Saturday, 15 June 2019

On the far side of revenge

On the far side of revenge

I used to sit beside a quiet spoken man from Belfast in the Jock Stein Stand at Celtic Park. At half time or during lulls in games he’d tell tales of his youth growing in that proud old city. I got a sense of the community and pride people there had; they cared about each other and suffered a lot together during the dark days of the conflict which engulfed the six counties from the late 1960s onwards. He told me he worked in a bakery and set of for work at the crack of dawn when the streets were eerily quiet. He’d occasionally see the smouldering cars and debris of the previous night’s violence and try somehow to keep his life as normal as possible. His great release from the tension of living in what was, in those times, a war zone was to cross the Irish sea and watch Jock Stein’s Celtic play. ‘It transported me out of my life for a while,’ he told me, ‘reminded me that there were people not so far away living normal lives.’ Those trips kept him going through some of the darker days of Belfast’s chequered history.

Celtic supporters from the north of Ireland are many and they make regular trips to watch Celtic play. The tales we’d hear in the old Jungle or in the pubs around the stadium were often at odds with the one dimensional version of events we got on the news. The idea that there were two warring tribes at each other’s throats while the British army was an impartial referee trying to keep them apart was difficult to sustain as their actions showed them to be adopting the same counter insurgency tactics they had used in Malaya, Kenya, Aden and a host of other colonial conflicts. Propaganda was a huge part of this strategy and a compliant media generally accepted the army’s version of events and printed it as truth. Thus the great injustices of Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday and scores of other incidents were perpetuated for decades. Innocent people were not only killed but they were smeared as terrorists after their deaths in order to excuse the brutality of the army. Soldiers acted with impunity and the very few who were brought to book for crimes including murder did little jail time and were welcomed back into their regiments when released.

Films such as the Ballymurphy Precedent which told the personal stories of the families and victims of the 1971 massacre are at long last beginning to bring some truth to the historical record of what actually happened back in those dark days. The word ‘Precedent’ was used in the title as it suggests that the incident led to the culture of impunity among soldiers which led to the massacre in Derry a few months later. Callum Macrea’s film demonstrates that the grief of families and burning sense of injustice has never dissipated.

Another aspect of the conflict which is also coming under scrutiny was the collusion of the so called forces of law and order with loyalist paramilitaries. Sean Murray’s powerful and troubling documentary ‘Unquiet Graves’ was given an airing at the Glasgow Film Theatre this week and laid out a damning indictment against elements within the RUC and UDR that some not only colluded with loyalist groups but were active members of them. The so called Glenanne gang were responsible for over 120 murders in the ‘murder triangle’ straddling the counties Armagh and Fermanagh at the height of the conflict. The documentary uses powerful survivor testimony to bring those dreadful events to life and in one section Margaret Campbell, who watched her Trade Unionist husband Pat, killed in front of her spoke movingly of the callous nature of the treatment she received from the Police. This already traumatised woman was taken to a Police station to view a line-up of potential suspects. She told the Policeman who waited by the door that she recognised one of the men but he told her she had to go up the line on her own and place her hand on the man’s shoulder. She fainted and no one was ever convicted of her husband’s killing. Indeed the documentary points out the RUC had a 100% failure rate in tracing who committed these murders,

One chilling point of the documentary was the interview conducted in South Africa with former RUC man John Weir who spoke in a remorseless monotone about why they had killed so many innocents. In the end the IRA’s reaction to the activities of the gang demonstrated how close the north came to open civil war. The Kingsmill atrocity, when they killed 10 Protestant workmen on their way home from work, was meant to warn the loyalist death squads that they’d best end their activities.  John Weir spoke chillingly of how in the aftermath of Kingsmill it was suggested they attack a Catholic Primary School and kill the children and teachers. He stated that even the hardened killers of the Glenanne gang thought this was going too far. Weir stated that he joined the group to ‘take the war to the IRA’ but with depressing predictability the group killed mostly innocent people with no connection to any paramilitary group.

Sean Murray’s documentary is not an easy watch but it is necessary that the truth comes out. The people directly affected by the violence of that era on both sides deserve that much. Of course it’s highly embarrassing for the British state to admit even after all these years that some of their employees were acting like banana republic death squad but the truth can be healing as well as painful. That being said, there is unlikely to be a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ commission of the kind which helped heal South Africa in the post-Apartheid era. Looking honestly into those sad times would no doubt horrify the average UK citizen to learn the truth of Britain’s dirty little war in Ireland.

I write these words not to point score or support one side of that conflict over another but to remember all the innocent victims alive and dead who suffered grievously in those times. Pain knows no boundaries of nationality, faith or political leanings. The families of those killed in Ballymurphy, Derry, Dublin, Monaghan, Kingsmill and a hundred other places in those sad years deserve the truth. Justice remains elusive and far away but it is beholden on all sides to stop hiding behind mealy mouthed words, stop the eternal delays and obfuscation and simply tell the truth.

Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s Nobel Prize winning poet wrote an elegy about his relative Collum McCartney, an innocent victim of the Glenanne gang. Part of it reads….

‘Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud. ‘ 
                                                    (From The Strand at Lough Begg)

Ireland is changing fast and there can be no return to the dark days gone past. The Republic is now a liberal and progressive place and Northern Ireland is awaking to the reality that the Catholic minority will soon be a majority. Old hatreds still fester in some quarters of course, so much blood and pain takes time to heal but few want a return to the chaos of the past. Unity is more than the colour of the flag which flutters on the flag pole; it is the ability of two cultures being able to live together in peace; two traditions recognising the common bonds of humanity which bind them more closely than the divisions caused by ancient quarrels. Bobby Sands once said that, ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.’ I hope all the children of Ireland are able live and grow up in a peaceful more tolerant society. Seamus Heaney also wrote…

‘The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.’

On the far side of revenge there can be a better future for everyone. Truth can lead to forgiveness and people can change. Sean Murray’s excellent and beautifully crafted documentary tells the story of a great wrong and the dreadful effects it had on so many innocent people. I hope they find truth and I hope they find peace; these ordinary, decent people are the real victims when folk try to solve their disputes with violence. Let them be the last generation to suffer like this. Perhaps then all that pain and loss will have been worth something.  

Saturday, 8 June 2019

The Death Match

The Death Match

Watching the excellent TV series ‘Chernobyl’ reminded me of a European tie Celtic took part in just a few months after the catastrophe at the nuclear plant in the Ukraine. Celtic’s epic title win at Love Street in May 1986 gave them another crack at the European cup in the days before UEFA and the Champions League cartel turned it into a rich man’s club. The Hoops got the better of a hard working Shamrock Rovers side winning both legs more comfortably than the 3-0 aggregate score-line suggests and were paired with Dynamo Kiev in the next round. The Soviet side had the bulk of the USSR national team in their ranks and no one was in any doubt about the size of the task facing Celtic. The Hoops approached the tie at Celtic Park with some confidence though; they were playing well and had plenty of goal threats in the team. Dynamo arrived in Glasgow in October 1986 with that air of quiet confidence good teams have. All was set for an epic encounter.

Dynamo Kiev’s history is a proud one; they were the first team in the Soviet league to break the dominance of the big Moscow clubs and have produced some fine teams over the years. Celtic of course tangled with them twice in the 1960s and found them a tough nut to crack. Dynamo found themselves well known in the late 1930s for playing good football although the war interrupted their development. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 saw the city of Kiev occupied by the Nazis and after the initial trauma of the battle for the city, football resumed albeit on an amateur basis. The Nazis, always keen for a propaganda coup, challenged Dynamo to a match the following year and they obliged playing under the name of START; an acronym for ‘City of Kiev All-Stars.’ The context of the game, played as it was against a backdrop of occupation and oppression was startling. The USSR looked to be heading for certain defeat as the Nazi juggernaut crushed all before it. In a ravine called Babi Yar in Kiev, the Nazis murdered 33,000 Jews in September 1941. They crushed any opposition with brutality and the people in occupied cities like Kiev lived a very precarious life indeed. The Kiev players who prepared to take on the Wehrmacht side in August 1942 must have known that they were playing a dangerous game indeed but they were determined to show their occupiers that they could play the game.

A German army side, containing several former professional players, was heavily defeated and the angry Germans demanded a return game. This time Kiev battered them 6-0. The Hungarian Army team (allies of the Germans) were defeated before the Luftwaffe team was beaten 5-1. The Germans tried again but lost 8-0 in a game the Soviets would later call the 'death match' and for good reason. The Gestapo arrested several Kiev players and they were so brutally tortured before that one of them died. The others were sent to nearby Syrets labour camp where conditions were appalling. Indeed following a Partisan attack on the Germans the following year, the Nazis decided to shoot a third of the camps prisoners in reprisal. Among those murdered were three of the Kiev side which had beaten the various German teams. The story of Dynamo Kiev and their matches with the German during the war inspired the film ‘Escape to Victory,’ although Hollywood gave the tale a distinctly western flavour.

So it was that Celtic lined up to play a fine Dynamo Kiev team in the autumn of 1986. The early exchanges in the match at Celtic Park watched by 49,000 fans demonstrated that Dynamo was indeed a fine side but also that they had a cynical streak and toughness. Some of their tackling was brutal and one challenge on Tommy Burns in particular was enough to put him out of the game for six months. The visitors took the lead in the first half but Celtic rallied and roared on by a packed Jungle managed to equalise and set up a second leg in Kiev which they travelled to in hope rather than expectation. They knew the high standard of the opposition and the freezing conditions they would meet in Ukraine but they’d give it a go. They also knew that the Chernobyl nuclear reactor which had emitted so much radiation was barely 60 miles from the city but UEFA insisted the game was to be played.

