A Dramatic Linfield Away Day: Clashing with the IRA in Lurgan

*This piece originally appeared in the East Belfast - Shankill Extra newspaper in 2017.

Linfield recently won a pulsating Irish League title race with a dramatic away day at Solitude versus Cliftonville, but Dublin historian Donal Fallon has sent me this account of another dramatic away day for Linfield in the early 1920’s:

For every man, woman and child who took part in the Easter Rising, War of Independence or the Civil War, there were a variety of personal and political factors that motivated them. Decades after the events, the Bureau of Military History decided to interview as many veterans as possible about their experiences, to get a sense of those factors and to help future generations of researchers. 1,773 statements were recorded from Volunteers right across the island, though some staunch republicans refused to speak to what they regarded as a ‘Free State’ project. Unsurprisingly, sports frequently emerge in these recollections. While many of the rank and file were GAA athletes and enthusiasts (Michael Collins was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by a certain Sam Maguire), stories involving Association Football emerge in a few of the recollections. One of the strangest concerns the day shots were exchanged by Linfield supporters and the IRA in Lurgan.

J.J Murray, an active member of the IRA in the town, recalled in his statement that following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, "most of the nationalist areas in Lurgan decorated their streets with flags and bunting to celebrate the event." To us today, this may seem unusual as Lurgan fell within the boundaries of what would become the state of Northern Ireland, yet there existed a belief in some sections of northern nationalism that the Treaty was a stepping stone towards a unified state. Murray remembered that:

During the time that these decorations were exhibited the Linfield Soccer Football Team travelled from Belfast to Lurgan to play a Lurgan town team. The match took place on a Saturday and the Linfield team were accommodated in a special train in which a very large number of their supporters travelled.

Rumours abounded that "the passengers on the train had threatened to wreck the town of Lurgan on account of the decorations", and the Lurgan IRA were mobilised and placed in strategic positions in the nationalist districts of the town. While Murray didn’t recount who won the match in his statement, he remembered that tensions were high after it, and that a number of Volunteers mobilised at "Kilmaine Street which was a nationalist district and which the special train for Belfast would pass through on its journey home." The local IRA had received intelligence suggesting there were armed passengers on the train, and thus "a possibility they might open fire from the train when passing through nationalist districts." When the train arrived at Mary Street, a volley of shots rang out from it, and "when the O/C heard the shooting from the train at Mary St. he gave orders to our party to open fire on it when it came into our view at Kilmaine Street." Murray claimed to see men “leaning out through the windows firing revolvers”, and that “we heard afterwards that several of the people in the train were injured and were removed from the train at Lisburn Station. We never could, however, ascertain the full facts as this incident was never reported in any newspaper."

Unfortunately, sectarianism had been a problem in northern association football for some time. One newspaper complained in 1899 that "the curse of party bigotry" had entered Belfast football after a riot marred the Irish Cup semi-final between Belfast Celtic and Glentoran, while gunfire rang out at a September 1912 clash between Belfast Celtic and Linfield, when Orange Order banners and "Home Rule for Ireland" chanting got in the way of sport.

Linfield supporters (or players!) firing out the windows of a train is a good story concerning Belfast football in the vaults of the Bureau of Military History, but it isn’t the only one. Denis McCullough, a leading figure in the revitalising of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Belfast, recalled the bitter rivalry that existed in the city between members of the Irish Volunteers and the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the years before the Easter Rising. The AOH was a Catholic fraternity which enjoyed a strained relationship with some separatists, who denounced it as sectarian. Many of its leading lights in Belfast were members of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which put it at odds with men like McCullough, and he remembered that when the Volunteers in Belfast secured two machine guns, "the AOH some way traced their hiding place and one night seized the guns and hid them in the pavilion in Celtic Association Football Club groups. They remained there for a long time, but sometime around 1919/20, the IRA traced their hiding place, raided Celtic Park, recovered the guns and sent them back to Dublin." According to McCullough, these guns were later used in IRA ambushes in the south of the country. These are just two of the many stories concerning sports within the Bureau, which is still proving a treasure trove for historians years after being digitised and made available to the public.

You can listen to Donal Fallon's Dublin history podcast 'Three Castles Burning' HERE

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