Soldiers are we
The Celtic supporters at Tynecastle on Sunday certainly enjoyed themselves as the team put in another decent domestic performance to defeat Hearts in what many thought would be a difficult cup tie. There was a bit of chat online about the singing of the hymn ‘Walk with me oh my Lord’ by the green clad fans and most thought it was harmless enough. One wonders if there are any other professional club’s supporters in the world who would sing a hymn at a match in these secular times but the choice of song was unusual rather than offensive. That hymn was of course sung at Tommy Burns’ funeral mass in 2008 and I recall joining thousands of waiting supporters gathered at Celtic Park that day listening to that service being broadcast via speakers. There was a spontaneous singing of it on that sombre occasion and it seemed somehow fitting as it was a tribute to a great Celt and also a comfort to some still stunned at his loss.
No one can doubt the Catholic roots of Celtic FC as the Club was basically started by the teaching arm of the Church and in its early list of patrons you will find clergymen and even an Archbishop. However as time has gone on and the original founding community has become more assimilated into the mainstream of Scottish life, the Celtic support is now more mixed than it has ever been. Yes, the majority are still Catholic, at least culturally, but a large minority of the fan base these days is of other faiths or none at all. Some of the most devoted Celtic supporters I know are not from the Catholic or Irish tradition but rather are drawn to the club by its footballing record and the warmth of the majority of its supporters. That doesn’t mean that we should dispense with singing songs such as ‘Walk with me oh my Lord’ quaint as it is to hear such things at a modern football game.
Similarly with the singing of the ‘Soldiers Song’ at Celtic games, it could be argued that there is a case for the club founded by Irish migrants to continue to sing this song but there is no case for singing the corrupted version which contains the line ‘God Bless the Pope.’ Those of you who study Irish history will recognise that one of the founding principles of the Republic as outlined in the 1916 proclamation is equality and freedom of religion. No Irish person would accept a national anthem corrupted in the manner it is at Celtic games. The declaration of 1916 states…
‘’The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.’’
The principle that all the people of Ireland were to treated as equals in the new Republic is clear in those words. If anyone seeks to do justice to those patriots they will get the song right and not sing words which are at odds with the principles the signatories had. They faced the firing squad in Kilmainham jail in defence of those principles and would shake their heads at the corruption of their anthem. If you must sing it then learn the actual words.
There were a huge variety of songs sung at Tynecastle on Sunday ranging from ‘Viva la Quinta Brigada’ to more familiar Celtic songs. I have stated in the past my feelings about more overtly political songs at football games being inappropriate. This is no slur on the songs themselves but rather the time and place of their airing. I recall hearing ‘The Boys of the old Brigade’ being sung at Kilmarnock and wondering if the fans singing it had any idea that the Killie boss that day, Kenny Shiels, had lost a brother in the troubles? Of course there will be people who feel that they have a right to sing what they want at football matches no matter who it might offend. It is worth remembering that those who sing the ‘Famine song’ and other such nonsense would argue the same point. Freedom of expression must always be tempered with responsibility and common sense.
Celtic’s identity can never be separated from its Irish and Catholic roots but that doesn’t mean that it is a club and indeed a support which is exclusive. We welcome all who want to follow the Celts with open arms regardless of creed, colour or nationality. The word ‘Catholic’ translates as ‘Universal’ or ‘all encompassing’ and that is the Celtic I want to support. Willie Maley once said of Celtic players… ‘'It is not his creed nor his nationality which counts -it's the man himself.' That principle applies to our support too and we should all take that into account in our choice of songs at the game. I would hate to shout or sing any words at a Celtic game which made a fellow supporter uncomfortable. We have so many great Celtic songs so let’s boom them out and live up to our founding principles.
Our roots are undeniably Irish and Catholic but over the past 127 years we have blossomed into an institution open to all.
Our past is our home not our prison.