Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Sword that heals

The Sword that heals

I took a break and drove down to south to visit relatives this past week and was of course aware that Celtic’s first competitive match of the season was due to be played while I was there. Thus I found myself in O’Neill’s Bar in Cardiff where I watched a rusty looking Celtic do a professional job on a fairly mediocre home side. One of the great things about being a Celt is that you’ll find like-minded fans in every major city in the UK and can join them on match days to talk about all things Celtic. Some like me are visiting or passing through these towns while others have made them their home and took their love of Celtic with them. It was nice to see the hooped shirts in that bastion of Welsh rugby and nicer still to see Celtic win.

Being away from Scotland for a week or so meant I missed the ‘celebrations’ associated with the Orange Parade in my home city. I returned to see images of a woman being pushed and spat upon for trying to cross the road and it made for a sorry spectacle in the ‘best wee country in the world.’ Other images showed a band stop deliberately outside a catholic church in the Gorbals to batter out some ditty about the ‘Volunteers of the UVF coming down the road.’  This was no error, they knew they were outside a catholic church and they chose to stop there deliberately and play their tune as their followers danced around on the pavement, singing along.

Canon Tom White, the Priest spat on at last year’s ‘cultural’ event said of the events…

‘The Boyne match on Saturday 6th July 2019 was rerouted by the Loyal Orders but they still insisted on passing a Catholic Church, Blessed John Dun Scotus on Ballater St in the Gorbals. Despite meeting with the clergy from Blessed John Dun Scotus and giving assurance that the Church would be absolutely respected we witnessed yet another Church targeted by mob mentality with complete disregard for the conditions imposed upon their march by Police Scotland and Glasgow City Council. Bands ignored the condition of not playing music within 100 metres of the church with one band, Bridgeton No Surrender, actually stopping very close to the Church and continuously playing despite Police Scotland requesting that they stop. This was accompanied by their followers singing and dancing on the pavement in a mob like fashion.

Canon White goes on to make a very valid point and one which the catholic community in Scotland has been making for a very long time…

‘This would certainly not be allowed if it targeted other minority communities such as Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Gypsy, Roma & Travellers or the LGBTQ+ communities and this is entirely appropriate. I am demanding no more than equality for the minority Catholic community.

Of course the great get out clause for politicians, police and others with the powers to curtail this sorry spectacle is to describe it as ‘sectarianism.’  This catch-all term allows some to dismiss what is in reality ugly prejudice against the catholic community as if it is in some was a problem created by both sides equally. The knee jerk responses we see every year about catholic schools are as predictable as they are risible. They exist all over the world without this sort of nonsense rearing its ugly head. Indeed England has over 2000 Catholic school with 10% of the school aged population attending them with no real bigotry problem. Make no mistake about it; this hatred is passed down the generations from father to son and is not in any way, shape or form learned in school.

If it is to have any future or any say in the public life of Scotland then the Orange Order needs to slay the dragon it created and not try to suggest that a few drunken hangers on are the root of the trouble. It is their bands and members who assault members of the public, play tunes with lyrics about being ‘up to their knees in Fenian blood’ or inviting their fellow Scots to leave the country with the words; ‘The famine is over, why don’t you go home.’ It is the Order which creates the space and the context where some think this is acceptable behaviour. If they really are the benign, Christian group they claim to be then they must surely act to end this yearly embarrassment to themselves and the faith they claim to be upholding. The hatred which swirls around their parades like a bad smell is the polar opposite of what the carpenter from Nazareth taught his followers.

As for our politicians, we seem to lack any with the balls to tackle this problem. It remains an act of cowardice and hypocrisy to allow this poison to be displayed on our streets every year. As Canon White suggests; if this was aimed at Jews, Muslims or other minority groups the jail cells would be full.

I love Scotland; it is a country full of good, decent people who care for their fellow citizens and I want it to become an even better land, a place where open displays of naked hatred are not only frowned upon but challenged by those we elect to represent us. I’m always uncomfortable with the curtailing or banning of demonstrations in a democratic society but the right to demonstrate and the right to freedom of expression must always be balanced against the common good. We are free to believe what we want to believe but we are not free to intimidate, threaten and insult those we dislike.

There is a school of thought that suggests a more violent reaction to these displays would force the authorities to act but that would play right into the hands of the haters who would portray themselves as victims. The dignified silence and unequivocally non-violent approach of the people who protest outside catholic churches is by far the best way to show the behaviour of the bigots in the worst possible light. Martin Luther King knew this and achieved far more through passive resistance than he ever could have by advocating violence. He once said…

‘Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.’

I firmly believe that the vast majority of Scots are embarrassed by this yearly exhibition of triumphalism and bigotry which goes against the values our country holds dear. The mace, which was created for the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament twenty years ago, is engraved with the words; ‘Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and integrity.’ Isn’t it about time we lived up to those values?

