Friday, 31 July 2015

Starting Over

Starting Over

London 1892
The long train journey had left Andrew exhausted but he had no time for self-pity if he was to make to his new place of work before dark. ‘Evening Guvnor’ smiled the porter, his broad London accent so different from harsh Glaswegian brogue Andrew was used to hearing. ‘You look a might lost?’ Andrew smiled, ‘I need to get to Spitalfields, what’s the fastest way from here?’ The man’s face changed, ‘Now what’s a nice gent like you wantin’ to go down there for? Nuffin but Jews and Irish down there and they’d cut your throat for a shilling.’ Andrew maintained his smile, thinking his Irish accent must have softened during his many years in Scotland. ‘I’ll be starting work there on Monday morning, I’m a teacher.’ The Porter looked at him, ‘Well good luck teaching them heathens down there. I’ll show you where you can hire a cab.’ Andrew followed the man out of the station into the bustling streets of London. The Porter beckoned a horse drawn cab which left its berth on the opposite side of the busy road and halted by the kerb beside Andrew. ‘This nice Scotch chap wants to get to Spittalfields,’ the porter called to the bearded driver who was perched in his seat, whip in hand. ‘See that he gets there in one piece Charlie and watch out for them gutter wolves.’  The Porter loaded Andrew’s two cases into the cab and touched his cap as Andrew slipped a shilling into his hand. ‘Much obliged Guvnor and good luck to you now.’ Andrew slammed the door and sat in the cab before calling to the driver, ‘St Anne’s Church in Buxton Street, please.’ The man nodded, ‘Right you are Guv and might I suggest you close the blind as the beggars down that way are cheeky blighters?’

The horse moved off and the cab swayed and creaked its way through the bustling canyons of that prosperous London the unknowing visitor saw. Andrew’s trained eye could see even here among the wealth the beggars, barefoot children, the drunkards and prostitutes. Glasgow had taken so much out of him in the years he had been there and he wondered if he had the energy at 52 to start over again in a new city but his order had asked him to take over the running of the school in Spitalfields and he would obey. The cab travelled down Whitechapel Road, famous in the more sensational press for the unsolved Ripper killings which had occurred around the time Andrew and his friends were founding their football club in Glasgow. He could see the poverty here was every bit as bad as that he had seen in Glasgow. Groups of street urchins ran about barefoot, lost in their games. ‘Give us a happe’ny Mister,’ a ragged boy of about 6 called to Andrew as the cab passed him. Before he could respond the cab driver shouted at the child, ‘Be off with you or I’ll ave the law on you.’ As the cab turned onto Commercial Street the driver muttered to Andrew, ‘You give a coin to one and they’ll all be on you like flies on a dead dog. Best ignore them, Guvnor.’ Andrew said nothing. The cab turned right onto Buxton Street and stopped outside an imposing, brick built Church. ‘St Anne’s church Guv, that’ll be five Bob.’ Andrew waited as the driver unloaded his cases. The man watched the curious children in the street around him like a hawk. ‘Thieving as soon as they can walk Guv, you mind how you go around ere.’ Andrew paid him and watched as the horse drawn carriage clip clopped away from him. He walked to the door of the church and pushed it open. For good or ill this was to be his home now.

The following morning the Parish Priest, Father Young, led Andrew on a tour of the district which was to be his home for the foreseeable future. The two men were of similar age and Andrew had liked tall Dubliner immediately upon meeting him the night before. He was clearly committed to education and bettering the lot of his impoverished parishioners. ‘We have thousands of our people here, Andrew’ he said as they walked along Brick Lane, ‘Many of the children avoid school and spend their days scavenging or stealing.’ Andrew listened carefully to his more knowledgeable companion. ‘Most of our men try to work when they can but there’s seldom enough to go round. Some choose live off crime and it shames me to say that they will prey on their own community to make money. We have at least 30 brothels in this area and many of them will use our young girls. There is much drunkenness and violence and a sort of despair among many.’ Andrew nodded, ‘I have seen that despair in Ireland and also in Glasgow and it shames a civilised country that people are forced to live that way.’ The Priest nodded, ‘We curse the darkness where crime and vice thrive but we seldom curse those who cause that darkness.’ He led Andrew along Whitechapel Road, pointing out the illegal drinking dens, the decrepit boarding houses which slept 10 to a room and the many shops selling cheap alcohol. ‘The Police are seldom interested in events here unless someone of ‘better class’ has been robbed. The police take money to look the other way when the local toughs settle their disputes with clubs or knives. Even our Jewish neighbours have to pay the toughs to leave their homes and synagogues unmolested’ Andrew spent 2 hours wandering the warren of streets in Spitalfields seeing so much of the same poverty and squalor he had witnessed during his many years Glasgow. Father Young stopped outside St Anne’s Primary school. ‘This is your school Andrew, the Brothers are waiting to hear from you. I’m sure they will have heard of your fine work in Glasgow.’ Andrew shook Father Young by the hand, ‘There is much to be done, Father,’ The grey haired Priest nodded sagely, ‘The harvest is great but the labourers few.’ Andrew nodded and they parted. He looked at St Anne’s Primary School, quiet and still on a Saturday morning. It reminded him of his own little school in the east end of Glasgow. He knew he’d miss Sacred Heart and all the dear children there but that part of his life was now over. He turned and entered St Anne’s for the first time.

