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The Life & Death of Belfast Celtic
By Barry Flynn
The History PressCopyright © 2009 Barry Flynn
All rights reserved.
The Same Old Story – Fighting on the Streets of Belfast
O' the bricks they will bleed and the rain it will weep
And the damp Lagan fog lulls the city to sleep
It's to hell with the future and live on the past
May the Lord in His Mercy be kind to Belfast
Maurice James Craig, 'Ballad to a Traditional Refrain'
There's a joke that's almost as old as the Antrim Hills concerning a Jewish tourist who is walking through Belfast when he is approached by a local thug. Immediately the thug pulls a knife and enquires of the visitor: 'Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?' In the belief that he would be afforded a fool's pardon, the visitor replies: 'I'm sorry my friend, but I'm Jewish.' This throws the local somewhat and after a short pause he responds: 'Ah, but are you Catholic Jewish or Protestant Jewish?' So goes the tale.
Whilst this may seem to be a slightly absurd yarn, it is mildly amusing in that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that such an event could occur in Belfast. The fabric of the city, its foundations, bricks and mortar, are built on religious division. Indeed, when you consider the history of Belfast, it doesn't take a leap of faith to imagine how sport, and soccer in particular, could become embroiled in both religion and politics. As a visitor to the city, you won't have to stay for long to sense that you have arrived in a truly divided place. A proverbial blind man on a galloping horse could discern that Belfast has a legacy of fear, distrust and loathing. Murals celebrating a triumph of one side over the other adorn gable walls, whilst tribal displays commemorating ancient victories or defeats are etched permanently into the yearly calendar. This reality is no accident. Most of the streets of Belfast, its schools, pubs and workplaces are regarded as either Catholic or Protestant in their make-up. In essence, the history of Belfast has been plagued with strife and disorder; the city is famed for it. Many citizens would like to argue differently, but the fact is that a significant number of the city's tourists are attracted only by its history of strife.
The city is truly a geographical wonder. Built around the mouth of the Farset River at the foot of the Lagan Valley, Belfast spreads out around its wide expansive Lough. It is then enclosed strikingly between the imposing Black and Divis Mountains on the Co. Antrim side, with the rolling Castlereagh Hills providing a softer image on the Co. Down fringe. Beyond the mountains to the north are the spectacular sights of the historic Cave Hill and McArt's Fort, with their dramatic basalt cliffs sweeping down towards the shoreline. Formerly within the lands of the O' Neill of Clandeboye, Belfast was a merely a glorified hamlet when it came into the possession of Sir Arthur Chichester in 1603. At that stage, it was noted by a travelling writer 'that Belfast consists of five streets and five lanes, totalling 150 houses'; but the quaint hamlet was to soon expand. Belfast grew in importance throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and soon eclipsed in size its northern neighbour, the Norman settlement of Carrickfergus.
However, for all its geographical splendour, Belfast was soon to harbour deep rooted sectarian division between its Protestant and Catholic inhabitants. Between the two religious persuasions, it was always a case of 'us and them' with the hatred palpable in the cobbled and segregated streets. This virtual apartheid stretches back almost 300 years, but became more acute as the industrialisation of the town saw a massive influx of migrants from the outlying counties in search of work.
However, in 1798, a number of Presbyterian idealists based in Belfast and counties Antrim and Down, were instrumental in the failed rebellion of the United Irishmen. The rebels sought to unite all Irish men and women, be they Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter (Presbyterian), in the cause of Irish unity. The rebellion was based on the Republican ideals as espoused in the French Revolution of 1789. The leaders of the rebellion met in Antrim in May 1798, but agreed to delay their assault until the French aid that had been promised reached Ireland. Belfast's Henry Joy McCracken was impatient however, he mobilised his troops and marched on Antrim Town where an attack on the English took place in early June. The rebels were defeated but many, including McCracken, escaped. The British exacted brutal retribution in Ulster. McCracken was recaptured and hanged in Belfast's High Street on 17 July 1798. The Republicans had been routed, Britain would now seek to consolidate its links with Ireland and the Act of Union of 1801 was the net result of the failure of the 1798 Rebellion. Thereafter, religious differences in Belfast began to become more acute as the town grew in size and importance.
