My last love
As I joined in the thunderous chorus of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ with around 60,000 other Celts at the home game with Juventus in 2013, I couldn’t help notice the variety of images and symbols modern Celtic fans utilise. There was a smattering of Scottish, Irish, Basque, Antifa and Palestinian flags as well as a variety of Celtic banners. Within my line of view there were scarves exhibiting everything from Jimmy Johnstone and James Connolly to Che Guevara. The vast majority though were simply the green and white bar scarves of Celtic. A young man in front of me held up a flag showing Pope Benedict and emblazoned with the words ‘Our God Reigns.’ Not something I would take to a football game but that’s his choice.
Identity is a complicated and multi layered concept and no one can deny that Celtic Football Club has its roots in the Catholic community resident in the west of Scotland in the late Victorian era. The club was of course founded by a Marist Brother to help raise funds to feed the impoverished children he saw around him every day in the areas streets and schools. Not all of those Catholics resident in Glasgow’s east end were of Irish extraction, indeed the Bridgeton area, often associated today with Orangeism, was one of the settlement areas for displaced Catholic Highlanders and many of the children attending Walfrid’s Sacred Heart Primary School would have been the offspring of these Highlanders. From 1872-1918 Faith schools such as the Sacred Heart remained outside the state system as the 1872 Education Act prescribed Religious instruction which was interpreted as being Protestant in nature. The Catholic population thus paid rates for over 45 years which helped fund schools which their conscience would not let them use. This injustice continued until the 1918 Education Act finally brought the Catholic schools into the state sector.
It is to Celtic’s credit in the polarised world of the late 19th Century that the club decided from earliest times not to become an exclusive organisation such as Hibernian FC with its strong links to the temperance movement and the Catholic Young Men’s Society. Hibs faced the same sort of prejudice which Celtic would later encounter and on one occasion were denied entry to the Scottish League on the grounds that they were an Irish club and not a Scottish one. Celtic naturally looked within its own community to put together that first team which took the field in May 1888. In the days before professionalism, players were enticed away from clubs such as Hibs and Renton by the use of what were clearly illegal inducements given the amateur status of the game in those days. If Walfrid is the club’s spiritual father, John Glass was the club’s midwife who ensured it was born safely and thrived in its infancy. He had the skills and contacts to ensure the best players made their way to Celtic Park to throw their lot in with the new club. That new club was pragmatic enough to know that they would be stuck in a limiting ghetto if they didn’t open the doors to any who had the skills and personality to wear their colours.
According to the excellent book ‘The Celtic, Glasgow Irish and the Great War: The Gathering Storms,’ Celtic tried to sign a non-Catholic player in September 1888. This is a clear indication that even in the stuffy religious atmosphere of 1880s Scotland Celtic would be a club open to all. Willie Maley who served Celtic for over 50 years from its inception was never ashamed of the club’s Catholic roots but was equally proud of the fact that the club unlike others was not judging players on their religious affiliations. He said in his book, ‘The Story of Celtic’ (1939)…
"Much has been made in certain quarters about our religion, but for forty-eight years we have played a mixed team, and some of the greatest Celts we have had did not agree with us in our religious beliefs, although we have never at any time hidden what these are. Men of the type of McNair, Hay, Lyon, Buchan, Cringan, the Thomspons, or Paterson soon found out that broadmindedness which is the real stamp of the good Christian existed to its fullest at Celtic Park, where a man was judged by his football alone."
Personally, I could not envisage a Celtic which was not open to players of all faiths and none. From John Thomson to Kenny Dalglish, from Jock Stein to Danny McGrain we have seen club legends who have come to Celtic from all sorts of backgrounds and grown as Celts. In many cases they came to develop a real affinity and love for the club. Jock Stein, perhaps one of the greatest Celts of all, once famously said…
“Unlike many other Celts, I cannot claim that Celtic was my first love … but I can say that it will be my last love.”
This willingness to embrace players from all walks of life led to Celtic’s support becoming more mixed and cosmopolitan. Some came to support Celtic because they liked the style of football or were influenced by the friendliness of many Celtic fans. Others, such as a few friends I know from the Scottish-Asian community, follow Celtic because they identified with a club founded itself by immigrants. My maternal grandfather came from a staunch Orange family and would actually be beaten up by his brothers for following Celtic. He told that they once found his Celtic scarf hidden in the wardrobe and burned it on the coal fire as he watched. He would climb out of the window and make his way to Celtic Park to watch McGrory and John Thomson play.
It irks me somewhat when people describe Celtic as the ‘Catholic club’ of Glasgow when the club has clearly been playing mixed teams from its earliest years. Such a description denies the fact that the club knowingly chose not to embrace exclusivity as some others did. Such lazy labels are also used by some to ‘sectarianize’ Celtic and drag it into the bigoted mire which others wallow in. Yes, the majority of the club’s support is drawn from that founding Scottish-Irish community which was at least culturally Catholic. Today though as the influence of all the main churches wanes, fans are drawn from all walks of life and the vast majority would not want to see Celtic as anything other than the open, inclusive club it is today.
The Irish Folk Band, the Wolfe Tones once wrote a song celebration the Protestants who fought and often died for Irish freedom. It contains the lyric…
So here's to those brave Protestant Men,
who gave their lives to free our land,
All the people they sang their praises then
for the brave United Irishmen…’
When I hear that song I often think of the many splendid Celts who played their hearts out for the club from its earliest years. Many of them didn’t come from Celtic backgrounds or have any connection at all to the club before walking up Kerrydale Street to wear the green. They served the club with distinction and pride and created legends which are talked of to this day. Not only did we see fantastic players from a wide variety of backgrounds wear the Hoops with pride, but over the past 127 years we have also witnessed more and more supporters join our ranks from all walks of life. The club has grown way beyond the narrow confines of its birth and has been immeasurably enriched and strengthened by the variety of people who have followed the team or worn those famous hooped shirts.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.