Friday, 25 March 2016

Women of Ireland

Women of Ireland

It is said that Constance Markievicz kissed her revolver before handing it over to the English Officer, Captain Wheeler, who was taking the surrender of Rebel forces at the Royal College of Surgeons in central Dublin in 1916.  Captain Wheeler was married to her cousin and knew her well. He would not have been surprised to find her fighting with the Rebels during those bloody days around Easter 100 years ago. Her commitment to women’s suffrage and Irish freedom were well known. Indeed Markievicz founded the Fianna √Čireann which trained youngsters not only to use firearms but in Irish history and folklore. Baden Powell, founder of the boy scouts, was looking to develop that quintessentially British organisation in Ireland but people like Markiewicz ensured many Irish youths were not inculcated with pro-Empire British ideals but rather primed to fight for Ireland. Many did and boys of 15 and 16 were to be found in every main Rebel strongpoint standing with their fathers and older sibblings.

Among the many women who took an active part in the Rising was Margaret Skinnider from Coatbridge. Constance Markiewicz knew her well and took her on a tour of Dublin’s poorer quarters in the months before the rising. The squalor she found there was the worse than anything she had seen in her native Scotland and confirmed in her mind that if all the people of Ireland were to prosper the country needed to be independent and plot its own course in the world. She said at the time of the Dublin slums…

‘I do not believe there is a worse place in the world. The street was a hollow full of sewage and refuse and the building as full of holes as if it had been under shell fire.’

Skinnider was the daughter of Irish parents and the studious looking Mathematics teacher would smuggle explosives to Ireland in her hat and once stood all night on the deck of the boat to Ireland lest the gas lights below deck set of the fuse wire she had coiled around her body. Skinnider was a first class markswoman and took a full part in the battles which raged around St Stephen’s Green. In her auto-biography ‘Doing my bit for Ireland’ she states…

“It was dark there, full of smoke and the din of firing, but it was good to be in action. I could look across the tops of the trees and see the British soldiers on the roof of the Shelbourne. I could also hear their shot hailing against the roof and wall of our fortress, for in truth this building was just that. More than once I saw the man I aimed at fall."

Nora Connolly remembered Skinnider well and noted that she had a natural authority which made the men around her accept her as their Commander. When she was ordered to burn a building on Harcourt Street to prevent a retreat by British soldiers, Skinnider was shot three times but this remarkable woman survived.

Not all the leaders of the rising were amenable to women fighting with their units. It is recorded that Eamon de Valera defied orders from James Connolly and Patrick Pearse to allow women combatants into Boland’s Mill. Women, in the eyes of many in Irish society should know their place but such attitudes were to change as the fighting raged in Dublin. Indeed as the British brought their huge material superiority to bear on the Rebels and it became an increasingly  hopeless struggle the women stuck it out bravely to the end. When the order to surrender was received and verified Rose McNamara, the officer in command of the female battalion at the Marrowbone Lane Distillery, presented herself and 21 other women to the British. One account of the surrender states that…

’The women of the garrison could have evaded arrest but they marched down four deep in uniform along with the men. An attempt was made to get them to sign a statement recanting their stand but this failed. Miss McNamara who led the contingent went to the British Officer Commanding and explained they were part of the rebel contingent and were surrendering with the rest. Recalling the events before being brought to Richmond Barracks, McNamara said: “The men gave each of us their small arms to do as we liked with, thinking we were going to go home, but we were not going to leave the men we were with all the week to their fate; we decided to go along with them and be with them to the end, whatever our fate might be.”

