Tuesday, 12 May 2015

They know not what they do

They know not what they do
Like so many letters from America one of the first comments from the exiled Scot concerned his favourite football team…

“A little Scotsman told me Hearts were in the final of the Scottish Cup and they were knocking hell out the Hibs, whereat I felt very much depressed”.

Nothing unusual in those words you might think, apart from the fact that the person writing them was James Connolly. Throughout his life Connolly was a great supporter of Hibernian FC and is said to have attended the meeting in 1875 when Hibs were founded. The little boy born at 107 Cowgate would have been only 6 or 7 years old then and suffering the sort of poverty and discrimination the rest of his kin experienced in the ‘Little Ireland’ district of Edinburgh. It is said he would help carry Hibs kit to home games and get in to watch the team for free. One player recalls telling him to get back from the pitch lest he be trampled by the rough, stampeding players of Victorian Scotland. Like many before him he joined the army to escape the dire poverty which had claimed his mother at an early age. He joined up at 14 and spent around 7 years in uniform, stationed mostly in Ireland. He recorded that it was the experience of watching how the Irish people were cowed by the military and oppressed by the landlords which informed his growing political enlightenment.

Connolly then embarked on his quest to awaken the working classes to their exploitation and through a variety of trade union and socialist activities he worked tirelessly for the common man. From the outset he saw and lambasted the disastrous effects of fostered sectarian division on the working classes. As a union organiser in Belfast he saw the petty privileges of one community over another as being ‘Tuppence against tuppence h’apenny’ and hoped to see a united working class fighting for the good of all. His travels took him to the USA, home to Scotland and back to Dublin at the time of the great ‘Lock out’ when employers sought to break the workers by denying them the wages to feed their families. Connolly saw the Federation of Employers hire groups of thugs to ‘rough up’ more than a few striking workers and formed the ‘Irish Citizens Army’ to counter this. It was this band of politically aware men and women who would march with him on that bloody Easter of 1916.

Big Tam and I were speaking of James Connolly this week on the 99th anniversary of his execution and he thought for a moment before informing me in his serious voice, ‘If James Connolly was alive today I think he’d be a Celtic supporter.’ His comments were based on the fact that Hibernian FC have grown so far from their Irish roots and founding principles that they would be unrecognisable to Connolly. Is this a fair assumption? Certainly some of the more politically minded among the Celtic support have used terms such as the ‘Hibernification of Celtic’ to describe any attempts to dilute Celtic’s Irishness. This is based on the fact that Hibs, founded in 1875 by Canon Hannan of St Patrick’s church in Edinburgh, have clearly become assimilated into Scottish society to the degree where supporters of the club are just as likely to come to it for geographical rather than ethnic reasons. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing as the smaller Irish founding community (when compared to Celtic in the west) may have been insufficient to make Hibs a big club in Scottish terms on their own.

There have also been dark mutterings from Celtic fans about the actions of Harry Swan when he became Hibs Chairman in the 1930s. Swan, an admitted Free Mason, oversaw many changes at Hibs such as the ending of free entry to Priests and the demolition of a wall bearing Hibernian’s famous Harp crest, an emblem that was soon to leave the club’s badge too. Swan was also involved in the ‘Flag Flutter’ of the early 1950s when Celtic were ordered to remove the tricolour from their stadium or face expulsion from the league. However, it seems clear that George Graham, then SFA Secretary was the driving force behind the anti- Celtic clique at that time. When Celtic refused to budge on the flag issue the rest of the league regained its senses and backed down. Desmond White, Chairman of Celtic in the 1970s said of Graham with an uncharacteristic lack of charity…

‘’He’ll roast in hell for what he tried to do to Celtic.’’

It is fair to say that Hibs have diluted their Irishness but for a Club established 140 years ago that is hardly surprising.  It is likely Celtic would have gone further down that road too if it wasn’t for the rivalry with a politically and some would argue, religiously, diametric opposition over at Ibrox. The so called ‘Old Firm’ effect has made any dilution of Celtic’s Irishness akin to treachery. Such has been the intensity of the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers over the last century that it has developed its own momentum. There is an unwillingness on the part of many Celtic fans to let go of what they perceive as their own and their club’s Irishness. This finds expression in the huge preponderance of Irish flags at Celtic games, the political sentiments expressed by many and the songs the supporters sing. In that sense James Connolly would undoubtedly find Celtic Park an interesting and welcoming place. However, the complexities of identity and growing number of Celtic fans from non-Irish backgrounds mellows this somewhat. Celtic has grown way beyond their founding community and most progressive Celtic fans see that as a good thing. There is no betrayal of the past in welcoming all who want to follow Celtic into the support. Indeed the inclusive ethos of the modern Celtic is a vindication of that founding generation who lived with much prejudice.

The past is a proud and honoured chapter in the club’s history but it must be our home and not our prison.

So what of James Connolly, who would he support today? I’m sure the man who held fast to his beliefs all the way to his execution in Kilmainham jail in May 1916 would also have stuck steadfastly to his fondness for Hibs. They were his team and which of us would turn our back on the team we love? As Eric Cantona once said, 'You can change your wife, your politics or your religion but never your favourite football team.' That is not to say Connolly should not be admired by all as a courageous and principled man for he was surely that. Father Aloysius, the Priest at Kilmainham, told Connollly's daughter Nora of his final moments with the following words...
‘I said to him, "Will you pray for the men who are about to shoot you" and he said: "I will say a prayer for all brave men who do their duty." His prayer was "Forgive them for they know not what they do" and then they shot him.’

James Connolly 1868-1916

Socialist and Hibs Fan

Rest in Peace


  1. Did you know that Harry Swan's wife was gifted the harp removed from the wall you mentioned when he passed away? The wall was taken down to expand the stadium, nothing more sinister. You will be aware and should have mentioned the harp plays a prominent role in our badge again has done for over 20 years a at the behest of the fans. Also not sure it was Swan who stopped the free entrance to priests either, his great friend was Monsignor Miley who provided the link between Hibs and the Auld Irish families who founded our club.

  2. As above Harry Swan commissioned a new Harp from Ireland which was kept in the Boardroom and did so much for Hibs. Celtic fans misunderstand his role at Hibs. If Connolly was alive today he would be an active member of the St Patrick’s branch supporters club, the largest Hibs supporters club. Hibs fans still get their heritage, some more than others, but the balance is about right.