100,000 fans packed the Kiev stadium as Celtic trooped out in their yellow away strip. When the superb Oleg Blokhin scored in 12 minutes it looked like it was going to be a long night but Celtic rallied and pushed the home side back. They created a few chances and silenced the home fans for long spells and when McStay’s fine shot hit the post and rebounded into the goalkeeper’s arms you wondered if it was going to be one of those nights. Celtic never gave up though and when Mark McGhee equalised early in the second half, the Ukrainian side didn’t look so composed as their huge support whistled mutinously. However, Celtic being Celtic, they made crucial errors at the back which made their task harder, 18 year old Derek Whyte had a night to forget and allowed Kiev to score a second in the 72nd minute. The game now hung in the balance and another Celtic goal would see them progress on away goals. The match turned with Celtic throwing everything Kiev and the Soviets time wasting in their own stadium. Another dreadful defensive blunder gifted Kiev a goal in the last minute. A 3-1 defeat hardly describes a brave Celtic performance that night which so nearly put a fine Kiev side out of Europe. Celtic in the 80s was a team capable of attacking brilliance at times but successful teams in Europe need a defence which is equally adept and alas too often Celtic’s wasn’t. It was a sore one to take but that's football and as Kiev's own war time history demonstrates, there are worse things than losing a game.

Kiev would go on to reach the last 4 of that season’s European Cup before narrowly losing to a fine Porto side which eventually won the trophy. For Celtic that 1986-87 season was to be a watershed too. The Arrival of Graham Souness at Ibrox heralded a revival in Rangers fortunes and Celtic let a big lead slip as Rangers won their first title in 9 years. The Hoops would of course famously rally for their centenary season but things had to change as the board looked unable to raise the finances necessary to rebuild the team and indeed the stadium.

There were some difficult times ahead for the Celtic faithful which would last until the arrival of an innocuous looking wee man sporting a bunnet and some big plans.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

My Brother's Keeper

My Brother's Keeper

Journalist Graham Spiers is a man I have a lot time for as he has had the courage to write with honesty about the sectarianism which scars the darker corners of Scottish society. He doesn’t play by the unwritten rule of journalism in these parts that when discussing such things, namely that you always portray it as a problem equally afflicting both sides of what they like to call the ‘divide.’ He calls it as he sees it and writes with an integrity which yearns for a better society where we move beyond such medieval nonsense. His valid points though are often lost in a tsunami of whataboutery by some who fail to see the big picture. Social media may be democratising and offer a platform for discussion not dictated by the traditional print media but it also gives a voice to the prejudices of an unhinged minority who hide behind avatars to spew their bile.

This past few weeks Mr Spiers has commented on the painful issue of the historical child abuse perpetrated by several despicable individuals connected to Celtic Boys Club from the 1960s to the 1990s. His tack was twofold. Firstly he suggested that Celtic Football Club has a moral duty to address the issues which occurred at the Boys in the past and recognise the pain the victims endured and still endure. The fact that the Boys Club and the Football Club were separate legal entities does not exonerate Celtic from moral responsibility. Secondly he is obviously appalled that some use a tragedy like this to point score and throw mud. He said on Twitter this week….

‘Rangers fans excitedly retweeting any Celtic Boys Club sex abuse stories. Celtic fans countering with dug up stories of ex Rangers youth coaches and alleged child sex abuse. What a nauseating charade.

He is correct of course that the rivalry between the two biggest clubs in Scotland is so intense that for some it spills over into a base hatred where a moronic minority engage in this ‘nauseating charade.’ So many discussions on social media about football end up in dreary and occasionally sickening slanging matches about abuses which occurred before many of those attempting to weaponise them were born. It’s as if guilt by association can somehow taint people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the contemptable behaviour of those finally being brought to justice.

I believe Celtic’s historical relationship with the Boys Club does mean they bear some responsibility to see that the victims of those sad years are recognised and in some ways compensated. The former Board members who allegedly allowed Jim Torbet to become involved with the club again after he was thrown out under a cloud of opprobrium and accusation should also have hard questions to address. If any of them knew Torbet was a danger to children and allowed him back in a position where he had access to them then they should be ashamed of themselves.

Of course the old board was ousted in the early 1990s by fan power and Fergus McCann’s takeover team. No one involved in the running of Celtic today can be held accountable for the wrongs committed when they were not at the helm but there is a moral imperative to do the right thing; to stand by the victims and to see that those who need it receive counselling and that all involved are compensated in a tangible way for what they endured and continue to endure. Modern psychology recognises what are termed ’Adverse Childhood Experiences’ and this theory suggests such experiences can lead to toxic stress in children which in time is linked to serious health problems and even lower life expectancy.

The victims of the abusers should above all be listened to and their sufferings acknowledged by more than pious statements. Celtic needs to act on this historic wrong and show a tangible compassion. They should also condemn more vocally those dolts who use child abuse to point score at a football match. The ‘nauseating charade’ going on in social media and some of our football stadiums shows no sign of abating and those involving themselves in it seem not to care a jot about the victims whose lives are blighted by their childhood experiences. It is suggested in some studies that around 10% of people will have experienced some form of sexual abuse or sexual violence in childhood. Those who unthinkingly chant about such things at a football match will very likely be standing near one of their own supporters who has suffered such abuse.

