The team the Irish basketball world forgot
After the Olympic experience in 1948, basketball continued to grow through visionaries like Fr. Joe Horan who helped build the famous Oblate Hall in Inchicore. As the game started to spread out beyond the barracks there were an increasing number of clubs all around the country who started to develop. That progression led to an amazing moment within Irish basketball that unfortunately has largely been forgotten.
In many Irish people’s minds, basketball in Ireland began in the 1980s. The glory years documented in Kieran Shannon’s fantastic book Hanging from the Rafters were indeed a significant high point in the game. With American’s like Kelvin Troy and Mario Elie coming to Ireland’s shores and capturing the imagination of the Irish public, it’s understandable why this era is always to the forefront of people’s minds.
So, it’s fair to assume that the largest ever attendance at a competitive game in Ireland came during this glory era of the sport? Not quite.
It’s also a reasonable assumption that it would be in the National Basketball Arena, Neptune Stadium or maybe even breaking health and safety regulations in Fr. Horan’s Inchicore that the largest crowd were packed in? Again, not quite.
To go through the annals of Irish basketball lore it is in fact in the North of the country that holds the record for the biggest attendance at a competitive game on this island (the Harlem Globetrotters once played an exhibition game in front of 11,000 people in Tolka Park).The competitive attendance record didn’t come at the recent Belfast Classics in the Odyssey Arena either, but rather in an era before the National League existed, it was achieved by a team of forgotten darlings that have all but been written out of Irish basketball history.
On October 29th, 1963, a reported 8,500 people packed in the King’s Hall Belfast to see the Belfast Celtics face off against the international powerhouse Real Madrid in the European Champions Cup. The attendance figure is debated in different sources, but all agree on a figure over 5,000 which In itself is incredible but tracking the rise and fall of the Belfast Celtics highlights just how amazing this moment in the sport was.
The Belfast Celtics began in 1960 after a group of St Malachy’s classmates got together and formed a club of their own. Led by Eamonn Brennan a group came together to see what club basketball could entail. Brennan who was described as a gentle giant at 6’3 would eventually impact on the game well beyond the Celtics as he became a Chairman of Basketball Northern Ireland. But it was the Belfast Celtics story that captured people’s imagination and in an interview with the Irish News in 2015 he summed it up by simply saying “I think we have a bit of a story”.
The early days of the Celtics saw Brennan and the Boyle brothers, Noel and Charlie, at the centre of the club as they started to make a name for themselves. Truthfully though it was when they recruited in that the fortunes of the team started to change. Perhaps the most significant early signing was Alan Moneypenny who joined from St. Galls at just 16 years of age. Moneypenny would hold the distinction of being the only Protestant on the team but at that time it didn’t present any issues in Belfast. Moneypenny was an Irish international while still a schoolboy and standing at over 6’4 he was an imposing presence. Alongside their young star, Gus Hannigan and Michael Gilroy also joined the ranks and the team had eight Irish internationals playing at one time. The size and strength of the team gave them a big advantage in the Irish club championships which they won four times in a row. The strength of the team was undoubtedly in their athleticism as some of the stars were multi-sport stars. Charlie Boyle was a midfielder for Antrim, Jim McKeever captained Derry to the 1958 All Ireland Final (in a loss to Dublin), while Séamus McKinney was a British triathlon champion.
In the early 60s the team were in some ways similar to modern inter county teams as they had a team doctor and great backroom support. Despite that though, they were limited by not having any gear. In a classic Irish move, a letter was written by Noel Boyle to the Boston Celtics, who themselves were entering a period of major dominance under Red Auerbach. Amazingly the Boston Celtics responded and sent a full set of gear completely free of charge to help their Irish compatriots.
Now that they were decked out and having already reached the top of the domestic game, the Belfast Celtics went and entered the European Cup. Irish club teams involvement in Europe has been very limited with St. Vincent’s and Neptune the only men’s teams in the modern era to attempt to play in official European competitions, while Naomh Mhuire also did so on the women’s side. In the early 1960s though the winners of the national championships in Cathal Brugha Barracks would automatically qualify for Europe. In 1961 it would be Dublin Celtics who beat Belfast Celtics 33-30 to book Ireland’s first ever place in European competition. In December of 1961 Antwerp would come to Dublin and face Dublin Celtics in what the Evening Herald deemed a ‘very important chapter in the history of basketball in Ireland’. The Irish Independent would also wish the team look as “They have trained hard and have learned every trick in the book that Irish basketball was able to teach them…”. Unfortunately there were more tricks in the European basketball book and Antwerp would win out comfortably 82-62, despite being tested in patches. The value of competing at international level for the Irish players was something their coach Sergeant M. Quinn would highlight in the Herald “I thought before the match we would be badly outclassed although I was not going to tell the boys that. They really excelled themselves…lack of experience of continental opposition was a big disadvantage but their performance will have done a great deal for the game here and for themselves.” In the second leg the Dubs would be completely outmatched but a foundation had been laid for Irish players to start competing with top teams internationally.