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

A turnstile click away

A turnstile click away

From a mile off you could see the floodlights
Illuminating the dark and brooding Glasgow sky
A lighthouse, guiding the people safely home,
From every street in Glasgow they came,
Each soul, a raindrop adding to the river
Flowing inexorably towards Celtic Park.
A small hand seeks the comfort of his father’s
Senses sharpened by his first night match,
The Gallowgate finds its voice as songs
Echo off tenement walls which have seen it all,
From strike, strife and Luftwaffe bombs,
‘What the hell do we care?’ is the refrain,
But they care, by God they care!
This is their team, their colours, their club.
Paradise is a breathless turnstile click away
The multitudes coalesce, become as one,
The great cathedral of football shudders,
As the team appears; gladiators in green,
The emerald turf glistens under the lights,
It has been like this for a century and more,
Since McCallum’s goal first made them roar,
Here Maley, Doyle and Quinn fought the foe,
Gallagher’s feints left defenders chasing ghosts
McGrory, sure of eye and fierce of countenance
Rippled the net more times than memory could recall,
Stein and Tully, Evans too made their mark,
In good times and bad the fans endured,
Stories of heroes and villains are retold
To wide eyed children, food for their Celtic souls
The Gemmell shot, the Johnstone dribble,
Imperious McNeill holding aloft the glittering prize,
Murdoch, a Napoleon in green and white,
Stein, limping away, like a proud father,
McStay, McGrain and others picked up the torch
Carried it proudly into a bold new future,
So too a dreadlocked Swede who grew to love
The green as much as they grew to love him,
The little boy who took his father’s hand
On a dark night so many years ago
Now he walks his own child down those streets
Smiling to see that same wonder he once felt,
Shining in those bright, young eyes.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

We won’t forget the tears

We won’t forget the tears

When the bones of three children were washed up on the shore of eastern Canada in 2011 there was of course an investigation into who they were and where they had come from. Local people in the mostly French speaking area of Cap de Rosier at the gulf of St Lawrence were quick to tell investigators of the local legend of a ship called the ‘Carricks of Whitehaven’ which had been wrecked off the coast in a storm in April 1847. When it became clear that the bones were indeed over 150 years old, the local archaeology team took over from the Police and began to piece together a remarkable and sadly typical story of that era.

The bones were tested under laboratory conditions and it was concluded they were of children who had lived on a diet compatible with rural Ireland of the mid nineteenth century. They also showed signs of malnutrition and diseases linked to hunger, such as rickets. These children were part of the huge wave of immigrants forced out of Ireland by the more ruthless Landlords at the height of the Great Hunger. (An Gorta Mor) In 2016 18 more sets of remains were found in a mass grave on the beach and again they proved to be the remains of Irish migrants seeking a better life in Canada. They had crossed the stormy Atlantic, a journey of over 3500 miles, only to perish a few miles from shore.

The Carricks was a sailing ship of a kind often used to ferry people, animals and goods across the Atlantic. In 1847 over 400 such ships docked in the Port of Quebec and brought with them tens of thousands of Irish migrants, weak from hunger, disease and the stress of a three week passage across the Atlantic crammed into what became known as ‘coffin ships.’ The destitute Irish were forced to stop in a quarantine station of Grosse-Île, an island in the St Lawrence River. Thousands were to be buried there as they had arrived too ill or malnourished to survive.

The passengers on the Carricks hailed mostly from County Sligo in Ireland. They had been evicted by Lord Palmerston, an absentee Landlord who saw more profit in sheep and cattle than in people. Records show that one family, the Kaveney’s were from Cross, a Gaelic speaking clachan near Ballymote. Patrick and Sarah Kaveney and their six children were crammed below decks with 165 other souls for the perilous journey to Canada. The family and 117 of their neighbours had to walk 20 miles to the port of Sligo to board the Carricks for the journey. In just six months of the year known as the ‘Black 47,’ Sligo’s bustling harbour saw 13,000 migrants leave for the Americas on 65 ships. Some would never see the new world, as sailing vessels then were far from safe and those used to transport the poor out of Ireland were usually the worst ships available. Contemporary reports record that 9 people died on the crossing before the fateful night when the ship met with disaster. Of 173 people on board the ship just 48 survived the wreck. Captain Thompson of the Carricks survived and wrote afterwords…

