Wednesday, 2 July 2014


Until Victory
I watched a young lad of about 14 purchasing a flag outside Celtic Park one bright autumnal day last year. It was an Irish tricolour emblazoned with an image of Che Guevara and the words ‘Hasta la Victoria, Siempre. (‘Until Victory-Always’) A friend mumbled to me, ‘I doubt if he knows what that says or who Che Guevara was.’ He may have been right but that young Celtic fan was taking his first steps, as we all did at some point, in trying to understand the world, how it works and how it needs changing. I grew up at a time of great social and political change in the world. Making sense of it all and trying to formulate an opinion amid all the competing voices was no easy matter. I read Che Guevara’s story of his travels around South America (The Motorcycle Diaries) and saw a young man engaged in a similar journey of exploration, The poverty, abuses of power and exploitation of the poor made up young Ernesto’s mind that he would do all he could to change that world. Guevara’s father, a man of Irish and Basque descent, once said of his son’s restless nature… ‘The first thing to note is my son’s veins flow with the blood of Irish Rebels.’ There is no doubt that the disease, poverty and squalor young Ernesto Guevara saw on his journey around Latin America was the main driving factor in his growing determination to change society for the better. It was to be a decision which, in the end would lead to his death. One line from Guevara’s book which stuck in my head was…

‘There is no other definition of socialism for us other than the ending of the exploitation of man by man.’

It seemed logical and normal when I was growing up that most Celtic supporting families were generally left wing in their outlook. For the most part we came from the working class communities of Scotland and knew from our own lives about the inequalities in the UK. Perhaps the fact that the majority of us were from immigrant stock also informed our views. In those days the old Labour Party offered an outlet for such political feelings as it had yet to be diverted to the right in the Blair years. My old man would tell me about his youth in the east end of Glasgow when unemployed working class men would engage in brutal gang fights with other unemployed young men based on spurious ideas of territorialism and tribal identity. It galled him that the ferocious energy spent on maiming each other wasn’t channelled into changing the society which had thrown them all on the scrap heap. He would talk in bemused tones about how some of the Loyalist gangs of the thirties embraced Fascism and its racist ideology. ‘Imagine that,’ he would tell me, ‘Working class men living in poverty supporting the Black Shirts!’  He was adamant that ignorance and intolerance thrive amid poverty and poor education and that is as true today as it was then.

Of course the modern age with all its shallow distractions is more likely to see political apathy and disinterest from many. It is now 2000 years since the Roman writer Juvenal bemoaned that Roman citizens had given up struggling for justice and were concerned only with ‘bread and circuses.’ In the Scottish context football became the ‘circus’ which distracted many.  For the Celtic faithful, Celtic Park became our coliseum and the players our gladiators but there has always been a strong political awareness among many Celtic fans and I recall long away trips being enlivened by debates in which James Connolly was quoted as much as Jock Stein. Among the Celtic support there is and always has been that strong Irish identity and the club has been a focus for this from its inception. During the worst years of the troubles in Ireland it could be argued that Celtic (and Rangers?) offered a safety valve in Scottish society where many could blow off steam without being drawn too deeply into the conflict. Historian, Tom Devine, argues that Scotland’s Irish community was drawn mostly from Ulster and that Liverpool, in contrast, had a more mixed Irish settlement. This he states led to the ‘decanting’ of the more tribal aspects of Ulster’s community relations which echo stronger in Clydeside today than they do on Merseyside.

As a younger man I was a fan of some of the more political bands of the era. Not just the Irish music which commented on the historical and ongoing troubles in the north of Ireland, although that often reverberated through the house, but bands such as the delightfully named, Men they couldn’t hang, Stiff Little Fingers and even the Tom Robinson Band. These bands were in a sense also a part of my political awakening and led to me investigating some of the issues and incidents they sang about and made me think more about how things came to be. One song of the time ‘The Battle of Cable Street’  recall the working class solidarity which saw people of various identities stand together to prevent a Fascist march through the Jewish area of east London in 1936. The lyric got me thinking of what could be achieved when ordinary people join together in a common cause and put petty differences behind them…

"I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dock workers,
standing up together against the hated black shirts.
I shall never forget that as long as I live,
How working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of racism."

All of this may seem a little heavy in these days of social media and political apathy. Capitalism seems triumphant everywhere and politics offers a choice of parties who all seem to be in the pockets of the big corporations. However, all is not as it seems. There are people in every land struggling against exploitation and injustice. The black shirts may not be marching down our High Streets in their thousands as they did in the thirties but the poor are still among us, the food banks as busy as ever. The bedroom tax sitting alongside tax cuts for millionaires rightly irks some. We have allowed a privileged few to garner huge amounts of wealth while billions struggle to get by in our world and that can’t be right.

One aspect of being a Celtic fan which I greatly appreciate is the social conscience which I partly developed on the terraces of Celtic Park. Our founding ethos of charity and inclusion still resonates loudly and I for one will strive to see that it always does. We Celtic supporters may not always agree on political questions or the manner in which they should be solved but just about every Celtic fan want their club to be a positive force in society. Not all Celtic fans share my political outlook but most agree that a society should be judged on how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable members.

As for the young lad with the Che Guevara tri-colour; he may not know much about the iconic face on his flag but he is perhaps taking the first steps in exploring the big world of ideas as I did many years ago and who knows, one day he might inspire us all to create a better society.



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