Monday, 31 March 2014



I used to see big John at the football every week. He loved the Hoops as much as any of us and seldom missed a game. In the old Stadium he’d position himself on that shoulder of terracing which once connected the Celtic end to the Jungle.  In sunshine or rain he’d be there a good 20 minutes before kick-off to ensure he got his regular standing spot and he’d witnessed some classic encounters over the years. He was usually in the company of his older brother Mick and those with a keen eye would spot the seemingly strange mix of chatter and hand signals the brothers used. Big John was born deaf and his brother had learned British sign language with him as they grew up in the east end. Mick was in some ways his interpreter and the two were usually inseparable. As a boy Mick had been fiercely protective of his younger brother and had got into a few fights at school or in the street when someone insulted John intentionally or otherwise. On one occasion I recall one of our legendary ‘Ten-Twenty-wanner’ Sunday football games descending into a brawl after someone called John a ‘Dummy.’ He hadn’t heard his team mate call for a pass and the frustrated player, not knowing he was deaf, has shouted at him. Mick, as always, leapt to his brother’s defence and John looked on confused as angry words led to Mick swinging a right hook. John glanced at me, unsure of what his brother was fighting about. We parted the warring parties and the name caller shook Mick’s hand assuring him he didn’t know his brother was deaf. It was quickly forgotten as the game raged on but such incidents  were not untypical of Mick in those days. Although like many working class Glasgow boys he wouldn’t verbalise his feelings much, his love for his brother was clear for all to see.

John and Mick lived with their Mum on the Gallowgate in a now long gone tenement. I remember visiting their home one chilly night in December and as the door was opened by Mick, I could hear the unmistakable sound of Glen Daly singing the Celtic Song drifting from the house. I entered the living room and was met by the strange sight of John sitting in front of the speakers of the family stereo, the palms of his hands held less than an inch from them. He was so absorbed in what he was doing that he didn’t notice I was there. Mick smiled, ‘He likes doing that, he can feel the vibrations.’ Mick explained that he often played a game with john where they’d lay out nine or ten singles with pictures of the band or artist on the front. Mick would then play one without John seeing which one it was and John, hands in front of the speakers, would identify the song from the vibrations and point to the correct artist. He was usually right.

I saw the two brothers in the usual spot the night Celtic destroyed Sporting Lisbon 5-0. As the stadium roared out the songs of victory I glanced at big John, who stood smiling, delighted at his team’s excellent victory. I wondered what his world was like. Here he was standing among thousands of singing Celtic fans and hearing no sound whatsoever. It’s difficult for us blessed with functioning senses to imagine what it would be like to be without one of them.  What was clear though was that John was getting as much pleasure out of Celtic’s victory as any of us.

I’d bump into John and Mick now and then as the years passed. I attended their mum’s funeral at the lovely old St Alphonsus’ church on the London Road by the Barras. I also saw them at the 1995 cup final against Airdrie and again at the new stadium in the Tommy Burns era when we enjoyed some superb football without seeing much tangible success for it all. In 2001 when Martin O’Neil’s team were driving towards the treble, I bumped into the two brothers in a pub near Tannadice. Mick told me that John was being fitted with a cochlear implant and my blank look convinced him to explain further. ‘Basically, they fit one behind your ear during surgery. It has an external sound processor which takes in sound and converts it into signals. The signal is sent along a tiny wire which has electrodes on it and this stimulates the auditory nerve to send signals to the brain which decodes them.’ I looked at him, ‘So John will hear?’ Mick smiled, ‘It’s not quite that simple as that, the implant creates a sense of sound which isn’t like the average hearing person’s sense of it but he will be able to hear some things and get a sense of speech when folk talk to him. He might even say some words himself, they have all sorts of therapy planned to help him after the operation.’ We chatted about the upcoming operation and John signed that he was looking forward to it. Not everyone who is deaf chooses to have the implant but John was keen to go ahead. As we parted and headed for our seats at Tannadice I wished the brothers well.

I didn’t see them again for the best part of two years. It was on that famous night when we played Liverpool at Celtic Park on the road to Seville when our paths next crossed. As Gerry Marsden stood in the centre of the field signing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ with 60,000 Celtic and Liverpool supporters as his backing singers, I saw John. He was standing on the stairway near the front of the North stand facing the crowd. I made my way down from my seat to say hello to him but stopped short when I saw his face. He was turning his head slightly to the right as if listening to the massed Celtic choir belting out their anthem. He was also scanning the lips of some of the singing fans as he listened although this was no surprise as he’d long been a lip reader, but that night was different. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see John’s brother, Mick. ‘He at it again?’ he smiled shaking my hand. Mick explained through the noise that John’s implant had been completed the year before and that it had given him some sense of sound. He had also begun intensive therapy to help him articulate some words for the first time. Mick also said with that understated little smile of his that John would occasionally go to the front of the stand for a few minutes and just ‘listen’ to the singing at Celtic games. ‘Imagine hearing Walk on or the Grand Old Team for the first time?’ he smiled.

As Gerry Marsden and the crowd reached a crescendo, I approached John with a smile and a handshake. He pulled me close and pointing to his ear said the first word I’d ever heard him say. It was by no means perfect and greatly slurred but it was unmistakable, ’Listen!’ he said. I looked at him with a smile and nodded, ‘I know, John, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ I mouthed slowly enough for him to lip read. He nodded and turned back to looking at the crowd, his eyes moist with tears. 

Friday, 28 March 2014

 They're there and they're always there...
On the great open terraces of the old Celtic end at Ibrox an incessant rain poured down on the gathered thousands there to see if Celtic could win the title for the second successive year. So many disappointments and let downs had dogged the Celtic support in the previous 2 decades that the fans were still getting used to Stein’s revolution and the fact that they were the undisputed best team in the country. Their title win the year before was the first in 12 long years and now they were on the verge of something astonishing. They had won the Scottish Cup a week before defeating a defensive Aberdeen 2-0 and had also fought their way through to the European Cup Final. But the sunshine of Portugal was far from their minds as they focussed on the game before them at the home of their greatest rivals.  As a small boy, I was perched on the crash barrier near the front of the Celtic end. My anorak zipped up against the Scottish rain. My old man, far younger then than I am now, held me tight but his gaze was always beyond me, always on the pitch where his team were on the verge of glory. I recall more of the singing, bouncing and general mayhem on the terraces of that day than I do of the actual game but what does stand out is its effect on my old man. Each attack, each tough tackle, each goal saw his face go through a myriad of emotion. From joy to anguish, doubt to defiance and finally to ecstatic happiness as his team won the point they needed to be crowned Champions and win a historic treble. That’s what it meant to those Celtic fans who stood in the rain in 1967 singing their hearts out.

I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to see Celtic win a lot of Championships and each one brought me great pleasure. From the last day nail biters to the titles won at a canter, each one represents a victory for what Tommy Burns called ‘a people and a cause.’ In only one of the past 5 decades have Celtic failed to be the dominant force in the Scottish league. Consider the following championship tallies: 1960s: 4 championships, 1970s: 7 championships, 1980s: 4 championships, 1990s: 1 championship, 2000s: 6 championships, 2010s: 3 championships. (out of 4 so far) So since Jock Stein won his first title with Celtic in 1966, Celtic has won 25 League championships in 48 years. That is to say Celtic has won more titles in that period than all the other Scottish clubs combined. In the new century, Celtic has won 9 of the 14 championships contested and missed out on others by the slimmest of margins. They also faced opponents who used financial doping to gain what any right minded individual would call an unfair advantage.
As I watched the exuberant young fans dance on the pitch at Firhill this week I couldn’t help thinking of when I did the same at that age at Love Street in 1986. Just as it meant the world to those young Celts to be involved in their own personal piece of Celtic history, so it was for me back then. There is a seamless continuity about Celtic’s history and its support. The Club and its stories are passed from one generation to the next and many a parent gets misty eyed watching their children burn with the fire they themselves feel for Celtic. Passing on their affection for the Hoops and telling their tales of the glory days they’ve seen is an integral part of the Celtic family’s story. Just as my old man told me of Stein, Tully and Fallon, so this generation will tell their children of Larsson, Sutton and Lubo. Just as I was told of the Coronation Cup win and the 7-1 game so today’s parents will speak one day of Seville or beating the mighty Barcelona. Don’t make any mistake about it these are good days to be a Celtic fan. Our grandfathers saw just 1 league title won between 1939 and 1965. Those two decades after World War two were for the most part times of failure, underachievement and disappointment for the fans. The Stein years began a feast of honours which those fans, so hungry for success, gorged on.

So what is your favourite memory of clinching the title? Was it when the ‘Ten men won the League’ in 1979? Perhaps it was the miracle of Love Street in 1986? For the younger generation, the 2008 title win at Tannadice, made poignant by the passing of Tommy Burns that spring, ranks high as does the 6-0 demolition of Kilmarnock in 2012. For me there is no clear winner. They all make me a proud and happy as the first one I witnessed as a wee boy when Jimmy smashed home an unstoppable shot in the mud at Ibrox so long ago.  I still recall seeing the utter joy on my old man’s face as Celtic won that league at the home of their greatest rivals that day. His generation had seen the hungry years and they were due every ounce of glory Jock brought to the club. They had stuck with the team as season after season turned from one disappointment to another. The best players were continually sold and the Board of the time seemed to lack any great ambition. They did however make one great decision and that was to appoint a burly ex-Miner from Burnbank as the Manager in 1965. Jock Stein revolutionised Celtic and revitalised an ailing club. My old man used to say that ‘Stein was the making of Celtic.’ How right he was, now the wheel had turned, now Celtic were not only the best in the land but also the best in Europe. Now those long suffering fans could hold their head up and walk tall. Celtic were back from the wilderness and nothing would stand in their way as they ascended to greatness and met their destiny on a sunny day in Portugal.

