Friday, 20 July 2018



Jim ‘Joker’ McCann’s coffin stood a little forlornly at the front of the small church. It was covered by a white ceremonial sheet which in turn was topped with a cross and a bible. A fairly sombre collection of friends and relatives shuffled in and began filling the pews. His two sons sat in the front row, looking a little uncomfortable in their suits and ties, and were joined in turn by their uncles and aunts. Joker had five brothers and sisters and they in turn had a dozen children between them and already a new generation of little ones was springing forth. Joker’s younger son, Barry looked at his older brother and whispered, ‘A good turnout, he’d like that.’ Tam’s face didn’t change from its usual glum appearance as he replied, ‘Aye, he was popular enough. Just hope his Will doesn’t cause a war.’ Barry exhaled, if there was one aspect of his big brother’s personality he disliked it was his continual obsession with money. The Priest entered as a bell rang somewhere refocussing Barry’s mind on the real reason they were there; to celebrate Joker’s life.

As the service progressed the Priest spoke about their old man’s life and was surprisingly well informed. ‘James Joseph McCann was born in Duke Street Hospital in Glasgow on October the nineteenth, 1957. It is said that his father James Senior was otherwise engaged as young James took his first breath on that bright autumn day being as he was at the League Cup Final between Celtic and Rangers. I think it’s fair to say that Joseph Snr was pleased with the result both at Hampden and at the hospital!’ There was a quiet laughter in the church at this as everyone knew how Celtic daft the McCann’s were. ‘He went to St Mary’s Primary school and it caused eyebrows to be raised when his father took him out of school for a few days in the spring of 1967 for a trip to Lisbon in Portugal where 9 year old James and his father watched Celtic winning the European Cup. Family legend suggests his father was part of a group of Celtic fans who invaded the field at full time and virtually dragged Billy McNeill’s shirt from his back. It was cut into pieces and everyone got a part of it to cherish, even nine year old James.’ Barry whispered to his brother, ‘Wonder where that bit of family history got to?’ As the Priest continued his description of Joker’s life Barry found himself smiling. His old man earned his nickname well and his constant steam of jokes and wind ups featured largely in life story

The Priest looked up and smiled a little as he continued painting a picture of the dearly departed Joker McCann,’ His humour and his practical jokes were a feature of his life and I was reminded of the time he decided to put a fresh spin on the old whoopee cushion joke by filling it with gravy. It was intended for his late wife but alas my predecessor Father O’Hara arrived unexpectedly at the house and sat on the aforementioned whoopee cushion with predictable consequences.’ At this there was more laughter from the congregation. It struck Barry that he’d always remember his old man smiling or wise cracking at parties or in the pub. He could be a very funny man and Barry recalled going to a garden centre to buy a Christmas tree the year before. A spotty faced youth looked at Joker and asked, ‘Are you going to put it up yourself?’ Joker replied with a straight face, ‘No, I was thinking in the living room.’

It was a strangely joyous funeral and he figured his old fellah would have wanted it that way. He had lived a full and happy life and the great loves of his life; his family and Celtic Football Club had given him a lot of pride and pleasure.

The following Monday morning Barry sat with Tam in the office of their father’s Lawyer, the grandly named Cornelius McBride. The Lawyer looked at them over the top of his glasses, his receding and rather unkempt grey hair and overgrown white eyebrows making him look like large bird of prey. ‘Gentleman, if we are ready to proceed I shall read the last Will and Testament of Mr James McCann.’ A hush descended on the room as old Joker was said to be worth a few quid and the sale of his home and life insurance policies would accrue even more. Money was never that important to Barry but Tam unconsciously licked his lips and stared impatiently at the old lawyer. ‘As a preliminary, I have calculated that the entire estate of Mr McCann including savings, interest, life insurance payments and the likely proceeds from the sale of his former home will, following the settling of his various creditors accounts, amount to a sum in the region of £210,000.’ Tam’s eyes lit up as he heard this and he audibly sighed. 

The lawyer opened a manila envelope and removed Joker’s hand written Will. ‘If you could bear with me,’ he said in a somewhat bemused voice, ’the will is one of the more… unusual I’ve dealt with over the years.’ The two brothers looked at each other a little bemused as the old lawyer continued. ‘I’ll read exactly what your father has written….’

‘Hello Tam and Barry, if you’re listening to these words then I guess it means I’ve gone to join your mother. Don’t be sad as I’m beyond pain and suffering. You’ve been two of the best sons a father could wish for and I want you both to be happy in the years God gives you so always be there for each other.

As to my treasure, well I couldn’t decide what to do with it so I’ve decided to set you a wee test. If you can answer three questions to Mr McBride’s satisfaction, he’ll give you the key to the small safe in his office and all it contains is yours. If you can’t solve the questions – you don’t get the key. Here are the three questions…

       I.            Who is sitting on the words ‘Ignoti et quasi occulti in hoc mundo?
     II.            Where is AMDG written in squares?
  III.            Where do angels look over the three T’s?

You know I liked a joke, boys so I’ll keep it simple. The first one of you to solve these three riddles and provide Mr McBride with the necessary proof gets the key to the safe and my treasure.

See you in a better place, Your Dad, Joker.’