Over the next few years Andrew Kerins threw himself into his work in the back streets of London. His organisational skills and persuasive way got things done. He ensured his school set a high standard and got as many children as possible enrolled. He organised football matches to raise funds to feed the children and the elderly just as he had in Glasgow many years before. He made sure the local Catholic community were represented on school boards and began a boys club which kept many away from the temptations and dangers of the streets. The poverty around him was the match of anything he had seen in Glasgow and at times he felt as if he was like King Canute trying to hold back the tide but when he saw some of children gain employment and climb out of poverty because they could read and write well, he knew he and the other Brothers were doing a worthwhile job.

One of his great pleasures was to receive news from his old friends in Glasgow. Tom and Willie Maley wrote occasionally to him and kept him informed of events and goings on in Glasgow, especially how his team was doing. His work in England kept him busy and years of hard work took its toll on him physically. As well as his years in Spitalfields, he was charged with setting up the new Marist College in Kent after the anti-clerical French government had ordered them to disband in France. He had passed his seventieth year but still continued to work.

In 1911 he heard that the much lauded ‘Six in a row’ Celtic team were passing through London after a successful European Tour which took in Dresden, Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Paris. His old friend Willie Maley had built what some said was the finest side in the world and his brother Tom was covering the tour as a sports reporter. It would be perhaps one last opportunity for Brother Walfrid to meet and talk with some of the men he remembered from his Glasgow days. So many of his closest friends had passed away but a few were still with Celtic. Tom Maley recorded the words Brother Walfrid spoke to the few Celtic men left from the founding days of 1887…

“Well, well, time has brought changes.  Outside ourselves there are few left of the old brigade.  I know none of these present players but they are under the old colours and quartered in the dear old quarters and that suffices. It’s good to see you all so well and I feel younger with the meeting.  Goodbye, God bless you.”
Brother Walfrid had given so much of his life to the service of others and it had taken a heavy toll on his health. He had taken ill just a year after meeting his old friends from Celtic and when he was well enough to travel, he returned to the Marist House in Dumfries. He passed away there on in April 1915. Tom Maley wrote of him after his death…

‘Through the organising genius, the wonderful persuasive powers, and the personality of Brother Walfrid the Celtic club was established.  His men carried out his every wish and idea.  They knew and trusted their leader, and in the knowledge that he, like them, wanted the club for the most laudable objects – charity, and as a recreation for his beloved east enders – they persevered.’

Today his ‘beloved east enders’ and many others from various places and walks of life, pass his statue every time they go to Celtic Park.  The good Brother smiles down on them and he might be repeating those words he said to the Celtic party he met in London in 1911…

It’s good to see you all so well and I feel younger with the meeting.  Goodbye, God bless you.”

God bless you too Brother and thank you.




Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Meeting the Challenge

Meeting the Challenge

Joe’s mum made him put his Celtic scarf in a plastic bag and warned him in no uncertain terms, ‘These Celtic-Rangers games can be dangerous son, promise me you’ll no dae anything stupid. Nae drinking and nae hinging aboot wae Aldo, you know he’s got a screw loose!’ Sixteen year old Joe McGhee shuffled impatiently from foot to foot, the bag under his arm and  itching to get going, ‘I’ll be fine Ma and I don’t think Aldo’s going tae the match anyway.’ She exhaled as if she didn’t believe him, ‘Yer Da will hear aboot it if you get intae any bother.‘ With that she stepped aside and he opened the front door. ‘Mind, be hame fur half six and nae drinking.’ With that she closed the door and Joe bounded down the close stairs and stepped out into the bright May sunshine.

He was meeting his mates in the city centre before heading off to Hampden on the train so he headed along to the bus stop on the Govan Road but seeing a group of noisy, blue clad Rangers fans already there, he crossed the road and walked on. Perhaps the subway would be a better bet today. Excitement was already building in him. He loved these Old Firm games but a Cup Final against Celtic’s most bitter rivals was even more special. Aberdeen had snatched the title that spring and Dundee United had won the League cup so the cup final was the last chance for Celtic or Rangers to win a trophy. This seemed to add to the tension surrounding the 1980 Cup Final as someone was going to end up with nothing that season. Joe trotted down the stair of Govan subway station only to be greeted by a platform packed with yet more Rangers fans. It was too late to back out so he shoved his plastic bag containing his Celtic scarf down the back of his jeans and pulled his jumper over it. As he reached the bottom of the stairway the tell-tale rumble of an approaching train told him he had at least timed that well. The sleek, red train halted at the crowded platform and the doors slid open. The noisy crowd squeezed into the already busy train and Joe joined them. As the doors closed some of the standing fans began to bang the roof of the train as they sang…

Though the straits be broad or narrow, follow we will,

Follow we will, follow we will,

If the straits be broad or narrow, follow we will,

We will follow in the footsteps of our team.

