Trinity Harriers were formed in 1894 and operated out of the premises of the Holy Trinity Church of Ireland on the corner of Ballysillan Road and Cliftonville Roads. At the time clubs organised weekly runs (paper chases) for its members usually on a Saturday. Trinity’s first outing was to Hollywood when 63 runners turned out.
The club was quick to embrace the competitive side of the sport and on the 27 December 1894 was involved in a triangular match with Dublin club Elysian Harriers and County Down Harriers at the Oval in Ballymacarrett. According to the Freeman’s Journal a good crowd of spectators gathered to witness what was described as a six mile steeplechase.
It was a tough baptism for the green and whites with their first runner Boyd taking 9th as J Archer led Elysian (36) to a comfortable victory over County Down with Trinity, only having two finishers, unable to complete a team. Archer would take 5th in the Irish Senior Cross Country Championships a few months later with Elysian taking silver medals in the team competition behind Belfast Harriers.
Undaunted the club entered the Irish Junior Championship in early 1895 and finished a very credible sixth of the ten competing clubs. Clonliffe Harriers (92) scored a narrow one point win over Belfast Harriers. Other northern clubs were Cliftonville Harriers (4th) and County Down who failed to complete a scoring six. The club soon consolidated its position as one of the leading clubs in the Northern Branch, continuing weekly training runs. Taking advantage of public transport, the club travelled to a variety of venues. One such was Craigavad which the club visited in November 1895.
The Irish News and Belfast Morning News described that “the Saturday evening was all that it could be desired, as far as favourable weather is concerned, for harriers’ outings.” The club travelled to fulfil an invitation from Mr. H McCormick. The Harriers arrived on the 3:35 train and “lost no time in divesting themselves of clothing and donning the togs”.
The hares, James Boyd and James Stoupe, laid out a trail across the County Down countryside and were back in 45 minutes. The fast pack were said to be in “full cry, to the no small delight of the country folk.” Mr McCormick laid on refreshments for the 59 harriers in his home after the outing, the second time he had done so. Trinity also met frequently for Saturday runs with other clubs such as Newtownards Harriers, County Antrim Harriers and Belfast Harriers, whom they described in reports as their “friends”.
There was further improvement in the Irish Junior the following year, moving up to sixth spot behind a crack Cork Harriers squad who won with the incredibly low score of 37 points. Belfast Harriers slipped to third but again had W Finlay in the top six while Trinity yet again did not have a finisher in the top 10.
That was rectified in 1897 when Trinity’s J Lockhart (9th) and J Alexander (10th) broke new ground for the Ballysillan men. The club did not seem to contest the 1898 championship and in review of the clubs at the time, Leveret in the Sport observed: “I cannot see what is up with Trinity. There seems a want of enthusiasm and a new Reverend R Carr required before the club can dream of success.”
Trinity returned to the fray in 1899 when no less than three Northern clubs made their way south to Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin. The course was beside the canal, alongside the Crumlin Road and adjacent the tramline terminus. Special trams were laid on for the benefit of spectators.
The area was known as the Slob Lands and the going was generally regarded as heavy. The race marked the emergence on the national stage of the great John F Joyce from Ballinasloe Harriers who carried off all four (Junior and Senior) national titles that year. Ulsterville and County Antrim tied on 204 points for joint fourth with Trinity in sixth spot, again not providing a top ten placer.
In the first Northern Branch Championship in 1899 they lifted silver team medals behind County Antrim Harriers. Better was to follow in 1900 with William Miller taking the individual title and leading Trinity to a convincing team victory.
The Green and Whites slipped to fifth (of five) the following year as County Antrim regained their team title and Ulsterville’s J W Jefferson took the individual crown. Trinity were again out of the medals in 1902 as County Antrim successfully defended the top spot in the North and also supplied the individual winner in J McAuley.
The Premiers, as they called themselves, were strengthened by the recruitment of James Ferguson from North Belfast Harriers probably later that year. The first mention found for Ferguson in the press of the day was in June 1900 when he finished second in the Mile Flat race at Downpatrick Sports in the grounds of Down Cricket Club. S Minnis of Ulsterville was the winner in 4 minutes 37 and 2/5ths seconds with
Ferguson at the time running in the colours of North Belfast Harriers. The weather was said to be “inclement” and there were numerous falls in the cycling events without anyone being injured.
In the 1901 census, he is shown as living at 6 Bray Street in the Shankill Ward of Belfast City. He shares the home with his mother Elizabeth, two sisters and a brother. James is the youngest of the family at 23 years. Nothing much is seen of him on the track that year but he more than makes up for it in 1902 when he seems to race fairly frequently at the many local meetings.
The following year he made the switch from North Belfast Harriers to Trinity. The reasons for this switch are not known but certainly Trinity appeared to be a much more ambitious club at the time than North Belfast or maybe being of the Church of Ireland faith, he felt more at home among his own denomination.
Either way he quickly profited from the transfer by leading Trinity to the Northern Branch Cross Country Championship at Belvoir Park in March 1903. After a close battle Trinity easily prevailed over the defending champions County Antrim 33-90 with West Belfast on the 114 mark.
Contemporary newspapers report Ferguson leading at the end of the first lap of the six mile trip from County Antrim duo J. Thompson and J McAuley with another Trinity man, H Connor, and St. Gall’s H O’Neill heading up the main field.
Thompson, the defending champion, was said to have got ahead in “splendid style”, leaving McAuley far behind while Ferguson and Connor “maintained a good steady pace” to finish second and third respectively. The attendance was said to be very good despite an inter-league soccer match (League of Ireland 1 – 0 Scottish League) being held at the same time in Grosvenor Park.
Some weeks later the green and whites, as they were known, made their way south to contest the Irish Junior for the first time. It was dry but windy at Elm Park in Dublin and, on a day of controversy, both the winner of the race P J McCafferty and the winning team Cork Harriers were disqualified, Trinity failed to click and finished back in seventh place in the team listings. The race was awarded to Cavan native Hugh Muldoon who took Clonliffe Harriers to the team title as well.
However, Trinity made no mistake the following year taking home silver medals in the Irish Junior behind a strong Galway City Harriers combination. On a cold day with a blustery wind and frequent heavy showers Hugh Connor (8th), Ferguson (9th) and William Millar (10th) gave Trinity a solid start. Such were the conditions one-third of the field failed to finish including the crack Haddington Harriers who had been favourites for the team title.
West Belfast’s Sammy Lee won the individual gold and made it a double a few weeks later by adding the Northern Branch Senior title. Trinity repeated their victory of 1903, defeating Hibernian Harriers by just two points with Connor (3rd) and Ferguson (5th) their leading men. Trinity came back to take second in 1905, tying on 114 points with Willowfield, well behind County Antrim (89) led by individual winner T McCullough.
A third spot in 1906 marked the end of a golden spell for the Ballysillan outfit and one they were never to repeat. In September of the following year a small group of Ballyclare-based runners who were members of Trinity Harriers decided to form their own club in the town. They met in a barn at the back of Baird’s public house on Main Street and chose the name East Antrim Harriers. Little did they know that from these humble beginnings they were forming what was to become one of the most successful running clubs in Northern Ireland athletics history.
There is no evidence of James Ferguson competing after 1904. He married in 1923 and, with his wife and young son, emigrated to the USA in 1925. Lisa Morse never met her grandfather as he died before she was born but she has every reason to be proud of him and his feats in our sport. We are grateful to LIsa for initiating this interesting story and for the use of her photographs.