That so many women were prepared to carry supplies to the Rebels in the heat of battle, to act as messengers, nurses and above all as soldiers of the Republic says much about the ideals contained in the proclamation read out by Pearse at the General Post Office. The Irish Republic would ‘guarantee the suffrage of all her men and women’ as well as respect the religious and civil freedom of all the children of the nation. Thus for the duration of the Rising, at any rate, Irish women achieved at least a nominal measure of political parity with Irish men. The ideals of the men and women who fought in 1916 were of course submerged as more conservative forces in Ireland reasserted themselves in the decades after the rising. It may be argued that some of the revolutionary principles of the Proclamation of 1916 died with the leaders who were so mercilessly executed by the British. However the genie was out of the bottle and many women were no longer content to be allocated a seat in the back of the bus in Ireland. James Connolly, whose socialism is discernible in the Proclamation, once wrote…

‘For us of the Citizen’s Army there is but one idea- an Ireland ruled over and owned by Irish men and women, sovereign and independent from the centre to the sea.’

Connolly was clear that there would have to be a new deal for women in the Ireland he envisaged. In his view there was no point changing the flag over Dublin Castle from a Union Jack to a Tricolour if the same social and economic conditions which oppressed so many remained in place. He also wrote in that poetic way of his…

‘In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off’

It is a time to remember all who took part in the events of 100 years ago; for the brave men and women who took on an Empire and yes, even the working class Tommies who died fighting them. So as the Irish at home and around the world celebrate, remember and take pride in the deeds of 100 years ago they should perhaps also recall the role of women in their struggle. They fought for a new society, one in which women were equal with men in all things. One hundred years later can we claim that their ideals have been fully realised?


Sunday, 20 March 2016

Better than sex

Better than sex

Yesterday’s last minute heroics by Tom Rogic at Rugby Park provided one of those rare moments of genuine joy which following Celtic brings. As I stood in the packed Chadwick Stand willing Celtic to make one last effort at securing the points, I saw Rogic collect the ball around 30 yards from goal before turning and striding forward. Given the team’s rather lacklustre performance few expected the big Aussie to curl a sublime and unstoppable shot into the top right hand corner of the net. The pent up frustration of the previous 89 minutes gave way to an explosion of euphoria as the Celtic supporters went crazy. Some spilled onto the track to celebrate with the players some hugged the supporters next to them. It was, amid the rough theatre of Scottish football, a genuinely beautiful moment.  

Rogic’s goal got me thinking about other occasions when Celtic scored in the dying embers of games to seal dramatic victories. Fighting right to the last has been a traditional facet of Celtic teams and the centenary season exemplified this with a good few late goals securing victory. Every fan will have their own memory of a dramatic last gasp win which will of course be linked to their age. For older supporters, Billy McNeil’s last minute header against Vojvodina on the road to Lisbon was one they’ll never forget. Make no mistake about it: the Yugoslavs were a powerful team with good technique, speed and physicality. Celtic had lost 1-0 away and besieged Vojvodina’s goal at Celtic Park. Celtic led 1-0 in the last seconds of the game when Stein said to Sean Fallon, ‘It looks like bloody Rotterdam.’ His reference to the Dutch city alluded to the fact that a third match was required to separate teams tied on aggregate in those days. No sooner had Stein said those words when a cross into the box was met by McNeil in imperious style and he crashed a header into the net. The 75,000 at Celtic Park went wild. The stunned Slavs kicked off and the whistle blew. It was over and Celtic progressed towards their date with destiny beneath the Lisbon sun.

In more modern times, Jan Venegoor of Hesselink provided one of those fantastic Celtic moments as Celtic fought to claw back a big points deficit in the 2007-08 championship race. With the 3 minutes of stoppage time almost over and Celtic tied at 1-1 with their former rivals Rangers, Caldwell clipped what our American cousins call a ‘Hail Mary’ cross into the box. From the North stand I watched as Scott McDonald reached it first and head it back across goal where Hesselink threw himself at the ball and headed a wonderful and deserved last gasp winner. The sheer joy of that moment was simply indescribable. 53,000 Celtic fans screamed and roared in ecstasy as 7000 away fans looked on in stunned silence. A friend, who shall remain nameless, hugged me for all he was worth and screamed into my face, ‘Yaassss! That’s f*ckin amazing! It’s better than sex!’  I sometimes remind him of that remark and he laughs and replies, ‘Well, on that occasion it was.’ Big Jan’s goal of course set Celtic on the way to a memorable title triumph in 2008 and most fans point to that moment as the time they started to believe they could become champions.

