While BTLM focuses predominantly on world football from the second-half of the 20th century, today we’re taking a rare foray further back in time to write about an infamous episode from the violent history of football in Northern Ireland.
Belfast football has always been played out with the ominous backdrop of sectarian tension and the typically full-blooded, no-holds-barred nature of its derbies have often reflected this. Those tensions were particularly high back in 1920 with Ireland caught up in the first Troubles and lurching on a course towards the establishment of the Irish Free State.
Cliftonville’s Solitude ground was the venue for the Irish Cup semi-final replay that year between Glentoran and Belfast Celtic and the game was, for the most part, a typically rumbustious derby absent of major controversy. With ten minutes remaining the game turned on a refereeing decision when the Glens centre forward, Gowdy, was brought down from behind as he ran through on goal by the Celtic defender, Barrett. The referee took exception to the challenge and, to general surprise, sent off the Celtic full-back.
A stream of angry Belfast Celtic supporters ran on the pitch and, as the referee and players were quickly ushered off to safety by the Royal Irish Constabulary, a section of the Glentoran support responded by throwing rocks and stones at the invaders. This level of supporter hot-headedness was not unusual at Belfast derbies, but what happened next was unprecedented and caused events to quickly spiral out of control.
One Belfast Celtic supporter reacted very badly to being hit by a stone: he took out a gun and indiscriminately fired a number of shots in the direction of the Glentoran supporters. The crowd panicked as the shots rang out causing a mass stampede towards exits not built to withstand such a surge of bodies. The gunman suddenly realised the enormity of what he had done and ran off towards the Waterloo Works end of the stadium, only to be wrestled to the ground before he made it that far by policemen. Fifty of them surrounded the perpetrator in a tight circle in the centre of the pitch and it was this prompt action that undoubtedly saved him from being lynched.
Chaos ensued as the rest of the police drew batons to clear the pitch of invaders, only to cause more crushing among those trying desperately to escape the ground. It took some time for the RIC to finally clear the angry mob waiting outside the reserved entrance and only then was the handcuffed gunman taken from pitch to police van. As he was driven away, the van door was kept open and police with their rifles loaded and safety catches off stood ready to resist any attempt to rush and release the prisoner. Rioting continued for six hours outside the ground. A fortnight later the gunman was brought to trial and sentenced to 8 months in prison without hard labour, a lenient sentence probably driven by political pragmatism.
What was remarkable about the Cliftonville Riot was that no one was killed. The gunman directly caused four of the dozen serious injuries: a Sergeant Lavelle of the Royal Irish Constabulary went down when a bullet grazed his throat; an 18-year-old spectator was hit by a glancing bullet to the temple and two other men suffered bullet wounds to arm and leg. The remaining injured were admitted to Mater Hospital with a variety of injuries, the worst of which was a fractured skull.
If there’s one event that defines Irish sporting tragedy more than any other, it’s the killing of 14 civilians by British forces at a Gaelic football match inside Dublin’s Croke Park. That terrible day came just seven months after events at Solitude and perhaps because of the close proximity of the two events, the Cliftonville Riot has become something of a footnote in the province’s sporting history. With the toxic combination of gunfire, stampeding supporters, a ramshackle ground and hours of violent rioting; it was only miraculous good fortune that Cliftonville didn’t become one of the worst sporting disasters that Britain and Ireland has ever seen.