Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Celtic Connections

Celtic Connections

I had a rather interesting exchange with a chap online recently who tried very hard to convince me that the term ‘Hun’ when used by Celtic minded folk to describe Rangers was sectarian. His argument seemed to fall apart when I uploaded videos from YouTube which demonstrated clearly fans of Hearts, Hibs, Motherwell and Aberdeen using the ‘H’ word in reference to Rangers in their songs. His final throw of the dice was to show a picture of a house daubed with the slogan ‘Huns out’ as if this was the definitive proof. I rightly reminded him that the house in question was clearly not in Scotland but in the north of Ireland which despite its proximity has a very different history and culture than Scotland. The argument was lost when he admitted to phoney outrage on the grounds that we ‘Fenians’ do the same when the name calling starts. My response was to say that name calling tells us more about those doing it than its intended victims.

I thought of this conversation recently as I sat in the sun on holiday reading the book ‘Irish: The Remarkable saga of a Nation and a City’ by John Burrowes. The author describes the horrors of what he calls ‘the Irish Holocaust’ of 1845-52. These events, erroneously called ‘The great Famine’ by a succession of historians, led to conditions so intolerable that they can scarcely be grasped by the modern mind. In one passage he tells of a haggard, emaciated man in court for stealing a sheep. The man tells the judge that he did so in desperation as his famished, fever ridden wife was attempting to eat the corpse of their dead daughter. Such images haunt the mind and in their sheer debased horror remind us how lucky we are today. Those who could fled to America or other parts of the English speaking world. Often they were cleared from the land by greedy landlords who saw an opportunity to make more money farming sheep than was to be had from the rents paid by an impoverished peasantry. For the poorest, there was no chance of affording the fare to the USA or Canada but a few pence would secure a spot in the hold or on the deck of the many small ships sailing between Ireland and Britain. In their hundreds of thousands they headed for Liverpool and Glasgow to seek work and the chance of a better life.

One ship, the SS Londonderry, left Sligo packed with hundreds of poor Irish migrants who squeezed onto its deck for the trip to Liverpool. A further 200 more were crammed into the dark hold below decks where they stood with pigs and cattle for company. A huge storm hit the ship as it attempted to cross the Irish Sea and the terrified passengers were thrown around the deck. Below decks in the dark hold, people and animals were thrown around by each successive wave and their screaming and cries for help were ignored by the Captain who ordered the hold sealed with water proof tarpaulins. This may have deadened the sounds but it also limited the air supply and when the ship limped into Lough Foyle for repairs and the hold opened, 72 of the 200 people in the hold were dead. The ships which took fever stricken Irish migrants to North America were often labelled ‘Coffin ships’ but those ships taking them on the short trip to mainland Britain where often as bad.

Burrowes’ excellent book follows this migrant wave to Glasgow and describes the conditions they met there in those days long before there was a welfare state. The poverty, discrimination and exploitation they faced in their new home city are well documented but so too is the kindness and generosity of some who tried to help them. The spirit of those migrants shines through too. Here are people, mostly illiterate, arriving in a strange and often hostile land with nothing but the clothes on their back but in time they would put down roots and make a life for themselves. Indeed they would often help others, arriving in Glasgow with nothing, to find their feet.

The great Irish influx to Scotland in the 50 years after An Gorta Mor changed the country forever. There were those who hated and feared the newcomers and the Church of Scotland, as recently as the early 1920s debated a report entitled; ‘The Menace of the Irish race to our nationality.’ This report, to modern eyes, is both bigoted and racist but has to be seen in the context of the times. Over half a million Irish migrants had come to Scotland in 50 years and Burrowes asks how Dublin might have coped if the situation was reversed and half a million impoverished Scots landed there? What distinguished the majority of the migrants was of course their religious outlook. Around three quarters of them were Roman Catholics and while the Irish Protestants who came assimilated within a generation to the point of vanishing into the general population, the Catholics with their growing number of churches and schools were all too visible in what was the most profoundly Protestant country in Europe. The 1871 Census pointed out in report dripping with latent racism the perceived effect of mass Irish migration to Scotland…

"The immigration of such a number of people from the lowest class and with no education will have a bad effect on the population. So far, living among the Scots does not seem to have improved the Irish, but the native Scots who live among the Irish have got worse. It is difficult to imagine the effect the Irish immigrants will have upon the morals and habits of the Scottish people."

Report from the Scottish Census of 1871

Such negative stereotyping scarcely questioned the system of government in Ireland which so impoverished and demeaned the people as well as exacerbating the effects of the potato blight until it became a disaster of biblical proportions. Nor did it question the awful social conditions the native Scots and Irish lived in as industrialisation led to cities such as Glasgow throwing up slum districts for workers to live in. The majority of the migrants fleeing oppression and hunger would far rather have stayed in their homeland if it wasn’t so badly governed.

Burrowes’ book covers everything from the political situation, the Irish street gangs, the rise of Orangeism and the occasional outbreak of strife between the communities such as the ‘Battle of Partick Cross’ but points out time and time again that it is remarkable how little real violence occurred when one considers the scale of migration and social upheaval going on in those times. Few countries could have taken in such a huge number of migrants without serious trouble occurring but as time passed it became clear that the bulk of the Scottish people came to see that the newcomers were not so different from them. They were after all from a Celtic nation not too dissimilar to Scotland. Of course a minority of haters were set in their ways and we still hear the echo of their voices today. However the Scots of Irish descent are now firmly established as an important and valuable part of the nation. They have long left the ghetto and contributed immensely to Scottish life and culture. They were much more than the muscle which drove the industrial revolution and built the canals, docks and roads. They contributed hugely to Scottish cultural and sporting life and of course gave birth to Celtic, Hibs and Dundee United.

Today the 1.5m Scots of Irish descent take their rightful place in every sector of society as proud Scots who are equally proud of their Irish heritage. Irish-Scots include among their number socialist revolutionary James Connolly, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, footballers Aiden McGeady, Ray Houghton, Owen Coyle and James McCarthy, politician George Galloway, actors Sean Connery, James McEvoy, Brian Cox, Peter Capaldi, Gerard Butler, musicians Michael Marra, Gerry Rafferty, Maggie Reilly, Jimme O'Neill, Claire Grogan, Fran Healy and comedians Kevin Bridges, Billy Connolly and Frankie Boyle. I’m sure you could add to that list.

Of course some of the lingering tribalism of the two great communities of Ireland was imported into Scotland too but the new country has had a tempering effect on this. I sometimes wish people like the chap wasting his time arguing online whether the term ‘Hun’ is sectarian would instead lift his head from his petty prejudices and look at the broad sweep of history which brought the Irish to Scotland and celebrate the fact that not only did they contribute greatly to the nation but that Scotland is the richer for having them.


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