Follow follow, we will follow Rangers…’

Joe glanced at the dark window of the train as it rattled through the tunnel deep under Glasgow and saw his reflection looking back at him. ‘Just my luck’ he thought, ‘stuck in a train full of this mob.’ An older man in a suit glanced at him and shook his head almost imperceptibly. It looked like he too wasn’t enjoying the journey. As the train rolled through Partick, Hillhead and the other stations on route to Buchanan Street in the city centre, the singing became even more raucous and the songs descended into the more guttural variety. Joe glanced around him at grown men singing songs which would surely be considered pig ignorant among decent folk. A few small boys in their Rangers scarves looked on, wide eyed. Joe looked at a blonde haired lad of about eight dressed in a Rangers track suit and wondered how he’d turn out as he grew up listening to such visceral hatred. Celtic had some fans who behaved like this too but it seemed to him the scale of the problem with Rangers fans was much worse. As the train reached Buchanan Street at last and the doors opened, the wave of humanity swept up the stairs singing lustily…

Hullo, Hullo, We are the Billy Boys
Hullo, Hullo, You'll know us by our noise
We're up to our knees in Fenian blood
Surrender or you'll die
For we are the Bridgeton Derry Boys’

Joe waited until they had flooded out into Buchanan Street before trailing up behind them. The older man smiled at him, ‘That was fun eh? Living in the wrong century some of these folk.’ Joe nodded, ‘Beyond me why they want to behave like that.’  He reached the top of the stairs and headed down Buchanan Street towards Central Station where he was meeting his friends. The cavernous station echoed with the noise of thousands of football fans and two distinct lines had already been formed using crush barriers to funnel fans to the appropriate platforms. Between the two lines of boisterous Celtic and Rangers supporters stood dozens of policemen, some holding huge, snarling dogs on leashes. Tensions were high in the city ahead of the game. Joe waited by the huge, polished artillery shell, which had stood in the station as a war memorial for decades, taking in the colour and noise all around him. A familiar voice cut through the hubbub, ‘Joe, ya dick, hope you’ve got a ticket coz yer no doubling up wi me!’ It was his good friend Frankie and his brother Col. ‘Aw right boys, we gonnae win this today?’ Joe smiled. Frankie, wearing his Celtic top grinned at him, ‘We’ll miss big McDonald and McAdam but I think we’ll handle that mob. Aw they know is big punts up the park.’ The three friends headed for the long line of Celtic supporters waiting for their train. A familiar song echoed through the huge railways station…

‘For it’s a grand old team to play for

for it’s a grand old team to see

and if ye know the history

it’s enough to make yer hearts go oh, oh, oh, oh’

Hampden Park was bathed in glorious sunshine as the two teams came out to huge roars from their respective supports. It was one of those hot days when clouds of dust rose from the packed Celtic end. Joe, Frankie and Col made their way to a spot in the centre of the huge terrace to watch the drama unfold. It was a typical Old Firm game of snarling tackles and little good football. There were chances for either side but the game staggered towards extra time in wilting heat. For the huge Celtic support there was much to be happy about. Their makeshift defence with midfielder Casey drafted in at centre half was holding out well and McGarvey and Provan were troubling the Rangers rear guard. The game had been fought out for 108 gruelling minutes when the breakthrough finally came.  Celtic won a corner at the far end of the field and a roar went up from the green clad fans, ‘Celtic, Celtic, Celtic.’ Provan floated the ball in and it was headed clear. Full back Sneddon chipped it back into the box where it was again headed clear but this time it fell to Danny McGrain who fired a low shot towards goal. The keeper moved to his right to cover the shot when quick thinking George McCluskey diverted it to his left where it rolled agonisingly into the net. Half of Hampden erupted as Celtic’s supporters jumped for joy. Surely that was enough to win the cup?  It was.

Joe joined Frankie, Col and hundreds of other dancing, singing Celtic fans on the pitch. They were utterly elated that Celtic had done it. As the team headed up the tunnel to get the cup things took a sinister turn. ‘Look’ said Frankie to Joe, ‘Here come the fuckin animals.’ At the far end of the field hundreds of Rangers fans were heading their way and it wasn’t to congratulate then on their win. ‘Jesus,’ said Joe, ‘Wits up wi these bastards?’ A green wine bottle thudded onto the grass beside them as they backed off in the face of superior numbers. However, Celtic’s wilder elements on the terraces were watching this unfold on the pitch and decided that they would answer the challenge. Joe heard one man shout, ‘Come on or these bastards will be boasting for years that they chased us.’ In the working class male culture of 1980s Glasgow a challenge had been laid down and saving face meant meeting it full on. Within moments a riot was in full flow with charge, counter charge and hails of bottles and cans flying through the air. The few Policemen around looked utterly overwhelmed as hundreds of rival fans battled it out on the pitch. Frankie and Col joined the melee and Joe felt obliged to join in too. Joe spotted his neighbour, big Aldo, in the middle of the centre circle trading punches with a Rangers fan. Just then a line of Police horses arrived and rode towards the fighting fans. Joe thought it amazing that a joy filled moment had turned so ugly in a matter of minutes.