"After a rough and uncomfortable passage of 23 days, the captain missed his reckoning in a blinding snowstorm, and in the darkness of the night, struck the cruel cape. One stroke of the angry wave swept her clean. Comparatively, few were saved, after hours of cold, hunger and fear such as may be imagined. The inhabitants came to the rescue and treated the pitiable survivors with kindness. Truly the beach presented a gruesome spectacle the following day, strewn for a mile and a-half with dead bodies. For a whole day, two ox carts carried the dead to deep trenches near the scene of the disaster.’
Of the Kaveney family just Patrick, his wife Sarah and son Martin (12) survived; all 5 daughters perished. The local French speaking population treated the survivors with great kindness and the Kaveney’s settled in the area. Their offspring spoke French and became part of the local community where some of them still live today.
The story of the wreck of the Carricks and the discovery of the remains of some of those who perished is a poignant one and sadly such events were not uncommon in the days of An Gorta Mor. Ireland’s population peaked at 8.2 million in 1841 and fell by 20% in a decade as death and emigration took a toll on the land that it has yet to recover from. The population of the whole island of Ireland is around 6.6 million today.
The Kaveney family’s story is made more poignant for those of us who follow the fortunes of Celtic FC because they lived close to Ballymote in County Sligo. They would have been contemporaries of the Kerins family; tenant farmers who were also greatly affected by An Gorta Mor.  Their youngest son, Andrew, was born in 1840 into a world of huge inequality and would have grown up in a county which suffered greatly from the effects of the great hunger. One contemporary account of the so called ‘famine’ in the west of Ireland speaks of people dead by the roadside; their lips green from eating nettles and grass.  The folk memory of those times would have stayed with him as he moved to Scotland and became a Marist Brother, taking the name Walfrid. He would have seen that the suffering of his people wasn’t over in the burgeoning industrial city of Glasgow and that poverty and hunger still affected many. It was to alleviate this that he founded Celtic on November 6th 1887 with the memorable words…
‘A football club shall be established for the maintenance of dinner tables for the children and unemployed.’
Perhaps if Andrew Kerins had opted for Canada instead of Glasgow there would be no Celtic today but we remain thankful that he travelled east to Scotland and not west across the broad Atlantic. It is fitting that the modern Irish Famine memorial will stand in the grounds of St Mary’s church where Brother Walfrid founded his club. Donegal artist, John McCarron’s sculpture ‘The Tower of Silence’ should be installed in the near future and the picture below is a photo-shop of what it will look like when finished.

As I write my articles, I often have YouTube playing songs in the background. This morning as if by fate, an old and lesser Celtic song played automatically. ‘The Field of Dreams’ talks about the reasons for the foundation of Celtic and part of the lyric reads…

‘We’re carving out a monument
for the thousands forced to flee
From Famine and old Erin gra mo chroi
so down through all the years
you won’t forget the tears
of the hungry children forced across the sea.’

It’s right we remember the victims of the calamity which afflicted Ireland in the mid nineteenth century but it’s also right we remember the founding principles of Celtic FC and continue to support those less fortunate than ourselves today. That’s why Celtic came into being and it should always be part of our DNA.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Celtic supporters know more than most that the character of some football clubs is inextricably linked to their history. The foundation of Celtic among the poor and marginalised Irish-Catholic community of Glasgow in the 1880s set a stamp on the club which lasts to this day. Identity is a key part of any football club and it is fostered by a common understanding of the club’s history and the values it espouses. Celtic looks to be an inclusive and welcoming club and today the support is more diverse than it has ever been. There will always be debates among fans about various things affecting the club but the support is generally united behind the team and focussed on driving them on to more success.

Of course Celtic’s identity and success in time led to Rangers being fostered as the Scottish team best placed to put the ‘Irishmen’ in their place. It could be argued that the identity of Rangers has been largely shaped by their rivalry with Celtic. The rivalry certainly has political overtones but it pales into insignificance when we consider the history of some clubs in the world.

Celtic’s Champions League Qualifier with Sarajevo FC in July will see them play once more in the Republic which was once part of Yugoslavia. That country, carved out of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in the days after world war one, was a conglomerate of various religious and national groups who coexisted sometimes uneasily until the calamities of the early 1990s. Communist dictator Josef Broz Tito kept a lid on nationalist tendencies in his state and was in some ways the glue holding the country together. His slogan; ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ was known to all in the communist country but his death saw the first cracks appear in that fragile unity. The economic troubles of Yugoslavia in the 1980s and the imminent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe added to the tensions building in the Balkan state.

Football mirrored the pressures building in the former Yugoslavia and in the Croatian Republic’s elections in 1990 pro-independence candidate Franjo Tudjman won. This did not go down well with Serbia nor the Serb minority in Croatia. A month after this election a match took place between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. The clubs were the symbolic representatives of Croatia and Serbia and their more hard core fans were ready for trouble.

