Blue plaque unveiled for Rathfriland football hero

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The Ulster History Circle has unveiled a blue plaque for James McCredy McAlery at ‘Solitude’, the home of Cliftonville FC in Belfast Belfast.

John McCredy McAlery was born in 1849 in Rathfriland, and went on to be the manager of the Irish Tweed House gentleman’s outfitters in Belfast.

He became interested in the game of football when attending a match in Scotland.

There was no tradition of the game in Ulster. While on honeymoon in Scotland in 1878, he watched football being played for the first time.

He was already an accomplished cricketer and Treasurer of Cliftonville Cricket Club. He was so enthralled by the sport of football that he invited the Caledonians’ captain, JA Allen, to bring a match to Belfast.

So it was that on 24 October, 1878, a properly organised game of Association Football was first played in Ireland; Scottish sides Caledonians and Queen’s Park playing a demonstration game at the Ulster Cricket Club in Belfast.

The game in Ireland grew from that landmark. On 20 September, 1879, in an advertisement in the News Letter, McAlery invited “Gentlemen desirous of becoming members” to an open practice for Cliftonville Association Football Club (Scottish Association Rules). Thus the first match played by an Irish Association Football club was between Cliftonville and Quidnuncs, a team of rugby players, on 29 September 1879. The rugby players won 2-1.

McAlery set about the problem of finding rivals, by helping to found Knock FC. The formation of Knock followed a familiar pattern, with a team made up of members of an existing lacrosse club, as Cliftonville had been from an existing cricket club. McAlery travelled far and wide across Ulster to encourage others to try his ‘new’ game.

On 18 November 1880 McAlery and Cliftonville FC organised a meeting at the Queen’s Hotel in Belfast, attended by representatives from Avoniel FC, Distillery FC, Knock FC, Oldpark FC (all Belfast), Moyola Park FC (Castledawson) and Alexander FC (Limavady).

It was at this meeting that the Irish Football Association was formed, creating a constitution and formalising the game rules along the lines of the Scottish Association. Major Spencer Chichester was appointed as President and McAlery as Secretary. In an appendix to the minutes of that first meeting McAlery wrote: “If the spirit which pervaded from those present be acted upon, the result will be a strong Association for promoting the game which we have espoused.”

McAlery died in 1925.