‘The past’ wrote LP Hartley, ‘is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Alas the truth is that human nature is unchanging and a minority of those with power will use it for their own ends. We have seen abuse occur in foster homes, religious settings of all hues, care homes, orphanages, schools, prisons, Scouts, sports clubs and many other settings where those in power use it to abuse or dominate the powerless. It is not limited to one sector of society or social class. It exists in all societies and sadly probably always will.

For many who follow the fortunes of Celtic Football Club there is a feeling that the events which occurred in the Boys club all those years ago remains unfinished business. I hope the club does the right thing. This area is of course a legal minefield and if they insist they have no legal connection to the Boys Club, they do at least have a moral responsibility. Manchester City set up a ‘Victims Compensation Scheme’ in order to compensates the targets of predators Barry Bennell and John Broome who abused boys at City’s feeder clubs. In doing so City are not admitting blame for what occurred, for that lies with the evil people who committed those acts, but rather they are accepting that they can’t simply wash their hands of youngsters whose dreams of a career in football were destroyed by wicked men. I hope Celtic act in a similar manner and right a historic wrong.

As for those who use historic abuse cases to throw mud at the modern Celtic; they are to be pitied more than hated as they are allowing their hatred to overwhelm any empathy they may have had for victims. Michelle Obama spoke of mud-slinging in Politics and used the memorable phrase, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ To remind these people that there were active abusers at their own club may expose their rank hypocrisy but it merely throws petrol on the fire and sinks to their level.

I recall at school the story of Cain and Abel being explained to me by my excellent, young teacher. God asks Cain where his brother Abel is he replied, ‘I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ My teacher explained that passage to us by saying that we are our brother’s keeper. We do have a social responsibility towards each other. That plays out in charitable acts when world events such as famine or war strike but also in helping those struggling closer at hand. We may live in less religious times these days but the metaphor of being our brother’s keeper still holds some power. Good people whether they are religious or not will always look out for others.

Do the right thing Celtic. It’s not an admission of guilt; it’s looking out for those whose dreams of wearing those famous hooped shirts were destroyed by evil men.

We can’t change the past but we can acknowledge the wrongs which occurred and ensure that we have systems in place to see that it never happens again.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The laughter and the songs

The laughter and the songs

After yesterday’s cup final I stood on the Gallowgate waiting with thousands of others for the Celtic bus to make an appearance. As the minutes passed and the crowd got bigger it became apparent that it wouldn’t be possible to get a bike up the Gallowgate let alone a double decker bus. It was dreadfully organised and the Police on duty simply gave up trying to keep fans off the road. Pictures suggest it was the same on the Saltmarket and at Glasgow Cross. A bit of forethought and some barriers to keep folk on the pavement would have been useful but even the disappointment of the bus parade not happening and the rain pouring down couldn’t dampen the joy of the thousands of Celtic supporters who made their way to the east end after the match. As the younger element scaled the roofs of local bars or danced on top of worryingly high walls and those old enough to know better climbed onto traffic lights and other slippery looking vantage points, the overwhelming feeling was one of happiness.

As I looked around yesterday I could see wee ones in prams or on their father’s shoulders and older supporters who no doubt thought they had seen it all in their many years of watching Celtic. My old man was brought up a mere corner kick from where I stood. I recall as a child visiting my old Irish grandad’s house in Bain Square and the area has changed a fair bit since then. Conditions in Glasgow’s east end were a bit more Dickensian in those days. Life was tough for the people living there and my old man would tell us tales of his youth which had us shaking our heads. He recounted how the Calton boys had to sign on at Bridgeton dole office in times when the territorial disputes of the Glasgow gangs made this challenging. They’d head for the dole a hundred strong knowing what awaited them there. He’d get angry when he’d recount that hundreds of unemployed Glasgow men would be fighting each other rather than the forces in society which threw them all on the scrap heap.

Life was tough then; tougher than most of us experience now but they had strong communities and looked out for each other. If someone was struggling they knew they’d get half a loaf or a cup of sugar from next door. My old man told me of the time he was in a pub on the Gallowgate when the local Priest walked in and told a man beside him to stop drinking and get home and give his wife the money she needed to feed the kids. The man, the worse for drink, got stroppy and the Priest pulled off his collar and assured him he’d be leaving the pub to pay his wife of leaving it to fight him. The woman got her money.

In those times men like my dad would troop along the Gallowgate to Celtic Park and lose themselves for a few hours watching Celtic play. The bad times were endured, the good times celebrated loud and long. They’d introduce their children to all things Celtic and the rituals of following the team would be passed on. Like many Glasgow boys, my brothers and I would be hanging around outside pubs on match days waiting for our dads to appear; wondering when we’d be old enough to sneak inside the pub. Those noisy, smoke filled places looked quite exciting to our young eyes and we’d glimpse inside when the doors opened listening to the laughter and the songs. The men would appear, often the worse for wear, a few minutes before kick-off time and we’d head down to Celtic Park together.