The old Lawyer stopped reading and looked at them. ‘As I’ve said, it’s the most unusual will I’ve ever had to deal with but I’m bound to carry out your father’s wishes. The first one who answers the 3 questions successfully gets they key to the safe and all it contains.’ With that he handed them both a copy of their father’s letter. Tam looked at his brother Barry with a look of disgust on his face, ‘What the fuck is he playing at? Riddles? Can he not just gie us the fuckin money?’ Barry shook his head, ‘we could work on this this together, Tam, share whatever is in the safe?’ Tam shook his head, ‘I’m figuring this oot, Barry and I don’t need your help.’ With that he stood and stormed out of the room. Barry shook hands with the old lawyer, ‘Sorry about that, Mr McBride. He’s a bit headstrong oor Tam.’ The layer stood and shook his hand, ‘Good luck solving those riddles.’ As Barry turned to leave the old man added, ‘You know I can’t help you on your quest, but I can say that I was educated at St Aloysius School. We used to write AMDG at the top of every new page in our jotters.’ Barry smiled, ‘thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.’

Barry sat at home and opened his laptop; it flickered to life with its screensaver of the new Celtic way leading to Celtic Park. He quickly googled ‘Ignoti et quasi occulti in hoc mundo’ and it took him seconds to learn that it was the motto of the Marist Brothers and as any Celtic fan knows, the founder of the club was a Marist. He mumbled to himself, ‘but who’s sitting on those words?’  Then it clicked and he grabbed his car keys and headed for Celtic Park.

He searched the base of the Brother Walfrid statue and there he found the words, ‘Ignoti et quasi occulti in hoc mundo’ on one of the panels. Barry smiled, ‘Walfrid’s sitting on those words!’ He took a few photographs and headed back down the Celtic Way.  The first problem had been solved.

That night as darkness fell over Glasgow he looked at the second problem. ‘Where is AMDG written in squares?’ He recalled the old lawyer said he used to write those letters at the top of each page when he was a pupil at St Aloysius. He soon found out via the internet that ‘AMDG’ was an acronym for ‘Ad Majoren de Gloriam’ the motto of the Jesuit order but where is it written in squares? He wracked his brain, ‘St Peter’s Square? George Square?’ No solution came to mind and he drifted to sleep that night thinking it over.

His phone jarred him out of his slumber as another dawn crept in between his curtains. He could hear Tam’s voice as he pressed it to his ear, ‘Aw right bro, you solved any of those riddles yet?’ Barry focussed and mumbled, ‘aye, one of them. You solved any?’  ‘Aye one, tell me yours first then I’ll tell you mine.’  Barry sat up in bed, ‘The one asking about sitting on the words, it’s Brother Walfrid. It’s on the plinth of his statue.’ Tam replied a little curtly, ‘Aye, that’s the wan I solved as well. Catch ye later.’ With that he hung up and Barry felt just a little conned. ‘Mental note to self,’ he mumbled, ‘Tell Tam fuck all!’

The following afternoon Barry headed into Glasgow City centre. As he wandered up Buchanan Street he was stopped by a couple of brightly dressed tourists, ‘Excuse me,’ the American woman said with a not unpleasant accent, ‘we’re on vacation and wanted to visit Glasgow City hall?’ Barry thought for a moment, ‘You mean the city chambers?’ She nodded, ‘Yeh, the one with all the marble and mosaics.’ Barry smiled, ‘Follow me it’s just up here in George Square.’ He led them to the square and pointed out the unmistakable form of the city Chambers. The American man shook his hand, ‘Thank you, y’all have a nice day now.’ Barry watched them negotiate the traffic and cross the road into George Square but something was niggling at his mind. What had she said? ‘The one with the marble and mosaics!’ That’s it, the clue, ‘Where is AMDG written in Squares?’ It must be written in mosaic squares! He crossed into George Square and sat on a bench. His old man’s riddles were all about Celtic so he searched on his phone ‘Glasgow Celtic Mosaic’ and in less than a second saw an image on his phone of a mosaic on the floor of St Mary’s church in Glasgow’s east end. He enlarged the picture and carefully read the words around the edge of the mosaic. It read, ‘To the greater glory of God and in honour of his blessed mother commemorating the foundation of the Celtic Football Club in this Parish of St Mary’s Calton.’ There it was- AMDG - ‘To the greater glory of God’ written in squares. He’d solved it! ‘Two down and one to go!’ he said to himself with a satisfied smile.

Over the next few days, Barry thought long and hard about the last riddle; where do angels look over the three T’s? What did it mean by the ‘three T’s?’ Neither the internet nor discussions with his Celtic supporting friends could help solve the problem. His old man would be laughing at his struggles. His brother had phoned a couple of times fishing but Barry stonewalled him and said he was still stuck on the last two riddles. Tam was not happy- he could smell money but had no way of getting at it without the answers. In truth, Barry found his brother’s greed a little nauseating.

The following week Barry was taking his twelve year old cousin Kevin on a tour of Celtic Park. Despite being a lifelong fan he had never gone on the tour so was fairly excited himself. He put all thoughts of his old man’s riddles out of his head as he and a group of chattering fans followed the guide up the ramp towards the front door of the stadium. As they neared the front door Barry glanced at the bronze plaque on the wall dedicated to the memory of the great Tommy Burns. As he passed it he heard the man behind him say, ‘God bless ye T. we all miss ye still.’ Barry stopped in his tracks and the man bumped into him. ‘Sorry pal,’ Barry said pushing past him. He stopped in front of the Tommy Burns plaque and looked at it. It showed three images of Tommy, one as a player in that classic prayerful pose he had struck after scoring a goal, one holding the Scottish Cup as Manager and one in what could have been a coaching top. Young Kevin stared at him, ‘Are we going inside Barry?’ Barry didn’t answer as he glanced at the top of the bronze plaque. There he could see two angels, identical to the ones above St Mary’s Church!  ‘Of course’ he laughed, ‘three T’s- three Tommys!’  Young Kevin looked at him bemused, ‘we’ll miss the tour!’ Barry grinned and took a picture of the plaque before leading young Kevin into Celtic Park. He’d solved the last riddle!