Once the Police had cleared the pitch things seemed to have calmed down. Joe and his friends exited Hampden in a buzz of excitement about what had just occurred. The game and Celtic’s cup victory was not the topic of conversation. ‘Did ye see big Aldo lamping that fud?’ Joe asked excitedly. Before anyone could answer there was a roar to their left as hundreds of Celtic fans charged up Somerville Drive towards a big group of Rangers fans. Sirens wailed, screams and shouts mingled with the sound of breaking glass. It looked as if it was going to be a long hot night in Glasgow.

Joe survived a hair raising journey home. It seemed as if there was trouble all over the city. Buses had their windows broken and groups of glaring young men were everywhere looking for trouble. When he finally arrived home his mother was watching the news on TV. ‘Is that you Joseph? Look at these animals on the telly. I hope you were well away fae that trouble.’ Joe stared at the scenes from Hampden on the news and the images weren’t pretty. His father sat stony faced on the couch watching it. He had stopped going to games years earlier after a bottle thrown by one of his own team’s supporters had hit him. When Joe’s mother left the room he spoke in a low voice, ‘I saw you on the telly, son.’ Joe looked at him waiting for the angry voice but his old man’s voice remained calm, ‘I know that mob started it and I’ve nae problem wi ye defending yourself. Just don’t make a habit of getting involved in that stuff. It never ends well.’ Joe nodded, ‘Ye have tae help yer mates, stick together, Da, know wit I mean?’ His father nodded, ‘Aye son, sometimes ye dae.’

Joe wandered to his bedroom and lay on his bed utterly exhausted. He glanced around at the many Celtic posters and pennants adorning the walls. The game he had watched would be forgotten after the riot which had followed it but amid all of that, Celtic had won the cup and that more than anything made him happy.

He looked at a poster of Danny McGrain in which the bearded Celtic skipper seemed to be smiling at him. ‘Sclaffed that shot a bit, Danny eh?’  Joe smiled to himself as his eyes closed and sleep took him.



Monday, 20 July 2015

The Spirit of Brother Walfrid

 The Spirit of Brother Walfrid

It is now more than 127 years since that great humanitarian Brother Walfrid founded a football club which grew from modest beginnings among the impoverished Irish community of Glasgow’s east end to become champions of Europe. He launched Celtic with the immortal words…

A football club shall be founded for the maintenance of dinner tables for the children and unemployed.’

Those principles of charity and inclusiveness are still at the heart of his club and Celtic supporters are rightly lauded for their efforts to support those less fortunate. We have all seen the good work of the Celtic Foundation, food collections organised by the Green Brigade and countless other charitable endeavours by supporters groups and individual fans.

It is regrettable that food banks are necessary in one of the world’s wealthiest countries but they are a fact of life for many. The Glasgow North East Food Bank supports those less fortunate across a swathe of the city. Indeed, one of their busiest outlets is just a corner kick away from Celtic Park at the Calton Parkhead Parish Church in Helenvale Street. The Glasgow North East Food Bank has provided support to over 4100 of our fellow citizens since it opened in 2013. The world may have changed greatly since Walfrid’s day but there is still much need in the city he called home for so many years.  With this in mind a few Celtic supporters have decided to help in our own small way.

The magnificent image you see at the top of the page is the creation of the talented Barry McGonigle who has brought so many classic Celtic images to life with his computer skills and hard work. The image is one of many stocked by Celtic Canvas Art and measures 75cm x 50cm. To stand a chance of winning this excellent piece of Celtic art and simultaneously supporting our friends at the Glasgow North East Food Bank all you have to do is pledge a minimum of £10 using the link below. Each person pledging £10 or more will be allocated a number on a first come first serve basis. Once  49 numbers are sold I shall post the numbers and names on Twitter in graphic form. We will then let the next scheduled National Lottery after that decide who wins the art work by matching the bonus ball number to the number on our list. This will allow complete fairness in the process and perhaps add a wee bit of extra excitement to the Lottery draw.

Of course that means there will be just 49 numbers available so move quickly and support a great cause. I know the wonderful Celtic support won’t let us down. Just follow the step by step instructions below to make your donation.

2 Make a donation of £10 (or more if you can afford it)

3 Leave a contact name or twitter handle in comments section so we can contact you if you win the picture.

4 Watch for your allocated number on Lisbon Lion’s (@tirnaog09) Twitter feed. These will be posted when 49 donations have been made

5 When all numbers are taken we will announce which National lottery draw will decide winner. This should be the next one scheduled after all 49 numbers have been taken.

6 The winner will have the picture delivered from Lisbon Lion if he/she lives in the greater Glasgow area. It will be posted to those further afield.

7, There will be 4 further prizes of A1 size Celtic posters supplied by Celtic Canvas Art. The first 4 numbers out of the National Lottery draw will be matched to list of names and those folk will receive a poster from set below.

May I thank each and every one of you in advance for your support. When people ask me what makes Celtic special I always say without hesitation; the fans. The Celtic support made the club what it is today. We may not be the wealthiest support in the land but we are always open to helping those less fortunate in what is an increasingly difficult world for some.

In doing so we keep the spirit of Brother Walfrid alive and he’d be proud that his people still remember those in need.

Hail Hail and Thank you.