The drinking culture at football then meant the party lasted throughout the match and alcohol was all around us. Some of us got a taste for it while others left it alone. We’d focus on the match and the players wearing those magnificent hooped shirts would transport us out of our ordinary lives for 90 minutes. The songs would pour from the terraces as we tried to drive the team on. Some days it was as if the whole Celtic end was trying to suck the ball into the opposition net. They were good times and I guess they helped form us into the people we became. They gave most of us a love for Celtic which lasted a lifetime and if life takes us far from the places we grew up, that affection for our team went with us.

Yesterday was a day of joy for all who follow the fortunes of Celtic as the team showed the resilience of champions to come back from a goal down against a stuffy Hearts side which in fairness gave Celtic a real game. To win a treble is a fine achievement but to do it in three successive seasons is astonishing. The team has stuttered at times and is in need of renewing and there will no doubt be a busy summer ahead but for now we can bask in the feel good factor and enjoy looking back on another successful season.  

Neil Lennon looks like he’ll be the man to lead Celtic into the new campaign and if he wasn’t everyone’s first choice, he is at least deserving of our backing. Peter Lawwell was described in one Celtic blog as; a third rate hack who’s offered the job to a third rate manager in a fourth rate manner.’ That opinion is a bit extreme and frankly insulting. We were, to a degree, spoiled by Brendan Rodgers taking the job in 2016. It is difficult to attract managers of his calibre to the Scottish league. Talk of the likes of Benitez or Mourinho coming to Celtic Park was always highly speculative and in truth it was unlikely they’d ever abandon the money and exposure they get in wealthier leagues for the SPFL. Whoever is sitting in the dugout next season should have the backing of the support. We are on the cusp of more remarkable times and need a united front to achieve them. There will be challenges in the coming season and we’ll need to stick together to overcome them. Like it or not, Lenny is the Boss and I for one will be behind him and the team 100%.

We didn’t get to see the open top bus make its triumphal procession along the Gallowgate last night but we did see the Celtic community celebrate a remarkable success in the very streets Brother Walfrid knew so well. His people have come a long way and the remarkable saga of his club still has many chapters waiting to be written.

Yesterday was a good day to be a Celtic fan. I get the feeling we’ll have more days like that in the future.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Calling it out

Calling it out

The decision of Glasgow City Council to allow an Orange Parade to pass St Mary’s church in Glasgow’s east end last weekend caused much debate online. Two schools of thought seem to be prominent when people discuss such events. The first is that in a city with over 2000 streets why do they want to march down one of just over 60 streets with Catholic churches situated in them? Some feel they deliberately choose these routes to intimidate and show the Catholic community that they are still a force to be reckoned with; it’s triumphalism flavoured with bigotry in the eyes of many. For others, a minority it has to be said, they are nothing more than a peaceful organisation exercising their civic right to walk the streets and celebrate their history and culture.

There was also a bizarre episode recently when a dozen or so Orangemen and their supporters stood outside Glasgow city chambers to protest about the infringement of their civil liberties following the re-routing of a march away from St Alphonsus church in Glasgow’s east end. This was the church you may recall where the Priest was spat upon and parishioners verbally abused by hangers on following a passing Orange walk. The spokesman for the small group outside the city chambers, an inarticulate man who seemed ill at ease throughout, stumbled through a poorly worded and frankly nonsensical statement the gist of which suggested they were a persecuted minority being harshly treated by the SNP ruling group in the council and denied their civil rights. The truth of course is that the Police had a major say in the rerouting of their parade as they feared there could be disorder.

As I watched this stumbling performance on social media I honestly tried to see things from their perspective thinking of that quote from the book ‘To kill a Mockingbird’ which states…


You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’


There seemed a real disconnect between how those folk perceived their organisation and its parades and how the majority of Scots of all faiths and none see them. To most they are an anachronism, a leftover from days long gone and in truth something of an embarrassment. No one would deny the right to practice and celebrate religious faith but is that really what we are seeing when these parades are stomping through our streets? There is precious little Christian humility and piety on display when the drums are thumping.

During my student days in the late 1990s, I completed my final thesis on the future of denominational schools in Scotland. During the research part of the process I interviewed a diverse group of people from Cardinal Winning to the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order to gauge their opinion on such schools. The latter was a strangely old fashioned man who informed me that his organisation’s role was to ‘uphold the Protestant view and preserve the union.’ He predictably thought that Catholic schools had no place in Scotland and that Cardinal Winning had the Labour Party in his pocket and thus preserved them. He seemed blind to the role his organisation played in polarising communities and offering a fertile breeding ground for petty hatreds to grow.  

