Celtic, Ireland and identity
Identity is a multi-layered and complex concept and we learn early in life the impact it can have on our choices and chances in life. Many years ago as a skinny teenager, I worked on a building site with a chap a few years older than me. He seemed unable to contain his ill treatment of me based on the nothing more than the fact I had an Irish sounding name. He was in reality too thick to realise that his petty prejudice denigrated him more than it did me. It always surprised me how older workers on the building site seemed to accept this as normal, even those who suffered the bigotry got on with things without creating much of a fuss. I hadn’t seen that chap in more than 30 years until I bumped into him in a shop recently. He seemed smaller than I remembered him and his initial cheery smile and greeting seemed to fade as my lack of enthusiasm at meeting him again became apparent. Perhaps he recalled his bullying and bigoted ways and realised that some folk have long memories. Perhaps he realised that the skinny teenager he ill-treated 30 years ago was now 6 feet 1 and over 14 stones. Either way he mumbled his goodbyes and left. If I learned anything in the years since that chap made my life difficult with his bullying it is that you must never accept being the victim nor must you let others define you. You must define yourself in life.
Meeting that chap again got me thinking about how things have changed since my teenage days and how this part of an ongoing process which is moulding the identity of each successive generation in a slightly different way from that of their parents. That change is seen clearly in the community which founded and still supports Celtic Football Club. The founding generation of Celts were drawn from a marginalised Irish migrant community which was struggling to survive in the poorer districts of industrial Scotland. Their politics were almost exclusively concerned with what was occurring in Ireland, a land most still thought of as home. Ian McCallum’s excellent book ‘The Celtic, Glasgow Irish and the Great War: The Gathering Storms,’ outlines the various nationalist movements Celtic’s key figures were involved with in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most were what we would call constitutional nationalists and supported political and social groups dedicated to securing home rule for Ireland.
In a sense the hostility they met from some, though by no means all, in Scotland turned them inwards towards their own community. The church, school system, the embryonic Labour Party and of course Celtic Football Club gave structure and meaning to the lives of many. Of course it couldn’t stay that way forever and the assimilation of Irish-Scots into mainstream society was in many ways relatively peaceful. When one considers the scale of Irish migration to Scotland it is remarkable that there was so little real conflict. They key to this was of course that large as the Irish influx was, it was never a threat to the self determination of the Scottish nation as a whole. The plantation of Ulster on the other hand was a completely different scenario and we are still living with the consequences of that.
My old fella, himself the son of a County Clare man, was born in Scotland but still held onto his Irish identity strongly. I recall Ireland beating Scotland in an international match in the 1980s and how delighted he was. He was a product of harsher times and told me of how he had to lie about which school he attended in order to get a job in a carpet factory. Such things were not uncommon in those days when the petty hierarchy asserted itself in many workplaces. He later worked in the meat market in Glasgow’s east end and told me of the time his boss had called him over and asked him to make up a meat parcel for a Church of Scotland Minister who had popped in. My old man recognised the Minister from the local area and knew him to be a staunch Orangeman as well as an uncompromising opponent of ‘Romanism.’ ‘Bitter auld bastard’ was how my Dad described him as he recalled the incident. The meat parcel was duly wrapped and handed over and he would smile at the thought of the Minister un-wrapping it and finding in it, among other things, a pig’s penis.
The old fella went to his rest at far too young and age like so many of his generation. His hearse drove along the London Road on its way to Dalbeth cemetery and stopped for a last, poignant goodbye to his beloved Celtic Park. This was his sanctuary from the harsh life he lived, his theatre of dreams. Here was one place where he could sing and say what he wanted without worrying about the consequences. He was among what he used to call, his ‘ain folk’ and was never happier than when he was watching Celtic win and the crowd belting out their victory anthems.
In contemporary times, Scotland being drawn in the same European Championships group as Ireland led to some interesting exchanges on social media. Celtic of course has many supporters in Ireland and there was much banter throughout the campaign, some of it having quite an edge. For some Celtic supporters on the Scottish side of the water there was no complication; they were backing Scotland, the land of their birth. Many, like myself, are no doubt proud of their Irish heritage but in sporting matters feel more Scottish. There are of course others who couldn’t give a toss about international football and a few, still remembering insults real and imagined to Celtic players, who will never support Scotland. One chap said to me, ‘look at the caps McGrory and the Lisbon Lions got! Look at the SFA bias over the years, no way I’m supporting that mob.’ One debate on Twitter actually had an Irish fan say, ‘At least we’re a real nation who fought for our freedom!’ His Scottish friend replied, ‘Pity you only got three quarters of your nation free then!’ Both of course are taking the argument way beyond the sporting arena and the conversation between two folk with very similar outlooks on the world deteriorated into a slanging match. What it did show though was the evolving identity of Scots of Irish descent who increasingly feel more Scottish. That is not to say they aren’t proud of their Irish roots because most are and celebrate this in many ways.
Of course Celtic FC and its support long ago left the ghetto of isolation and the club now has supporters from every walk of life. From the Stein era onwards there has been a considerable strand of Celtic support which has no connection to Ireland at all and that is refreshing and welcome. As well as increasing groups of fellow Scots following Celtic, we have seen banners at Celtic Park from groups like the Polska Bhoys, Italian Bhoys, Thai Tims, Villareal CSC and many others and that is fantastic.
Of course, we will always welcome with open arms our Irish cousins too and my trips around Ireland have seen the Hoops prominent from Donegal to Clare, from Belfast to Cork. We can never forget the sacrifice and struggles of the founding community and hopefully will keep their ideals of charity and inclusiveness alive.
The Celtic family has grown tremendously since the days when Irish men and women rolled up their sleeves and literally built the club and its first stadium. They could never have dreamed of how Celtic would grow and prosper as they filled in mineshafts, quarry holes and laid out that first pitch. The journey we have been on has been remarkable and I live in hope that there are many pages to be written yet in our history. We may squabble now and then as all families do but in the final analysis we are all Celts and that is what binds us together.