Saturday, 29 July 2017

Open to all

Open to all
Like many men of his generation, my old man was called up for national service at the age of 18. He would tell us with no little pride that he absconded and made his way back to Glasgow for every round of the Scottish cup in 1954 and watched Celtic beat Aberdeen in the final. He was finally caught by the MPs and on the long journey south to Aldershot was handcuffed to the suitcase rack. His arm was numb for days afterwards and he then had some months in the ‘Glass House’ to ponder his audacity. He ended up doing almost three years in the army instead of two due to his misbehaviour but told me it was worth it to see the Celts.

I still have a photo of him in army uniform and he always saw those days as a straight choice; ‘Ye either dae yer time or go tae jail.’ When he’d get drunk at the new year he’d tell us all sorts of tales of his escapades and on one memorable occasion said he told that he said to an officer discussing the ongoing Malayan war of Independence, ‘Well, I’m no fighting in the Jungle for 30 bob a week!’ My Uncle cut in at this point and said, ‘Only Jungle you fought in was the wan at Parkhied!’ His brief encounter with military life didn’t stop him being Celtic to the core and be the first to give us a good old Irish tune at family parties. I can still see him in memory’s view in the smoky living room calling for quiet and begin with the words….

‘In Mountjoy Jail one Monday morning, high upon the Gallows Tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life for the cause of liberty….’

My old man and uncles were sons of an Irishman from County Clare who left for World War one with most of Redmond’s Irish Volunteers in 1914 to ‘fight for the freedom of small nations.’ They had been promised home rule for their own country when the war was over and most of them believed they would get it. Upon his return to Ireland in 1918 he found a country utterly transformed and already preparing to take up arms against the British. There were no qualms about it for him, Ireland came first and he put his military experience to use in the cause of Irish independence. It was an era in his life he spoke little of but he did what he thought was right on behalf of his people.

It was not unusual for Irishmen who had served in the British Army to do this. Tom Barry, famous leader of the West Cork Flying Column, had spent some years in the British Army before returning home to Cork. He was so appalled at the torture of Republican prisoners by the British that he decided to throw his lot in with the Rebels. Actions like the wiping out of 18 Auxiliaries in the ambush at Kilmichael in November 1920 sealed his reputation as one of the most formidable guerrilla fighters of the ‘Tan war.’ Barry said in his memoirs...

‘They said I was ruthless, daring, savage, blood thirsty, even heartless. The clergy called me and my comrades murderers; but the British were met with their own weapons. They had gone into the mire to destroy us and our nation and down after them we had to go.’

James Connolly too served in the British army having lied about his age and enlisting at just 14. He often said that the time he served in Ireland with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots during the so called ‘Land War’ in which the military and police were used to supress and evict poor tenants fighting for their rights fed his growing socialist ideology and led him to fight for the rights of others all his life.

You might wonder why I’m relating these stories of folk who served in the British armed forces to you. It has to do with some internet chat I noticed this week after a banner emblazoned with the words ‘Willie Angus VC CSC’ appeared at Celtic Park. A tiny minority were displeased that such a banner was seen around the stadium and were scathing that any reference to Celtic supporters with a military background should be seen at Celtic Park. This narrow minded attitude runs counter to the principles of a club for all open to all. Everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion but no one has the right to say who can and who cannot follow Celtic. There is an increasingly intolerant attitude among some who seem to have no patience for anyone’s opinion but their own. Celtic is a broad church with room for folk from all walks of life. We long ago opened our arms to all who wished to follow the team. We don’t ask creed, don’t judge on race or ethnicity, don’t care about gender or sexual orientation, why then should some get a hard time because they have some connection to the armed forces? Most UK based Celtic supporting families will have some history in that area.

Willie Angus, like James Stokes, won the highest award for bravery this country can offer. The Celtic Supporters club in the Gorbals bears Stokes name to this day. Willie Maley was the son of an Army Sergeant and was born in Newry Barracks. Celtic’s emerging side of the late 1930s saw 22 players called up for military service in World War 2. It was a similar tale in the First World War with men like Peter Johnstone and at least six other former Celtic players perishing in the trenches. Hundreds of thousands of young men from Celtic supporting families would have served in the two world wars as well as those called up for national service in the decades after the last war.

Celtic and their supporters can rightly be proud that they are in general an open, welcoming bunch. Other clubs may have dabbled in the sort of narrow, exclusivist mind-set which in the end leads them into the barren land of intolerance. That has never been the Celtic way. The club is proud of its roots which are unashamedly in the Irish diaspora but is also proud that it opened its arms to all from earliest times.

My old man left us at the tragically young age of 63. A hard life contributed to his early passing. As he made his last journey along the London Road to Dalbeth cemetery he stopped one last time at his beloved Celtic Park. Here he had shared the highs and lows of his team’s fortunes; here he had known the warmth and comradeship of the terraces. He cared not about the creed or colour of his fellow fans or whether they had served in the military. They were all Celts and that was good enough for him.