Barry picked Tam up in his car early the following Monday morning. They had made an appointment to see Mr McBride and he wanted to be there early. Tam was beside himself, ‘So ye solved them? I don’t have a clue. Yer sharing with me aren’t ye? I mean anything my da left is for us both?’ Jesus Tam,’ Barry said, ‘is money all you think about? Yer da died a couple of weeks back and all you’ve rabbited on about is bloody money!’ Tam snorted, ‘Are ye sharing wi me, aye or naw? Because if yer no, I’m getting oot this car right noo!’’ Barry exhaled, ‘Aye Tam. You’ll get half of what’s there, now shut up aboot it.’

Mr McBride listened carefully to Barry as he went through the questions one by one. ‘Brother Walfrid is sitting on the words; they’re on a panel on the plinth of his statue. AMDG is on the Celtic mosaic in St Mary’s church and the angels looking over the three T’s refers to the Tommy Burns plaque at Celtic Park.’ Barry showed the old lawyer pictures on his phone to corroborate his answers. The old man nodded, ‘You satisfy the conditions so as per your father’s instructions, the key is yours.’ He opened a drawer on his desk and took out a small wooden box which he opened and removed a key from. ‘This is the key to the safe, if you’ll allow me?’ Barry nodded, ‘Go ahead.’ The old man stood and turned the key in the lock of the safe and opened the heavy door. Tam could barely contain himself, ‘Yasss Barry boy! You did it, you solved the riddles.’ 

Barry watched as the lawyer removed two brown envelopes from the safe and placed them on the table. He opened the first envelope and removed an A4 sheet of paper. Barry watched with interest as he unfolded it and prepared to read it. Tam was virtually rocking on his seat with excitement. The old lawyer began to read, ‘It is my settled will that all my assets be given in equal shares to the following….’ Tam waited for his name, after all he was the oldest, it’d be his name first. As the lawyer began to read out a list of charities, Tam’s face fell. ‘Whit, he’s giving his money tae fuckin’ cats and dugs and folk in Africa he’s never met!’ Barry laughed as Tam pointed hopefully at the other envelope, ‘Whit dis that wan say?’ The lawyer showed them the two words written by their father on the front of the envelope. It read, ‘My Treasure.’ Tam’s eyes widened, perhaps he’d get something worth having after all. The old man opened the large envelope and removed a poly-pocket which contained a ragged strip of green and white cotton. ‘This I believe is a piece of the shirt worn by Billy McNeill when Celtic won the European cup.’ Tam was aghast, ‘A rag, a fuckin auld rag! That’s his treasure, is this a fuckin joke?’ Barry laughed out loud, his old man had indeed set up one final joke and by God it was a good one. The old lawyer looked on with some amusement on his face at the two brothers. Tam was incandescent with rage, ‘You keep the fuckin rag, Barry! But just you remember when yer skint, yer old man gave thousands away tae feed fuckin abandoned Rottweilers!’ Barry was rocking with laughter. Good old Joker, he thought, he had played his hand beautifully.

He picked up the piece of Billy McNeill’s shirt and looked at it. His old man had kept it all these years. ‘I’ll look after your treasure Da, don’t you worry about that.’ He left the lawyers office still laughing to himself.


Monday, 16 July 2018


The fine city of Glasgow was host to two very different demonstrations this past couple of weeks. One involved members of the Orange Order marching through the streets in a rather hollow demonstration of triumphalism and was marked by the despicable assault on a Catholic Priest at St Alphonsus church. The other was the annual Pride, march celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender culture, which was led by first minister Nicola Sturgeon and this was marked by colour, music and positivity.

Celtic’s decision to post a message on social media wishing those attending the annual pride march in Glasgow a good day had the surprising effect of attracting some very negative comments from a vociferous minority. Of course there are those with no love for Celtic who seize on any opportunity to throw mud at the club but some of the comments I saw on social media came from people who claimed to be Celtic fans.  Celtic’s message was a simple one…

This however provoked some ire from a minority who seemed to feel that that Celtic’s Catholic roots were incompatible with such a message.  One person stated that Celtic’s message was…

‘Absolutely disgraceful. Our club was founded on Catholic principles. Brother Walfrid will be spinning in his grave.’

Celtic was of course founded on the Christian principle of charity and love and there seemed to be a distinct lack of that in such comments. Let’s be clear here, Celtic Football club is not a Catholic organisation, it is a modern, secular football club open to people of all faiths, all ethnicities and all sexual orientations. Through historical circumstance the majority of supporters are at least cultural Catholics but a large and increasing number of Celtic supporters come from other faith backgrounds or have no interest in religion.

The social attitudes around in 1888 when the club was founded have gone through revolutionary change. It was routine in the late Victorian era for Jews, Catholics, people of colour and others to suffer open and, by modern standards, pretty appalling prejudice. We will never know the opinion of Celtic’s founding father on those of a different sexual orientation although his actions in trying to feed the poor and alleviate suffering among the marginalised and poverty stricken community he served suggests he was a man of compassion.