Other moments in Celtic history demonstrate that the will to win combined with 90 minutes of effort can produce some amazing finishes. Murdo McLeod’s screamer in the last seconds of the 4-2 game against Rangers in 1979 set of huge celebrations as the league was won in that last minute of the last game of the season. One press report stated that ‘Three quarters of Celtic Park resembled a giant disco party and the other quarter a wake.’ McLeod’s goal wasn’t the winner as Celtic led 3-2 at the time but it was the clincher, the moment we knew we’d won the title.

In 1995-96 season Celtic trailed Dundee United 0-1 in a Scottish Cup tie at Celtic Park. The game was almost over and the Dundee United fans were singing their victory songs as McNamara swung a free kick into the box. The clock showed just 90 seconds remaining as Van Hoojdonk leapt to meet the cross and power the ball into the net. As a stunned United kicked off and Celtic Park echoed to deafening roars, Celtic seized possession and a through ball found Andy Thom racing in on goal. The speedy German kept his nerve and smashed a low shot into the net. Astonishingly Celtic had turned the cup tie around in one glorious minute. There where what our younger fans call ‘scenes’ as Celtic Park went absolutely crazy. It was incredible stuff.

Other games come to mind when one thinks of dramatic late winners. Hearts in the Semi Final of the Cup at Hampden in 1988 were leading 1-0 with 2 minutes left and Celtic turned it around. Dundee United led the final that year until late dramatics saw the Hoops clinch a Centenary Double. For every fan  there will be personal memories of late wins. Perhaps linked to sharing the moment with friends or relatives no longer around; perhaps linked to more mundane things like bashing the Bookies. For what it’s worth here are a few of my favourite late Celtic winners. I’m sure you’ll disagree on the order or notice omissions but you will agree that there are some great Celtic moments in there.

Steven McManus v Hearts  2006; a 2 goal deficit is turned around in the final seconds.

 Andy Walker v Hearts 1988 Cup Semi Final; a late double secures a place in the cup final

 Andy Thom Dundee United 1996; dramatic ending to a great cup tie.

 Scott McDonald v AC Milan 2006, the European Champions are defeated at Celtic Park.

 Murdo McLeod v Rangers 1979; in a game that had everything, this was the icing on the cake

 Jan Venegoor of  Hesselink v Rangers 2008; stunning drama in the heat of a vital match.

Of course you may well feel that there were other Celtic moments which should join the list. It’s a very subjective choice and linked to context, timing and the sheer drama of the moment. Tom Rogic’s strike yesterday was certainly one of the more dramatic we’ve seen in recent years. Whether such moments are ‘better than sex’ is really up to you to decide too.

Sometimes the old game can indeed be beautiful.