Sunday, 19 July 2015

New Season

New Season

She could hear him fumbling with the key as she lay in the darkness. The blinking red numerals of the clock told her it was 2.23 am and she sighed before slipping from the warmth of her bed and onto the cold floor. She glanced at her son, sleeping in the warm bed, tousled haired and oblivious to the world. She pulled her housecoat around her and stepped into the dark hall to open the door to him. The rancid smell of stale beer hit her before she even saw his drunken, befuddled face. ‘You fuckin move yer arse intae that kitchen and get my dinner oan’ he drawled as if it were perfectly natural to dine at such an hour and speak to your partner in such a manner. He pushed roughly past her into the living room, clicking the switch which flooded the room in harsh light. As she walked resignedly to the kitchen she could hear him open a beer can and then attempt to put the stereo on. She had unplugged it against such an eventuality as Rebel songs at 2am where not what the sleeping neighbours wanted to hear. ‘Sandra, wit the fuck’s up wi this stereo?’ he called loudly. She sighed and ignored him, hoping he’d give up or fall asleep. He didn’t and she flinched as she heard him rise from the couch. ‘You fuckin deaf ya cow,’ he snarled as he approached her raising his hand. She tried to protect her head as the blows rained down.

When it was over and he’d staggered back to the living room, flopping noisily onto the couch, she found herself crouched on her knees by the cooker, sobbing quietly. Something caught her eye and she looked up, it was her seven year old son who stood, sleepy eyed in his green Celtic pyjamas, gazing at her, ‘Wits up wi ye ma? Did he hit ye again.’ She sniffed, said nothing and held her arms open. He ran silently to her and wrapped his arms around her. ‘I wish I had a magic wand,’ he whispered into her ear, ‘I’d make him disappear and you and me wid live in a big castle. You’d be a princess coz that’s wit ye deserve ma.’  She held him close in the darkness of the kitchen, he was her reason for going on, the one bright light in her life. As she hugged him she could hear the snoring from the living room beginning. At least they’d have peace for the rest of the night.

They’d all told her of course. Don’t go moving in with a man who hits you, he won’t change, they never do, you’ll live to regret it. Of course, she didn’t listen. No sooner had she moved in than the abuse got worse. The sporadic and periodic violence was bad but the constant attacks on her self-esteem were worse. You’re ugly, you’re fat, you’re not going oot in that outfit ur ye? Can you no cook ya useless cow. All of this dripped on her like cold water down her back and left her feeling utterly worthless. He’d check her phone and isolate her from her pals who stopped visiting due to his behaviour. When wee Scott had arrived she thought he’d change but he didn’t. He had made his son so many promises and kept none of them. From school trips he didn’t pay for to jaunts to the park cancelled as he lay in bed with a hangover. As Scott grew he’d asked his old man repeatedly to take him  to see Celtic but it never seemed to happen. He would watch his school friend who lived up the same close, leave for the football hand in hand with his dad but his turn never came. There was always some excuse but essentially his old man couldn’t be bothered. He’d rather be in the pub or the bookies than share a few hours with his son.

Then on a wet and windy February day he had gone too far. He had hit his son. Something inside Sandra snapped, ‘Right you bastard, that’s enough!’ she said to herself, ‘This stops now!’ She lay in bed that night thinking and had an epiphany of sorts. She finally realised that it was all about control. The faults weren’t hers, they were his. His controlling behaviour and violence were all symptoms of his inadequacies not hers. All of his frustrations in life were taken out on her. As he lay in a drunken sleep she had quietly woken her son and packed the bare essentials into a couple of holdalls and left. As she walked into the wet street, struggling with her bags, she thought how surprisingly simple it was just to get up and go. ‘Where are we goin’ Ma?’ Scott asked looking up at her with a puzzled look on his face. ‘We’re goin’ tae yer granny’s for a while son,’ she replied. The little boy mulled it over for a second, ‘Ur we no goin’ back tae ma Da’s hoose?’ She pursed her lips, ‘Naw son, we’re no.’ He slipped his hand into hers, ‘That’s good Ma, his shouting scares me.’ She knew then she was doing the right thing.

The next few months were far from easy for Sandra and her son as they squeezed into her mother’s small spare room but at least the fear was gone. It had lingered over her like a dark cloud and she had forgotten what it was like to be free from it. Her friends had rallied around her and her confidence was returning, albeit slowly. Of course he’d showed up but she had the courage to refuse to let him in the house and called the police when he got abusive and tried to force his way in. It took a while to sink into his thick skull that she wasn’t coming back but in the end he’d gotten the message. He had shouted up her window, ‘Don’t come crawling back tae me when you cannae pay yer bills ya cow.’ He’d wandered off down the street and out of her life.