Violence in Belfast was never a spontaneous occurrence, but rooted in the agrarian disorders which blighted Ulster in the late eighteenth century. The battles that raged in the Ulster countryside between Catholic Ribbonmen and Protestant Orangemen found new and eager followers in Belfast. In the close-knit districts of the town, hatred was easily exploited as tales of the 'other side' incited the masses to arms. As the nineteenth century dawned, generations of people would flood into Belfast taking with them their prejudices, myths and bigotry. In the year of the Act of Union, 1801, Belfast had a population of 19,000, a mere fraction of which were members of the Catholic faith. However, as the city prospered in the first decade of the new century, that figure had risen to 4,000 by the year 1810, and soon the age-old squabbles would be part of the fabric of the town.
One of the earliest recorded outbursts of religious strife occurred on Monday 12 July 1813, a date on which King William's victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 was commemorated by the Protestants, and a date that would become associated with conflict in future years. That day, a number of Belfast Orange Lodges travelled the ten miles to Lisburn to partake in the Co. Antrim 12 July demonstration. According to The Times in London, the Orangemen were finely turned out, colourful and well-behaved as they walked in procession through the town. The correspondent reported that the marchers took their refreshments at the house of a Roman Catholic publican before they returned to Belfast that evening. However, it was the return parade through the town, into what was then the Catholic quarter of Hercules Street, now Royal Avenue, that sparked the rioting. An anonymous poem from the time takes up the story from the Orangemen's perspective:
But as they were marching through Hercules Street,
A great opposition they happened to meet,
From turn-coat Croppies, became Ribbonmen,
For to murder our Orangemen they did intend,
From every entry and from every lane,
The brick bats and stones in showers they came,
But the Lord still preserved them, their lives did secure,
Till they safely arrived at bold Thompson's door.
As outlined, those taking part in the parade were brutally attacked and a number of Orangemen fled to North Street, where they took refuge in a house owned by a man called Thompson. The Catholic crowd followed behind and attacked Thompson's house with stones, only to be met with a volley of shots from within that made them scatter. As the smoke cleared, two men lay dead in the street from gunshot wounds. Hugh Graham and Andrew McNarry were the unfortunate victims of that day's trouble, while a dozen wounded from either side presented themselves at hospital for treatment. The anonymous poem of 1813 saw the actions of the Orangemen through rose-tinted spectacles, and wallowed in the glory of victory, describing the carnage as thus:
God prosper brave McCarroll, and Morgan also,
And likewise McMullen, wherever they go,
For they fired out upon them, they loaded with ball,
And three of those Rebels before them did fall,
The cowardly villains they scattered and fled,
At the cries of the wounded and the sight of the dead,
The valiant stout Lettens deserves great applause,
For they bravely supported the Protestant cause.
The Town Police quickly identified the two men responsible for the outrage and they were tried and imprisoned at the next Belfast Assizes. It was a mere taster of the trouble that lay ahead. As with other industrial towns, Belfast's population would grow significantly as the century progressed, with the sectarian rift deepening and becoming more acute. The linen industry expanded and drew thousands of workers to the town from the hinterlands of Ulster, and with them came the political upheavals from across Ireland that would soon impinge on the daily life of the city.
