“Belfast was actually going to be my last stop, but when I saw that Cliftonville was playing against Crusaders tomorrow I rescheduled my trip and came straight here from Shannon.” The patrons at the Red Devil, “a good Republican pub” in the heart of West Belfast’s Gaeltacht quarter, were amused by what they hearing. I took another sip of my pint of Harp. “You’ll see Crusaders’ keeper drinking here after every match. Got a ticket yet?” I nodded. The interior of the pub was decorated with Basque, Catalan, and Palestinian flags, and scarves of Celtic, St. Pauli, Cliftonville, and Manchester United. All this time, a huge guy covered in tattoos behind the bar had been listening to the conversation but hadn’t said a word. Then, all of a sudden, he got on his phone. “He’s calling his mates to tell them a Mexican guy is going to the game tomorrow,” one of the guys I was talking to told me. I didn’t know what to make out of that. Then, the guy got off the phone and went into a small room in the back. When he came back out he addressed me for the first time and said “so you’re going to the game? Take this, just don’t wear it around town,” and threw me a Cliftonville scarf.
When I first looked into going to Northern Ireland (“planning” would be an overstatement), I figured I would also make a stop in Galway, in the Republic of Ireland, and then head North to Derry. And then I saw that, like in the rest of the United Kingdom, there were two football matches taking place in Belfast on Boxing Day (the second day of Christmas). That threw my plans out of whack. I decided I would go straight to Belfast from Shannon, a city located on the Southwest of the Emerald Isle. That meant waiting three hours at the airport for a night bus to Dublin, then waiting another hour at the Dublin airport for the 5:00 a.m. express to Belfast. All for a football game.
There are four teams from Belfast competing in the Northern Irish Premiership: Crusaders, Linfield, Glentoran, and Cliftonville—and all four play were scheduled to play on that day. I ended up choosing the North Belfast Derby, which is contested by Cliftonville and Crusaders. Why? I figured it would be a little bit more interesting due to one particular factor: Cliftonville is the only team in the Northern Irish League with an Irish Republican following.
Right after buying my ticket online, I got in touch with the club to see where to pick it up. A guy named Stephen replied. To my surprise, he asked me if I’d be interested in a private tour of the stadium. I really had something to look forward to that day now.
Match day. I started making my way to North Belfast at around 10 in the morning. I was supposed to meet with Stephen at 11 a.m. for my private tour of Ireland’s oldest ground. It was a nice morning and buses were not running that often, so I decided to simply stroll my way to the stadium. I first walked all the way up to the Crumlin Rd., and then up until the intersection with Antrim Rd.—a street nicknamed “Murder Mile” during The Troubles. Seeing that I was not going to make it on time I bit the bullet and hailed a cab. “To Solitude, please.” We immediately started talking, but the cab driver was so distracted by the conversation that he instead took me to Seaview—Crusaders’ ground, in the Protestant part of North Belfast. Before I could even see the stadium I was already wondering what the deal was with all the Union Jacks and Northern Irish flags, for the areas around Cliftonville’s ground are overwhelmingly Republican.
When I told him he had taken me to the wrong stadium he apologized (and continued to do so until we got to the right ground), turned off the meter and said he was not trying to rip me off, and drove me to Cliftonville’s ground. As I got out of the car I saw a man carrying a few bags. “Right on time,” said Stephen. We shook hands and I followed him inside the ground for my private tour.
Established in 1879, Cliftonville is Ireland’s oldest club. Based close to the Catholic area of Ardoyne, Cliftonville has a largely Republican following. This is something rare in the Northern Irish Premiership, for all other clubs have overwhelmingly Protestant, Loyalist followings—Cliftonville did too up until a certain point, but that changed as a direct consequence of The Troubles.
In the seventies, many Protestants and Catholics had to leave their neighborhoods and move to other parts of the city due to violence and intimidation. This made the particular Catholic and Protestant areas more homogeneous than before, which is also why Belfast is still so divided today.
In the wake of these changes, the suburb of Cliftonville became overwhelmingly Catholic and Republican. This community had been without a club ever since Belfast Celtic was dissolved due to political pressure and violence in 1949, and thus the new inhabitants of the area were quick to embrace their new local football club as their own.
The conditions that day were excellent for a football match. It was warm, dry, and clear. Stephen gave me an excellent tour of the stadium, which is called Solitude and is the oldest on the whole island. He then explained me the origin of the name: Back when the ground was built, Cliftonville was not a suburb of Belfast but rather a sparsely populated rural town. Not far from the ground there was a farm house inhabited by an old man, who lived there by himself. “The house used to be over there, on the other side of that pond,” said Stephen, pointing in the direction of an empty piece of land. The ground eventually came to be known as “Solitude” in reference to that lonely old man. If that’s not football folklore I don’t know what is.