A few months later it was Scott’s eighth birthday and a few of his school friends crowded into his granny’s small living room for his party. Sandra was happy watching him play and laugh with his friends. Her mum handed her an envelope, ‘A wee late present for Scott,’ she grinned. Sandra opened it and took out the birthday card inside. Two green, credit card shaped pieces of plastic fell out onto the table. Puzzled she looked closely at them. Her mum cut across her thoughts, ‘Scott’s been wanting tae go tae see the Celtic for ages so I got him and you a season ticket.’ Sandra’s eyes widened, ‘Wit? I’ve never been tae a football match in my life Ma, I widnae know whit to do!’ Her mum nodded, ‘Well somebody has tae take him and you could dae wi getting oot the hoose yerself.’ She then added almost as an afterthought, ‘First game of the season is on Saturday.’ Sandra looked at the two, small green plastic season cards. ‘Oh well’ she thought, ‘At least Scott will love it.’  She glanced around at him laughing with his pals, ‘Yeh, you deserve it son.’  When the party was over and the hyper children departed with goody bags and gap toothed smiles she called Scott to her. He bounded onto her knee, ‘That was a great party, Ma!’ He smiled. ‘Good’ she replied, ‘I’ve got one last last present for ye. We’re goin’ tae see Celtic on Saturday.’ His eyes lit up, ‘Wit? really? Aw Ma you’re just the best.’ He threw his arms around her neck and she pulled him close. She could feel tears welling in her eyes but they were happy tears for a change.

Sandra and Scott walked under the huge bulk of the North Stand at Celtic Park looking for their turnstile. The noisy crowd seemed in good spirits and she was surprisingly just as excited as Scott about attending the game. He had been well warned about holding her hand and not wandering off but was too excited to worry about such adult concerns. After figuring out how to activate the turnstile with the card she clicked into the ground for the first time in her life. Scott's bright eyes were everywhere, taking it all in. They walked down the entrance towards the noise and light of the stadium and Sandra glanced around looking for her row. A cheery faced steward pointed her to row M and she and Scott shuffled past the other fans to their seats.  Only once they were in place did she really look around the emerald bowl of Celtic Park. It was an awesome spectacle to her but more so to her son who clutched her hand, spellbound by the assault on his senses he was experiencing for the first time. He gazed around him, eyes wide. Just then, away to his left the Green Brigade started up a chant and the boom of their drum echoed through the stand…

‘In the heat of Lisbon, the fans came in their thousands

To see the bhoys become Champions, Sixty Seven.

Sandra breathed it all in, she was surprised how much she was enjoying her first taste of Celtic Park. A huge roar went up as the teams entered the field. Celtic glowed in their famous hooped shirts. A late arriving man dressed in jeans and a Celtic shirt shuffled past Sandra and positioned himself in front of the seat to her right. As he glanced at the teams warming up he dropped his season ticket. Sandra bent to pick it up just as he did and their heads gently collided. She smiled, ‘God! Sorry!’ He smiled, ‘No problem, my fault.’ They stood and he looked at her, ‘I’m Tommy by the way. You sitting here this season?’ Sandra nodded, her cheeks a little flushed, ‘Yeh, me and my boy.  Tommy nodded towards Scott who was totally focussed on the Celtic team entering their huddle. ‘Looks like he’s going to enjoy it.’ Sandra nodded, ‘His first match today, mine too.’ Tommy smiled, ‘Really? I hope you both enjoy it. I’m addicted, been coming here since I was six.’ They settled into their seats as the players got ready to kick off. The new season was about to get underway.

For Sandra a new season of sorts was beginning too and she was moving on from darker times. She focussed on the pitch as Scott shouted his first sentence as a Celtic fan…’Mon the Celtic, intae them!’



Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Celtic Connections

Celtic Connections

I had a rather interesting exchange with a chap online recently who tried very hard to convince me that the term ‘Hun’ when used by Celtic minded folk to describe Rangers was sectarian. His argument seemed to fall apart when I uploaded videos from YouTube which demonstrated clearly fans of Hearts, Hibs, Motherwell and Aberdeen using the ‘H’ word in reference to Rangers in their songs. His final throw of the dice was to show a picture of a house daubed with the slogan ‘Huns out’ as if this was the definitive proof. I rightly reminded him that the house in question was clearly not in Scotland but in the north of Ireland which despite its proximity has a very different history and culture than Scotland. The argument was lost when he admitted to phoney outrage on the grounds that we ‘Fenians’ do the same when the name calling starts. My response was to say that name calling tells us more about those doing it than its intended victims.

I thought of this conversation recently as I sat in the sun on holiday reading the book ‘Irish: The Remarkable saga of a Nation and a City’ by John Burrowes. The author describes the horrors of what he calls ‘the Irish Holocaust’ of 1845-52. These events, erroneously called ‘The great Famine’ by a succession of historians, led to conditions so intolerable that they can scarcely be grasped by the modern mind. In one passage he tells of a haggard, emaciated man in court for stealing a sheep. The man tells the judge that he did so in desperation as his famished, fever ridden wife was attempting to eat the corpse of their dead daughter. Such images haunt the mind and in their sheer debased horror remind us how lucky we are today. Those who could fled to America or other parts of the English speaking world. Often they were cleared from the land by greedy landlords who saw an opportunity to make more money farming sheep than was to be had from the rents paid by an impoverished peasantry. For the poorest, there was no chance of affording the fare to the USA or Canada but a few pence would secure a spot in the hold or on the deck of the many small ships sailing between Ireland and Britain. In their hundreds of thousands they headed for Liverpool and Glasgow to seek work and the chance of a better life.