By the 1820s, Irish Nationalism had found a champion in the form of the 'Liberator' Daniel O' Connell. The Kerryman had fought for Catholic Emancipation, which was granted in 1829, and for a repeal of the Act of Union of 1801, which had bound the political and economic existence of Ireland to the United Kingdom. O'Connell's nationalistic message was not well-received in a city as divided as Belfast, a town prospering under the Crown. The Protestant merchant class of the city were thriving through the town's status within the United Kingdom. The notion of loyalty to the Crown in Belfast became embedded within the Loyalist and Protestant population, whilst the embers of Nationalism were kept alight by the influx of Catholics to the town. It was an unhappy marriage. As the population of Belfast grew, the political reality of the Union often manifested itself in violence. Age-old tensions would come to the fore each July as the annual commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne raised tensions to breaking point. Orange parades frequently ended in violence and in 1832 the Government introduced the Party Processions Act, which banned such displays. Whilst banning parades was, in theory, a simple step, in Belfast there were other ways to show allegiance and antagonise the other side.
In 1835, more bloodshed was recorded, this time the violence was centred around the staunchly protestant Sandy Row district, one mile from the centre of Belfast. Sandy Row has had a long history of sectarian riots, from its days as a small mill village to modern times. It was a fiercely loyal and Protestant area which bordered the Catholic Pound Loney district, where many bloody battles were fought. Indeed, as an example of the reputation of the area, one of its most popular Orange ballads of the time contained the infamous line 'Up Sandy Row, where the Fenians never go.' In later years, the area would expand westward along the Donegall Road and the area became known as the Village. It was in Sandy Row in 1886 that the Linfield Football club was founded by a group of workers of the Linfield Spinning Mill, and from this staunch area the 'Blues' support was drawn.
In 1835, the 'Twelfth' fell on a Sunday, and on the Saturday preceding a number of Orange arches were erected in Sandy Row, Ballymacarrett and Brown Square, which was near to the loyalist Shankill Road. The Northern Whig was to report on Monday, 14 July, that, unfortunately, Belfast had been convulsed by faction fighting over the holiday weekend. The trouble was brewing on the Saturday evening with high-spirits, excess alcohol and marching tunes in the Protestant areas drew the Catholics to the edge of the Pound Loney. Police were called out but kept their distance whilst heavy rain curtailed the party by the early hours of Sunday. Since there was a formal ban on parading, organised processions to church became the nearest acceptable display of loyalty to the Crown. Throughout Sunday, thousands of Protestants processed to church and were involved in skirmishes with local Catholics. The Catholics soon erected a green arch in the Pound. This drew the crowds from Sandy Row in response. Bloodshed ensued and the town was in a state of great excitement when the military was called out to quell the disturbances on the streets. The Northern Whig reported:
Collisions took place the result of which were numerous broken heads and in one instance an individual lost an eye by the blow of a stone.
The situation was exacerbated when the military dismantled the Orange arch in Sandy Row and this had the effect of stirring up an already angry hornets' nest. The Riot Act was read to the rampaging mob by Chief Constable Given of the Town Constabulary, but he was met by a fierce shower of stones. Eventually, the order was given and the soldiers were told to take aim at the Protestants. The crowd just stood their ground, fortified by drink in the belief that the soldiers were bluffing. They were not. A volley of shots rang out and the crowds scattered with only the prostrate body of Anne Moore left bleeding in the street. She died of haemorrhaging after being struck in the head by a bullet. The trouble ended soon after as the rain fell and the party songs petered out. The following year, the military took no chances and dismantled the arch in Sandy Row before any trouble started.
At the time of the Famine, Belfast's population began to increase rapidly as migrants, mainly Catholic, moved to the town from the outlying counties of Ulster. The linen industry was providing mass employment for both Catholic and Protestants and the traditional heavy industries were prospering in the industrial revolution. By the 1850s, the Catholic population of the town was fast approaching one-third of the total and this by and large was greeted by Protestants with distrust and prejudice. Most people chose to inhabit areas where their co-religionists lived as this provided a degree of safety. However, there were vulnerable pockets of Catholics and Protestants living in isolation and it was these families who were most prone to attack when the yearly upsurges of sectarian tensions came to the fore in July. The riots of July 1857 were the worst ever witnessed in the early history of Belfast, and it was this disturbance that contributed to the establishment of exclusively segregated ghettoes in the city.