Friday, 11 March 2016

The Wrong City

The wrong city
I have had the pleasure of attending concerts by the excellent Christy Moore on several occasions over the years and he never lets his fans down. From thoughtful ballads like ‘the City of Chicago’ to banging tunes such as ‘Viva La Quinta Brigada,’ Christy has a real gift for leading an audience through the full range of emotions during his concerts. A few years back he sang a song I hadn’t heard before. It was called, ‘Does this train stop on Merseyside’ and is a thoughtful journey through some important historical moments in the life of that fine city on the Mersey. Part of the lyric says…
‘Yorkshire Police chat with folded arms while people try to save their fellow fans…’
It’s quite clear that the lyric is referring to the awful events at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989. Not only is it becoming abundantly clear that the official version of events as portrayed in the media and in the initial reports into the disaster were deeply flawed, it is also clear that there were huge failings in the response of the emergency services to the disaster. I have written elsewhere about the bitter-sweet pride I felt when Celtic invited Liverpool FC north to play their first match in the aftermath of the events at Hillsborough and perhaps take the first faltering steps towards healing. Of course the wounds of Hillsborough would remain raw for years as justice and truth were denied to the survivors and families of those lost.
Just as the city of Derry refused to swallow the travesty of justice which was the Widgery Report into the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, so too did the gutsy people of Liverpool refuse to accept the official version of events which in retrospect seemed to be more about passing blame onto the supporters in order to deflect attention from the appalling actions and inaction of the Police and other officials that day and in the days following those lamentable events.
The late Anne Williams who lost her 15 year old son, Kevin, that day refused to be cowed by officials stonewalling her and dedicated years of her life to the search for truth. Her long held view that the medical evidence given at the inquests was flawed has since been vindicated. Crucially the Sheffield coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, ruled at the time that all the victims were dead or could not have been revived by 3.15pm on the day of the disaster. His evidence meant that no evidence was heard at the inquests about the chaotic and failed response from the police and ambulance service. Anne Williams refused to accept this version of events and with relatives of other victims fought a long and at times bitter campaign for justice. She finally saw the evidence of Dr Popper overturned as unsound. It has now been established that many of the victims were alive after 3.15pm and that prompt medical help may have saved up to 58 of them. Anne said after being vindicated that…
‘I have known all these years that the inquest evidence was wrong and Kevin could have been saved.’
With heart breaking poignancy Special Police Constable, Debra Martin stated at the new inquiry that Kevin had died in her arms at 4pm and that the last word he mumbled was, ‘Mum.’ Martin also spoke of being ‘pressurised’ to change her statement of the time so that it concurred with the ‘official’ version of events. This creation of cover story to disguise the failings of the Police that day added huge insult to the pain being endured by the Hillsborough families. The disgraceful stories they peddled to a compliant gutter press which sought to shift blame onto supporters remains a shameful episode in the history Policing in these islands. So too, was the establishment closing ranks and denying justice to those so painfully wronged for over two decades.
Anne Williams and the families of those lost fought on with that determination and spirit Liverpool is known for and their determination to see justice done was recognised by one newspaper which commented…
‘It is now accepted that the families fought this battle, with no glimpse of vindication for so long, only out of love for their relatives. So, at the end of her life, Anne Williams, with other Hillsborough families, was recognised not as part of some Liverpool rabble but as a shining example: an everyday person embodying the extraordinary power and depth of human love.’
Anne lost her fight with cancer in 2013 but two days before she left us, this remarkable woman defied her doctors to attend the Hillsborough memorial service. She heard Everton Chairman, Bill Kenwright pay tribute to the families and particularly the mothers of victims. He spoke movingly of their struggle with the establishment for justice and said that if they thought the families were going to give up or go away…
"They picked on the wrong city – and they picked on the wrong mums."
At long last the truth is emerging about what actually occurred on that day in April 1989. The ‘missing’ video tapes, deleted evidence, amended police notes, negligence, mistakes, lies and human frailties which compounded the fatal error of judgement made by the match commander are now a matter of public record. ‘Integrity,’ said CS Lewis, ‘is doing the right thing even when no one is looking.’ There was precious little integrity on display that day from those public servants we are meant to trust implicitly.
There can never be closure for the families affected as the loss of a loved one is a daily reality for them. Glasgow felt this pain too in 1971 with the dreadful events at Ibrox Stadium and perhaps that experience helped the folk on the Clyde to empathise more closely with their counterparts on Merseyside. That game at Celtic Park on the last day of April 1989 is one I shall always remember. It showed that solidarity between real football supporters transcends petty rivalries when such traumatic events occur. What are all the prizes in football worth when compared to a single human life? Bill Shankly once said that football was more important than life or death. For once the great man was wrong.
I hope the families of those lost at Hillsborough see justice done to the fullest extent. Anne Williams is typical of many who fought a long, hard battle to expose the truth. As she said when she was vindicated after her long struggle…
"This is what I fought for. I was never going to give up."
                                                        Rest in Peace the 96

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Birth of a nation

Birth of a nation

The Officer smirked at him lying in pain

‘Watch the sunrise Connolly - you won’t see it again

This little adventure was doomed from the start

You Irish are game but you’re not very smart,

Did you think we would tremble, that the Empire would fall

because a rabble of Rebels answered the call?’


