Sport in West Belfast

An overview of sport in west Belfast

The Gaelic Athletic Association
In nationalist west Belfast, traditional sports promoted by the Gaelic Athletic Association predominate. Handball is perhaps the most widely recognised Gaelic sport overseas, but really only practiced by boys on street corners in west Belfast.

In the area’s Gaelic Athletics Clubs, Gaelic football and hurling that are most commonly played. West Belfast has the highest concentration of GAA clubs in Ireland, generating fierce rivalry as they are sometimes located only metres apart. It could be argued that such a high frequency of clubs spreads local talent too thinly. Indeed, west Belfast clubs have failed to make an impact provincially. Although they often represent Co Antrim in the Ulster Football Championships, a play-off between the leading clubs in each county of the ancient province of Ulster, it has been a long time since a club from Antrim won. In hurling, west Belfast clubs are also inferior to hurlers from the Glens of Antrim, where Loughgiel and Dunloy dominate.

The best attended sporting events in west Belfast are the inter-county GAA matches played at Casement Park. Support is passionate for both football and hurling, and matches can attract crowds of over 20,000 to the ground. The largest crowd is reserved for the Ulster football final, which takes place either in Casement Park or Clones in Co Monaghan at the beginning of July. The sectarian tension in Belfast during the marching season means that the game may be moved if it is deemed unsafe or if roads are blocked.

The cultural and social importance of the GAA in west Belfast is evident in the grandeur of the clubhouses, often more akin to hotels than changing facilities. Most clubs annually elect an entertainments officer to coordinate events and to raise money for the upkeep of the facilities. The clubhouses are popular social venues every night of the week.

Aside from the Gaelic Athletic Association, football has a large following. Belfast Celtic, one of Belfast’s largest football clubs, hailed from the west of the city. In their 60 year history, they set many local football records, winning 14 league championships. The side folded in 1949 after a riot at their Celtic Park home. Despite efforts to revive the club and its name, all hope ended in the 1970s when the grounds were levelled. The site is now the Park Centre shopping complex.

Also in west Belfast, the Dunmurray league is a notoriously passionate local amateur football league, with hundreds of players participating every week. Donegal Celtic are semi-professional, and represent the area in the Irish league first division. Their impressive pitch at Suffolk Road is built high on the mountainside, offering spectacular views of the city.

Amateur boxing is very popular, with the Immaculata and Holy Trinity clubs consistently supplying the international amateur squad with talented fighters. Those who have gone on to win competitive belts at professional level include Brian Magee and Damaen Kelly. Indeed, Belfast has a rich and experienced supply of volunteers to coach and mentor young hopefuls.

Clubs and Facilities
The presence of numerous Gaelic Athletic Clubs in west Belfast means there is no lack of open spaces for running and other exercise. Playing fields are located at Falls Park. Public leisure facilities are available at Andersonstown and Beechmount, and at the Shankill, the only loyalist area of west Belfast.

The Falls Bowling and Lawn Tennis Club is located at Fruithill on the Anderstown Road. Stretched to capacity in the summer months by locals inspired by Wimbledon, Fruithill is equally popular in the winter months as a social club with a pleasant and welcoming attitude.

© Conor McLoughlin 2004