It should be good enough for all of us. 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Sort it out

Sort it out
I wasn’t particularly perturbed when Celtic drew Linfield in the Champions League qualifiers as Celtic are vastly superior to the Belfast side and were never likely to be in any danger. Brendan Rodgers does his job diligently and professionally and I knew he’d ensure the set up and mind set were right to get the job done. The off field politics around the Linfield tie were another matter altogether. I watched the news in the morning after the game in Belfast in a hotel in Spain and saw the hail of missiles aimed at Leigh Griffiths. It was all predictably moronic as was the visiting fans behaviour at Celtic Park a week or so later. With wearisome predictability they trotted out the morally debased ‘paedo’ tosh and the usual songbook they share with their Scottish cousins.

The Celtic support, which snapped up every available seat in the stadium watched the team dismantle the part timers from Belfast with little trouble. It was however a bit of a canter as in truth, Linfield are a nonentity in European football and it says much about how far Scottish football’s stature has fallen that Celtic are forced to scrap it out with teams like this every summer. Hopefully Celtic and Aberdeen can add some much needed co-efficient points this season by having extended runs in Europe.

The Scottish media however seemed less concerned with Celtic’s perfunctory whipping of a poor Linfield side than they were about banners which appeared in the safe standing area. It goes without saying that UEFA will take a stern view of this and no pointing out of their hypocrisy in not enforcing ‘non-political’ banners in other contexts will alter their course. There is a school of thought which suggests they were far from amused by the ‘Match the fine for Palestine’ campaign last season which saw over £170,000 raised by Celtic supporters (and many others) for charities in the occupied territories. As Celtic’s charge sheet gets longer the sanctions will increase. You play in their competitions you abide by their rules and at the end of the day there is no escaping that fact.

Celtic supporters indiscretions are small beer compared to the behaviour of some supporters around Europe. Last season’s Lyon v Besiktas Europa League tie was held up for 50 minutes after fighting, field invasions and fireworks being thrown in the stadium. Both clubs were hammered by UEFA.  Legia Warsaw’s hooligans caused a long awaited tie with Real Madrid to be played behind closed doors after appalling violence in a previous match. The vast majority of decent fans were denied a chance to see Ronaldo et al because of the idiot minority. That minority then fought the Police in Madrid in the return tie. So keep Celtic’s relatively minor offences in context. That being said the punishments will increase incrementally as Celtic is brought before the UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body more frequently.

My thoughts on the two flags were initially that those who brought them to Celtic Park must surely have known that it’d cause a fuss and probably cause the club some disciplinary problems given it was a UEFA sanctioned match. What then were the reasons for the two banners? To get up the noses of Linfield fans or perhaps those closer to home who watch our support like hawks and hold back their phoney rage for just such incidents?  Either way, the banners were not clever, not witty and in my opinion a little self-indulgent and immature given recent history. They also goad the Celtic Board in a manner which can only have one outcome. Just as when Celtic play in UEFA’s tournaments they must abide by UEFA’s rules so too supporters who enter Celtic Park accept that certain standards of behaviour are expected there.

I have no idea who sanctioned or created the banners and in that context Celtic’s two match ban on 900 supporters in Section 111 seems a little harsh. You don’t punish the many to catch the few. There may be a feeling that after the pyrotechnics against Hearts last season and this week’s display that Celtic needed to be seen to be proactive in policing the standing area more firmly. It’s such a pity that we begin a season in fine health on and off the pitch and then descend into acrimonious rowing over such a palpably avoidable situation. With the club dominant in Scotland and looking to build a side capable of competing in Europe we shouldn’t be shooting ourselves in the foot like this.

My return to social media after a week’s holiday wasn’t entirely pleasant as there seemed to be a real division among supporters about the incidents at the Linfield game. Some of the vitriol and name calling was over the top given we all back the same side. Some seem unable to handle the fact that others have opinions which differ from theirs. Celtic is a broad church, a club for all and there can surely be disagreements without people falling back on absolutist opinions which lead them describe fellow Celts as ‘soup takers’ or ‘Tories’ on one hand or fans with a ‘WATP mentality’ or who ‘think they are above the rules’ on the other. There will always be fans interested in politics given Celtic’s historical and cultural roots just as there will always be fans who go to support the team and take little interest in that side of things. That’s normal and healthy but it becomes problematic when the actions of some affect the club and other supporters.

I’m sure many of the 900 supporters denied entry to the next two home games will feel rightly aggrieved that they can’t watch their team.  Celtic’s action in closing the safe standing area does look harsh but from their perspective they need to be seen to be doing something if they genuinely feel safety is an issue or the behaviour of some supporters is endangering the club’s reputation and catching the eye of UEFA again. Clubs around the UK are interested in Celtic’s safe standing area as it has been a huge success. The atmosphere and noise it generates and spreads around the stadium is excellent but if fans based there don’t exercise some form of self-policing then the club inevitably will.

