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Sunday, 22 December 2013

Celtic and Irish Politics

With a battle going on for the heart and soul of Celtic Football Club it's perhaps important to look back at its formation. Doing so might help many develop a more informed opinion about the current debates raging, specifically the club's relationship to Ireland and Irish politics.

To do so I looked out an old copy of Bill Murray's The Old Firm, Sectarianism, Sport and Society in Scotland. Although first written in the eighties it remains the most researched and respected independent body of work on this subject that I've stumbled across, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone wishing to broaden their knowledge on a subject that continues to dominate the lives of many thousands of football fans and the wider community.

Most fans know one of the reasons Brother Walfrid set up Celtic Football Club to help feed and clothe immigrants in the East end of Glasgow. This charitable ethos is one the club is currently trying to reclaim through the Celtic FC Foundation, and for this they must be commended. Of course, there's always going to be some for whom the club isn't doing enough. This was highlighted at the most recent AGM with the resolution for the club to introduce a living wage was rejected. However, there is no doubt the club does more than any other football club. But is this enough to boast about being more than a club? Other recent issues like the no political banners or songs, while playing Let The People Sing over the Celtic Park tannoy, looks a tad hypocritical to many.

What is not so well known about Walfrid was his fear that Protestant soup kitchens might tempt young Catholics into apostasy. He was also worried about the dangers of young Catholics meeting Protestants in their place of employment or leisure and being led astray. A catholic football club, then, could serve the dual purpose of easing the pain in starving stomachs and keep young Catholics together, free from the temptations of Protestants and Protestantism. 

But Walfrid wasn't the only man involved in the formation of Celtic Football Club and Protestants have played in Celtic teams right from the beginning. In 1895 a resolution was put before the committee that the first team be restricted to three Protestants but it was rejected. A counter-proposal established that the club sign as many Protestants as it wanted. This remains the case to the present day.

There is no doubt that in the first decade of Celtic's history many charities benefited from their visits. When Celtic became a 'business' in 1897 the charitable ideals were dented but not extinguished altogether. 

Tom White, who joined the board in 1906 and was chairman from 1914 until his death on 1947, never wavered in his belief that Celtic were founded to cater for the Irish people in the west of Scotland, and many of the players and directors were intimately and very visibly involved the politics of the Motherland. 

The Irish origins of the club were even more obvious than the religious, highlighted by the club's colours and the flying of the Irish flag at Celtic Park. In the early days they were often referred to as 'the bhoys' or 'the Irishmen'.

On their first tour of the United States in 1931 they were wanted to play under the Irish flag and be introduced by the Irish national anthem. It's worth pointing out that even back then Rangers played under the Union Jack rather than the Scottish flag.

The Emerald Isle was the homeland and its ills were as real to those born in Scotland as to those who had never left Ireland.

If Celtic supporters today can be distinguished by their green and white colours, often with shamrocks and representations of the pope superimposed, changes from the early days have of degree and not of kind. 

The brake club gatherings broke up to the singing of God Save Ireland. At the Saint Patrick's Day Dinner in 1936 the toasts were to 'The memory of St Patrick' and 'Our Homeland', while the words of The Soldier Song were included in the menu, presumably to bring the proceedings to a rousing conclusion.

No group of Irish expatriates could avoid politics in the late nineteenth century, and the Celtic Football Club, as such a body, were no exception. Irish immigrants and the first generation born of Irish immigrants were more concerned about the politics of the Motherland than the politics of their adopted land.

The club were involved in such politics from the early days, but informally, through prominent players and officials, rather than officially through the club itself, but they were involved nonetheless.

When Michael Davitt was invited to lay the first sod of 'real Irish shamrocks' at the new Celtic Park in 1892 he was received by two young lads dressed in Robert Emmet costumes. After that sod of turf had been stolen the thieves are said to have invoked the 'curse of Cromwell' to 'blast the hand that stole the sod that Michael cut'.

When businessmen took over the club in 1897 they faced a revolt by brake clubs who not only claimed they'd been cheated out of reduced rates on their season tickets, but also that the club wasn't Irish anymore. 

The then Celtic chairman, John McGlaughlin, was the least sympathetic of all the top Celtic officials to the cause of Irish nationalism, and in 1899 went so far as to speak out against the nationalists and add his support to a motion which resulted in the SFA contributing 100 guineas to help the families of British soldiers fighting to defend the empire in South Africa.