Every title win Celtic has achieved since that first triumph in 1893 was achieved without any ‘honest mistakes’ to help them along. It was done without any under the table paying of players via tax free ‘loans.’  Above all it was done trying to play the game in that distinctly Celtic way. All 45 of those titles brought great pride to the Celtic family and the fact that the club of the ‘immigrants’ became the leading team in Scotland is in itself  remarkable testimony to the guts and tenacity of the Celtic community. From that remarkable first generation of Celtic fans who built a stadium with their own hands to the dedicated fans of today, Celtic is blessed indeed.  In every season there were vital games and vital moments when that support drove the team on to victories they might not have otherwise achieved. The support the team receives from the Celtic fans has been instrumental in so many victories. The titles are won by the dedicated professionalism of the players and management but the fans remain the wind beneath their wings. Many of those vital games down the years have ended with the Celtic supporters going home as exhausted as the players. They sing their hearts out, kick every ball and are generally that vital twelfth man. So it was at Firhill this week. So it was at Ibrox in 1967.

The players will no doubt take their deserved bow as fireworks boom out the message that Celtic are the Champions again but as you roar them on look around you at that astonishing group of supporters who have driven this club on to all of these glories over 126 remarkable years. Few clubs in the world are as embedded in their community as Celtic is. Few clubs have such a remarkable group of supporters. A good man once said of them….

'That's was so special about them right there. Just right up there; that's what's so special about them. They're there and they're always there. And God bless every one of them'

I would echo those words of Tommy Burns and add that this title, like all the previous titles won, is as much the property of the Celtic support as the players. The support has been there since 1888 and all Celtic have achieved has been built on their unwavering devotion. When those fans and the Celtic players are united as one, they are a formidable force indeed.




Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A Marvellous Thing
John Glass stood in the light Glasgow drizzle surveying the site with the trained eye of a man who knew the building trade very well. December could be a hard month in Glasgow and this year was particularly cold and wet. The sturdy master-carpenter stroked his beard as he often did when in deep thought. The hectare of land he was looking at was rutted, covered with puddle filled holes and hollows and there was even a possibility that it contained one of the many unrecorded mine shafts sunk all over the east end in earlier times. Pat Welsh broke into his thoughts by asking, ‘Well, what do you think John? He’s asking £50 a year for this plot.’ Glass exhaled and replied, ‘It’d take a few hundred men and a few thousand barrows of soil to make this place fit for sports. I’ll speak to Andrew and see what he thinks.’ As they walked along the Gallowgate Glass could see the barefoot children playing out in the rain. It always amazed him that they could play and laugh among such squalor. A pale young woman with sad green eyes hovered at the entrance to a close, her cheeks red with cheap make up. She smiled at the passing friends who ignored her. Glass could hear fiddle music drifting from the close, no doubt from one of the many illegal drinking dens in the area. Such Shebeens were common in the poorer parts of Glasgow and sold cheap gut-rot liquor to anyone who could pay for it. He could also see the dark figure of the young woman’s ‘stick man’ in the shadows of the close. Much as Glass hated the depths which poverty drove some people to, he hated even more those who profited from their misery. An older woman with wispy grey hair and a careworn face approached them. She was carrying a sleeping baby wrapped in her shawl, and looked Glass in the face, ‘You have a kind face Sir, could ye spare a copper for a hungry child?,’ Her accent, born in the hills of  the north of Ireland, was one Glass knew well.  He smiled gently at her and shook her hand, surreptitiously slipping her a few coins as he did so. ‘Get along to St Mary’s at two, o’clock, they do a warm bowl of soup there for you and the little ones.’ As they continued their walk Glass said wistfully to his long-time friend, ‘You know Pat, we need to do something for our people here, there is so much want. I’ll tell the good brother that we should lease the land and hopefully he’ll get the labourers required to make it ready.’  Welsh nodded, ‘I think you’re right John, it’s a month since we decided on this course and the patrons have already raised over £200. We should strike while the iron is hot.’ John Glass nodded, ‘It’s settled then.’ The two friends parted with a handshake, ‘The Committee meet tomorrow at East Rose Street Pat, I’ll see you there.’
John Glass made his way down Abercromby Street towards the church. He pushed open the heavy door of St Mary’s and stopping only to bless himself from the little font of holy water by the door, scanned the pews. There was no service on at this time but still a few score of the faithful dotted the pews and were praying quietly. He soon spotted the man he was looking for, eyes closed, lost in prayer near the front of the church. He walked quietly up the aisle and sat a few rows behind him and waited. He liked these quiet moments, they were times when he could just sit and reflect on the issues worrying him.  He regarded his friend praying a few feet in front of him. He had known Andrew Kerins for a good few years now and knew him to be a good man, a man who lived out his creed. His hair was greying now as age and the effects of working so hard among the poorest in the east end took their toll on him. They did fine work these Marists, educating and training the children in difficult circumstances and Kerins had risen to be Head-teacher of St Anne’s School a 5 minute walk from the church.  His friend sat up, as if sensing he was there, and opened his eyes. He regarded the beautifully painted Madonna above the altar for a long moment before slowly blessing himself. Then, turning to Glass, he smiled slightly and nodded towards the sacristy door. Glass followed him quietly and once the door was closed on the main body of the church, shook his hand. ‘Good day to you Andrew, I thought you’d like my opinions on the ground at Dalmarnock Road you asked me to look at. The other man replied, his Sligo accent undiluted by his many years in Scotland, ‘I hope it’s good news John, we want to invite our friends from Edinburgh to play the opening game sometime this spring. You know how it lifted our people’s spirits when they won the cup last spring.Glass nodded, ‘It’s in poor condition but with the efforts of our men folk we could make it ready in six or eight weeks. Could you ask Father to enlist volunteers at Mass this week if I sign the lease?’ The taller man nodded, ‘I shall indeed, I’m sure our people will rally round.’ They parted with a smile. There was genuine affection between the two men. As Glass turned to go, Kerins said to him in his quiet, understated voice, ‘John, none of this will be able to come to fruition without you. I hope you know that. Tis a marvellous thing you’re doing’ Glass nodded a little embarrassed at his friends praise, ‘We each do what we can Andrew, each has his gifts. I hope we can do justice to your vision.’ His friend smiled, ‘We shall John, with God’s help, we shall.’ As Glass turned to go he stopped short and looked at Kerins,  ‘Pat Welsh and ‘I are heading over to Cathcart tonight to talk to young Tom Maley. He’s a fine player and a grand lad by all accounts. Would you like join us, it mind lend weight to our case as you can be a very persuasive man, Andrew?’  Kerins smiled, ‘I know the Maley family, good people, and there is no doubt that Tom would be a fine player to have on our books. Some say he is the finest athlete in Scotland.’ John Glass nodded, ‘We will stop by at seven tonight for you then.’
The horse drawn tram made its way along the Cathcart Road in the dark of a December night in Glasgow. Glass, Kerins and Pat Welsh sat downstairs out of the chill wind. They were wrapped in stout overcoats and busy chatting in quiet tones about their plans for the playing field they planned to create and team they hoped would grace it. Pat Welsh then relayed to them a story which had Glass and Kerins rapt attention. ‘I know Mr Maley senior very well,’ said Welsh in a low, almost conspiratorial tone, ‘After the rising in 67‘ I was a wanted man in Ireland. Spies and informers were everywhere. It was a hard time for rebels. I made my way to dockside in Dublin, hoping some sympathetic ship which might take me to America or even Liverpool. A stout soldier in the uniform of the Queen caught me hiding among the cargo boxes on the dock. I thought my time was up and a bullet or a prison cell would be my fate but the big sergeant was Irish born and although he risked much he told me to be on my way and be quick about it. It was my good fortune to run into Sergeant Maley on that night 20 or more years ago. He’s the father of young Tom, the lad we are seeking to enlist to our cause.’ Glass had known that Pat Welsh was involved with the Fenian rising in 1867 but had no idea that Mr Maley Senior had allowed him to escape Ireland after that rising had failed. ‘That’s an incredible tale Pat, its good you’re with us tonight.’ Andrew Kerins nodded, ‘Tis a good man who shows some mercy to a fellow countryman in need.’ Pat Welsh nodded, his mind drifting back to those events which helped shape his life. ‘Aye, Andrew, a good man indeed.’
As their journey ended and they walked towards the Maley house, Glass said quietly, ‘I’ll make sure this young fellow has every encouragement to join our cause.’ Welsh nodded knowing that Glass could be relied upon to arrange certain financial inducements to help make up a player’s mind. This was, after all, an era when players being paid to play football was strictly against the rules of the still amateur game. He also had great powers of persuasion and Tom Maley wouldn’t fail to see or be impressed by  the new club’s charitable principles. They were a powerful reason for joining it and helping alleviate some of the misery in the east end. Glass knocked the door and it was opened by a tall, well-built youth who enquired politely what business brought them to the Maley household on such a chill evening. ‘We’d like a moment or two to speak with Tom Maley young man, is he at home?’  The young man shook his head, ‘I’m sorry, but he left an hour ago to visit his fiancé, would you like to come in for some tea as it’s a chill evening and you’ve obviously travelled far?’ He led them into the living room of a neat and fairly prosperous home. They sat by the fire as the young man introduced himself, ‘I’m Tom’s brother, William.’ He shook each of his visitors by the hand, noticing Kerins’ Marist robes as he undid his overcoat. ‘You’re welcome to our humble home, now warm yourselves by the fire and I’ll tell my father that we have visitors.’ He left them for a moment to fetch his father and prepare the tea. Andrew Kerins looked at John Glass, ‘He seems a fine young fellow, maybe you should cast your net over both these Maley boys?’  Glass smiled, I know Tom can play the game but I hear tell that Willie is known more for being a field athlete.’  Andrew Kerins raised his eyebrows, ‘He’s barely 20 John, a robust lad of intelligence can learn much at that age.’  Glass looked at his friend, ‘I suppose you’re right, Andrew. What harm can it do?’
As the long Scottish winter drew to a close, John Glass stood on a mound of earth which ran 110 yards along one side of the fast improving sports field. This mound would be formed into a rudimentary terrace for spectators and opposite him a small covered grandstand was taking shape. His team of joiners had volunteered to work in the evenings and weekends without pay to complete the work and were making fine progress. He watched scores of men wielding shovels and picks and dozens more moving earth with wheel barrows and carts. The rutted, hole-filled wasteland had been transformed into a level and smooth playing surface and the whole site was being enclosed with a tall wooden fence. ‘Good day to you John, this is a fine sight indeed to greet my tired old eyes,’ said Pat Welsh climbing the mound and standing beside Glass. ‘You’ve worked wonders here John and I hear tell that the good Brother has received word that the Hibernians will be most happy to play the first match on this hallowed ground.’ Glass nodded, ‘That’s good news indeed Pat, we should fit four or five thousand in here with ease when the Hibernians arrive and the Pavilion is set fair to hold 800 or more.’ Welsh, who knew Glass well, could see him stroke his beard again in that agitated way he did when something was bothering him. ‘What worries you John? All is going to plan is it not?’ Glass turned to his long-time friend, ‘The Hibernians are a fine team Pat and we are all rightly proud of them but what of our team? We have the Maley brothers and seven or eight others committed to playing for us but I’ll not be content to be a middling team. I want our team to be the finest in the land.’ The older man nodded, ‘Some fine Glasgow lads in the Hibernians team John, I’m sure they’d help out if they could.’ Glass stroked his beard again, ‘I’ve thought of them often Pat, they’d grace any team but I’d want them as our players, not as guests. Does that seem so selfish given that the Hibernians have been such an inspiration to us?’ Pat Welsh was quiet for a moment before responding, ‘Andrew is an idealist John but you’re a man who knows how to get things done. Look around you at how this community is working together. None of this would be happening if it were not for you Think also of the purpose of our team John. Think of what the good Brother wants his team to do in this area and to do it well, requires a successful football team. Sometimes for the greater good we must slight a friend, John.’ Glass exhaled loudly, ‘You may be right Pat but it still seems mightily ungrateful to be thinking of tempting some of those Hibernian lads into throwing their lot in with us.’  Pat Welsh patted his friends shoulder, ‘You’ll do the right thing, John. You always do.’ John Glass returned to stroking his beard as the sounds of hammers, saws and men’s laughter drifted over the field to where he stood.
On a bright Tuesday night in May Dr Conway and Mr Shaughnessy, both patrons of the new club, led the players of the famous Hibernian FC and Cowlairs onto the newly completed arena to a huge cheer from the five thousand spectators gathered. The wealthier among them filled the small grandstand while around three sides of the field stood the common men; labourers, factory workers, carters and unemployed of the east end. All were eager to see the great Hibernians, champions of the Scottish-Irish community. John Glass stood at the back of the grandstand watching the game commence, hoping that all the work, all the preparations were sufficient. It seemed as if half the clergy in Glasgow were present and his old friend from St Mary’s, Father Vander Heyder smiled at him as he headed for his seat. ‘A most impressive arena you’ve built here Mr Glass, I trust our own team will be of sufficient standard in time to give these two fine teams a game.’ Glass smiled, ‘We have some fine lads ready to play Father, and others I have in mind will make our boys formidable opponents.’ Glass knew if the new club was to reach the required standard then it would need the best players playing in its colours. He watched the game thunder from one end of the field to the other, a notebook in hand scribbling the names of players he would like to see come play in Glasgow’s east end on a regular basis. It seemed as if he had the names of half the Hibernian team on his list.
Barely a fortnight after the first game at the new pitch, Glass entered the front door of Penman Brothers, a well-known Drapers shop in the Bridgeton area of Glasgow. The man behind the counter recognised him instantly, ‘Ah tis yourself Mr Glass,’ he said opening the counter and shaking John Glass by the hand. ‘I have put in some extra hours on my gift to the new club and I hope it meets with your approval.’ He took a brown parcel from a nearby shelf and placing it on the counter opened it carefully. Glass looked on as he unveiled a pristine white football shirt trimmed with a green collar. On the left breast was a red oval containing a green Celtic cross. Glass smiled, ‘It’s perfect, the good brother will be well pleased, especially with the Celtic cross.’ The man beamed, ‘I have 15 full kits ready to go for your first game. I’m so pleased it meets your approval.’ Glass held the first ever Celtic shirt up to the light, ‘Perfect.’ He said again.
On a bright spring evening on the 28th day of May 1888, John Glass stood with his friend Pat Welsh at the rear of the modest little pavilion at the little ground now being called ‘Celtic Park.’ A good crowd had gathered, despite the great Exhibition opening in the west of Glasgow earlier that day. ‘A proud day John, I hope our boys do well.’ Glass smiled, ‘Good of the Rangers lads to give us a game. But I’m thinking our team has the beating of them. He could see Andrew Kerins sitting further down among the clergy near the field. ‘He was the man who inspired all of this, Pat. There’d be no Celtic without him.’ Pat Welsh looked at John Glass, the stress of building the stadium and putting a team together had been considerable but for now it had lifted and he looked content.’ ‘Don’t belittle your achievement too John, you’ve driven this from the start. The good Brother may have been our inspiration but you ensured the Celtic came to birth successfully.’ There was a roar as the teams came out of the little pavilion which temporarily ended their conversation. Celtic looked splendid in their white shirts with the Celtic cross above their hearts. The game was soon underway and the crowd could see the Maley brothers, James Kelly and the dashing Neil McCallum were up for the challenge. After barely 5 minutes of Celtic pressing and harrying of the Rangers defence they won a corner. Dunbar glanced up at the crowded penalty box before delivering a firm and accurate corner into the crowd of players. Neil McCallum rose above the defence and headed the ball into the goal. A mighty cheer erupted from the assembled Celtic crowd as the new club’s first ever goal was scored. ‘First of many to come I hope,’ commented Pat Welsh with a smile on his face. John Glass was however looking down to his left where Andrew Kerins, whom some knew as Brother Walfrid, had turned from the field to look at him. The Sligo born Marist smiled and nodded at Glass who met his gaze and returned his smile. The Celtic were up and running. What would the future hold?
Dedicated to John Glass, the man who played a vital role in the birth of Celtic FC.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Never a Zero
Sometimes in football you turn up a gem without having to invest millions of pounds to do so. You may recall the £300,000 fee paid for Lubo Moravcik which had the ill-informed section of the Scottish sporting media pouring scorn on Celtic’s purchasing of a ‘cut price dud.’ Indeed ahead of Lubo’s first Old Firm game in 1998 one hack commented…

‘If anything the signing of Lubomir Moravcik at a cut price has merely caused Celtic fans further embarrassment.’’   (Jim Traynor)

Of course Lubo led a rout of Rangers on that occasion scoring two as Celtic thumped them 5-1.  During a press conference in the wake of that game the SMSM returned to their ignorant ways when one ‘journalist’ asked Lubo…  How does it feel to go from zero to hero?’ The little Slovak’s eyes fixed the hapless reporter with a withering gaze as he replied through his interpreter…’You tell him I was never a zero!’  

Last night saw Celtic turn a toiling first half display at Kilmarnock into a solid victory and the scorer of those three goals was another who cost the club relatively little. Kristian Arron Commons. Kris Commons may not have the sublime artistry of Lubo Moravcik but his contribution to the Celtic cause since joining the club in January 2011 has been considerable. His direct style and robust physique, allied to no little skill, make him a dangerous player in the final third.  It is to Manager Lennon’s credit that he spotted Commons’ talent during their brief time together at Nottingham Forest. Commons moved on To Derby and Lennon to Celtic’s managerial hot seat but the Manager kept tabs on Commons and when his contract was running down, swooped to bring him north for a tenth of his market value. One of his first press conferences as a Celtic player saw the inevitable dumb question involving Rangers…’Why did you knock back Rangers Kris?’ he was asked by one of the assembled press pack. A slightly bemused Commons shrugged and replied simply…

‘It was mainly talk from yourselves. There was no talk on our side. The things that went on in the press-the wages, the money was all nonsense,’’

That the people responsible for printing such ‘nonsense’ were sitting facing him at the press conference was lost on the assembled sporting media. The Rangers of January 2011 were mired a in financial crisis that would prove fatal to the club. Purchasing and then paying top wages to a player like Kris Commons would, in retrospect, seem absurdly reckless. The sporting media would have been better employed looking into the looming collapse of the Ibrox club in that period but chose instead their usual ‘Nothing to see here’ approach to matters at Ibrox.

