I first met Mike Shinners in Kansas City. Black 47 was on tour with two days to travel from Denver to Chicago. I received an email from him suggesting a stop in KC.
“Sure,” said I. “Just get us a gig.”
I thought no more about it. But, lo and behold, not only did he set us up in the Hurricane, a great club downtown, he also handled publicity and much else.
I should have guessed that he was in the military. Everything was taken care of in a very precise and low-key manner.
The next email he wrote was from Iraq. Not alone was he in the military but a Lt. Colonel in the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division. It was a long dispatch but, as ever, perfectly detailed and replete with certain theories that he and his unit were putting into effect in East Baghdad and a nearby rural area.
He felt that the cities of Belfast and Glasgow, while sharing much culturally, differed in that one was far less stable over the last half-century. This, he was sure, had something to do with Belfast Celtic Football Club being forced to opt out of the NIFA back in the '50s; whereas, Glasgow's Catholics could always compete with Protestant-dominated Rangers on a literally level playing field on any given Saturday. This contact, he rationalized, enabled both sides to interact more fully within the fields of business and politics during the rest of the week.
Belfast's Catholics enjoyed no such demonstration of respect; hence, its Protestants lost an opportunity to recognize the humanity of, and the common ground they shared with, their Catholic neighbors.
Mike is a student of soccer – the beautiful game – and along with his military comrades he believes that sports is a human right, an essential service as important as electricity and sewage. They feel that a culture lacking such service is not intrinsically stable, and unstable cultures breed insurgency and violence.
They have been aided in their mission by London based group FC Unity and the Kick for Nick Foundation, a CT based organization set up by the family of Pvt. Nick Madaras to give out soccer balls, as a way of breaking down cultural barriers.
All are convinced that on-field competition can sow seeds of unity in the soccer mad, but highly sectarian and ethnically mixed communities, of Iraq. Get Shia, Sunni, Christian, Turkemen, and Kurdish children kicking a ball around a pitch and they’ll ultimate learn to respect each other.
Obviously this man who was part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade's parachute assault into Northern Iraq back in 2003 - followed by operations in and around Kirkuk – knows whereof he speaks.
The question goes a-begging however: how many Irish people are now even aware of the Mighty Belfast Celtic? And is Mike correct in his theory? If the tragedy of St. Stephen’s Day, 1949, had been averted – or should I say prevented – might Belfast have escaped the disaster of the last half-century?
On that day Celtic and Linfield, their traditional rivals, were playing their annual Boxing Day game in Windsor Park in Unionist dominated South Belfast. Celtic were leading 1-0 up until the final minutes when Linfield equalized.
Immediately hordes of Linfield supporters broke onto the pitch and attacked the Celtic players. Many were bruised, some seriously beaten and Jimmy Jones, their star center forward, was thrown over a parapet, kicked repeatedly and had his leg broken. Oddly enough, he and five other teammates were from a Unionist background.
The RUC made only token efforts to protect the players. Soon after Celtic withdrew from the NIFA, figuring that it could not protect its players. Eventually, Celtic Park, aka Paradise, was sold to developers.
Mike recently returned to Fort Bragg. I purposely waited to write this until I was sure he was safely home. These days, you never know.
His hope is that the kids of East Baghdad will get a government that will protect their freedoms, opportunities, and human rights, while giving them an opportunity to compete in the beautiful game.
He’s still a mad Irish music, soccer enthusing, fan as eager to discuss the WolfeTones and Dropkick Murphys as Inter-Milan and Manchester United.
I couldn’t help wondering if things might have been different if those Linfield supporters had not been allowed to run amok back on Dec. 26th, 1949. Would Belfast have had a different fate if the Mighty Celtic had been there to help hold back the red tide of sectarian violence that followed?
Thanks for the thought, Lt. Col. Mike. Welcome home.