One ship, the SS Londonderry, left Sligo packed with hundreds of poor Irish migrants who squeezed onto its deck for the trip to Liverpool. A further 200 more were crammed into the dark hold below decks where they stood with pigs and cattle for company. A huge storm hit the ship as it attempted to cross the Irish Sea and the terrified passengers were thrown around the deck. Below decks in the dark hold, people and animals were thrown around by each successive wave and their screaming and cries for help were ignored by the Captain who ordered the hold sealed with water proof tarpaulins. This may have deadened the sounds but it also limited the air supply and when the ship limped into Lough Foyle for repairs and the hold opened, 72 of the 200 people in the hold were dead. The ships which took fever stricken Irish migrants to North America were often labelled ‘Coffin ships’ but those ships taking them on the short trip to mainland Britain where often as bad.

Burrowes’ excellent book follows this migrant wave to Glasgow and describes the conditions they met there in those days long before there was a welfare state. The poverty, discrimination and exploitation they faced in their new home city are well documented but so too is the kindness and generosity of some who tried to help them. The spirit of those migrants shines through too. Here are people, mostly illiterate, arriving in a strange and often hostile land with nothing but the clothes on their back but in time they would put down roots and make a life for themselves. Indeed they would often help others, arriving in Glasgow with nothing, to find their feet.

The great Irish influx to Scotland in the 50 years after An Gorta Mor changed the country forever. There were those who hated and feared the newcomers and the Church of Scotland, as recently as the early 1920s debated a report entitled; ‘The Menace of the Irish race to our nationality.’ This report, to modern eyes, is both bigoted and racist but has to be seen in the context of the times. Over half a million Irish migrants had come to Scotland in 50 years and Burrowes asks how Dublin might have coped if the situation was reversed and half a million impoverished Scots landed there? What distinguished the majority of the migrants was of course their religious outlook. Around three quarters of them were Roman Catholics and while the Irish Protestants who came assimilated within a generation to the point of vanishing into the general population, the Catholics with their growing number of churches and schools were all too visible in what was the most profoundly Protestant country in Europe. The 1871 Census pointed out in report dripping with latent racism the perceived effect of mass Irish migration to Scotland…

"The immigration of such a number of people from the lowest class and with no education will have a bad effect on the population. So far, living among the Scots does not seem to have improved the Irish, but the native Scots who live among the Irish have got worse. It is difficult to imagine the effect the Irish immigrants will have upon the morals and habits of the Scottish people."

Report from the Scottish Census of 1871

Such negative stereotyping scarcely questioned the system of government in Ireland which so impoverished and demeaned the people as well as exacerbating the effects of the potato blight until it became a disaster of biblical proportions. Nor did it question the awful social conditions the native Scots and Irish lived in as industrialisation led to cities such as Glasgow throwing up slum districts for workers to live in. The majority of the migrants fleeing oppression and hunger would far rather have stayed in their homeland if it wasn’t so badly governed.

Burrowes’ book covers everything from the political situation, the Irish street gangs, the rise of Orangeism and the occasional outbreak of strife between the communities such as the ‘Battle of Partick Cross’ but points out time and time again that it is remarkable how little real violence occurred when one considers the scale of migration and social upheaval going on in those times. Few countries could have taken in such a huge number of migrants without serious trouble occurring but as time passed it became clear that the bulk of the Scottish people came to see that the newcomers were not so different from them. They were after all from a Celtic nation not too dissimilar to Scotland. Of course a minority of haters were set in their ways and we still hear the echo of their voices today. However the Scots of Irish descent are now firmly established as an important and valuable part of the nation. They have long left the ghetto and contributed immensely to Scottish life and culture. They were much more than the muscle which drove the industrial revolution and built the canals, docks and roads. They contributed hugely to Scottish cultural and sporting life and of course gave birth to Celtic, Hibs and Dundee United.

Today the 1.5m Scots of Irish descent take their rightful place in every sector of society as proud Scots who are equally proud of their Irish heritage. Irish-Scots include among their number socialist revolutionary James Connolly, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, footballers Aiden McGeady, Ray Houghton, Owen Coyle and James McCarthy, politician George Galloway, actors Sean Connery, James McEvoy, Brian Cox, Peter Capaldi, Gerard Butler, musicians Michael Marra, Gerry Rafferty, Maggie Reilly, Jimme O'Neill, Claire Grogan, Fran Healy and comedians Kevin Bridges, Billy Connolly and Frankie Boyle. I’m sure you could add to that list.

Of course some of the lingering tribalism of the two great communities of Ireland was imported into Scotland too but the new country has had a tempering effect on this. I sometimes wish people like the chap wasting his time arguing online whether the term ‘Hun’ is sectarian would instead lift his head from his petty prejudices and look at the broad sweep of history which brought the Irish to Scotland and celebrate the fact that not only did they contribute greatly to the nation but that Scotland is the richer for having them.