To say Kris Commons made a favourable initial impression on the Celtic support is putting it mildly. His sublime chip on his debut against Aberdeen in a League cup semi-final at Hampden helped Celtic to a 4-1 win and had the fans excited about the new player. He also scored on his Celtic Park debut as well as his first outing at Ibrox and has weighed in with important goals in European competition too. His nerve held when he was presented with a late penalty against Spartak Moscow in the Champions League at Celtic Park. As 60,000 held their breath realising that a winning goal would take Celtic through to the last 16, Commons slammed the spot kick home off the underside of the bar. He also scored the vital first goal against the rugged but essentially unsophisticated Shakhtar Karagandy just before half time which saw belief surged through the team and fans that Celtic could overturn the 0-2 deficit from the first leg.

Commons time at Celtic hasn’t been all plain sailing. He suffered a second season dip in form and confidence which wasn’t helped by injuries and suspensions. He also had the odd run in with referees and saw red on one forgettable game at Tynecastle after a silly lunge on a Hearts player. His decision to stop playing for Scotland was perhaps understandable given his growing young family and the demands which too many games and the related travelling were making on him. In a sense Scotland’s loss is Celtic’s gain as Commons has been in excellent form in the last year or so. Indeed this campaign will surely see him net 30 plus goals and that is an incredible return for an attacking midfielder.

Kris and his partner, Lisa Hague, also suffered personal tragedy when their first child was stillborn. To their credit Kris and Lisa has turned their personal anguish into something positive by supporting charity and giving hope to others. Lisa is a Special Ambassador for SIMBA, the Scottish Stillbirth charity. She also got right behind the fundraising efforts to help the courageous wee Irish lad the Celtic family know as Wee Oscar Knox.  Those of you who heard her excellent interview on Billy Nowell’s ‘Desert Island Tims’ (link below) can’t fail to be impressed by her humour, humanity and decency. That this couple fit right into Celtic’s charitable ethos is an added bonus for the Celtic support in an era of greed and selfishness.

Kris Commons is now 30 years of age and has several good seasons in him yet. We all have our memories of his best moments in the Hoops and for me his deft chip over the Rangers goalkeeper in a 3-0 destruction of now the defunct club remains top. His cheeky sitting celebration of that goal was the icing on the cake. He is currently a strong favourite to be player of the year in Scotland for the current season and that is no surprise. Kris has contributed greatly to Celtic over the past 3 years and will do so for a few seasons yet. It just goes to show that despite what the media say, you can sometimes find real gems that don’t cost the earth.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Echoes of the past

Echoes of the past
My elderly neighbour is one of those decent old chaps who were brought up in the correct manner. He may struggle a little physically these days but his mind is still sharp and incisive. Well over eighty years of age and a Celt from the age of 5 when he was taken by his Donegal born father to watch Celtic lift the Empire Exhibition trophy at Ibrox. He’s one of those old timers who can recall incidents in games with great clarity across the decades and rattle off the starting 11 from 60 years ago with ease. I popped in to see him with a couple of Celtic books I thought he’d like and as usual we got talking about the Hoops and events at Celtic Park.  I filled him in on the changes going on around the stadium and he smiled wistfully, ‘I suppose it’s for the best but I still liked the old days. Nothing could beat the old Celtic Park when the continentals came calling or when we needed a late goal and that crowd roared the boys on.’  His eyes sparkled as he talked of Tully destroying the famous Rangers ‘Iron Curtain’ defence in 1948. ‘They wouldn’t even tackle him at the end up, stood off him, scared he’d give them the slip again.’ I smiled, loving these tales from the old days at Celtic Park.

As I got up to leave I asked, almost as an afterthought, ‘How are you voting in the Referendum next September?’ His face changed and he said to me, ‘I know you’re voting yes, but I’ll be voting no because this country will be like the old Stormont run Northern Ireland if we vote yes.’  As I left his house I got to thinking about his words. Was Scotland really such a divided society? I reasoned that the old timers faced a lot more prejudice in their time than the younger generation do today and that leaves its mark. It was only natural that they were suspicious of what kind of Scotland we would create if we left the UK.  In my neighbour’s youth Celtic fans were, almost without exception, children of the Irish diaspora. As time moved on, Celtic attracted a more mixed support and this reached its zenith after the club brought such glory to Scottish football in the Stein era. My neighbour’s fears about the sectarian nature of an independent Scotland were it seemed to me, an echo from an age long gone. Later that day I was surprised by my young Nephew who also said he was voting no and for reasons not dissimilar to my old neighbour.  He told me…‘ I hate the Tories, but the ‘Brothers’ will be running the show if we ditch the UK, Look at the way they’re jailing Tims for singing Irish songs?’  I asked him who he meant by the ‘Brothers’ and he responded by outlining his theory of masonic influence on Scottish society.  Here we had two Scots separated by 60 odd years in age voting to stay in the UK because they had concerns about the type of nation we’d become. That got me thinking firstly about the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football Act’ and how it was conceived and implemented.

I was one of the people who though the Politicians reaction to the so called ‘shame game’ in 2011 when Rangers imploded and had three players dismissed, was shameless populism. I’d seen worse behaviour on and off the field in the past without the press led hysteria we saw after that game. Besides, what had Celtic done to be tarred with the same brush as the Rangers team and support which were frankly disgraceful that night? Despite my reservations about the new Act, I did think it might be used to allow the Police to finally get off their asses and take on the ‘FTP’ brigade who had poured out their bile for decades with impunity. As we now know they in fact poured much of their resources into persecuting fans guilty of little more than singing songs the chattering classes disagreed with. Of course, these fans pointed out the absurdity of trying to ‘criminalise’ one identity or political opinion in what purports to be a pluralist democracy. My nephew, like many younger Celtic fans, sees the implementation of the Act as a hint of what an independent Scotland will be like. But is this a fair assumption given the experience of those of a green persuasion in the wider Scottish society?

Historically, the Scottish National Party did have some leading figures who could be relied on to espouse anti-Catholic rhetoric. Andrew Dewar Gibb, who held senior office in the SNP, wrote in fairly racist terms about the Irish Catholic community in Scotland in his 1930 book Scotland in Eclipse but that was a lifetime ago when ideas of race and religion were obscured by ignorance and quasi scientific ideas we would laugh at today.  Dewar Gibb was writing around the time when the Church of Scotland was also debating  the repatriation of the Irish from Scotland on the grounds that they were a ‘Menace to Scottish society.’ In a pamphlet entitled  ‘The Menace of the Irish race to our Scottish Nationality’. The Irish were portrayed as drunken, idle, uncivilised and damaging the moral fibre of Scottish society. They were also seen as carriers of disease indeed typhus was often described as ‘Irish fever.’

 More recently, William Wolfe, President of the SNP was also noteworthy as no friend of Catholicism. Letters released recently show a furious row in the SNP over his outspoken opposition to the Papal visit in 1982. The fact was however that most other senior SNP figures were furious about his outdated views is telling. Alex Salmond, for all his faults, has spoken warmly of denominational schools and what they contribute to Scottish society and a significant proportion of Scottish Catholics have shifted from Labour to the SNP in recent years. Of course, Mr Salmond is looking for votes but his words are a million miles away from Wolfe’s jaundiced bigotry. In contrast, George Galloway warns Scottish Catholics thinking of voting yes in the referendum to ‘be careful what you wish for.’  George’s assumption isn’t far off that of my old neighbor in that he foresees the rise of the bigots in an Independent Scotland. The majority disagree with George’s opinion of the Scottish people. It was argued that most Scots simply have no time for religion at all or are equally dismissive of both sets of ‘camp followers’ who seem more focused on Irish politics than Scottish at times. Mr Galloway and his ‘Just say Naw’ campaign would it seems wish for self-determination for Palestine and Ireland but not for Scotland.

For most Scots the independence debate is a political debate which is not framed in terms of ethnicity. For them, this is an attempt to form a state which the ‘Yes’ camp hope will foster social justice, be fairer, more democratic and truly represent the opinions of the population. Three Quarters of Scots vote for Centre-left parties and are foisted with a Centre-right Government elected in southern England which is clearly out of touch with the needs and desires of Scottish voters.  The ridiculous and unnecessarily harsh, implementation of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act may have alienated a minority of Celtic fans from the idea of Independence but the majority can still see the big picture. Indeed, the ‘Yes’ camp constantly remind us that a vote for independence is not a vote for the SNP. In that they are correct. Acts can be amended or repealed and once the absurdity of the ‘OBF’ Act is demonstrated in the courts or challenged at the court of human rights, it will change.

As for my elderly neighbour and his concerns about Scotland becoming another Stormont era Northern Ireland, that is more the product of his formative years growing up in an atmosphere where sectarianism thrived and had tacit support from some leading figures in society rather than an accurate reflection of modern Scotland. Yes, the bigots are still out there but they are a dwindling minority locked into a world view which is outdated and absurd.  Their days of real influence on political events are past. I for one have faith that the majority of Scots have moved on from any petty prejudices that may have been exhibited in the past. Whatever you decide to vote in September, do it for the right reasons and don’t base it on some outdated idea that the majority of Scots are hostile to any particular community because they are not. I have faith in the decency of the vast majority of Scots.


Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Road to Ballymote

The huge grey metal bulk of the P&O ferry nudged its way towards the Quayside as Paddy and Sean stood on the upper deck in the surprisingly chill May wind. As they regarded the hilly town of Larne for the first time, Sean turned to his friend, ‘I can’t believe we’re actually doing this, Paddy.’ Paddy McLaughlin, smiled at his lifelong friend and replied, ‘Well we are buddy and I’ve got a feeling it’s all going to go well.’ Then, almost as an afterthought he added, ‘I hear there’s no many Tims in Larne so ye’d best keep yer hoops oot of sight,’ Sean nodded and zipped up his fleece before the two friends headed below and prepared to set foot on Irish soil for the first time. Their quest was an unusual one but it was a worthwhile one too. They walked towards the door in the bulkhead and down the stairs towards the exit point. Paddy’s uncle Tam spotted them and shook both their hands. ‘Mind, what I told ye lads, be careful but enjoy it too.’ The two friends walked down the gangplank feeling a little like explorers in a new land. Both of them were excited at the prospects of the adventures ahead. Their odyssey was about to begin.

Their Irish trip was born two months earlier as their supporter’s bus had trundled through the Highlands heading for Inverness. Paddy and Sean were sitting together as they always did on these away trips. Early kick off times had made such trips a pain as the bus had left Glasgow at 7.30am. As they neared Inverness, bus Convener big Phil used the microphone on the bus to address members of the Neil McCallum 1888 CSC in his commanding voice. ‘Right lads, and you too Neave,’ he began remembering to include the only woman on the bus that particular day. ‘We need an idea to raise money for the 1254125 Charity. Every Supporter’s club is doing something and we need to get with it. Any ideas then let me know.’  There was a buzz on the bus as ideas were discussed. Everything from a Race Night to a sponsored darts event was considered but there was always some objection or some reason not to go with any of the ideas. A wag from near the front of the bus called out, ‘Here, Neave you could set up a kissing booth and charge £1 for a kiss, fiver a snog and a tenner for 5 minutes tonsil tennis, whit dae ye say?’ There was a burst of laughter but Neave was having none of it and retorted, ‘Aye, good yin Dixie, it wouldn’t be the first time you paid for a snog eh?’  There was a roar of laughter and some whistling and cheering as a red faced Dixie clamped it realising that Neave was going for his weak spot. Most on the bus knew Dixie had spent a couple of hours of a recent European trip in the red light district of town and that he wasn’t there looking for a Celtic View. As the bus neared the Caledonian Stadium they began to sing a familiar battle cry; ‘Hail Hail the Celts are here!’ So they were. They’d get behind the Bhoys for 90 minutes then think about fundraising ideas once the points were won.

Just over two hours later they returned to the bus in good spirits having seen Tony Watt inspire Celtic to a solid win in what was usually a difficult venue for Celtic.  As the coaches began to pull out of the car park for the long journey south Paddy looked at the shields of the various CSCs looking out for the ones he knew folk on. He soon spotted the James Stokes VC shield from the Gorbals and the Millburn bus from the Garngad. Old Celtic areas like that would always be following the Bhoys. He also noticed a bus from South Shields and then one which had travelled to Inverness from London. True Celts indeed, taking on a 1200 mile round trip like that he thought as the bus passed. Then a mini bus passed and in the rear window was a club shield with a familiar face painted onto it. It was a skillfully crafted image of Brother Walfrid, Celtic’s visionary founder. Below it was the motif ‘Brother Walfrid 1888 CSC.’  A light came on somewhere in Paddy’s head.

‘Here, Phil, I’ve got a belter of an idea.’ Paddy began outlining his plan to raise money for the 1254125 charity in an excited voice. He and Sean would travel to Brother Walfrid’s home town in Ireland in time for his birthday on May 18th. They’d even try to find his old house if it still existed and lay some flowers as a tribute.  Phil listened, occasionally scratching his head and nodding and allowed Paddy to finish before commenting. ‘So let me get this straight Paddy, you and Sean aim to travel from Glasgow to Country Sligo without spending a single coin?’  Paddy nodded, ‘It’s for charity, I’ll beg lifts, walk, anything to make it. The Celtic family will help us make it if we get the word out.’  Phil had heard a lot of crazy ideas in his 55 years but this sounded like one of the more outlandish. ‘Paddy,’ he said in his fatherly tones, ‘Ireland is an island, are you planning to swim it?’ Paddy shook his head in a frustrated manner, ‘The Ferry Phil, my Uncle Tam works on the Cairnryan to Larne service!’  Phil thought carefully about Paddy’s idea for a couple of minutes. ‘Right Paddy, we’ll support you in any way we can. If you can make it to Ballymote without spending a coin then I’ll be utterly stunned but fuck it, let’s give it a go!’ Sean had listened to the discussion in silence, it always amused him when Paddy arranged things involving him without actually asking him first. Paddy turned to him, as if in an afterthought, ‘You up for it mate?’ Sean looked at him, he didn’t need to be asked! ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?’ he replied with a smile.

The next few weeks saw Paddy and Sean plan their trip in greater detail. Paddy’s uncle was sure he could get them on the Ferry without charge but the land bound part of the 200 odd miles from Glasgow to Ballymote was another issue. They’d leave Glasgow on the 15th of May which would give them 3 days to get to county Sligo before Walfrid’s Birthday. Travelling through the North of Ireland was an issue they’d need to consider carefully. Not everyone there was likely to help two Tims making the pilgrimage to County Sligo. In fact they’d need to be careful in some areas. Big Phil on the bus was as good as his word and contacted CSCs all over their route and arranged phone numbers and addresses the boys could use if necessary on their travels. There was also a number he told then only to use in an emergency, telling them ominously that the guy on the other end of the line was not a man to be trifled with. Sponsorship poured in as the word got around the Celtic family that two lads intended travelling from Glasgow to Ballymote without spending a coin. They would take no money with them for transport, food or anything else, just a rucksack of clothes and their mobile phones. To prove they’d completed the journey they would post pictures on a specially created Facebook page showing towns and villages on the route. The journey began fittingly enough, like that of Celtic FC,  on the steps of St Mary’s Church in the east end of Glasgow. Most of the members of the Neil McCallum CSC were there to cheer them off. Big Phil gave them an intricate looking silver Celtic Cross to place in Walfrid’s old house if they found it. On the plinth was engraved the words Go raibh maith agat Athair. Táimid ag cuimhneamh i gcónaí.’  What does it mean? asked Sean. Phil wrapped the 10 inch silver coloured cross in a piece of cloth, ‘It means Thank you Father, we still remember.’ Sean nodded and carefully placed it in his backpack. Going on this trip meant they did still remember. The club was founded as a charity and they were keeping the tradition going.

The few passers-by up early in the Calton watched mystified as crowd in Hooped shirts cheered the two lads on at the start of their journey. The words of a suitable song echoed around Abercromby Street in the bright May sunshine as the 60 plus Celtic fans woke up the nieghbourhood with a rousing chorus…

‘We’re on the one road, sharing the one load

We’re on the road to God knows where

We’re on the one road it may be the wrong road

But we’re together now who cares….’

Sean and Paddy took their first snap of their journey and used Sean’s phone to log it onto the Facebook page. It showed them on the steps of St Mary’s and was accompanied by the words ‘Here we go again, we’re on the road again, we’re on our way to Paradise!’ Rucksacks on their backs they headed north towards the Gallowgate as the cheers echoed in their ears. ‘Where ur ye gone ya pair of knobs, Ireland’s that way?’ shouted Dixie pointing in the opposite direction. Paddy gave him the middle finger and a friendly smile and continued walking north. He had a plan and he was sticking to it.  The journey was about to begin!

It took them less than an hour to walk to the Fruit Market in the Garngad area where a quick chat to drivers soon located the one they were looking for. He was the only driver who was going through Cairnryan with his load of fruit and he’d agreed to give the boys a lift. He was a big, red faced Celtic man called Charlie and he had heard of the boys planned journey and offered them a lift right away. ‘No sweat lads, jump in the truck and I’ll get the Rebs on!’ he smiled. Soon they were speeding south towards Cairnryan with ‘Boys of the old Brigade’ belting out of Charlie’s impressive sounding music system. They got through the Wolfe Tones greatest hits and a fair bit of Christy Moore before they reached Cairnryan. Charlie was heading on to Dumfries and then on to northern England but he was happy to drop them at the Ferry Terminal. He popped his head out of his truck window as they waved him off and  shouted, ‘Good luck lads, give my regards to God’s own country!’ Paddy and Sean waved as his truck pulled away, strains of ‘I wish I was back home in Derry’ audible for a few seconds from the truck as it joined the southbound traffic.  So far so good,’ Sean smiled at his friend.  Paddy then phoned his uncle and after a brief conversation smiled at Sean. ‘He’s on the 3 o’clock sailing, he’ll meet us at Gate B.’ Paddy took a picture of Sean by the big sign which read ‘Cairnryan Ferry Terminal’ and posted it onto Facebook with the message; ‘Reached Cairnryan, total money spent: Zero!’ They headed towards the terminal and a white transit van pulled up. ‘Jump in Paddy,’ smiled his uncle. They sat in the back of the transit with the other terminal workers and were soon past security and parked in the shadow of the big P&O ship. Paddy’s uncle led them on board using a crew’s entrance and told them to stay out of sight until he came back for them. They sat in an empty cabin and soon felt the engines throb as the big ship shuddered and slowly left Scotland. The two friends shared a sandwich and chatted about what lay in store for them in Ireland. ‘We need to hitch a lift south and be well on our way before it gets dark.’ Paddy nodded, ‘Best grab some shut eye because it might be a long night once we’re off this ship.’ The two bhoys snoozed as best they could as the ship ploughed its way across the Irish sea.