Most Christians are familiar with the scriptures of their faith and in truth some have twisted them in the past to bolster their arguments in favour of things such as slavery and racial segregation. The most quoted passages concerning same sex relationships are found in the book of Leviticus and in the letters of St Paul. They were written in a very different context and culture from the modern one we must navigate in our lives. Leviticus is particularly unforgiving and brutal in its assertion that….

"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them." (Lev 20:13)

Compare this to the meeting Pope Francis had with a victim of clerical sex abuse. Juan Carlos Cruz meet the Pontiff to discuss the abuse he suffered at the hands of one of Chile’s worst paedophile’s. He told the press after the meeting that the Pope that Francis had said to him…

‘Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like this and loves you like this and I don’t care. The pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are,’

While official Catholic doctrine would still suggest that sexual activity with someone of the same gender is a sin, it’s clear that the compassion and love shown by Pope Francis is a million miles away from the harshness and cruelty of the book of Leviticus. People of faith need to judge for themselves what being a Christian means for them. For most it’s about love, forgiveness and accepting that none of us are perfect. For a few it means harsh rules, shame and guilt. I know which side I fall on in that debate.

This week also saw a very brave and defiant young man called Blair Wilson suffer a homophobic attack on the streets of Glasgow. He took a selfie of himself in the wake of the assault and for many who saw the image of his bloodied but smiling face it was a timely reminder of where prejudice can lead. His courage in speaking out though and the reaction to it is testament to how much society is changing. Most people are sick of petty prejudices be they aimed at religious or ethnic groups or people who are different from them. Societies evolve and the attitudes of the past can seem utterly ludicrous to a modern person. It is not denying your Christian heritage to be more tolerant of the ‘other’ in society-it is living up to it!

If you’re reading these words the chances are you’re using a phone, laptop or other computing device. All of this technology owes much to the pioneering computer work of Alan Turing. Turing was one of the key men who broke the German codes in World War Two and in doing so shortened the war and made an allied victory over fascism more likely. He was also a gay man who was dragged through the courts and charged with ‘gross indecency.’ His public shaming cost him his security clearance as well as his reputation. In the end he took his own life. We must never return to those days. Believe what you want to believe but allow others the same privilege.

So for those offended by Celtic’s message of support for Glasgow’s Pride march I say follow your conscience as you have every right to do but know that the vast majority in our society feel people should be free to live as they choose without fear or shame. We learn from the past or we’re doomed to repeat it and the past shows us very clearly the disgraceful persecution gay people endured. Times change and thankfully in some respects they’re changing for the better.

To any LGBT Celtic supporters out there, we're far from perfect but this is a club for all and you’re welcome here. In that we take Pride.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Bygone Days of Yore

Bygone Days of Yore

I was fortunate enough to enjoy a break in the sunshine of Cyprus this past week and not being one to laze about in the sun managed to see a bit of the island. Those of you who have visited there will know that it was been partitioned since the Turkish invasion of 1974. There is a long and often bitter history between Greeks and Turks which stretches back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Cyprus was ruled, often brutally, by the Ottomans for over 300 years and became a British possession when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early twentieth century. Its population is about 80% Greek Cypriot with around 18% being of Turkish origin with various other nationalities settling there making up the rest. When the Greek majority pushed for independence in order to seek unity with Greece in the 1950s, the British reacted in typical fashion by setting up an auxiliary Police force made up of Turkish Cypriots. Divide and rule was always a useful tactic in days of Empire as India, Ireland and other places found. Predictably it made relations between the two communities worse.

I got chatting to a fellow Celtic fan as our coach trundled through the Troodos Mountains towards the beautiful Kykkos Monastery and he showed me on his phone the news from home of the despicable attack on a Catholic Priest, Tom White, at St Alphonsus Church in Glasgow’s east end during the annual Orange Parade in the city. The incident took place as the vigil mass was ending and parishioners were leaving the church and Father White was spat on and called a ‘Fenian bastard’ among other vile things. It seems the Police officers guarding the church were called away to another incident related to the parade and thus the bigots had free reign to vent their considerable bile on the Priest and the mostly elderly parishioners. One wonders what sort of society we have when Police Officers need to guard a place of worship. One worshiper said…

The priest was in front of us trying to say thanks for attending Mass but the verbal abuse from people in the walk, not just hangers, on was frightening. They shouted paedo, the spat on the priest, hit him with a baton. They were obnoxious. It’s so sad to see such venom in people’s faces towards church goers.

 Coming from a part of Scotland which isn’t subjected to Orange Parades, my friend on the bus was bemused about the sort of bigotry which leads people to behave in such a manner. Alas, as a Glasgow boy, I’ve seen it all my life and it’s like watching the same rotten movie over and over. The Orange Order, as usual says ‘nothing to do with us’ the internet is awash with folk blaming Catholic Schools and giving us the old ‘both sides as bad as each other’ nonsense. The Orange Lodge attracts these people to their displays of naked sectarian triumphalism like flies to rotten fruit for a reason.

They offer a platform where some of the more unsavoury attitudes held in our society can be expressed freely. I’ve known a few Orangemen in my life, (it would be stretching it to call them friends) and none of them were particularly religious. It was more a tribal celebration of ‘them and us’ which is sadly found in societies all over the world. I even attended the funeral of one such chap and as his brethren lined the crematorium in all their regalia, I thought it interesting the sort of conversations you hear when folk are unguarded and believe they are surrounded by what the call their ‘own kind.’