Connolly was silent, his eyes far away

How little they understood even today

This struggle, the first pang of his land’s labour pain

Another would follow, then another again,

As a rose takes its life from the tiniest bud,

so a nation could grow from its sons’ martyred blood,


So they carried him out in the pale morning light

Where his comrades had stood with their truth burning bright

From the stretcher they tied him to an old wooden chair

as the birdsong of spring filled the crisp Dublin air,

He gazed at the clouds in the impassive sky

and whispered to Ireland his final goodbye.


The gift that he left them was not easily found

A seed planted deep in the cold Irish ground

As his last wish for Ireland he prayed that they’d see

That they’d only know justice when their nation was free

So they lifted their rifles with a conqueror’s ire

But Connolly just smiled as a voice shouted... ‘fire!’











Saturday, 5 March 2016

A House Divided

A house divided

Abraham Lincoln gave a speech on the eve of the American civil war which began with the prophetic words, ‘A house divided cannot stand.’ Honest Abe was of course referring to the great issue of his day which saw some States free from the curse of slavery and others committed to retaining it. Of course, events this week at Celtic Park could never be described as so portentous or as serious as the issues which led to the American civil war but there is no doubt that Celtic Football Club is in danger of becoming a house divided. At one point late in the second half of the Dundee game there was an audible chant of ‘Ronny, Ronny get to f*ck’ emanating from the Jock Stein stand which was greeted by jeers from other supporters and a few angry words. Many who jeered the chant weren’t necessarily backing the manger. Those around me were jeering at the thought of more negativity pouring onto the pitch at a point in the game when the team needed supporting.

That being said, the real disconnect at Celtic these days is not between rival factions in the support but between the bulk of the support and the men running club. Deila may well take most of the flak and as manager he does bear much responsibility for the inept performances we’ve seen all too often this season but from the Boardroom to the dressing room there are others at fault. The core issues remain the same; a reasonable team of just 4 or 5 seasons ago has been replaced by a bloated squad full of journeymen players of moderate talent. The selling of key players in recent years such as Wanyama, Ledley, Van Dijk and Hooper and their replacement with players of lesser ability and stature has led to Celtic regressing. Undeniable and hugely expensive errors of judgement have been made in the identification and purchasing of players such as Ciftci, Boerichter, Pukki, Balde and Bangura. Cole and Kazim Richards may not have played enough to make a fair judgement of them yet but early indications are not promising. But then you know all of this. The real issue is how we reverse this decline and of course who has the leadership skills to spark a renaissance? No one is fooled that Aberdeen don’t present a serious threat to Celtic’s title ambitions. A few more displays like Wednesday’s and Celtic could indeed blow it.

Support is also haemorrhaging away and those who do still show up at games are becoming increasingly frustrated with lacklustre displays, something has to give. With around 40,000 season tickets sold, Celtic reported the gate at the Dundee game as 41,451 but in truth the crowd was probably closer to 25,000.  What then is keeping so many supporters away? In simple terms it is the lack of entertaining football and a seeming inability among the club leadership to communicate to the support how they intend to lead the side out of the malaise they are in. The disconnect between the club and many supporters seems wide and many are now voting with their feet. Some radical thinking is required if Celtic aren’t to squander the chance of a lifetime to build a team capable of dominating Scottish football for years to come. It isn’t too late but it is fast reaching a critical point where the club will have to make major decisions about who leads the team forward and what sort of backing they will receive.