Solitude is a small stadium with a capacity of roughly 3,000 people. I checked out the ground, stood in the middle of the pitch, went in the trophy room, and then helped Stephen carry a table into the so-called “white house”—a little brick structure that’s falling apart and serves as ticket office from time to time. I had about an hour to kill before meeting up with the friend of a friend of a friend named Brian, who had invited me to join him and his mates at the stadium. By the time they eventually got there the match was about to begin and I was already a bit tipsy.
The tribune was separated from the ground only by a tiny brick wall, and the gate to access the field was open. The match was sold out and it slowly started to get crowded. Flags hung from the stands. The fans of Crusaders had also already filled their block and begun to make themselves heard.
Brian told me that what I was about to witness was unlike anything I’d seen in continental Europe. He was talking about the barrage of “uncoordinated verbal abuse” that was to rain down on the fans and players of Crusaders.
The match started. For the passionate fans of Cliftonville, the result of the game was going to make or break their Christmas. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Crusaders scored. Disbelief. Shortly after that, Crusaders scored again. The mood became a bit more aggressive toward Cliftonville’s players due to their perceived lack of passion and clear lack of initiative. At this point, Cliftonville’s game was uncoordinated, and Crusaders scored again. People started to leave. “Can you believe these part-timers, leaving just like that!?” People in the Cliftonville end were angry. “They paid money for this and they’re entitled to leave if they want to!” Came the reply. “Well fuck right off with them then!” Crusaders scored again right before the match ended. It was a terrible game for Cliftonville. But then again, Crusaders are strong this season and will probably win the championship. Oh, and they are the defending champions too.
We went back into the club house and ordered a round of beers. I talked with a lot of locals who told me about what it’s like to live in Belfast. (For a detailed account of those conversations please refer to part three of this series.) I heard nostalgic stories about away days in Hungary, or that one time Cliftonville faced Celtic in a UEFA match at Solitude. I met a German ground-hopper who had flown in from Frankfurt, and a few Shamrock Rovers fans who took the bus from Dublin just for the game. After the match, the only thing we didn’t talk about was, well, the match. You win some, you lose some, I guess.
Cliftonville is an interesting club because of its fan base. Cliftonville fans share a friendship with Glasgow Celtic. Basically every Cliftonville supporter is also a Celtic fan. Likewise, the friendship extends to Hamburg in Germany: St. Pauli is incredibly popular here too, mostly because of the Celtic connection. Some fans have contacts to the Hertha Berlin ultras too (why Hertha, though!?). Cliftonville supporters are very left-wing, and support commendable causes such as helping refugees and advocate for marriage equality.
You might know about the controversies surrounding the Old Firm Derby between Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow: Sectarian abuse, controversial symbols, references to paramilitaries. You’d think that, if that happens in Glasgow, it would definitely happen in Belfast too—but it doesn’t. The fans might have insulted each other and their teams for the duration of the game, but none of those insults were of a sectarian nature. There were also neither sectarian songs nor sectarian symbols. Both clubs work on a lot of cross-community projects together too. That also showed me that times are changing in Northern Ireland.
My theory is that football fans in Scotland are more willing to bring the Irish conflict into their stadiums because they didn’t experience it like they did in Belfast. It’s a completely different reality there—after all, Scotland is not Northern Ireland. But for the people of Northern Ireland, who live with the legacy of The Troubles and are constantly faced with the city’s violent past, for those who cross the Peace Line every morning on their way to work, or for those who have lost friends or relatives as a result of the violence, the stadium offers a safe place away from that reality.
All in all, attending the North Belfast Derby was a great experience—even though the game itself was terrible. I made new friends, learned a lot about Belfast during The Troubles, and got a really good impression of what it’s like to live in a divided city (for an account of those conversations please check out part three). Also, I got to experience football the way it should be—raw and up-close. It was a no-frills experience: No European-style support, no flares or coordinated singing and clapping, just verbal paroxysms mixed with laughter—at least in the beginning. The name of the stadium, the derelict white house, the old school stands—this was football romanticism in its primordial state.
After a few beers, I got in a taxi with Brian and some of his friends and headed down to Hatfield’s, in South Belfast. We all put our red and white scarves away, for club colors are not well seen in Belfast, and entered the pub for a wee bit of craic.
All in all, a memorable away day.
Hope you enjoyed the read! This series is slowly coming to an end. Part six is about my time in Derry, the second largest city in Northern Ireland and a hotbed for dissident Republican activity. Check it out right here!
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