I remember thinking that his views were so outmoded that it was like listening to someone beamed forward from the 1930s. As a student teacher at the time of the interview, he informed me in serious tones that modern religious education in schools seemed to be more interested in telling children about other religions rather than their own and that this was treason against Christianity. I wondered if he included the Catholic brand of Christianity in that opinion. It was as if Scotland he knew growing up had changed without him noticing; as if the arrival on these shores of people from a variety of backgrounds and faiths hadn’t occurred.

He was careful what he said when the tape was running and was adamant that they were not a sectarian organisation. Indeed I had a glimpse into his world view and how it jarred with reality, when he said, ‘You can stand for something without necessarily being against something else.’  This line of thought was at odds with my experience of Orange Parades in my home city which tended to be triumphalist and intimidating spectacles where drunkenness, violence and sectarianism were common. In recent years walks in Glasgow have included banners depicting a convicted terrorist who set off bombs in Irish bars in Glasgow in the 1970s. We hear the ‘Famine song’ being played by bandsmen who know exactly what they’re doing when they play it. Despite this, I was assured by this chap that the order was a law abiding and peaceful fraternal organisation. Ironically the man telling me this was dismissed from his post by the Orange Order a few years later for suggesting that any moves towards Scottish independence would see…

‘The Orange Lodge become a paramilitary force, if you like. It obviously implies recourse to arms. We’d have a group of people who would be pro-union.’

The mind-set which views Scotland and its place in the union through the prism of orangeism is at odds with the views of the vast majority of Scots who would not contemplate the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics. Whether Scotland chooses to exercise its right to self-determination or not there is no correlation here to the events we’ve witnessed in the north of Ireland over the past 50 years. Orangeism might have found a new bogeyman in the shape of a resurgent Scottish nationalism but they were marching through the streets in the days when the SNP were getting a few hundred votes in elections. They are at heart a relic from a bygone age when petty privilege and keeping people ‘in their place’ were important.

Today we are seeing the first real stirrings of opposition to Orange Parades and their insistence on marching past Catholic churches. Groups such as ‘Call it out’ are organising what have so far been peaceful and dignified demonstrations to protest at the routes parades are taking. They have not called for the banning of parades or any draconian measures, merely that they are routed away from Catholic churches. Hatred comes in many forms and it’s the job of all good people to call it out.

Some reading these words will of course think my own bias on this subject is apparent. They might even recall Harper Lee’s other quote from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.’ I try to be objective but since childhood my experience of orange parades and the behaviour of some (not all) attending them has not been positive. One of my earliest memories of them was being in the religious shop in the High Street with my mum as a parade passed. Some of you may recall the shop; it sold statues, devotional items and religious literature. As I waited with my mum for it to pass I couldn’t help but wonder why grown men would be banging the grill and spitting on the window. The adults in the shop simply locked the door with a resigned look and waited for the storm to pass. I reflected years later that had such things taken place against Jewish or Muslim stores something would be done. Scotland seemed to have a blind spot when it came to anti-Catholic prejudice.

The numbers attending these parades is continuing to diminish and the age profile creeping upwards. The wider organisation has in fairness tried to distance itself from the wilder spirits which attach themselves to it and even attempted a rebranding exercise which was something of a PR disaster when their cartoon superhero ‘Diamond Dan’ was discovered to have been plagiarised. At heart though, orangeism is struggling for relevance in the modern world and as Scotland continues to be a more inclusive and secular land, that is unlikely to change.

I look forward to a day when displays of colour and music on our streets become an inclusive event which we’re all able to enjoy. Those who spread hatred do no one any good, least of all themselves. There should be a place for everyone in a modern country but there should be no place for creating false boundaries and divisions between people. We all want a better land for our children and the best way to do this is to work together to create it. As Harper Lee said in her classic book…

‘I think there’s just one kind of folks; folks.’

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The laughter and the tears

The laughter and the tears

St Mungo’s parish Hall was packed with Celtic supporters from the local supporters club who had gathered for their players of the year celebration. A cheer went up when the player they had chosen hobbled in, a plaster on his ankle but still determined not to let the fans down. That was the sort of man Tommy Burns was; if he said he’d be there an injured ankle wouldn’t stop him. My uncle Frank was excited to see him and determined to have a word with him as they both hailed from the same part of Glasgow and he knew the player's dad. He waited patiently as Burns signed autographs and posed for photos with supporters before making his move. He ‘nipped’ his cigarette and put it into his pocket and headed towards Burns. He clearly didn’t fully extinguish his cigarette for even as he walked up to Burns it smouldered in his jacket pocket and a distinct whiff of smoke was visible as he reached to shake Tommy’s hand. The young Celtic player smiled and said, ‘I think yer jaiket’s on fire pal.’ My uncle dealt with the emergency and spent a happy 5 minutes chatting to Tommy who treated him with great respect. Old Frank talked about those 5 minutes with Tommy all his days.