Momentum and hunger are vital ingredients to successful sides. In the mid 1990’s the Celtic support backed the team to the hilt as they fought to halt the dreaded ‘Ten.’ We had a real sense of purpose then and a real bond between the team and the supporters. There was a feeling of rebirth as we watched the new stadium rise and a better quality of player arrive at Celtic Park. There were setbacks along the way but once that 1998 title was secured Celtic were seldom far from the honours and have in fact won 23 domestic honours since that 1997-98 season. That sense of purpose and unity we all felt in the late 1990s was carried forward into the new millennium but since the demise of Rangers there has been a settling on our laurels and a feeling that Celtic is drifting is inescapable. The club is able to be successful in Scotland with a squad diminishing in quality with each passing year. The real testing ground for any ambitious club is European football and it has been clearly demonstrated that Celtic are currently not ready to compete in that unforgiving arena.

Beating Barcelona in 2012 now seems like a distant memory and of the team who started the game on that incredible night in 2012 only Mulgrew, Ambrose, Lustig and Commons are still at Celtic Park. It would be fair to say none of them are currently performing particularly well. Team building takes patience and courage and the fans are justifiably cynical about the constant selling of the best players at the club. The financial realities are well known to us all but sometimes you need to speculate to accumulate. It is also fair to say that clubs with far less resources than Celtic seem able to put decent teams on the field and you have to ask why can’t we?

 The supporters need hope, they need to see light at the end of the tunnel. Currently the club seems stuck in a vicious circle of declining standards and increasing disenchantment among the support. Those of you who read my ramblings will know that I’m an optimist when it comes to Celtic. I’m not one for panic or hysteria but there is a need for Mr Lawwell and his team to do some thinking and hard talking about what needs to be done at Celtic to improve the situation. The purchasing of decent, proven talent is far more likely to improve the side than any ‘project’ bought to rear and sell like a racehorse. Those players already in the team and underperforming need a strong man in the dugout to kick some butt and a few men of character on the field to organise and cajole them into performing better. We claim to have a big squad and yet each week see players in the team who are clearly out of form, confidence or both. Yes, the booing from the stands doesn’t help but the fans need a spark, they need to see the team is giving all they have.

It is easy to point out the flaws in a football side but far harder to remedy them. Celtic needs leadership in the boardroom, character in the dugout and 100% commitment on the pitch. I can accept being outplayed by Barcelona or AC Milan provided we give our all. What I can’t accept is being outfought by Dundee or Hamilton. The hunger and drive which characterises good teams seems lacking in some at the moment. Ronny Deila has a dozen or so games to organise and reinvigorate Celtic. Failure to do so will undoubtedly see his reign end. A telling comment was made to me by the chap who sits beside me in the North Stand this last week. He said, ‘If this was Tommy Burns team 4 points clear with ten games to go then this place would be full and we’d be roaring them on.’ His point being that Burns’ side played it the Celtic way and had a Manager and team with as much passion for the club as the supporters had is a valid one.

These are difficult times for the Celtic Board but their next moves need to be positive and communicated clearly to the supporters. The loss of the title this year would be hugely embarrassing and would undoubtedly see the discontent around the club grow into anger. Chris Sutton stated in an article today some hard truths which are hard to deny….

‘Celtic are a team which is regressing at an astonishing rate of knots. They have a Manager who looks to have totally lost his way and seems incapable of making decisive judgement and decisions. Players have either lost faith with the Manager or are simply nowhere near the standard required to play well week on week at Celtic.’

It gives me no pleasure to write these words but like many of you reading them I hold Celtic dear and want the club to progress and succeed. I want them to enthuse their fans with exciting play and give us the belief and hunger again. Celtic is important in the lives of so many people all over the world and the team could and should be doing much better than it is. I don’t have all the answers but then I don’t get paid a million pounds a year to call the shots, time to earn your corn Mr Lawwell.