Belfast has always been renowned for its evangelists and the urbanisation of the Victorian era helped spread the fundamentalist creed to the poor. However, in Belfast some preachers in their deliberations could rouse a crowd to fever pitch with a mixture of Gospel and bigotry. On 12 July 1857, a fiery sermon by Revd Thomas Drew, Vicar of Christ Church, was to contribute towards some of the most prolonged and vicious sectarian clashes ever witnessed in the town. Drew was a populist preacher who had built up a large congregation at his church which lay in Durham Street at the edge of Sandy Row, adjacent to the Catholic Pound Loney district. In addition, Drew was also the Grand Chaplain of the Orange Order and his sermons often encompassed the religious and political in their message. It had been widely reported in Belfast that Drew was to deliver a 'special sermon' on the 'Twelfth' and a crowd of 2,000 travelled to hear his message. With the banning of Orange parades, the procession of worshippers to Christ Church again caught the attention of the Catholics in the Pound Loney, and a crowd gathered anticipating trouble that evening. To the masses in his congregation, Drew's message was simple, stark and bitter. The main target was the Pope in Rome and his crimes of popery in ages past, and indeed his followers of the Romanist faith, living not fifty yards away. His sermon was published in pamphlet form, from which the following is taken:
Of old times of high degree, with their own hands, strained on the rack the limbs of delicate Protestant women, prelates dabbled in the gore of their helpless victims. The cells of the Pope's prisons were paved with the calcined bones of men and cemented with human gore and human hair.
To the Protestant mill workers and labourers listening, Drew's sermon reinforced all the prejudices regarding Catholics that they had suspected. In the Pound Loney, stories of an imminent Protestant attack whipped the Catholics up into a virtual frenzy. That night as the crowds dispersed, the Pound Loney and Sandy Row prepared for violence. Soon, in the darkness, mobs exchanged insults and stones across the wastelands. Muskets were discharged indiscriminately and the sound of fighting and breaking glass echoed throughout the town. The following evening, an attempt was made by Sandy Row Protestants to invade the Pound. Fires raged in the darkness as houses were looted and vicious hand to hand fighting ensued. The military and police were stretched to the limit as stand-offs were permeated with gunshots. The riots raged for six days and climaxed on the evening of Saturday 18 July. Many people on both sides were maimed horribly through gunshot wounds and the trouble was to erupt again in September after another bout of fire and brimstone preaching brought the mobs back on to the streets.
The trouble in 1857 forced the Government to hold a Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the disturbances. The report was scathing of the role of the Town Police which it said were 'undisciplined, partisan and suspected by all decent inhabitants.' The street preachers also were named and shamed as was the Orange Order's festivities which were deemed to be the cause of 'violence, outrage, religious animosities, hatred between classes and, too often, bloodshed and loss of life.' The reality was, however, that alcohol had fuelled the violence on both sides with ancient hatreds all too easily inflamed. On a geographical basis, the enclaves of Belfast were becoming more and more partisan, with territories marked out exclusively by religion. Henceforth, sectarian rioting broke out in Belfast, Derry, Portadown, Lisburn and other towns with tiresome regularity each summer.
Excerpted from Political Football by Barry Flynn. Copyright © 2009 Barry Flynn. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword (by Jimmy Donnelly),
The Same Old Story,
The Garrison Game,
Early Days of Belfast Celtic,
Ulster will Fight and Ulster will be Right!,
Belfast 'Confetti' and Kidney Pavers,
'Shrewder Statesmen than they Suspected',
A Land Fit for Heroes?,
Heading into the Abyss – Belfast 1920,
Politics, Pogrom and an Uneasy Peace,
Lording it over the Irish League,
Approaching the Bitter End,
Theatre of Hate – Windsor Park,
Aftermath of Outrage,
Picking up the Pieces,
Political and Sporting Quagmire,
Dying on its Feet,
American Odyssey – The Final Curtain,
Our Lips Are Sealed,
The More Things Change ...?,