Saturday, 9 April 2016

Prisoners of history

Prisoners of history

In the spring of 1995 I was working in a Primary school in the east end of Glasgow. On the Friday afternoon before the Scottish Cup Final we were preparing to pack up for the day and I called the class to silence for the traditional end of day prayer. As was the norm, I asked quietly if any of the class had anyone at home who was ill or in need of a prayer and a quiet voice at the back of the class said, ‘Oh God, please make Peter Grant fit for the cup final.’ I had to smile. I don’t know if the creator, if you believe in such a concept, concerns himself with sporting matters but that child clearly felt it was worth a shot. As we know Grant played and was man of the match in Celtic’s victory.

In the parochial world of Scottish football, the perceived religious identity of Celtic causes a few among opposition fans to get hot under the collar. It is mostly a central belt issue with perhaps its roots in the Irish diaspora which saw huge numbers leave Ireland to seek work and an escape from hunger and oppression at home. In my years following Celtic I’ve heard Celtic’s perceived Catholic identity used to abuse the club and its’ supporters at a good few grounds but most of it was empty and ritualistic; more of a wind up than serious hatred. Partick Thistle fans for instance used to chant…

‘Hello Hello how do you do
We hate the boys in royal blue
We hate the boys in Emerald green
So f**k your pope and f**k your Queen’

This was clearly a crude attempt to differentiate the Jags from their two huge neighbours who they perceive as too closely wedded to religious identities. For some Celtic supporters the club’s proud history of inclusion in terms of both the team and the support means they get annoyed at being cast as one half of a bigoted duet. History shows that Celtic had no time for exclusivist policies and as early as the 1890s threw out a motion at an AGM to limit the number of non-Catholics in the side. Bob Kelly spoke passionately about the principle of inclusion and the huge number of players from Protestant backgrounds who had played their hearts out for Celtic. Had Celtic chosen to go down the road to perdition Rangers did then I for one would not be supporting the club today.

During one of Celtic’s Champions League games a few years back a young chap a few rows in front of me waved a flag showing Pope Benedict with the words ‘Our God Reigns’ emblazoned on it. This got a few of us chatting at half time about Celtic’s perceived Catholic identity and what it actually means in the modern era. There was agreement that Celtic’s founding community was overwhelmingly from the Irish catholic stock although as recent research shows that Walfrid choice of name for the club may have been partially influenced by the presence of Glengarry Highlanders who settled in Glasgow’s east end in the days after the clearances. Most of the small group discussing Celtic’s identity at that European game had at least some Irish forebears although all of us had strong Scottish ties too. In a sense our families’ integration into Scottish life mirrored Celtic’s. The club had been born in a desperately poor community and had through hard work, determination and occasional footballing brilliance become part of the fabric of Scottish football and society.

Michael Davitt, one of Celtic’s early patrons was certainly an Irish nationalist but at the time he laid the sod of grass at the second Celtic Park was heavily involved in the struggles of farmers and crofters in Scotland and Wales as well as Ireland. This led to what some called ‘Pan Celtic solidarity.’ Davitt urged the Irish in Scotland to integrate into the local political scene and not just agitate on matters relating to Ireland. The huge Irish influence in the early Labour movement in Scotland shows that they did this with great success.

Having lived in England for some years the rather childish perception persists among many there is that Celtic and Rangers are basically clubs representing two hostile religious groups. I’ve taken a lot of time and energy to explain the falsity of this situation to some and they do get it in the end. I recall chatting to a Sunderland fan on holiday who said to me ‘I wouldn’t be welcome at Celtic Park because I’m English and a Protestant.’ I almost laughed at this unthinking and rather stupid remark. I put him wise and pointed out our then striker, Chris Sutton and Midfielder Alan Thompson had no problems being accepted and that we had Celtic supporters clubs in Newcastle, Sunderland, London, Coventry and indeed all over England.

Like many who follow Celtic it grates with me to be identified in the same sectarian terms as the more Neanderthal elements of the Ibrox support. It would be equally wrong to equate all Rangers supporters as foaming bigots because that simply isn’t true. I’m sure many of you reading this will have friends, neighbours or family members who follow the Ibrox club and can vouch for them as decent human beings. That being said, historically Rangers as a club have to their shame tacitly approved of the bigotry of some of their followers via their unwritten policy of not employing Catholics. The late Sandy Jardine, a decent player and nice guy, once said…

"When I came here in 1964, we had no Catholics," he said. "Not just the playing staff, anywhere. There was no bit of paper, it was an unwritten rule. David Murray changed that and it moved on significantly in 1989 when Maurice Johnston signed. You cannot clear up 80 years of sectarianism in eight months, but we are a huge way down the road.

As a wee lad living in Govan’s ‘Wine Alley’ I recall watching Orange Parades march into Ibrox and finish their celebration with speeches and songs there. It is a measure of how much Rangers have changed that such an event would be unthinkable today. The club has clearly tried to move on even if some of their supporters refuse to budge from outdated attitudes. It would be churlish to think that a support as big as Celtic’s doesn’t contain its share of fools and knaves but there simply is no comparison when one listens to the songs routinely aired by both supports. Celtic may have an issue of contention with Irish Republican songs being sung by a minority at games but even the crude and transparent attempts by some to re-designate the term ‘Hun’ as sectarian can’t disguise the fact that the issue of sectarian chanting is a much bigger problem at Ibrox. The perception though of Celtic and Rangers being equally culpable is fostered by some and Journalist Graham Speirs pointed out a truism when he spoke of the unwritten rule of Scottish football reporting: When writing about bigotry you always mention both clubs.

In a sense the lad with the Pope Benedict flag at the match is also reinforcing a stereotype about a Celtic support which is still largely Catholic in origin although many have little interest in religion. It is a support which also contains increasing numbers from out-with the progeny of the founding community and I for one think it’s great to see Celtic flourish and open its arms to people from all walks of life, from all faiths and none and from all ethnic backgrounds. The club undeniably founded as a charity by a teaching order of the Catholic Church in Victorian Scotland has grown way beyond any outdated and stereotypical ideas of what it represents.

Celtic today is a product of the club’s history and the foresight of the founding generation to have a mixed team from the earliest years is to be applauded. It would have been easy to stay in the ‘ghetto’ of the founding community and not integrate fully into Scottish society but the club would not have grown to greatness had it thought in such small minded terms. It would be wrong to deny the Irish and Catholic roots of Celtic but equally the club, like the community which founded it, has taken its place at the heart of Scottish society.

They learned very early in their existence a lesson which others only took on board much later: We are products of our history not prisoners of it.

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