‘Sean’ Paddy mumbled, shaking his friend, ‘I can see the Irish Coast!’ He could indeed see Ireland through the porthole of their small cabin. They headed up the clanking metal stairway to the top deck where they had a better view of the land that they had never set foot on yet held such a place in their family histories. Paddy’s Uncle approached them and gave some last words of advice, ‘Get a lift from an older person if you can. Don’t talk politics, football or religion and call each other some nickname that doesn’t give your background away. 99% of people here are sound but like everywhere you’ll find the odd idiot. Don’t wander too much and stay on the main roads if you can.’ The two pals listened and nodded before heading for the steps that led to the exit from the ship and their first footfall in Ireland.  They cleared the terminal in 5 minutes flat and were surprised at the complete lack of security or checks.

Sean told Paddy to wait with the bags while he asked a few people outside the Ferry Terminal if there was any chance of a lift to Belfast or beyond. For 10 minutes Paddy watched in silence as his gregarious friend used his considerable charm on the locals.  Sean wandered back towards him with a smile on his face. ‘Managed to wangle a lift to Belfast mate but for the next while I’m going to be Colin and you’re Billy, OK?No probs Sean!’ Paddy replied. ‘It’s Colin, ya dick!’ Sean smiled at him. They got into a Renault car with a well-dressed elderly man who waited patiently until their bags were loaded and seatbelts on before pulling into traffic on the aptly named Coastguard Road. ‘Sam Coulter’s me name,’ he began in a soft accent, ‘So what brings two nice Scottish boys to Ulster?’ Sean spoke first, ‘Visiting relatives. Family funeral down Dungannon way, Sam.’ Sean had obviously thought his cover story out so Paddy kept quiet for now. ‘Ah it’s a nice wee town Dungannon,’ said Sam, ‘A lot of papists there but not a bad place at all.’ Paddy, sitting in the back was glad Sean had the passenger seat. Did people really use old fashioned words like ‘papists?’ he thought. As he mulled this over, Sam went on, ‘I’m going as far as Belfast but I can drop ye near the motorway. I’m sure you’ll get a lift from there.’ Sam them pushed an old style cassette tape into his music system and smiled. ‘A few wee tunes to make you lads feel at home.’ The shrill sound of flutes and the staccato rhythm of drums filled the car as a deep voiced Ulsterman began to sing.  

‘Sure it’s old but it is beautiful

And its colours they are fine

It was worn at Derry, Aughrim

Enniskillen and the Boyne…’

Paddy almost choked on a snicker bar he was eating and squirmed in the back of the car as the song continued. He was glad the old chap didn’t ask him to join in. The short journey took the friends past names they had only seen on news broadcasts; Ballynure, Ballyclare, Dunmurry till at last they reached Belfast. Kindly old Sam dropped them at the Albert clock near the city centre and waved to them like blood relatives, ‘Safe Journey lads!’ he called as he drove off. Sean looked at Paddy waved at the nice old gentleman before glancing at each other with a smile. Sean laughed ‘Right you ya big papist, let’s get yer pic oan Facebook.  Paddy shook his head with a smile, ‘Nae bother Colin, eh Sean!’ They laughed, breaking the tension of the car journey. Despite his politics, Sam was obviously a decent old chap. The picture of Paddy at the foot of the Albert Clock was duly posted with the sentence ‘Arrived in Belfast, Total money spent: ZERO’

Sean phoned one of the numbers big Phil had given him and within 5 minutes a red fiesta screeched to a halt at the kerb and a cheerful, red haired young man wearing a Celtic shirt from several seasons ago jumped out and shook their hands. ‘Sean and Paddy is it?’ he said in a heavy Belfast accent, ‘Big Phil said to be helpin you lads out so you’re coming for a bit of tea at the Rock afore ye get on with your journey.’ They drove through the unfamiliar streets with their new friend who called himself ‘Knocker.’ Sean asked how he had come by this unusual name. He smiled and replied, ‘Let’s just say, I’ve knocked up a few girls in me time.’ Paddy somehow doubted this explanation as ‘Knocker’ was no Brad Pitt. Knocker pointed out many landmarks as they travelled through Belfast. The various murals recording the history of the troubles, the much bombed Europa hotel and the peace wall which so visibly divided the communities. There were huge gates on main roads intersecting the wall which could be closed at times of tension. Sean looked at some of the hopeful graffiti sprayed onto the big concrete symbol of division. One sentence said; ‘The real barriers are in your minds.’  Very true, he mused.

The Rock’ turned out to be ‘The Rock Bar’ on the Falls Road.  Knocker pulled up outside and led the lads to the front door. Inside, there was a cheer from the crowded bar as they entered. A ruddy faced bear of a man called Barney welcomed the two travelers. ‘Great to see you boys, we’ve been wondering if ye’d give us a bell. I want ye to sit, have a few beers, a bit o’ grub. We’ve arranged a wee lift for ye tomorrow to take you closer to Sligo.’ Paddy thanked him, feeling a warm glow inside that they were among friends, among the Celtic family. The Bar was decorated with bunting consisting of a long string of small Irish tri-colours. On the wall were framed Celtic shirts and pictures of various Celts who had visited the bar.  Hands were shaken, backs slapped and the two friends returned the many smiles they received. Knocker led them to a table where two tall pints of Guinness awaited them. Paddy smiled at Sean, ‘Celtic family is great eh?’  Sean smiled at him, ‘Salt of the earth, Paddy boy, salt of the earth.’

An hour later the two lads had been well fed and the beer was beginning to  mellow them. Knocker told them many of the stories and legends of the Falls Road area. He was a mine of information about incidents, happy and sad, which occurred in the area over the years. A couple of guys with Celtic shirts on arrived with their guitars and set up on the small raised stage and soon the whole place was rocking to songs old and new. The beer flowed and Paddy and Sean sang along with their newfound friends….

‘Have you heard of the big strong man, he lived in a caravan

Have you heard about the Jeffrey Johnstone fight? Oh what a hellva fight?

You can take all the heavyweights you’ve got,

We’ve got a lad who can beat the whole lot!

He used to ring the bells in the belfry now he’s gonna fight Jack Dempsey!’

The bar rocked all night as Sean and Paddy slowly got drunk and had the time of their lives. They did remember to post a picture on the Facebook page of them in the Rock looking very merry in the middle of a happy throng of Celts, beneath it Sean wrote ‘Among friends in Belfast. Money Spent: Zero.’

The next morning they awoke to the smell of sizzling bacon. Sean’s head was pounding and his mouth dry from more drink than was sensible. He focused on the strange room he was in, trying to piece together where the hell he was. He looked at the unfamiliar ceiling as his mind slowly refocused and pieced together last night’s events. Paddy was snoring on a camp bed to his left and their rucksacks were neatly placed by the wall. The small room was decorated with Celtic and Cliftonville posters and flags. Beside the window was a framed picture of Bobby Sands, smiling his gentle smile. At the bottom of the picture were the words, ‘Our Revenge will be in the laughter of our children.’ Knocker entered the room in his usual cheerful mood, ‘Morning lads, time ye were up and about. I’ve made ye some breakfast and yer man is coming in an hour to give ye a lift,‘Thanks Knocker,’ said Sean, ‘I don’t remember coming here last night but that was some night in the Rock. Great people there.’ Knocker smiled, ‘Aye, they are that. Ye seemed to know all the songs though, loved your version of the Old Brigade! It was a rare oul night right enough!’ Sean blinked at him, ‘I was up singing? Jesus, I sing like cat getting choked.’ Knocker smiled, ‘Ach, ye did well, we all belted it out anyway so ye’d not be heard above us lot anyway.’ An hour later the two pilgrims were showered, fed and ready for the road again. ‘Bernie will drive ye to Enniskillen,’ said Knocker, ‘He delivers fish so his van will smell like a Linfield Supporters bus but he’s a good lad.’ As if on cue a horn sounded outside. Knocker smiled, ‘Safe journey boys, the Rock is sponsoring you for a few quid. It’s a good cause and good to remember why Celtic started in the first place.’ They left Knocker with a handshake and hug and a promise to return to Belfast on the way home.

