The Bridge of Sighs
It’s strange how long dormant memories can reappear in one’s consciousness if the right stimulus is applied. I recently walked down Wishart Street which, those of you familiar with Glasgow will know lies between the rocky hills of the Necropolis cemetery and Glasgow Cathedral. There is a tall bridge there which as kids we called the ‘Echo Bridge.’ We would often stop under it and yell out some visceral noise and listen to the sound waves bounce off the ancient stones to create an echo. My recent trip under the bridge coincided with a couple of young boys doing exactly as I did many years ago and I had to smile that youngsters are still amused by such simple things in this electronic age. Watching them triggered a memory of walking down Wishart street as a lad myself on a fine summer day long ago. My friend Michael and I both about 14 at the time, reached the bridge and I shouted ‘Celtic’ grinning as it echoed off the stones. My grin faded though as I noticed a group of men and teenagers heading up from John Knox Street towards us. A couple of them were dressed in quaint blue suits and wore Glengarry style caps replete with some sort of feather. They were unmistakably returning from an Orange Parade and some of them were the worse for drink. I don’t suppose they appreciated me yelling ‘Celtic’ under the echo bridge and may even have thought it was aimed at them. In any event a few of the younger men among the group raced towards us with ill intent. I recall one yelling the depressingly familiar, ‘Fenian Bastards’ as Michael and I instantly assessed the odds as pretty hopeless and decided that discretion was the better part of valour and turned on our heels and bolted for safety. Thankfully our pursuers didn’t fancy a protracted chase up the steep incline of Wishart Street and we made good our escape.
I pondered this long dormant memory as it resurfaced recently and the irony of those events of long ago was not lost on me. The area around the Glasgow Cathedral is awash with history. Wishart Street was named after the Protestant Reformer George Wishart who was burned at the stake in 1546. It joins John Knox Street named after another reformer of the time. The High Street is of course nearby too and here William Wallace led a force of 300 Scots who defeated an English force of a thousand in 1297. Nearby is Ladywell Street named after the medieval well named in honour of Our Lady in the days when Scotland was a Catholic country. The well was used until the nineteenth Century when the influx of displaced Highlanders and Irish migrants to the area led to serious overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Outbreaks of cholera and other illnesses were linked to contamination of the water supply and some of the old wells were sealed off. Loch Katrine would, from the 1860s onward, supply fresh water to the growing city of Glasgow and not the ancient wells. With all of this history swirling around the Cathedral it seemed to me to be rather sad that in the late twentieth century some Glaswegians would contemplate violence on others based on a word innocently shouted under the echo bridge. But of course the word ‘Celtic’ has an effect on some which can rouse them to anger or even violence. Why should that be?
Of course the answer to that question lies in the very history which binds Scotland and Ireland so intimately. The Irish who flooded into Glasgow in the 19th Century fleeing hunger and injustice were arriving into the very land which supplied the majority of those ‘Planters’ sent to colonise Ulster by King James 1 in the 17th Century. For some, though by no means all Scots, the growth in the Irish population coming as it did at a time of great social change was threatening and disturbing. The widespread prejudice the Irish migrants faced was given an extra dimension by the fact the majority of them were Catholics. Of course that community in time gave birth to Celtic Football Club and the club is still seen by some more misguided individuals as a symbol of all they despise. The mere act of shouting ‘Celtic’ by a young lad, at a certain time and place became as a red rag to a bull to those trapped in a warped mind set.
The tragedy of course is that none of us need be bound by the prejudice of the past but some lack the will or the wit to see that and repeat the same old mistakes. We are all of us imbued with certain attitudes and values in our formative years and if we were lucky and had decent parents they will be the right ones. A minority are sadly taught that others are different and to be hated and that conditioning can, in some cases, last a lifetime. It may be hard to accept for those of you who have experienced bigotry’s poisonous legacy but those who perpetrate it are in some ways victims too. No child is born hating. Someone taught them by word or deed that the ‘other’ is not like them. Of course that doesn’t make bigotry any less unpalatable or obnoxious but it does at least remind us that if we teach the up and coming generation a better way, then things can indeed change for the better.
Many years have passed since that incident under the echo bridge and I wonder if those young men intent on violence that day have changed in the intervening years. I hope they have.