Sport in North Belfast

An overview of sporting clubs and events in north Belfast.

Sport is well represented on the cultural landscape of north Belfast, although it is often the case that a club or a sport has either wilfully or by association become attached to one side of the religious divide or other. North Belfast is probably the most confrontational religious environment in Northern Ireland. Numerous pockets of Protestant and Catholic housing developments back on to each other, separated sometimes by a purpose built peace line, but often by only a couple of streets. Thus, there is no large swathe of mixed Catholic or Protestant housing from which to build a sports association that can unite the community.
Gaelic football and cricket, for example, are both victims of their own histories and the underlying message that the wearing cricket whites or Gaelic shirts displays in the north of the city is not lost on the residents there. Cricket is a sport for Protestants; Gaelic is a sport for Catholics.
There are, however, as everywhere in Northern Ireland, committed individuals who have striven to leave religious differences in the locker room and to create a sporting environment free from difference. Such ideals have usually only prospered in the refined environment of the golf clubs and the bowling greens.
The problems behind promoting a unified sporting voice in the north of the city has not stopped the council and other government bodies from investing in amenities, although most public tennis courts and football pitches have seen better days.
There are two Irish Premier Division football clubs in north Belfast, and they are symptomatic of their geographical and cultural location. Located little over a mile apart, Cliftonville FC and Crusaders FC are both remarkably similar and strikingly different. Their supporters share a deep-rooted sense of belonging and pride in their history, and both wave their national flags as an act of defiance and identity. Cliftonville are supported by a largely Catholic nationalist crowd, while Crusaders attract a Protestant and unionist crowd.
Both clubs have enjoyed success in the recent past. Crusaders won the league in 1995 and 1997 only to see the Gibson Cup, awarded to the champions of the Irish Premier Division, make the short trip across the Antrim Road to Cliftonville in 1998. On this occasion, Cliftonville fans decided to celebrate their triumph by marching into the city centre and draping a tricolour around the shoulders of a large statue of Queen Victoria that sits outside the City Hall.
The two most memorable events in the clubs’ histories are remarkable in local terms. Cliftonville, formed in 1879, have the noteworthy claim of being the oldest football club in Ireland. Crusaders welcomed the world’s media to north Belfast in 1976 when they played eventual European Cup winners Liverpool at a packed and raucous Seaview stadium.
Brantwood FC represents north Belfast in the First Division. At a lower level, there are a couple of notable junior clubs and hundreds of clubs made up by church groups, business colleagues, Old Boys Associations and Youth Clubs. The City of Belfast Playing Fields are located just outside North Belfast, adjacent to Mallusk Industrial Park. There is also a set of council owned pitches on the Shore Road.
Most Irish league players have a second job and are paid on an appearance basis. They are the second string of local talent, with the elite group usually moving to professional clubs in England and Scotland in their teens. Those who do not make the grade are almost guaranteed to find a club in the Irish league.
While Northern Ireland’s favourite sport is undoubtedly football, Gaelic games attract higher attendance and participation figures. Predominantly a rural phenomenon, Gaelic games flourish only in the west of the city. The most common misconception is that the ill-fated St Enda’s GAC is a north Belfast club, but it is actually based outside the city in Glengormley. This does not stop many families from the Antrim Road area sending their children there, although the sad record of having had four men killed in its vicinity since 1993 has reduced the club’s ability to develop as a cultural and social venue.
Cliftonville Cricket Club has suffered a similar sad decline. Like their footballing counterparts, the cricketers are one of the oldest clubs in Ireland, but their vast ground, known locally as ‘the crick’, was vacated in the 1970s because of shifting religious demographics. The club has now moved northwards, up the coast to Greenisland, but has retained its original name.
Lawn and crown green bowls are popular in the north of the city, with three clubs at Salisbury, Cliftonville and Cavehill. Cavehill also boasts a tennis club, which is very busy in the summer. Cavehill Country Park provides athletes with the opportunity to practice on challenging cross-country running tracks, and exercise for keen walkers and ramblers.
There are four amateur boxing clubs in north Belfast. The clubs, the Newington Club with their renowned Patsy Quinn Gym, provide the boys with a training regime and respect for discipline.
By Conor McLoughlin