The Red Star ‘Delije’ Ultras were led by Zelijko Raznatovic who would become infamous in the Balkans war as Arkan, leader of the murderous ‘Serb Volunteer Guard.’ (Arkan’s Tigers) The Zagreb Ultras, known as the Bad Blue Boys were ready for trouble too as were the Police who were out in force for the match. There was violence in Zagreb before the game but the increasing levels of violence on the terraces and eventually on the field of play led to the match being abandoned. The Red Star players left the field but the Dinamo players did not and this led to one of the most famous, or depending on your outlook - infamous, kicks ever delivered by a footballer. Dinamo Zagreb captain, Boban, perceiving that the Police were far from neutral enforcers of the law got involved in the mayhem and delivered a drop kick to one of the riot Police. It was captured on camera and Boban immediately became a Croatian hero. Some rather dramatically called it the ‘kick which started a war’ but in truth the disintegration of Yugoslavia was well underway by then and Boban’s kick was a symbol of the increasing tensions which were soon to lead to open conflict.

Tensions between the various republics which made up Yugoslavia increased and the war which followed brought to the surface ethnic, religious and nationalist differences which fuelled bitterness and led to some truly dreadful crimes against humanity. As Serbia and Croatia descended into open warfare, Bosnia’s politicians discussed possible independence for their ethnically mixed republic but they were warned by Serb leader Radovan Karadžić   of the consequences of separating from Yugoslavia…

This, what you are doing, is not good. This is the path that you want to take Bosnia and Herzegovina on, the same highway of hell and death that Slovenia and Croatia went on. Don't think that you won't take Bosnia and Herzegovina into hell, and the Muslim people maybe into extinction. Because the Muslim people cannot defend themselves if there is war here.’

For the city of Sarajevo, war meant enduring a 1425 day siege by the Serb controlled Yugoslav National Army which used shells, mortars, tank and sniper fire to decimate the defenders and civilian population. Over 15,000 people died in the siege. Of course the Yugoslav Football league had collapsed by then as players and fans had far more important issues than football to deal with. One of FC Sarajevo’s best players in the 1970s and 80s was Zelimir 'Keli' Vidovic, who had played abroad as well as for the Yugoslav national side. An ethnic Serb like many in Bosnia, he was in Sarajevo during the siege and it was while helping evacuate wounded civilians to a hospital he was stopped at a Serb military checkpoint. He was taken away and never seen alive again. It is thought that he was killed by Arkan’s para-military group after being recognised as a former footballer. His remains were found in a mass grave in 1996 and in 2004 he was reburied in Sarajevo. In his coffin was placed the maroon strip of FC Sarajevo.

At the height of the siege, well know cellist Vedran Smailovic appeared in bombed out buildings playing the hauntingly beautiful Adagio in G Minor by Albinoni. The so called ‘cellist of Sarajevo’ reminded people that even amid the ugliness of war there could still be beauty and hope for better days ahead. His music was a protest against the war and a prayer for peace. He played regularly in ruined buildings and at a host of funerals risking the ire of Serb snipers in the surrounding hills. He now lives in in County Down, Ireland, a country itself dealing with the legacy of conflict and trying to find a way forward to a better future.

The horrors of the early 1990s may now be consigned to the history books but as in other conflicts the legacy of violence and loss lingers on. Today FC Sarajevo is a club with a social conscience. It seeks to foster inter-community relations by sponsoring multi-ethnic football team, FC Guber. It supports refugees and its charitable foundation helps disadvantaged children, funds a shelter for battered women and allows its clinic to be used as a blood collection centre each month. The war may have left indelible scars on Sarajevo but its football club is trying to be part of the healing process which brings the city and indeed wider country together.

Celtic fans visiting there in July will no doubt be aware of some of the history of the city of Sarajevo. This diverse city can boast a Mosque, Synagogue, Catholic Church and Orthodox Church in one district. It is well known in the west as the setting for the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event which began the First World War and of course most will recall the dreadful siege in the early 1990s. However, it is reinventing itself and rebuilding for what it hopes will be a peaceful and better future. I’m sure Celtic fans will be respectful of the city, the host club’s history and enjoy their visit there. The match will take place in the stadium where U2 performed in 1997 and sang, among others, their song, ‘Miss Sarajevo’ to 45,000 ecstatic music fans. Celtic supporters will of course back their team with the usual enthusiasm but will know that there are some things more important than football. That being said they will want the team to put on a performance and try to progress to the next round of the qualification process. FC Sarajevo will of course make it tough for Celtic as will the summer heat but it is a tie Celtic should approach with confidence.

Football at its best can bring people together and I’m sure Celtic and their supporters will make new friends in Sarajevo. When the game kicks off we’ll no doubt be engrossed in the action but happy to see young men test themselves on the football field and not the battlefield. 

We can’t change history but we can learn from it and help create a better future.

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.