Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Dear, Happy Ghosts...


Dear Happy Ghosts…

This week I went up to Celtic Park to collect tickets for the upcoming European games and, as usual, I had a wee wander around the Celtic way. I enjoy looking (even for the thousandth time) at the statues of Jock, Jinky and Walfrid and reading the names of ordinary Celtic people on the tiles around them. As I approached the statue of Brother Walfrid I saw a grey haired chap, perhaps in his sixties on one knee pointing at the statue and speaking quietly to a boy of 9 or 10. I didn’t hear what he was saying to the lad whom I assumed was his grandson but I’m pretty sure he was passing on the story of who Walfrid was and his role in Celtic’s formation. That story has been transferred in such simple ways since the very earliest days of Celtic and perhaps one day, when his grandfather is long gone, that boy will be passing it on in turn to generations as yet unborn.

In my own case it was my old man, uncles and even older brothers who got me into Celtic as a boy but before them there were others following the Celts. My mother’s paternal family were of the Orange persuasion but despite this my Grandad would climb out the window of their tenement home to go to Celtic Park and watch McGrory, Scarff and John Thomson play. He said to me a long time ago that he liked the Celtic style of play and the fact the team was mixed unlike their main rivals. His older brothers used to beat him up and make his life hell for following Celtic. On one occasion they burned his scarf in the living room fire. In the end he was completely ostracised by them and none of his relatives came to his wedding because he married a Catholic girl. Despite all of this, he was the most gentle and decent man you could hope to meet. Such was the reality of life in 1930s Glasgow.

On my father’s side there is a more traditional Celtic family history. My grandfather was a native of County Clare in Ireland and a veteran of World War 1 as well as the Irish war of independence which followed. His love of Celtic came naturally as they were the team most Irish-Scots identified with. He was a solidly built navvy who could graft all day in all weathers. He would tell me tales of following Celtic which would put the pampered modern fan to shame. A cup tie at Easter Road in the 1950s saw thirty of them huddled on the back of an open builder’s lorry all the way to Edinburgh and back in the pouring rain. In those days most workers worked Saturday mornings as a normal part of their working week. Similarly in the days before floodlights, a Wednesday afternoon cup replay at Ibrox saw hundreds down tools, walk off the building site and head to the game. Wages were docked, bosses annoyed but that was of little consequence as Celtic won.

In my own time I recall my old man, always in his suit and tie, getting ready to take us to the match. First stop was always the pub and my brothers and I used to sit outside the Straw House on the Gallowgate with the other boys waiting for their Dad’s to come out. The pub door would open now and then and I would have a brief glance in at the smoky, noisy bar. It was a mysterious world in there and we were still far too young to be joining it. By ten to three the pub would be much quieter as most of the men left for the match. I recall the disappointment on one lad’s face when his half-drunk Dad popped his head out of the pub door and seeing the rain said to his son, ‘I’m no gonny bother the day son, just you head up the road.’ My Da told him he could come with us and that we’d drop him back at the pub after the match. The lad was delighted and his old man happy too. So it was in those days that a father would trust his son to strangers for a couple of hours. Except of course we weren’t strangers, we were all Celts and my new companion that day became a good friend. We’d join the stream of fans heading towards Celtic park chatting excitedly about the players we idolised and our chances of success that day.

Around the stadium the buzz would get young and old alike alive with excitement. I recall well the smell of smoke, beer and sweat. The flag sellers, buskers playing Irish songs, the programme stall, the man calling ‘Erra Macarroon and the spearmint chewin’ gum’ all added to the sense of ocassion. In the singing, swaying queues at the turnstile you could already hear the songs from the Celtic end or Jungle booming out. Then that roar as the teams appeared and we would get a wee bit stressed at the thought we might miss an early bit of Jinky magic or even a goal. Once in, we headed for our regular spot near the front of the Celtic end. Familiar faces who always stood there too smiled at us. They’d offer my old man a handshake or a swig of their whiskey and they’d soon be animated talking about the game or past encounters. Then we’d focus on that patch of green for 90 minutes and be totally engrossed in what we were watching. This was our team, our community’s greatest achievement and we took such pride in the fact that a poor, marginalised and often despised people had created a team which rose to be the finest in Europe.

All of you reading this will no doubt be able to recall relatives or friends who introduced you to Celtic, who filled you with that fire which no defeat or disappointment can put out. We owe a lot to those who came before us as it was those generations who created and built Celtic. It was those who came before us who suffered the appalling social conditions, the bigotry, poverty and yet still found time to create and sustain Celtic. As I get older I reflect more on these things and from my seat in the Jock Stein stand I glance occasionally around the stadium and remember it as it once was. As I look at the huge north stand, I picture the Jungle and the family and friends who stood there down the decades. Many of them, like the Jungle itself, are long gone but I like to think they are still watching Celtic and watching over those they loved and taught to love the green. From generation to generation they handed on their most precious gift.

As the roar goes up to greet another Celtic goal, I hope the dear, happy ghosts of the past are smiling too. We all know who they are, we all miss them still but they left their mark on Paradise and their songs echo still around that wonderful old ground. They would be happy to know that we still follow the Celts and carry their legacy into the future.

God Bless every one of them.

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