The following year the Belfast Celtics would take their place in Europe and in the small hall in the Kings Hall Belfast they faced the reigning French Champions. Similar to their Dublin counterparts the Belfast team were given a tough lesson in what top level basketball was all about in what was kindly described by the players as an annihilation. Despite the tough experience, the Celtics came back the following year and a little wiser from their first experience they got back on the recruiting trail. The arrival of American players in Ireland is credited to Hall of Famer Paudie O’Connor who brought Americans in to Killarney in 1979 in a move that transformed the domestic game in Ireland. Paudie’s genius though was predated by Noel Boyle who had already shown a flair for thinking outside of the box and making things a reality. Boyle’s next move was one of legend and was as audacious as you could imagine. Knowing they needed reinforcements Noel saw a basketball match on tv featuring the US Airforce. Noel’s reaction was to get on to the phone and call the commanding officer at the US camp in Croughton in England and ask could they have three players for their upcoming European Cup game! The commanding officer, a Colonel Peebles, was apparently a bit bemused by the idea so Noel Boyle and Alan Moneypenny made the trip to Croughton to meet the commander. After a quick conversation three players were given to the Celtics to help in their quest. The pick of the bunch was Warren Brown who had played for Kansas State and was an All American before joining the Airforce in ’62. Brown was joined by point guard Dick Cooper and 6’7 big man Bill Brown. The issue of Americans coming in to help Irish teams to compete would be one that would dominate the 90s and 2000s but it was also an issue in 1963 as the minutes of an Amateur Basketball Association of Ireland meeting would outline “The executive were perturbed by reports that Belfast Celtics proposed fielding players that were thought not to be legal. The Hon. Sec ABAI instructed to contact D.O. Hughes by telegram and phone instructing him and empowering him to take all necessary steps to safeguard the interests of the Association. A full report will be required from Belfast Celtics as soon as possible after the game is played.” All the players and the Celtics would be cleared but it would be an early warning sign that bringing in outside talent to help domestic players compete internationally might be something that doesn’t sit well with the locals.
The European Cup draw saw the Celtics get a two-leg fixture with the European powerhouse Real Madrid. Madrid had been the European Cup runners up in the 1961-62 season and again in 62-63 so as they headed to Belfast for the first-leg they had their sights firmly set on winning their first ever European title. The Spaniards were led by their 6’3 forward Emiliano Rodríguez who would go on to become recognised as one of FIBA’s 50 greatest players in 1991 and a member of the FIBA Hall of Fame. With such a marquee club coming to Belfast, the Kings Hall again was arranged but this time the bigger capacity was made available. In a scheduling quirk that undoubtedly helped, the Spanish football team were facing Northern Ireland the following night in Windsor Park. The football match was the second leg of a European Nations Cup qualifier, the teams had drawn in Bilbao 1-1 so there was a lot of excitement for the return leg that Spain would go on and win 1-0. The official attendance for the basketball game has been recorded as 8,500 although unofficial tallies were closer to 11,000. The home team didn’t disappoint either as they treated the local support to a great display with new American recruit Warren Brown leading the way with 35 points. It wasn’t just the international players who impressed though as Michael Brennan, brother of Eamonn and one of the original Malachy’s men had nine points and the young Alan Moneypenny added seven. It wasn’t to be though for the Celtics as Madrid pulled away and won the first leg comfortably. A measure of the Celtics performance was the reaction of Real Madrid’s coach Joachim Hernandez who told the Irish News “They’re a much better team than we expected, and our boys had to produce their best stuff to win.” Madrid would go on to win the second leg comfortably too on their way to their first European Cup success. It proved to be the start of an amazing journey for Real as they won the European Cup in ’64, ’65, ’67 and ’68. The visit to Ireland would not be the last time Madrid appeared on the island as in 1995 Real Madrid would play in the Roy Curtis tournament (albeit with a second-team filled mainly with younger players) where they would lose to St. Vincent’s from Dublin.
What should also have been the start of a journey for the Belfast Celtics turned out to be the high point for the club as things started to unravel soon after. Despite winning the Irish Championship again in 1964, the team decided not to continue their European adventure. As is often the way, as the core group led by Eamonn Brennan started to step away the driving force behind the club was lost. Add in the pollical context of Belfast in the late 60s and there were even greater obstacles for the team. With basketball facilities limited the Celtics used to train in the Palace Army Barracks in Hollywood and as the Troubles were starting in Northern Ireland this became impossible. Ultimately what was a potential Irish sporting dynasty was lost to unrest up north. Both Moneypenny and Brennan would lament years later that travel and getting teams to come to Belfast would prove impossible and basketball would effectively shut down for 6-7 years.
The backdrop of Belfast from the late 60s onwards would end up being a defining period for both Adrian Fulton and Gareth Maguire who would go on to be instrumental in Ireland’s rise in international basketball.