So here we are in 21st century Scotland, a place where Priests are spat upon in the street and Police are required to stand outside places of worship as people celebrating a victory by a Dutchman at a battle in Ireland 328 year ago, swagger past dressed like chocolate box soldiers. The absurdity of it all is beyond parody. Scottish Actor John Hannah was scathing in his condemnation of the attack on Canon White and the mind-set which facilitates such events...

‘It’s the 21st century and my city, Glasgow, still allows this barbaric, bigoted bunch of medieval fuckwits to parade through the city displaying their narrow minded blinkered version of fascism for the whole world to see. I’m ashamed of you Glasgow.’

The right to march and demonstrate is part of any democratic society but it has to be within safe and decent limits. Too often the hangers on and at least some of the marchers at these parades behave in a manner which oversteps the mark. Attitudes towards them are changing though and there is a more confident and vocal group in society, especially among the young, asking why we put up with this nonsense every year in the heart of our cities and towns. It’s ironic that the stoicism with which Glasgow’s Catholics have traditionally endured this nonsense is one reason it continues. Any counter demonstrations or disturbances would perhaps see the city council and Police act. No one advocates breaking the law but our politicians need to see the anxiety, trouble and poor behaviour these walks cause. You’d have to conclude that if these demonstrations were accompanied by anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim sentiment, something would have been done years ago. As one chap said to me recently, ‘Let them march but do it in a field in Ayrshire and give the rest of us peace.’

The 2011 census found the religious persuasion of Glaswegians to be as follows; Catholic 27%, Church of Scotland 23% and people of no religion 32%. The rest of the city’s population were of other faiths or preferred not to say. It remains ironic that the council tax payers of the city who fund the policing of such parades include many Catholics who find them intimidating or offensive. Perhaps if the Orange Order paid the policing costs themselves we’d see a decrease in the sheer number of parades which currently outnumbers those taking place in Belfast. I don’t see why the vast majority of folk who have no interested in them or their outdated ideas should foot the bill for their annual jamboree which is estimated to be around £1.5m each year.

Scotland is a changing country and most of us want it to be an inclusive place where people feel welcome and comfortable. I have no problem with people celebrating their cultural heritage in a manner which we can all enjoy. Wouldn’t it be great if public events and displays were accessible to all and a genuine celebration of diversity and not some grim, triumphalist stomp through the streets? For too many though it remains a forum for base displays of intolerance, drunkenness and the sort of vile behaviour we saw directed at Canon White.

I’m sure there will be some folk reading these words thinking ‘Very predictable, another Celtic fan slagging the Orange Walk’ but this is about the sort of society we want in Scotland not football or politics. It’s about decency and respect for others and most Scots want that I’m sure. Do we move forward as a progressive nation or are we stuck in the bygone days of yore?  

It's time for our leaders to lead.

Friday, 29 June 2018

The Smashing of the van

The Smashing of the van

I strolled down Castle Street in Glasgow’s east end this week and got to thinking about the history which had been played out in this, the oldest part of the city. As I passed the Royal Infirmary, once the site of the Castle which gave the street its name, I recalled the tales of William Wallace capturing that same castle during the Scottish Wars of Independence in 1297. Further down the street stands Glasgow cathedral. It was here the stone masons confronted the Reformers in the sixteenth century who were determined to destroy the building as they had destroyed so many other great church buildings in Scotland. Thankfully a compromise was agreed and they destroyed instead any interior signs of ‘Popery’ such as art works, statues and rood screens but left the building standing. Across the road is the oldest surviving house in Glasgow built in 1472 and diagonally opposite that is a statue of William of Orange in Roman garb on his horse with its tail held on by a ball and socket joint after repeated vandalism in the late nineteenth century.

Go a little further and you’ll see the remains of the walls of the old Duke Street prison. The Ladywell flats complex is inside the much reduced walls of what was one of Scotland’s major jails. It was here almost a century ago that an incident occurred which is surprisingly little known today. Let me take you back though to a very different Glasgow from the one we know today…

It seemed like a normal Wednesday afternoon in Glasgow as people went about their business on a warm spring day in 1921. The east end of Glasgow was enjoying some bright May weather and the area around Castle Street, which led to the Cathedral and Royal Infirmary, was busy but all seemed normal. That was about to change as the lumbering Black Maria Police van made its way from the Central Police Court in St Andrew’s Square to Duke Street Prison. It contained just two prisoners and one of them was of such importance that four armed officers formed an escort. The back of the van was divided into compartments known as dog boxes; one contained a petty criminal and the only other occupied dog box contained Frank Carty.

Carty was a highly dangerous man in the eyes of the British authorities. A battle hardened Commander of the IRA who had fought the Black and Tans in his homeland for two long and bloody years. He had already escaped from Sligo and Derry prisons and the authorities were taking no chances. Glasgow then was a city with a large Irish population many of whom were sympathetic to the cause Carty fought for. Indeed, Eamon de Valera, the president the Irish Republic said of Scotland’s assistance to the struggle for Irish independence:

The financial contribution to the Irish struggle from among the Scottish communities was in excess of funds from any other country, including Ireland.’

