23 May 2022

If you know your history: Kilrea’s Celtic connection

Looking back at a time when Celtic's stars summered on the banks of the Bann.

Thousands of local Celtic supporters take regular trips to Glasgow to cheer on their heroes, but one County Derry town got up close and personal with their stars back in the 1950s. Liam Tunney talks to two local football men who remember rubbing shoulders with them.

In 2003 the BBC cameras rocked up at O’Brien’s bar in Kilrea. Celtic had reached their first European final since their 1970 European cup defeat to Feyenood.

Generating the interest was the fact that Kilrea native, Martin O’Neill, was at the helm for their controversial 3-2 defeat to Porto, but the town’s association with the club dates back to long before O’Neill’s arrival.

The bar itself forms a central part to the connection, and the O’Brien family can be traced right back to the club’s formation in 1888.

Dick O’Brien is the great grandson of one of Celtic’s founding members, Francis McErlaine, a foundry owner who provided a substantial £25 investment back at its inception.

Francis' daughter was married to James Kelly, the club's first captain, and his granddaughter, Jenny, married Dick McManus. Dick and Jenny bought what was then the Diamond Bar in Kilrea in 1920.

“I wasn’t there the night the cameras came, I was on holiday. My brother gave out hell about it,” said Dick.

“I did an interview with the BBC in the bar when there was a possibility of Martin becoming manager of England, but that was a few years later.”

“There was a one-storey house when he [Dick] bought it and a lot of people had died with TB there. The priest in Kilrea at that time, Fr McCrae, advised my grandfather to tumble the house.

“They found 37 layers of wallpaper and apparently the TB was in the wallpaper. He rebuilt it then as a two-storey building.”

Francis McErlaine returned to Ireland in the late 1880s and built a house outside Portglenone, County Antrim known as Tigh-na-Banna, the House on the Bann.

Coincidentally, the current occupier of the house is the outgoing Chairperson of Mid Ulster District Council, Martin Kearney.

The contractors who built the house must have had an idea of who was going to be living there, and Dick says they left a special message in the roof space.

“Martin came over to see me about the house once,” said Dick.

“He was doing some renovations in the roof space. This house was built in the 1880s, and he came on letters etched in the rafters. They said ‘FTP’ – F**k the Pope!”

Martin, ever the diplomat, regards the message as a calling card.

“You always have to leave your mark as a craftsman. That must have been how things were left in those days,” he said.

Around the late 1940s and 1950s, there was a thriving local football scene in the Bann Valley and crowds would flock to see teams take part in summer tournaments.

As well as the link with the bar, Kilrea was also home to another Celtic shareholder, a man known simply as Prop. McLaughlin, with ‘Prop’ short for ‘proprietor’.

McLaughlin ran the local hotel and used his contacts to attract a host of talent from the Glasgow side to holiday in Kilrea, and, while they were there, help out on the pitch.

“They played in the summer cups. I remember big John and Billy McPhail, two brothers, and Jock Weir. The three of them were Scottish internationals,” said Dick O’Brien.

“It wasn’t that unusual at the time. Their season was finished, and they weren’t  too well paid then you see.

“I remember my father telling me about taking John McPhail to see Belfast Celtic playing in Ballymena, it must have been an end-of-season game.

“McPhail said to him ‘If the Glasgow Celtic supporters had a team like that, they would go delirious’. He thought Belfast Celtic were so good.”

While the players were encouraged into a red and white jersey and ushered onto the pitch down by the Bann bridge, they were also determined to make the most of their free time.

“They were here on holiday too,” recalled Dick.

“They stayed with my aunt and uncle in Maghera Street in Kilrea. They had just built a house and the front of it had this reinforced black glass as a covering.

“It was bolted in and the screws had silver tops on them. The boys must have been out on the tear one night, and they climbed up trying to get back in and broke the bloody glass!”

Another local man who remembers the Celtic players around Kilrea is Willie McLure, whose father Wallace played on the Kilrea teams of that era.

“They were over for the summer and they certainly enjoyed themselves!” said Willie.

“It was to do with Prop. McLaughlin. He lived up there beside the Town Hall and was a director of Celtic. Willie Miller played and John McPhail and Jock Weir all played at that time.

“I remember my father telling me that one night, they were playing a match and they had great bother keeping the goalkeeper in goals.

“He wanted to go out and play centre forward – he was rightly oiled at the time. They were fond of a few jars here and there!”

The summer tournaments in which the Celtic men played were a star attraction in the early 1950s and attracted Irish League footballers as well as the Glaswegian stars.

While it may be surprising in the era of the celebrity footballer, their presence in the town during the summer months was greeted with casual acceptance by the locals.

“I remember the three guys playing in the one match. It was something out of the ordinary, three Celtic guys playing for Kilrea, but it didn’t cause too much of a fuss,” said Willie.

“The town just sort of accepted them and didn’t pay too much attention to them really. They were just treated as ordinary fellas and they were very down-to-earth characters.

“My father and me even went over in 1947 to Hampden to see Scotland playing. Jock Weir had a pub at the time, and we were able to spend time with him after the game.”

Whether or not the Parkhead hierarchy were aware of their talented players’ summer arrangements, they were forced to call a halt when one of their stars reported back for training in less-than-perfect condition.

“Jock [Weir] got hurt during a match down at the Bann Road,” said Willie.

“Someone tackled him a bit late and he hurt a muscle or something. He went back to Celtic trailing the leg and he wasn’t in great shape.

“It didn’t seem to worry him too badly at the time but when he went back, they were pulled into line and they weren’t allowed back again after that.”

Those relationships and links within top-level football seem unthinkable now in an era of Louboutin changing bags and flashy cars, but the link with Kilrea continues to bear fruit.

Its legacy feeds into the hordes of Celtic supporters from the town who make regular journeys to Parkhead, buoyed by a soulful sense of connection.

That non-descript field next to the now derelict Portneal Lodge is easily missed if the traffic is flowing well at the Bann Bridge lights, but its history is magical to those who witnessed it.

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