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.