Scotland was more than a source of money and sympathy for the Republican cause during the Irish war of independence; weapons, explosives and volunteers crossed the sea too. Most major population centres in Scotland had their clandestine companies of volunteers who robbed munition works, stole weapons and on one occasion held up the crew of a Royal Navy gunboat docked at Finnieston and stole their weapons. Chris Bambery in his book ‘A people’s history of Scotland’ states that…

‘Seamus Reader, the commander of the Scottish IRA was able to slip into the chemistry department of Glasgow University where he manufactured explosives which were then shipped to Ireland.’

In this atmosphere, it was plain to see why the Police thought Frank Carty needed some extra security as he journeyed to Duke Street Jail. As events were to prove, they were right to be concerned for as the Van slowed near the entrance of the Prison, a team of IRA Volunteers led by hardened Republican Sam Adair sprung their ambush. Witnesses spoke of ‘scores’ of armed men running from lanes and closes of the High Street to ambush the van. As people fled in terror, the IRA men fired into the van killing one of the escorting officers and wounding another. The other officers returned fire and a deadly gun fight took place on the public street. The attackers were unable to free Carty despite firing repeatedly into the lock on the metal door of the van. In the end the attackers gave up and melted away into the warren of closes and lanes which made up the area then.

Glasgow was shocked by what had occurred on that bright May day and police raids took place immediately in areas they thought sympathetic to the rebels in Ireland. The Glasgow Irish were still ghettoised in those times and life revolved around the local community, the Parish and for many Celtic Park. As doors were battered down in the east end of the city, people were becoming irate and a large crowd gathered in Abercrombie Street. The Police arrived by the van load to raid more homes and their heavy handed approach ensured that the anger in a community, which had long thought they were treated unfairly, was growing. When they arrested a local Priest, Father McCrory of St Mary’s, things got out of hand and serious rioting occurred. The Police were forced to withdraw but not before dozens had been taken into custody and scores of firearms recovered. As a mob reported as two thousand strong controlled the Gallowgate area that night, the army quietly readied itself in case it was required to assist the hard pressed Police.

Charges against a dozen men and women involved in the ‘smashing of the van’ went to trial in Edinburgh but the Jury found all involved not guilty or not proven. No one was ever convicted for the killing of Superintendent Robert Johnstone who died that day. Sam Adair the IRA man who led the attempt to free Frank Carty died in the civil war which followed the signing of the treaty which ended the ‘Tan War’ and led to the partition of Ireland. He was fighting for the anti-treaty IRA against Pro-Treaty forces when he was killed in an ambush set by his former comrades. It was said that Frank Carty, the man he had tried to rescue in Glasgow, had ordered the ambush.

Glasgow in those times was in many ways a divided city and this was expressed in many ways, not least in its sectarian geography and the street gangs of the era, some of whom were hundreds strong. The Billy Boys and Bridgeton Derry were often locking horns with their mainly catholic rivals the Norman Conks or the Shamrock. Their battles could be brutal and this era gave Glasgow its ‘No Mean City’ reputation. In Politics, the Glasgow Irish were often more interested in what was going on in Ireland than the local scene where virulently anti-Catholic political parties had sprung up. The Protestant Action Party and Protestant League could win a quarter of the vote at local elections in Edinburgh and Glasgow. With high unemployment, poverty and over-crowding, the conditions were rife for such extremist voices to be heard.

The year following the attempt to free Frank Carty Celtic travelled to Greenock for the finale of a very tight Championship race. They needed to avoid defeat to ensure they would be champions and Morton, who would win the cup that year, would prove formidable opponents. As thousands of Celtic supporters flooded into Greenock there was tension in the air. Police stopped Celtic fans entering the stadium with banners described in the press as ‘Sinn Fein’ flags (Irish tricolours) but they were simply passed over the wall to their comrades inside. Fighting broke out on the terraces as they game commenced and continued sporadically until the teams left the field at half-time. It was then the real trouble occurred, with hundreds involved clashes and fans racing from one end of the field to the other to join in the fray. Ship yard workers from Greenock had been seen carrying bags of metal rivets into the game and these caused many injuries when thrown. The Police were helpless to stop the mayhem and only the resumption of the game distracted the rioters from their activities. Celtic drew 1-1 thanks to a late goal from Andy McAtee and won the title by one point but as fans exited the stadium the violence resumed. Morton fans were seen to burn Celtic flags and both sets of supporters laid into each other again. There was trouble in and around the railway station and on the trains back to Glasgow where among other things Police had to overpower a man wielding a razor. Shop windows were smashed and looted, the cells were full and the hospital overcrowded by the end of a day in which Greenock had seen the worst rioting in its history.

It’s interesting comparing the Glasgow of the 1920’s to the modern city. We often see some faux outrage when someone sings a non PC song at a football match or displays a banner with political content but that pales into insignificance when we consider the political and social divisions at play a century ago. The Irish-Scots have come a long way in the past hundred years and are now a fully integrated and prominent part of the Scottish nation. Through inter-marriage and the passing of time, each succeeding generation becomes more Scottish, proud of their ancestry of course, but now much more comfortable in their native land. Scotland’s largest migrant group, once virtually written out of any history of the country, are now being rightly recognised for their role in building its infra structure, for their contribution in sports, the arts, education, law, politics and much more.  

Perhaps the most visible symbol of their presence in this old city is to be found in the east end of Glasgow at the top of what we used to call Kerrydale Street...