It’s all manna from heaven to those who with no love for Celtic who like to see and foster such discord. The club is streets ahead of our main rivals in Scotland and has just sold out season tickets for the coming campaign. We are building a fine side and have an excellent manager who is bringing out the best in the players. We are set for another tilt at the Champions League and are set to build on a historic invincible season. The last thing we need is unnecessary discord among the fans. Those involved should sit around the table and thrash out what is acceptable at Celtic Park and what is not and then get on with the business of giving us a team to be proud of and a support which is envied across Europe.

When Celtic and the supporters are united in common purpose then nothing our enemies can do will touch us. Sort it out and let’s get back to backing the team with the fervour and passion we are famous for.

Individually we are a drop in the ocean, united we are an unstoppable wave.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Through the Barricades

Through the Barricades

I was driving through the Glasgow rain recently listening to the radio when the Spandau Ballet hit ‘Through the barricades’ came on. ‘Do you know the story behind that song?’ my friend enquired. I said that it sounded as if it was basically a song about star crossed lovers on different sides of a conflict. Some of the lyrics were consistent with the Troubles but it was basically fictional wasn’t it? As we drove on my friend told me about a Celtic fan by the name of Thomas Reilly, better known to his friends as ‘Kidso.’

Belfast boy Kidso was Celtic mad by all accounts and would even on occasion skip the boat at Larne to get to Scotland and then hitch to Glasgow such was his love for the Hoops. He was the life and soul of the party, quick to give you a song and a bit of craic. His older brother Jim was the drummer for Irish Punk band, Stiff Little Fingers and Kidso enjoyed music too.  Jim got him a job as a roadie and he worked with some of the big bands of the era such as Spandau Ballet, The Fun boy Three, Paul Weller and Bananarama. He still headed for Celtic Park when the opportunity arose and his passion for Celtic never waned.

Kidso was home in Belfast in the summer of 1983 and was heading home to his folks’ place when he and his mates were stopped by a patrol of British Soldiers. After answering their questions and facing the sort of harassment young Irish lads often endured in those days, Kidso headed off. He was wearing just a pair of shorts and carrying his T shirt as it was a hot August evening. It is not disputed what happened next; one of the soldiers dropped to one knee and took aim at Kidso. As his friends looked on the soldier shot him in the back and killed him. The soldier in question was convicted of murder in a court of law as the Judge refused to accept his version of events in which claimed an unarmed man wearing shorts and walking away was a threat to the army patrol.

Astonishingly the soldier who was given a life sentence was released in 22 months and allowed to rejoin his Regiment.

As you’d expect, the death of Thomas ‘Kidso’ Reilly had a huge effect on his family and friends as did the lack of any real justice. Despite coming from a nationalist background, he was more into music and Celtic than politics. Pop band Bananarama attended his funeral and Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode, Altered Images and The Jam sent wreaths to express their respect. Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet said a few years later....

"I'd been to Ireland a few times - it was quite shocking for privileged boys as we were. When we went back in 1985, Jim Reilly offered to take me to Falls Road to visit the grave of Thomas. As I took that walk, I could see the barricades set up dividing the two main streets, the Protestant side and the Catholic side. It didn't occur to me to write a song at that point, but it was a huge influence. I was living in Ireland about a year later, and 'Through The Barricades' came to me in one evening. About two in the morning, lyrics started appearing in my head and I picked up a guitar - this has never happened to me before. I felt like the song was leading me itself.

Incidents like the murder of Kidso Reilly were sadly all too common in the darker days of the troubles and those who lived through those times have many such tales to tell. Kidso is remembered in commemorations and on a plaque on a wall in his home town. His parents, Jim and Bridie Reilly were of course heart-broken at the loss of their son as was the rest of the family. The British media made much of his links to the music industry and in a sense he lost his identity, becoming the ‘Road Manager’ of a pop group rather than a loving son and brother. The press initially claimed his death had occurred in ‘disputed’ circumstances but of course the Judge had the vision to see through the lies.

It’s amazing how a discussion about a song can lead you to discovery stories like that of Thomas Reilly. In remembering him today I make no political points or judgements.  I merely recall a fellow Celtic fan lost at a tragically young age to a callous and cowardly act. Thankfully more tranquil times have come to his home city and such acts are hopefully consigned to history forever. With Celtic due in Belfast next week to play Linfield there will be no doubt bellicose noises from some but the city is transformed in many ways since those darker times.

I hope Celtic play to their form and win well at Windsor Park. Kidso would have liked that.

Rest in Peace Kidso and all the innocents lost in the Troubles.