Louis Bookman, whose original name was Bookhaulter) and also Ireland’s first black player (Tommy Best).

The sad part of the story lies in the constant sectarian attacks by loyalists. Supporters and club officials were threatened and viciously attacked. The climax was reached when in 1948 Belfast Celtic played away to Linfield FC. Linfield supporters – which were and still are notorious for their support of Loyalism – stormed the pitch and attacked the players, three of of whom had to be treated in hospital, one with a broken leg. Not just the match was abandoned – soon after the leaders of Belfast Celtic announced the end of the club. Attacks on supporters and officials were bad enough, but not being able to protect the players on the pitch and the lack of protection by the authorities were too much to bear.

Another sad aspect of that story is revealed by the location of the museum. The shopping centre is actually built right on the site of the historic ground. So not only the club itself ceased to exist, but so did the only place that was left to remind us of this very important story which transcends the topic of football as a sport. Yes, football, politics and society do mix.

Without the museum and the tireless efforts of its volunteers, the history would die with those that experienced it at first hand. As I found out myself, walking into Glasgow’s Tolbooth pub wearing a Belfast Celtic shirt still triggers a very positive response from the oldest patrons – but how much longer will the last of that generation be around? With Belfast Celtic’s history linked so closely to conditions of society and to so many of the events and developments that influence the community and its problems and opportunities to this day, the preservation of its history and spirit is so much more than just keeping a memory of the past. It can play a relevant role in understanding the present and building a future that will have overcome the problems it has to suffer from to this day.

Sönke Goldbeck
… is a member of the board of 1910 e.V. and a vital part of our Planning Group. As an untiring “Drill Instructor” and coordinator he ensures that our project management never loses momentum. In between Sönke is actively involved in the “AG Stadionbau” and “AGiM” within FC St. Pauli.