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Real Deal

The Real Deal

Henrik Larsson lay prostrate on the emerald turf of Celtic Park as a hush descended around the packed Stadium. The Swedish striker was never one for lying down without good reason and most of the supporters knew his injury was serious. Gus Bahoken of Livingston had broken Larsson’s jaw in two places after a clumsy and rather brutal attempt at heading the ball. Accidental or not, Celtic fans knew Larsson’s absence in those early months of 2003 was a major blow. Celtic were locked in a tense battle for the league title and would face Stuttgart in the UEFA cup that month.  The fans knew how important Larsson was to the team and some recalled how their season had fallen apart after he had broken his leg in Lyon in 1999. Blood was mopped from his face and he was helped from the field to loud but rather worried applause. He was taken straight to hospital and the fracture confirmed.

Ron Moore, long time sports reporter with the Daily Mirror decided to try and get a scoop and headed north to interview Larsson. The trouble was he didn’t ask in advance and Larsson is a private man who guards his family’s privacy jealously. Moore had the cheek to let himself into Larsson’s front yard and wait for him to return and the Swede was not amused. The interview consisted of the following exchange…

Moore: ‘How are you Henrik?’
Larsson: (Heavily bandaged) ‘Fuck off.’
Moore: ‘How long will you be wearing the bandage?’
Larsson: ‘Fuck off.’
Moore: ‘When will you be able to play again?
Larsson: ‘Fuck off.’

Henrik Larsson was without doubt one of the best strikers ever to grace the Scottish game and his prowess in front of goal is legendary but for all his deft touches, intelligent movement and clinical finishes he was as tough as they come too. Professional football can be brutal at times and Larsson took his fair share of ruthless treatment on the field. He talked in the years after his retirement about the dark side of the game and said…

‘It can get pretty ugly sometimes. I know I’ll get hurt, tackled from behind sometimes but I know that from the outset. Sometimes to cover a defender you grab hold of their shorts and if you happen to grab their package too well you just pull harder.’

Larsson once stated that Craig Moore of Rangers was one of his toughest opponents but praised him by saying that much as the Australian dished out some fairly brutal treatment, he takes it back without complaining.

Of course spending seven years of his career at Celtic brought out the usual arrogant and condescending comments from commentators south of the border that his 242 goals in green and white were more down to the relative weakness of the Scottish League than Larsson’s abilities. Fans of all clubs in Scotland have endured the ‘My Nan’ brigade for as long as football has been played.  Celtic’s record against English opposition in European fixtures has been good over the years as Leeds United, Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United will tell you but there was no doubting our pleasure when Henrik demonstrated at the World Cup, European Championships and Champions League level that he was the real deal. As a striker he scored goals against sides like Juventus, Liverpool, Porto and Valencia but It irked him that the ignorant would deride his achievements in Scotland and he once stated….

“They would say, ‘Yeah he can do it in Scotland, but can he do it in the big leagues?’ It was a bit annoying because if it was that easy, why didn’t everybody score so many goals?”

The man who holds the goal scoring record in European matches while at a UK club demonstrated at Barcelona and Manchester United that he would have been a star in any league.

We Scots have a tendency to talk down our own game but as many who ventured north of Hadrian’s Wall to play in Scotland have found, it is not the stroll in the park they expected. In recent times we have seen a host of prodigies from the English Academy system loaned out to gain experience in Scotland. Few of them have made any impact at all and even experienced professionals like Joey Barton found the need to scrape the bottom of the barrel for excuses after being an abject failure in the much maligned SPFL.

Those of us who enjoyed Henrik Larsson’s seven years at Celtic Park knew what we were watching. He had started his footballing career in his native Sweden before moving to Feyenoord in Holland where even he would admit things weren’t perfect. It was as if he had found his spiritual home at Celtic and the warmth he basked in from the supporters seemed to help him blossom into a top player.  He famously said after Celtic had beaten Blackburn Rovers in the UEFA Cup at Ewood Park, ‘Yeh, we were shit in Glasgow but they should learn a lesson, you never talk until the game is over.’ Blackburn’s ‘Men against boys’ jibe after the first game in Glasgow (Which they lost) was dripping in all the old arrogance we expect from English opposition and it was an utter delight to ram their words down their throats in their own stadium.

Henrik Larsson sits third in the all-time goal scoring charts for Celtic behind the legendary Jimmy McGrory and Bobby Lennox. His career at Celtic saw him win eight major honours, a golden boot as Europe’s top scorer and helped the club to a European final. Beyond the statistics though we have a thousand memories of the deft clips over the goalkeeper, the flashing dreadlocks as he headed for goal, the tongue out in celebration and sheer grit and determination he added to his undoubted skills.

I’ve been fortunate to watch some excellent footballers wearing the green and white over the years but few have been as good as Henrik Larsson. It was an added bonus that he seemed to get what Celtic was all about too and developed a real affection for the club. He said once…

“This is the club for me. This is where I made myself as a player, this is where everybody got to know me and this is the club that I will be eternally grateful to for giving me that opportunity when maybe other clubs didn’t believe in me. This is where I got back into the Swedish national team and went on to play in European Championships and World Cups for Sweden. I couldn’t have done that without Celtic.”

It is testimony to the impact he made at Celtic that 14 years after his last competitive game for the club he is still recalled with such affection. We don’t forget our heroes at Celtic and Henrik Larsson was certainly one of them.

Thank you Henrik. Hail Hail

Friday, 8 June 2018

Hasta La Victoria...