Saturday, 11 July 2015

Eyes on the prize

Eyes on the prize

The new season is upon us and I detect a quiet optimism among the Celtic support. Ronny Deila is going about his business in that quiet, effective way we have come to expect over the past 12 months. I think the manager was genuinely surprised at the level of disappointment the support exhibited after last season’s failure to make the Champions’ League group stages. The level of performance against Legia Warsaw and to a lesser extent Maribor was a source of concern to many Celtic supporters and some said at the time that the job was ‘too big’ for Deila. Deila said at the time that Celtic were a ‘Europa League Team’ and hard as that was to accept at the time, it was true. Our media in their usual manner made things worse by cutting the new manager very little slack. Considering the fairly positive press they gave Ally McCoist who was losing games to minnows in the lower leagues with a squad which was the second most expensive in the land, their treatment of Delia was little short of mischief making. One newspaper stated in August 2014 after Maribor’s 1-0 victory at Celtic Park…

‘Some folk in life are lucky, no matter what they seem to put their hands too they always come out on top. They always get the girl, win the praise of their work mates and fortune seems to always favour them. Then there are life’s losers, they may strive to get the breaks but nothing ever works out for them no matter how hard they persevere. I’m beginning to think poor old Ronny Deila is falling into that second category. Ever since the day when he was appointed as new Celtic manager I have been waiting for him to prove me wrong. Sadly for the Hoops faithful the evidence is stacking up that  Deila is finding the responsibility of handling managing the Parkhead outfit far too hot to handle, frankly he really looks out of his depth.’

No one is suggesting Deila has worked miracles at Celtic or that his job is anywhere near completion. The team remains a work in progress but progress has been made as the Manager set about remoulding Celtic in the manner of a modern European team. Deila’s Celtic was to be fitter, faster and play an energetic pressing game. Of course it took time to get his philosophy across to the players and supporters but by the time of Celtic’s last gasp win at Pittodrie in November, when we saw the Ronny roar emerge, most of us realised that the manager knew what he was doing.

This season he wisely focused on getting new players in early and not dragging the team all over the world to play lucrative but essentially unhelpful friendlies in terms of the travelling involved. He played three games at St Mirren Park and has a match lined up in Spain between the two Qualification games with FC Stjarnan. It’s clear that the club are putting a real, planned effort into qualification for the Champions League this season and that, for all Celtic supporters is the glittering prize we all desire. When each new season comes around and we think about what we want to achieve and qualification for the Champions League is always high on the agenda. Those magical nights under the lights are the caviar amid the bread and butter of the domestic programme. We may have tempered our expectations of what we can realistically achieve at the highest levels of European football compared to the halcyon days of the 1960s and 70s. But even set against the backdrop of the huge financial disparity we face when jousting with the big boys in Europe, the club is still capable of stirring performances. Backed by that incredible support, teams of the quality of Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus, Porto, Benfica and Manchester United have all fallen at Celtic Park.

The boss knows how much qualification for the Champions League means to the supporters. It also means much to the club financially as well as in terms of prestige and reputation. I chatted to a waiter on holiday in Tenerife this week who spotted my ‘Leoes de Lisboa’ T Shirt and as we talked about football, he was clear that the atmosphere at Celtic Park was the best he had seen albeit he watched the 2012 game on TV. As a Barcelona fan he smiled ruefully at me and said, ‘With Barca’s team and Celtic’s fans we would have the perfect combination.’  He was somewhat bemused that a club such as Celtic had to slug it out with the minnows in the qualification rounds but I explained that is down to Scotland’s poor coefficient which other SPFL teams have done little to boost in recent years.

There is always a degree of optimism when a new season begins and no one is more optimistic when it comes to Celtic than I am. There is, as always a tough road ahead with the usual triumphs and disappointments but I am starting to appreciate what Ronny Deila is seeking to build at Celtic Park. We have some exciting young players at the club and are evolving into a useful team. Our defence was sieve like in its generosity during our European games last season and that must be remedied if we are to have any chance of making real progress. Delia now has every Celtic team from the boys club to the development squad and first team playing the same formation and high tempo pressing game. His style and beliefs about how the game should be played now permeate the club. His ideas about fitness, diet and the fact that players should be committed professionals at all times have now got through to the squad and the dividends will accrue in the future.

We Celtic fans are realists these days. We play our football in a small country on the fringes of Europe and the financial restraints of being a big club in a low revenue league are well known. Other clubs in so called smaller nations can succeed in Europe if they develop a pattern of play and a style which suits them. We have seen clubs such as Porto and Ajax from more moderate sized European countries achieve much by developing youth and blending it with experience into a settled pattern of play. Of course Scotland is a much smaller country than Portugal (Population 10.5m) and Holland (Population 16.8m) and we temper our expectations about what is possible while Celtic play here but we all know that our club should be capable of developing a team to do reasonably well in Europe.

Celtic are setting out on a journey with Ronny Deila and by holding their nerve when things looked bleak last autumn the club may have been very wise. There is a long way to go and we know that Rome wasn’t built in a day but the foundations of Deila’s Empire are being laid as we speak. Who knows what the future holds. Eternal optimists like me will always start a new season thinking all things are possible and this year our eyes are on that most glittering of prizes for a club like Celtic and that is jousting with the giants again in the Champions League. So let’s give it our all, players and fans, and make that dream a reality.