A couple of years back I attended one of those charity ‘Tommy Burns Suppers’ at Celtic Park. Gordon Strachan sat on a stool in the centre of the stage between former Celtic players Tosh McKinley and Tom Boyd. He may have looked like a naughty schoolboy in the Head Master’s office but when he spoke people listened. His humour, cutting at times towards those he perceived as fake, was sharp and well observed. His observation that he ‘can’t be doing with those players who kiss the badge on the pitch and then after the match walk past fans who have waited an hour in the rain to see them,’ touched a chord with many in the room. Strachan also spoke of his time managing Celtic and stated that the best part of the job wasn’t working with the players or winning trophies, nor was it competing against the giants in the Champions League. It was, he said simply, getting to know Tommy Burns. He told one anecdote which had the audience laughing uproariously…

‘We were playing Manchester United in the Champions League and they had Giggs, Berbatov, Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez running at us. We were hanging on a bit at the end and the crowd were getting on my back a bit demanding I change it. All I had was Ben Hutchison on the bench. I saw Tommy standing at the opposite end of the dugout watching the team hanging on. He comes walking up to me as the crowd think ‘Aye, Tommy will tell him what to do to sort it.’ Well he stops in front of me, puts his hand over his mouth so no one can see what he’s saying and I’m waiting for the tactical master plan, and he said, ‘By the way the blind section and giving you some abuse!’ I looked along and saw a blind guy on his feet waving his arms shouting ‘Strachan yer f*cking useless!’ He canny even see the game and he’s giving me stick! Even his guide dog had its paw over its eyes!’

We laughed at these tales from men who knew Tommy best and here and there the odd tear was shed too at the loss of such a great Celtic man.

The coming week will see the anniversary of one of the greatest Celts taking his leave of us. It was 11 years ago that Tommy Burns died and his passing, so cruel and untimely, still hurts those who cared about this remarkable man. No one in the cynical and clannish world of Scottish football had a bad word to say about Tommy Burns. He lived his life with a refreshing honesty and his Celtic side played football the way the fans love it being played. I first saw him as a flame haired teenager who showed a remarkable affinity and passion for his club.  

Tommy loved Celtic and loved playing for Celtic. There’s an old cliché about some players being a fan in the team but men like Tommy and John Doyle were just that. The fans loved Tommy Burns because they knew he was one of them. He felt elation at Celtic’s successes, pain at their setbacks and understood the sacrifices ordinary fans made to support their team. Former Celtic winger Davie Provan said of Burns…

The night against Juventus in 1981 turned into Tommy Burns against Liam Brady and Tam won the game for us. He bossed that game and I’ve never seen him in such form. He just stuck his chest out that night and decided that was his stage. He took the ball in all areas of the pitch, and I know we won trophies together but if I’m thinking of a football memory, that was Tommy at the very top of his game that night. I remember also the day we buried Johnny Doyle and we practically had to carry Tam out of the chapel that day. I’ve never seen anyone so distraught. He was in bits that day because he had lost his wee soul mate.’

It may seem strange to some that we Celtic supporters still sing his name on occasion and still remember with such fondness the way he fought for every ball when he wore those hoops, the way he told officials in no uncertain manner what he thought if they appeared to be giving Celtic less than a fair shake and the sheer joy on his face when his beloved team won another honour.

Tommy epitomised the values Celtic have at their core. He was a charitable man, a man who always gave his all for the team and a man who had time for the supporters. He had no time for petty hatred although no one loved beating Rangers more than he did but it was about rivalry and pride for him. He was of course a man of deep religious faith and that would have sustained him as he struggled with his illness in the spring of 2018. Gordon Strachan tells a story of that difficult time which epitomises the sort of man Burns was. He said…

‘I saw him at 4pm and he died at 3am the following morning. When we got to together at 10am the following day I spoke to the players. Scott Brown said, ‘Can I speak to you?’ I asked what was up knowing his sister was dying of cancer at that time, only 23 years old. Broonie asked when Tommy had died and I replied, ‘about 3am this morning, why?’ He replied. ‘Well my sister got flowers this morning at 10am with a note saying, ‘Good luck, and keep your chin up, from Tommy Burns.’

That was Tam; thinking of others even as he was taking on his toughest opponent. His great friend Danny McGrain spoke for many who knew Tommy when he said…

“I loved Tommy Burns. You meet some people and you like them, but Tommy was someone that I loved. I got to realise that during the early 1980s, although I wouldn’t have told him that. But he was just one of those people that you just can’t help but love. He was a helpful guy and his memory will live on within this club.’

Tommy left us on the 15th day of May in 2008. His beloved Celtic was rocked to the core by the passing of such a great Celt. The scenes around Celtic Park as supporters of Celtic and many other clubs left their colours as a mark of respect will live with me always. It was a sea of colour, predominantly green and white, which seemed to want to reach out and embrace him. His beloved Celtic was locked in a tense battle for the championship and the players racked up eight straight wins to seal the title on an emotional night at Tannadice. It was a fitting tribute to Tommy and how he would have loved watching Celtic win another trophy. Of course, we knew him as Tommy Burns the footballer but to his family he was a husband and a dad and their loss was and remains huge. They can take pride though in the sort of man Tommy was and the huge affection he still engenders among Celtic supporters.