Bernie Corrigan, a stout middle aged son of the Falls with a mop of grey hair and a face which was at once friendly and tough, smiled at them ‘I can fit you fellas in the front with me but yer bags will need to go in with the fish.’ They headed out of Belfast past more of the murals which recorded the turbulent history of the city and remembered the ghosts of former times. The two friends had probably worried most about this part of the journey but they had found nothing but warmth and humour in Belfast, even from old Sam. Bernie put on his music and they travelled through the lush green countryside with Foster and Allen booming out. Sean smiled at Paddy, ‘They like their music the Irish eh?  Paddy rolled his eyes, Foster and Allen not quite to his taste. Bernie glanced at him, ‘Oh yes we do that, young fella, I’ll get some Danny O’Donnell on later. Now that boy can sing.’  The two friends endured Bernie’s unique musical taste for a good hour and a half as they rattled down the M1 and then the A4 towards Enniskillen in his pungent smelling fish van. ‘I hear you boys are going on to Sligo?’ Bernie said, ‘Fine County and decent people.’ Sean nodded, ‘Aye, Bernie, going to Ballymote where Brother Walfrid came from.’ Bernie smiled, More of a GAA man myself but sure we all know about Celtic. We know about Walfrid too and yer man Sean Fallon, both Sligo boys.’ Bernie, for all his poor taste in music told them fascinating tales of the troubles in the border country and of the money some made smuggling. ‘Some of the big houses you’ll see were paid for by smuggling petrol and pigs, not in the same truck you understand but the European Union had its pockets picked here all right!’  Paddy smiled, ‘And they say the Irish are slow!’ Bernie grinned, ‘Aye, slow as a feckin cheetah!’ They laughed as the passed the sign which said, ‘Welcome To Enniskillen.’ ‘Nearly the end of the road for me lads,’ Bernie said, ‘But I’ll be droppin ye at a pub in town where I know a good friend of Celtic will be meeting you. Knocker was after setting it up for ye so you’ll be fine.’  He stopped his van by the kerb in Forthill Street. ‘Willie Ramblers Pub is over there, ask for Declan Brennan and he’ll keep ye right,’ They both shook Bernie’s hand and thanked him for his kindness. ‘Sure it was nothing at all, I was going this way anyway and ye seem decent lads,’ he relied in his strong Belfast accent. ‘Declan Brennan mind! Fierce Celtic man he is too, good luck to ye now!’ With that Bernie pulled into the traffic and left the two friends in the town of Enniskillen.

It was mid-afternoon as they approached the front door of Willie Ramblers Bar. It was set in a one storey high building which ran along Forthill Street. Next door was a Chinese takeaway and to the right was what appeared to be an amusement arcade. It was in many ways typical of small town Ireland. As Sean pushed the door open music drifted out towards him. It was the unmistakable tones of Christy Moore… ‘Ooooh Lisdoonvarna, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoon Lisdoonvarna.’ Once Sean’s eyes adjusted to the low light he could plainly see that it was sadly not Christy in person but a CD playing somewhere. He eased his way through the noisy, crowded pub and approached the long Bar.  The Barman, a tall thin man with a moustache a seventies porn star would be proud of looked at them with the blank face he no doubt reserved for strangers. ‘And what can I be getting for you lads now?’ Sean smiled, ‘We’re looking for Declan Brennan mate. Is he in?’ The Barman’s eyes narrowed and he said in a suspicious voice ‘And who wants to know?  Paddy noticed that most of the drinkers in the bar had gone very quiet and were watching them intently. It seemed as if old Christy Moore was the only sound in the pub. Sean continued sounding braver than he was feeling, ‘He’s helping us reach Ballymote in Sligo, we were told we’d be in here.’ The Barman stared at them as the bar stilled to absolute silence. Sean was quietly quite worried about this turn of events. Had they got the wrong place? Was this a loyalist pub? Suddenly the lights went up and there was an almighty cheer! The Barman smiled as the music changed to a tune the boys knew well began and the whole pub roared out…

‘Hail Hail the Celts are here

What the hell do we care, what the hell do we care

Hail Hail the Celts are here, what the hell do we care now!’

Sean looked at Paddy, ‘What the fu…’ A tall dark haired man of about 40 with a beard intersected by a wide smile shouted through the din, ‘I’m Declan lads, we’ve been expecting you. Welcome to Enniskillen!’ Sean and Paddy looked bewildered. ‘Sorry we had a wee bit of sport with you there,’ Declan went on but you’re our guests now and our hands and hearts are open to you.’ He extended a big labourer’s paw which squeezed Sean and Paddy’s hand in a grip like a vice. ‘We’ll get ye some grub and a few beers and then I’ll be driving you down to Sligo.’ He led the two friends to a table where a crowd of younger Irish lads and girls smiled and patted their backs, ‘Followed your journey on Facebook,’ A slim red haired girl began, ‘Thought you might have run into a bit of bother in Belfast but those lads at the Rock are great, knew they’d see ye right.’ Paddy and Sean relaxed, among friends again. A young man with an untidy mop of black hair and a style best described as ‘Irish-Goth’ smiled and chipped in, ‘Thousands of likes on Facebook, yer journey is being watched by Celts all over the place. Ye better make it to Ballymote!’ He smiled at them as a tray laden with Guinness and what looked like vodka arrived. Declan smiled, ‘Food on its way and remember, you have to make it to Ballymote without spending a coin. So no buying of rounds or such like, You’re our guests and you’ll find no more hospitable people than the Celts of Enniskillen!’ Declan was right as the drink and craic flowed and the two travellers revelled in it all. The crowded bar was in good voice too as ‘Viva La Quinta Brigada’ boomed out and they all joined in. Then they began to sing familiar song, one more suited to a couple of Wayfarers heading for the home town of Brother Walfrid…

By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling

Michael they have taken you away,

For you stole Trevelyan’s corn, that the young might see the morn

Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay’

Paddy and Sean, again mellowed by drink and happy among their new friends, joined in the song, singing with all their hearts. It amazed them the bonds which joined the Celtic family so tightly together. Paddy was near tears as he joined in the song and Sean’s eyes were closed as the entire Bar sang the chorus with a beautiful togetherness…

‘Low lie the fields of Athenry

Where once we watched the small free birds fly

Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing

It’s so lonely around the fields of Athenry,

They passed some happy hours in that pub in the fine town of Enniskillen among some of the nicest people they had ever met. It was nine in the evening and the sun was waning in the May sky as they left the Bar with the thankfully sober Declan to continue their journey south. Another photo of the two friends with the Enniskillen Celts crowding around them was posted on their Facebook page under the caption, ‘Willie Rambler’s Bar, Eniskillen! Almost there! Total spent: Zero.’ Sean read the Facebook page for a few seconds, ‘Big Phil’s posted, said we look pissed in every picture we’ve put on so far!’  Paddy laughed, ‘He’s feckin right there then!’

They shook a hundred hands before they found themselves in the back of Declan’s large BMW and heading south. Like every other Irish person on the planet, Declan enjoyed his music and as Sean and Paddy sat in the back of the car, beautiful and haunting Gaelic music of Clannad swept over them. Sean, the worse from numerous drinks in Willie Rambler’s was rocked to sleep as the car crossed the border into the Irish Republic. Paddy read the road signs as Declan filled him in on more of the stories and legends of this part of Ireland. He spoke not only of the troubles and their effect on the area but also of the tales and folklore of Ireland. Paddy learned of Cuchulainn, the children of Lir, Finn MacCool and the stone circles which dotted Ireland. He listened, spellbound by the mythology of Ireland and Declan’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject. ‘There’s a statue of Cuchulainn in the Dublin Post Office to commemorate the men of 1916. When his enemies came for his head they say he turned into a flock of swans and flew off.’ Declan said as he turned onto the N16 road which led to the town of Sligo. Perhaps it was the drink, the haunting music and Declan’s enthusiasm for the old stories and legends but Paddy was enthralled by the tales and legends he heard. He realised that he hardly knew Ireland despite his grandparents being Donegal folk.

Declan knew his stuff all right but he soon switched to those other legends which Paddy knew well, the Lisbon Lions, Neil Lennon, Pat Bonner, Tully and Sean Fallon. Paddy was grasping just how deeply embedded in Ireland Celtic’s roots were and how proud many Irish folk were of Celtic. He was looking forward to finally seeing Ballymote the place where Andrew Kerins was born and grew up. The place where, in a sense, Celtic had their beginnings too. Declan drove through the quiet streets of Sligo in the gathering darkness. The centre of the town still had people milling around but it was clear that it was late and most folk were heading home as the bars closed. He stopped by the river in Markievicz Road and turned to Paddy, ‘Best wake Sean up, I’ll phone a good friend here and he’ll be putting you up tonight.’ Sean grumbled as Paddy nudged him. ‘We’re in Sligo mate, get yer ass in gear.’

Tommy Brady appeared from a nearby house. He was a cheerful looking man of about 35 who sported a crop of untidy red hair and walked with a decided limp. ‘Here’s Tommy now, best not to mention his limp,’ said Declan as he helped the lads get their bags out of the car. Sean looked at Paddy and shrugged, Tommy’s limp was his own business. The introductions were made and Tommy used Sean’s phone to take a picture of the two Glasgow boys and Declan standing by the river in Sligo with the bright new flats on the opposite bank in the background. Sean soon posted it on Facebook with the message, ‘Half pissed, tired but safely in Sligo! Total Money spent: Zero’ They thanked Declan as he smiled at them, ‘No problem at all lads. Good luck with yer journey, you’re almost there now.’ They watched as he drove off into the night, his tail lights blinking in the darkness. Yet another good guy they had met on their journey.  Tommy, who said he was a distant relative of Sean Fallon, led them to his guest house which was getting ready for the coming summer season.  He fed them well on cabbage and bacon and then sensing their tiredness, showed them the room they’d be sleeping in. ‘I’ll wake you in the morning lads, have a good rest now, It’s Walfrid’s birthday tomorrow so I’m thinking you’ll be heading for Ballymote. I’m working myself up in Derry tomorrow so I can’t take you unfortunately but you’ll get a bus in town every hour.’ With that their kind host left them to rest and soon the two friends were fast asleep.

