Friday, 17 May 2013

Lurgan Jim and Neil Lennon

Lurgan in County Armagh is a town which had more than its share of problems over the years. Historically it was a ‘Plantation’ Town and its position in Mid Ulster made it in modern times an interface area between the Nationalist and Unionist populations. During the Troubles it was the scene of many violent incidents and was undoubtedly a tough place to raise a family. However, anyone who knows Lurgan folk will know how humorous and hardy they are. They are loyal to their own and value the bonds of family and friends highly. There are also many committed members of the Celtic family in the Town and surrounding areas.

Jim O’Hanlon was man who had his roots in Lurgan, although life and work  led him to Cheltenham in England. As always, Ireland’s greatest export seemed to be its people. Known a ‘Lurgan Jim’ in Cheltenham, this son of Erin loved Celtic with a passion and followed the club’s fortunes through thick and thin. In 2010 Jim’s health deteriorated following an aneurysm and even as he faced up to his final journey he worried about who would become Manager of his beloved Celtic. To his joy it was Neil Lennon, another son of Lurgan.  Jim O’Hanlon knew Lennon’s father from his days back home in County Armagh and was delighted when Neil got the Celtic job. His son Ryan said ‘Just before he died he gave me a small green, white and gold banner with the words ‘God Bless Neil Lennon’ on it. Those four words were repeated by ‘Lurgan Jim’ as he took his last breath this side of Paradise. His funeral was attended by members of the Irish Oak CSC in Cheltenham and strains of the ‘Fields of Athenry’ echoes around the Church of St Gregory as this fine Celtic man was laid to rest.

It probably comes as no surprise to Neil Lennon how dearly Celtic supporters like Jim O’Hanlon love the club given that he is a fan of Celtic himself. Had Neil been from any other background, few would have blamed him for walking away from the Celtic job after the assaults, racist and sectarian abuse, bullets in the post, bombs, death threats and the day to day low level abuse he takes in Scotland. That he has stayed and made such a success of his tenure at Celtic Park is to his credit. There will always be ups and downs as a manager but Lennon lives and breathes Celtic as much as any other fan of the Club. He wears the weighty responsibility of managing the club lightly although he no doubt deals with stresses we can’t begin to imagine. Gordon Strachan once said that when he was Manager of Celtic he couldn’t  even put petrol in his car without receiving verbal abuse. Imagine how much more vitriolic the abuse Neil Lennon receives will be as he ticks all the boxes for the bigoted haters in Scottish society?

I recall well Martin O’Neil’s press conference in Barcelona in 2004 which followed a game against the now defunct Rangers at Ibrox. Speaking of the vile racist and sectarian abuse he and Lennon put up with for all of that game O’Neil said…

’The abuse Neil Lennon was subjected to was as shameful as the Monkey noises aimed at black England players. He was abused in a racist and sectarian manner for the whole game and it reached an incredible crescendo near the end.’

Graham Spiers, one of the few journalists of the time who didn’t accuse O’Neil of over reacting or exhageration said at the time…

‘It was a rotten, ignorant and venom filled atmosphere from the start. From too many mouths to count, people like O’Neill and Neil Lennon, the Celtic midfielder, both Catholics from Northern Ireland, were subjected to sustained sectarian abuse throughout the match. It is worth actually citing these slogans. They ranged from “Fenian c***” to “Fenian scumbag” to – in the case of Lennon – “away and f*** yersel Lennon, ya Fenian bawbag”.

That Neil Lennon has endured such abuse in Scotland is a disgrace to this country. That Rangers FC (IL) tacitly approved of such behaviour for years by dint of their sectarian signing policy is a stain on the dead club’s reputation that even the sycophants of the laptop loyal can’t disguise. Some bleated that he ‘brings it on himself’ by his aggressive character. One must ask why other ‘aggressive characters’ like Graham Souness never received bombs, bullets and death threats during his time in Scotland. He was never assaulted in the street or on the touchline as Lennon was. Why is Lennon singled out for levels of abuse unique in the annals of Scottish football? The answer of course as we all know can be summed up in three words… Celtic, Irish & Catholic. Neil Lennon combines these three elements in a feisty package that refuses to bow or be cowed by the bigots. To add insult to injury in their twisted world view, he has also been successful in leading Celtic to honours while their disgraced and dishonourable club collapsed in debt, scandal and a complete lack of dignity.

I hope Neil Lennon sticks around for a few years yet at Celtic. He is an honest, hard-working and increasingly knowledgeable manager. He clearly loves Celtic as much as we do and takes great delight in the successes he brings to the club. Yes, he makes mistakes from time to time but he is still a young manager learning all the time. He had the courage to talk about his depression in public. He has also learned about the snakes and shit stirrers in the Scottish sporting media who sunk very low in their reporting of various incidents involving Lennon over the years. From the disproved and puerile ‘Thugs and Thieves’ headline to the astonishingly stupid image of the Taxman and Lennon on the back page of the Record beside a headline reading ‘Who is more hated at Ibrox.’ God only knows what the ‘Journalist’ who thought that up was thinking. Yet despite it all Neil Lennon carries on, pushes Celtic to more success and ignores the haters. He is an inspiration to many and a living example of courage and character which refuses to bend to the brainless unthinking bigotry which sadly still scars parts of Scottish society.

Lurgan Jim has gone to his rest happy that a fellow Lurgan man is at the helm of the club he loved all his life. A Lurgan man endowed with all the guts and character his pugnacious people are famous for.  Jim O'Hanlon spoke for us all and I for one would like to echo his words and say to one and all ‘God Bless Neil Lennon!’


RIP Jim O’Hanlon



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