It has been a difficult period for Celtic supporters with the loss of Billy McNeill and Steve Chalmers and they join the list of legends of this remarkable football club who will never be forgotten. Tommy Burns is there too; a fine Celt, a wonderful player and great human being.

Sleep well Tam. We won’t forget.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

A Hero Going Home

A Hero Going Home

The outpouring of genuine emotion over the passing of Billy McNeill reminds us of how closely we Celtic supporters are bonded to our stars of the past. Billy and his long time playing comrade, Steve Chalmers left our lives but the echoes of their achievements will long reverberate in the hearts of Celtic supporters. Not only did they help Celtic to a veritable cupboard full of honours and put the club on the European and World map; they did it playing a quintessentially Celtic style of football. They attacked with pace and skill and it is testimony to that great side that they scored so many goals. In that breakthrough season of 1965-66 they hit 106 league goals in 34 games. In their finest season of 1966-67 the tally was 111 league goals in 34 games. This was a side built to entertain their supporters and they did so in a manner which still has people who saw them play looking back wistfully.

There was genuine emotion at the passing of Billy McNeil and for all the eulogies and praise rightly heaped upon him by the great and the good of British football it was the ordinary fans who spoke most eloquently about what he meant to Celtic. It was the ordinary Celtic fan who worked hard all week and trooped along to Celtic Park in all weathers to roar their team on. They knew a player when they saw one and they knew that unique blend of talents, skills and attitude that made a good team. There were better ball players than McNeill in Stein’s fabulous side, better passers of the ball too but no finer leader. Billy McNeill was imperious in the air and carried himself in a manner which spoke of dignity and determination in equal measure. As a boy, I’d stand in the old Jungle as anticipation built ahead of a game listening as the songs echoed around the stadium and the butterflies filled the stomach. Then I’d see Billy leading the team out of the tunnel, chest puffed up, filling those hoops like a real Celtic captain. You knew then you had a chance against anybody.

Those of us who invest so much of our lives in following the fortunes of Celtic know well the place men like Billy and Steve Chalmers have in our history and in our hearts. Football is a unique game in the sense that it grew from the working classes whose teams represented their communities. Few clubs in world football are as embedded in their community as Celtic is. This goes back to their very foundation when a marginalised, impoverished and often despised section of Scottish society created something uniquely their own. Celtic Football Club wasn’t just a vehicle for entertaining people on a Saturday afternoon; it was the physical representation of a community and it carried their hopes and dreams on their shoulders. The initial success of Celtic was so spectacular that a community took delight in them as it gave those with little a chance to be winners in what was a harsh time for those caught at the bottom of the heap. For a couple of hours on a Saturday they could be transported out of their hard lives and had heroes to laud in song and story. The flow of Celtic’s history matches that of the people who founded and continue to support the club. That impoverished Irish ghetto which gave birth to the club has long gone and its people have rightly taken their place in every echelon of Scottish society.

There are of course still echoes of the sort of prejudice the club and its community faced in its early days but they are the death rattle of a slowly dying culture which the vast majority of Scots reject utterly. The rise of Celtic from those humble east end streets to the sunlit uplands of Lisbon in May 1967 has what Billy McNeill called a ‘fairy tale’ aspect about it. The sporting importance of Lisbon is of course to be found in Celtic’s destruction of the smothering defensive football of Inter Milan. The social importance of what McNeill and his comrades achieved then was a seminal moment in the history of the Scots-Irish community and signalled that they had arrived; that they were now a fully integrated part of Scotland and no longer the ‘invisible people’ to be marginalised and ignored.

 The years following Lisbon saw many more people from wider Scottish society identify with Celtic as their team and that fact would have filled the hearts of the founding generation with pride. This club isn’t about where you come from, the school you attended or your ethnicity; it’s about sharing a common vision of being a force for good in society and living up to its founding principles of charity and inclusion. Those ideals are at the heart of what we should strive for as Celtic men and women and as a club.

It is fitting that on this weekend when we said farewell to one of our greatest sons that his club will have an opportunity to clinch what will be their 50th league title. They will then have an opportunity to create their own piece of modern history by going for an unparalleled treble-treble. McNeill was in the end not just a Celtic player, Manager and ambassador; he was at heart a Celtic fan and the club’s successes will have delighted him as much as any of us who back the club from the stands. We say goodbye to a truly great Celt and take pride that such a man wore our green and white shirt with such distinction.

The great Native American leader Tecumseh once spoke of how a warrior should die without fear or regret and said…

‘Sing your song of death and die like a hero going home.’

One of our great heroes is now going home but his deeds will live on. His people will take pride in telling their children and grand-children, ‘I saw him play and he was one of the greats. He was our Cesar.’