The Emerald Scots
The founding generation of Celtic FC, as is the way of migrant communities, was undoubtedly more concerned with the politics and events in the ‘old country’ than they were about goings on in their adoptive land. It was no accident that Land League activist and Fenian, Michael Davitt was invited to lay the first sod of turf at the second Celtic Park in 1892. The fact that the man who railed against the Landlords who so cruelly upped rents and evicted poor tenants in Ireland was invited by the Irish-Scottish community to lay that first sod at their new stadium was deeply symbolic. Celtic were forced to move from their original home on what is today Springfield Road to the current site after the landlord demanded a huge rise in rent from the infant Club. Michael Davitt was one of the new breed of activists who saw the common suffering of working people everywhere and travelled extensively lecturing, organising and trying to instil in the working class a solidarity which was often absent due to lack of education and artificially fostered divisions. Davitt urged the Irish-Scottish community in Glasgow to engage with the political scene in Scotland and to support the infant Labour movement which would eventually give birth to the Labour Party. There could be no lingering in the narrow confines of migrant politics, the Irish-Scots would soon take a full and active part in the political life of Scotland and the wider UK. Some, such as Edinburgh born Socialist James Connolly, would take the struggle for workers’ rights and Irish self-determination all the way to the execution yard in Kilmainham Jail. Connolly’s nationalism was always secondary to his Socialism and he saw the struggle for working class advancement as a world-wide issue. He wrote in 1897…
‘’If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.’’
John Wheatley, son of County Wexford and ardent Celtic fan became an important figure in the Independent Labour Party in Scotland and served as both a Councillor and MP for Glasgow constituencies between the wars. He is best remembered for his time as Health Secretary during which he enacted the Rent Act which greatly increased the availability of affordable housing and took many out of the clutches of unscrupulous landlords. Of course many who are children of the Irish diaspora still have an interest in Irish affairs and that is to be expected. The Troubles reawakened in many latent feelings of solidarity with the embattled nationalists of the six counties and this found expression in many forms, not least in the chants heard on the terraces in those days. Thankfully the north of Ireland is currently experiencing less troubling times.
In the 126 years since that founding generation of Celtic FC the club has expanded way beyond the Irish diaspora community upon which it was built. The club now attracts supporters from all walks of life but is rightly proud of what those early pioneers achieved. Today Celtic supporters rightly take their place in all sectors of Scottish life and have been very vociferous in the run up to the referendum on Scottish independence. My experience online suggests a majority are in the ‘Yes’ camp but as always the silent majority will decide. It is however pleasing to see so many, particularly the younger generation, engaging in the political process as Scotland makes the most important decision in over 300 years. For too long politics has been viewed as boring by too many and thankfully there has been a huge re-engagement of interest as September’s poll draws nearer. Scotland will make a decision with huge consequences for future generations. This time all the people will decide and not just a narrow aristocratic elite who once ruled in their own selfish interests.
It is interesting that Celtic fan George Galloway, himself a son of Dundee’s ‘Little Ireland’ community is throwing his weight behind the ‘No’ campaign. It amuses many to see him aligned with UKIP, the Orange Order and the Tories on the issue but he sees working class solidarity across the UK as being ill served by Scottish independence. I happen to disagree with him and told him so at the City Halls in Glasgow but I respect his right to put his case and make us all justify our choices. It is a healthy sign that the once marginalised Irish community in Scotland are now fully engaged and assimilated into Scottish society. Yes, they retain their distinctive attitudes and traditions and chief among these is their continuing love of one of their greatest achievements; Celtic Football Club. They journey of Celtic from the impoverished back streets of the migrant quarter to the sunlit uplands of Lisbon, mirrors that of the community which created the club. Celtic, the source of pride to so many people who struggled through life since 1888, sits proudly today as Scotland’s most successful Club. That in itself is an immense achievement and the people most responsible for it are those wonderful supporters who stuck by their team in lean years as well as in successful times.
The club has come a long way since Michael Davitt laid the first sod at the new Celtic Park in 1892. So too have the Community which gave birth to and still sustains Celtic. They are proud Scots for the most part now but just as proud of their emerald roots. There is no contradiction in that as the Celtic peoples of Scotland and Ireland share a common heritage. It’s no mere accident that the good Brother chose the name ‘Celtic’ for his club all those years ago. He believed that his people would have to engage with the society they found themselves in and saw football as one vehicle to help achieve this. His club and his people have succeeded and he would be proud of that.