They slept as only tired men with a good deal of alcohol in their systems can sleep and awoke with streams of bright May light pouring in the window and the sound of gulls somewhere squabbling. Tommy had left a note on the kitchen table for them. It said: ‘I let you lie on as you were both very tired. Food in fridge, help yourself. Bus to Ballymote is number 471 from the Bus Station in town centre. Have a good day.’ Sean made Paddy some bacon and eggs and the two friends sat at the kitchen table discussing the last couple of days and the kindness they’d experienced since they set foot in Ireland. Tommy’s small guest house didn’t appear to have any other guests and it amazed Sean that he trusted two strangers enough to leave them alone with the run of the place. ‘That’s the Celtic family for you Sean,’ said Paddy. His friend looked at him, ‘Let’s get cleaned up and head into town and get the bus to Ballymote. I can’t wait to see Walfrid’s home town’ Two hours later they were in the centre of Sligo boarding the number 471 bus to Ballymote. At last their quest was almost complete and they had still not spent a single penny.

The driver looked at them expectedly as Sean stopped short and said to Paddy, ‘Mate we can’t pay the fare!  We’re so close and we’ve not spent a coin, we can’t spoil it now!’ Paddy looked at the driver and decided on direct honesty, ‘Listen mate, here’s the thing’ he began, ‘We’ve travelled from Glasgow all the way to Sligo for charity. We need to get to Ballymote without spending a coin. We’ve visiting Brother Walfrid’s birthplace, is there any chance you could let us on without paying?’ The driver, a young, dark haired man in an ill-fitting uniform looked at Sean’s Celtic shirt, ‘The Inspectors would have me job if I did that lads.’ Paddy’s face fell, ‘Right, we’ll walk it. How far is it Pal? The young driver looked at them, surprise on his face ‘It’s about 13 miles but ye can’t be taking on a walk like that. The weather’s due to break later.’  Before Paddy and Sean could turn to leave the bus the driver stood awkwardly in his compartment, his hand digging into his pocket. He brought out a 20 Euro note and put it in the slot of the ticket machine. ‘Sure, I’m a sucker for a sob story and well isn’t me old Da a Celtic fan. Consider this my donation to the charity.’ He printed two return tickets and told the two young Scots to sit. Paddy choked up a little and shook the driver’s hand. Sean asked his name, ‘We’ll put your name on our Facebook page, you’re a generous man.’ The driver smiled and looked a little embarrassed, ‘Sure charity is its own reward and I’m not the kind for advertising my good deeds.’ They never did find out his name. They slumped in their seats ready for the final leg of their journey.

The near empty bus trundled through the lush green fields of Sligo, through the small village of Collooney before arriving  shortly after that the centre of Ballymote. The driver dropped them at Gormley’s Bar and as he pulled off again shouted, ‘Last bus back to Sligo is half past nine tonight!’ They waved him off and then looked around another typically Irish small town. In the distance was they could see the steeple of a church but their first job was to take a picture and get the news onto Facebook that they had in fact made it to Ballymote. Paddy took off his jacket and stood outside Gormley’s in his Hoops. The picture was posted on Facebook with the words: ‘Arrived in Ballymote on Brother Walfrid’s birthday! Total spent: Zero! We made it so get the 1254125 donations paid!’

They entered Gormley’s Bar with the intention of asking the locals if they knew where Walfrid’s cottage was. The Bar was completely empty apart from the dark haired girl behind the bar who smiled at Sean and seemed to look right into his eyes, ‘And what can I be getting for a handsome fellah like you now?’ she smiled. Sean’s cheeks flushed slightly but returned her gaze and her smile too before saying, ‘Actually we’re looking for some directions, I wonder if you can help?’ She leaned on the Bar not breaking her gaze, ‘Oh, I’m always happy to help a good looking stranger out, what is it ye need to know?’ Sean replied, ‘We’ve travelled all the way from Glasgow to Ballymote and we want to find Brother Walfrid’s house. Any idea where it is?’ Her eyes widened, ‘Are you the two lads with the Facebook page?’ Her smile widened, ‘Sure haven’t we all followed your progress! Wait till I tell me brother!’ She turned and called to the kitchen area which was through a door behind the bar. ‘Tony! Will ye come and see who’s in the bar, only those two Scottish hobbits that’ve been wandering all over Ireland!’ Sean looked at Paddy, ‘Hobbits? She must have heard about your hairy feet.’ Her bother appeared dressed in an apron which didn’t quite cover his black Celtic away shirt. His grin was as wide as the Clyde, ‘Paddy and Sean is it? This is fantastic! Ye must take a picture in the bar for your Facebook page. You get in too Saorise.’ The two friends stood with the dark haired Saorise between them as Tony used Sean’s phone to take the picture. Sean felt a familiar and pleasant feeling as Saorise slipped her hand around his waist for the photo. It was duly posted on the Facebook page with the caption ‘Gormley’s Bar, Ballymote, with our new friends Saorise and Tony. Total money spent: Still Zero!’ Tony insisted on feeding the two friends and Saorise, still it seemed a little smitten by Sean sat with them chatting about the new Brother Walfrid Memorial Park in Ballymote. ‘Sure it’s just up the road, they have a grand statue of yer man there too. Most famous fellah this old town has ever produced.’ They arranged for Saorise to take them on a tour of the Park and then out into the fields where Walfrid’s old home still stood, albeit in a ruined condition. In the meantime a huge plate of food was set before them and Saorise pulled them a pint of Guinness barely taking her eyes of Sean. ‘Think she fancies you mate,’ Paddy said quietly. Sean smiled at him, ‘No shit Sherlock, need to get you on Mastermind eh?’ They both laughed.

Two hours later Sean, Paddy and Saorise strolled through the Brother Walfrid Memorial Park in Ballymote. Some children were playing and laughing and Paddy watched them running past. He smiled to see one was wearing a Celtic shirt.  The well laid out park did indeed have a bust of Brother Walfrid on a stone plinth. It was set against a circular Celtic crest and was in Sean’s opinion, a thing of beauty. ‘What a fantastic tribute to the founding father,’ he said, ‘he’ll never be forgotten here or in Glasgow.’ Another photograph was taken and duly posted online. They wandered the park in the bright evening sunshine pleased and also proud that they’d managed to complete their quest.  ‘Just one last place to visit,’ said Paddy looking at Saorise. She nodded, ‘His old house is fallin’ down but I know where it is. It’s out in the fields, so we’d best get going.’

They walked for what seemed a long time, out of the town along lanes and across fields of deepest emerald. Saorise then led them through a gap in a hedge to where the ruined walls and caved in roof of a small but, in its time solid, cottage once stood. ‘This is it Sean,’ she said quietly. ‘A hundred like it around here. The hunger killed thousands in the old days and drove thousands more away.’ Sean looked in silence at the dilapidated cottage, imagining a young Andrew Kerins running around it as a boy, sleeping beneath its sheltering roof, eating with his parents and his brother Bernard. ‘This is it then,’ he said feeling emotions welling in him, ‘This is where it all began for Walfrid and for Celtic.’ Paddy nodded and placed his rucksack on the ground. He took from it the Celtic cross given to him by Phil from their supporters’ bus. ‘Here Sean, you do it mate.’ He said, his voice breaking a little and a lazy tear rolling down his face.   Saorise looked on as Sean ducked under the low lintel of the front door and stepped inside. He looked at the fallen timbers and stonework and picked his way towards the wall with the still recognisable remains of a fireplace and chimney. He found a gap in the stone wall about five foot off the floor and placed the cross in it mumbling quietly, ‘God bless you Walfrid, we’ll never forget you.’ He looked around one last time, ‘I’m glad we came Paddy. It’s a day I’ll never forget.’ As he left the cottage a startled bird cawed and flew out of the cottage into the clear blue sky. Paddy smiled, ‘Oh baby let the free birds fly!’ Sean joined Paddy and Saorise outside the Kerins family cottage for one last photograph.   Saorise pictured the two friends in their beloved Hoops, arms around each other outside the ramshackle old house where a good man was born more than 170 years earlier. It was posted on their Facebook Page with the words: ‘Walfrid’s Cottage and Journey’s end.’ Almost as an afterthought Paddy paraphrased Neil Lennon by adding,  ‘For Celtic, though this wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning. Hail Hail.’

They wandered back towards Ballymote passing other ruined cottages from the days of An Gorta Mor. ‘It’s hard to believe all the people who had to leave these places,’ said Sean. Saorise nodded, Same all over Ireland, Sligo  lost about a third of its people back then.’ Paddy shook his head, ‘Sad old days.’ Saorise’s face changed and she smiled changing the tack of the conversation, ‘The pub will be full tonight, we’re having a great big party to mark your achievement!  It’s a time for celebration!’ Sean smiled at her, ‘You’re right, Walfrid would want us to celebrate his life.’ Paddy agreed, ‘He’d want us to celebrate the fact that we made it and so did his club.’ Saorise looked at him, ‘God, you boys really love that football club don’t you?’ Sean smiled at her, ‘It’s part of us Saorise, just as those old cottages are part of your story, Celtic is part of our story, part of who we are.’  She nodded, ‘A grand old team right enough.’