Watching news filter through that the Argentinian football side had decided not to play a game in Israel this week reminded me yet again of the impossibility of totally separating sport from politics. The disgracefully callous treatment of Palestinians on the ‘great march of return’ demonstrations was one of the key factors which led to pressure being brought to bear on Argentina who announced that they would not fulfill the fixture. It was for some, including many Palestinians, a sign that at least some in the world cared about their plight, For others it was another example of pressure being brought to bear unfairly on a football team merely out to play a game. It got me thinking about another game of football long ago which did take place and perhaps never should have.

In September 1973 as Celtic drove relentlessly towards another league title, events were occurring on the other side of the world which would eventually impact on Scotland and our national game. The left leaning Chilean Popular Unity Party led by Salvador Allende was swept from power in a CIA backed coup led by the Chilean military and General Augusto Pinochet. It was a brutal seizure of power which saw Chilean jets bombing their own Presidential Palace as troops and tanks flooded the streets. The round-up of Allende supporters began immediately and thousands of political opponents were arrested, tortured and in many cases murdered. Among them was folk singer and poet, Victor Jara.

Jara’s songs had urged the people to build a better, fairer country and there was no doubting his support for Allende. This was enough for him to be arrested and taken to the Chilean national football stadium where he was held with thousands of others. When he was recognised by the soldiers, he was taken to the changing room and brutally tortured. His hands and fingers were smashed with an axe as the guards mocked him and asked that he play his guitar for them. One of the officers loaded a single bullet into a gun and spun the chamber; he then played Russian Roulette with the gun pressed to Jara’s head until eventually it went off and Victor fell. He ordered two young conscripts to finish him and they fired over 40 bullets into Jara’s body.

In the aftermath of the bloodletting at the national stadium in Santiago, the USSR team was due to play a world cup play-off match. They refused to go there and their spokesman said….

The Football Federation of the USSR has asked FIFA to hold the match in a third country as the stadium in Santiago is stained with the blood of Chilean patriots. Soviet sportsmen cannot at this time perform at such a venue on moral grounds.’

FIFA sent officials to the stadium which was still holding prisoners who were cowed and out of sight. FIFA ordered the USSR to play the game which of course they refused. This led to the bizarre spectacle of Chile kicking off a game against an absent opposition and scoring a ‘goal’ against team which was sitting at home 8000 miles away.

Over 7000 men and women had been held in dreadful conditions in the stadium and many of them were brutalised and murdered. Yet just a few short years after these events, the SFA decided in their wisdom to play a football match against Pinochet’s Chile in that same stadium. There was huge outcry in Scotland from fans, political groups, trade unions and church groups. Indeed engineers at the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride refused to repair engines of planes from the Chilean air force. An act of solidarity recalled this year in the excellent documentary, ‘Nae Pasaran.’ The SFA though were having none of it and pushed ahead with the match which was part of the build up to the World Cup in Argentina. Many players thought that refusal to go to Chile might jeopardise their chances of going to the world cup the following year. Alan Rough, the Scottish goalkeeper of the time, said later…

“When I went into that stadium, I remember going into the dressing room and I remember seeing the bullet holes on the wall where they had lined up people and killed them. I think if we had been given more information, that there were actually people still being killed and still being arrested on the street and being taken away and shot most of the players wouldn’t have gone.”

Scotland won their ‘Shame game’ in Santiago by 4 goals to 2 but the bitterness and controversy lingered on. Had Scotland cancelled the match it would have been seen by many as an act of solidarity with the oppressed and won Scotland many friends. At least the controversy the game caused raised awareness about what was going on in Chile but for many football fans, it was a game which should never have taken place.

Those of you who remember the sporting boycott of South Africa during the Apartheid era will know that it was of the most visual and potent weapons used to highlight the injustices there. In 1963 FIFA suspended South Africa and when FIFA President Stanley Rous went to negotiate with the South African FA, they asked if they could field and all white side at the 1966 World Cup in England and an all black side in the 1970 tournament in Mexico. FIFA rightly shook their head in disbelief and walked away. In the end, political, economic and sporting pressures built up leading South Africa to abandon Apartheid and become a more integrated and fairer society.

There are those who would apply similar pressure to Israel. Scotland is due to play in Israel in October as part of the European Nations League fixtures. There will undoubtedly be pressure put on the SFA by some not to go there, particularly if the brutality goes on, but it is highly unlikely they’ll even consider not going. The match, unlike the friendly in Chile in 1977, is a competitive, UEFA sanctioned game and not going would leave Scotland open to punitive sanctions. In fairness though, Celtic has played in Israel against Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Hapoel Tel Aviv in the past and there was little call for any boycotts then. Pragmatism and an unwillingness to face the wrath of UEFA ensured those ties went ahead. Politics and sport will never be totally separated but they are uncomfortable bed-fellows.

Victor Jara was asked by a Journalist just a few days before the Coup which was to claim his life, what love meant to him. He replied…

Love of my home, my wife and my children. Love for the earth that helps me live. Love for education and of work. Love of others who work for the common good. Love of justice as the instrument that provides equilibrium for human dignity. Love of peace in order to enjoy one's life. Love of freedom, but not the freedom acquired at the expense of others’ freedom, but rather the freedom of all.‘

Few would disagree with those words. Some in our world though still take their freedom at the expense of others. Until such injustices end there will always be protests; there will always be those who won’t look the other way. 

That is a matter for each human being’s conscience and I for one won’t condemn those who say, that’s enough, no more!