Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Ulster-Scot who founded Cliftonville Football Club

The actions of the Cliftonville Football Club players and supporters on Saturday were demeaning to the oldest football club in Ulster, and indeed in Ireland.  Their behaviour was also disrespectful to those who founded the club and guided it through many decades.

As a teenager in the 1960s I supported Cliftonville, as our local team, and it was a team that drew support from across north Belfast.  There were Protestants and Roman Catholics among the supporters and there were Protestants and Roman Catholics on the team, including such notables as Dr Kevin McGarry.

Unfortunately the photograph of the players and manager, standing together on the pitch on Saturday, with their heads bowed during the national anthem, sent out a message that today this team only fields nationalists.  Whether that is true or not is irrelevant.  That was the clear message on Saturday.

Such antipathy to the Queen and the national anthem would certainly have horrified the founder of the club, John McCredy McAlery (1849-1925).

As well as founding Cliftonville Football Club in 1879, McAlery was also the man who introduced football to Ulster.  He had seen the game played in Scotland and when he introduced it into Ulster it was played under the rules of the Scottish Association.

John M McAlery
McAlery was also the moving force behind the formation of the Irish Football Association in 1880 and became the first secretary of the IFA.. In 1882 he was the captain of the Ireland team in their first international match, which was against England, although a 13-0 defeat must have highlighted the fact that they had a lot of work ahead of them.

J M McAlery was also a successful businessman and much more.

He was a devout Presbyterian, with a keen interest in the Bible and in biblical prophecy.  His wife shared his views and she was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.

At that time there was a strong temperance movement in Ulster and McAlery served on the council of the Irish Temperance League which advocated total abstinence.  He also served on the board of the Royal Victoria Hospital.

The latter part of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century covered three home rule crises and saw the emergence of a strong Ulster unionist movement to preserve the Union.  McAlery was a convinced Ulster unionist and he was active in support of the West Belfast Division in Belfast, as well as a member of the Orange Order.

I think it would be fair to assume that the founder of the club, who was a royalist as well as a unionist, would have been horrified by what happened on Saturday.

There is a short biography of McAlery on the website of the Ulster History Circle's Dictionary of Ulster Biography.  It records in some detail his contribution to football and mentions his business interests but unfortunately omits any reference to the other aspects of this notable Ulster-Scot.

Another of the early members, William Kennedy Gibson (1876-1949), played for the club and also played thirteen international games.  Later he became president of Cliftonville Football Club.  Like McAlery, Gibson was a strong unionist and was elected to Belfast Corporation as an Independent Unionist, with the support of the Belfast Citizens Association.


  1. Is it this Gibson, that the Gibson Cup or the Irish League Cup is named after?

  2. And? What a pointless article bragging about religion and temperance. It's the 21st century FFS!

  3. I think the Gibson Cup was named after a Robert Gibson, who was associated with Linfield, but I not absolutely sure about that. William Kennedy Gibson was a son of Andrew Gibson, who was from Cumnock in Scotland but came to Belfast as he worked for a shipping company. W K Gibson of Cliftonville was selected as the Ulster Unionist candidate for the Duncairn constituency in the 1918 general election but stood aside to provide a northern seat for Sir Edward Carson.

  4. Gerard, it's a personal blog and you're under no obligation to read it. There was no bragging, just a short factual account of the man who introduced football into Ulster and Ireland and founded the club.

  5. Nelson, don’t you think that describing someone who was born over two centuries after the plantation as an “Ulster Scot” is a bit tenuous? I mean, I can hardly think that, let’s say, an American born at the same time, who was a Mayflower descendent, would describe themselves as a “Massachusetts Englishman.” I might also ask if you have simply assumed that McAlery was an “Ulster Scot” because he was a Presbyterian? I should tell you that there were more Ulster Presbyterians of Gaelic Irish origin than is usually thought, and given his surname, McAlery very well may have been one.

  6. The term Ulster-Scot was used as early as the 17th century and has been in use ever since. It was certainly used throughout the 19th century and especially during the period in which McAlery lived. All of us have a variety of ancestral lines and in your own case Kendall is an English habitational name but I am sure you have many other ancestral lines. In my own case my father's family came to Ulster from Scotland in the 17th century while my mother, who was born in Scotland in the 20th century, was the daughter of an Ulsterman with Dutch ancestry. That is why it is inappropriate to speak of 'Ulster Presbyterians of Gaelic Irish origin'. We all have many origins. Identity is multi-layered or multi-faceted and Ulster-Scots is the term for a community which developed from the settlements of Scots in Ulster in the 17th century but has over the years absorbed and assimilated others. In the same way Ireland has absorbed and indeed D P Moran wrote that 'The Gael must be the element that absorbs.' Gaelic Ireland absorbed successive peoples, including the Anglo-Normans. However after J B Woodburn wrote his book The Ulster Scot, back in 1914, the reviewer in The Times observed: 'He is a mystery, the Ulster-Scot, all other peoples Ireland tends to absorbs.'

  7. Not much of a mystery, and not unique to Scots ancestry; In fact, it was due to the exact same factor that the "Ulster English", by and large, could be said to have unassimilated. No prizes for guessing what that was, and indeed still is.


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