There were calls for a boycott and the United Celtic Brake Clubs passed a motion that he be condemned 'in the most emphatic manner' and declared that he would never be given a place of honour in their association. As a result support for the club subsided for a while. The board sat tight, rode out the storm and refused to condemn McGlaughlin. It was clear in any case that McGlaughlin was a lone voice speaking out on behalf of British Imperialism: the other directors were committed to the cause of Ireland, and they and several other prominent players were to be found on platforms supporting Irish nationalist causes.

In 1896 William McKillop and John Glass were noted among a large and enthusiastic audience of Nationalists in Glasgow to celebrate St Patrick's Day and make speeches about Home Rule and the release of Irish political prisoners. Later that year they were joined by Tom Colgan in again demanding the release of Irish political prisoners.

Among the many Celtic supporters, players and officials at such meetings Tom and Alex Maley were more frequently reported than brother Willie. But the Celtic manager was no political agnostic.  In June 1910 the Glasgow Observer reported:

'Mr W. Maley, secretary of Celtic Football Club, gave a political address in Partick on Sunday under the auspices of the United Irish League. Although the Maley family are best known by reason of their football fame, the various members of it have always taken a keen interest in politics. Mr T.E. Maley is a constant figure on the Nationalist platforms, and Mr Alex Maley took prominent part in the affairs of the Pollokshaws branch of the United Irish League, while Father Charles Maley has never suffered his political sympathies to be secreted on the shady side of the bushel.'

Along with the Kellys and the Maleys, the name most associated with Celtic is White. Tom White joined the board in 1906 after the death of John Glass. White did not allow his position with Celtic to dampen his nationalist ardour, and in 1908 could be found talking on Irish politics at a nationalist meeting at Barrhead where current and past stars Quinn, McMenemy, Campbell and Somers were present. 

Probably the most prominent of all Celtic officials involved in politics was William McKillop. When he died in 1909 he was sent to his grave with a papal blessing at the request of His Grace the Archbishop of Glasgow.

But the link between Celtic and Irish politics is most clearly seen in the person of John Glass, whose untiring efforts to found the club and then establish it seen him duly rewarded with 300 fully paid shares when the club became a limited liability company. When JohnGlass died his obituary appeared not in the sports, but in the political pages. Apart from the energies devoted by Glass to Celtic, he had been a founder and member of the O'Connell branch of the Irish National Foresters, a foremost worker for Catholic Union, a silent worker for the United Irish League and a treasurer of its Home Government Branch.

The granting of partial independence to Ireland by the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 took some sting out of the political issue in Scotland but according to the Glasgow Observer the Celtic Brake Clubs had adopted Kevin Barry as their patron saint. 

The politics of Irish nationalism was not fought in or around Celtic Park, and the nationalists, within the club as in the community at large, were bitterly divided among themselves, as the tragic civil war following partial independence was to show. But to the general cause of a free Ireland there was a strong commitment by Celtic and their supporters, albeit romantic and in writing rather than in conviction and fighting.

If the Irish in Ireland were oppressed by the English, the Irish in Scotland suffered from the arrogance, if not the bigotry of Scots, and this drew them together in a community where common religion and nationality often transcended economic ills or grievances.

Celtic in those early days, and for a long time thereafter, were the proud symbol of what appeared to be a closely knit community. Part of the surge of optimism that carried Catholics forward at this time was the success of their football team, where every victory was notched up against their detractors, where every cup or flag won was a slap in the face to the Scottish Establishment.

The last few weeks have seen the club fined by UEFA for fans displaying a banner with a political message on it. As this isn't the first time that's happened the club decided enough was enough and stated that no more political banners will be allowed in Celtic Park. 

Yesterday it was announced that no flags or banners will be allowed into Celtic's game against St Johnstone on Perth. This means that for probably the first time in Celtic's history there will be no Irish flags in the crowd. 

As no other fans have been targeted in this manner many Celtic fans are up in arms about there being an agenda against them. Some believe the club are part of that agenda in an attempt to sanitise the support and cleanse any lingering attachments to the cause of Irish Nationalism, which is now unpalatable to many due to the bombing campaigns and tactics of the Irish Republican Army during The Troubles. 

One wonders what the position of the Celtic board and fans would be if the whole of Ireland was still part of Britain and fighting for independence and not just the six counties. 

Whether or not a twenty first century football ground is the place to be continuing that fight, albeit it only in song and banner, is a debate that looks like raging for some time yet. 

The club has many new fans who have no interest in Irish politics. They also have a much broader fan base with different cultural and religious backgrounds. But surely, as both the club and fans profess to being a club open to all, common ground can be found that satisfies all members of the Celtic family, whether new or old school. Tolerance and respect are the keys. Insulting or demeaning others with an opposing view is not the answer, and it's not the Celtic way.

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