A piece that doesn’t mention sectarianism


by Harry McGrath

I don’t know who came up with the term “Celtic DNA”, but I dislike it. It seems to suggest the existence of some kind of exclusive and exclusionary genetic information.

That said, if there is such a thing as Celtic DNA then I suppose my family has it. Our great grandfather was a man called Thomas Dunn. He bought shares in Celtic when they formed.

When Dunn died in 1903 his shares were reacquired by the club, then under the chairmanship of J.H. McLaughlin. Dunn’s daughter clearly thought the transaction suspect and questioned it.

I don’t have the letters she sent but I have two replies from the club secretary. One of them states that the transfer was all done legally and invites her to drop by Celtic Park to inspect the paperwork even though he knew she lived in Whitby, Yorkshire.

The other tries to reassure her of Chairman McLaughlin’s good intentions and says: “Your father was, like many of our members, one of a Band (sic) of Catholics who knew each other in the East End [of Glasgow] in these days and knew Mr McLaughlin intimately.”

By “these days” he meant the late nineteenth century which seems like along time ago now. And yet ever since my first reading of the letter, I haven’t been able to clear the term “Band of Catholics” from my head.

Perhaps it was my Great Grandfather’s mantle I was inadvertently inheriting when I found myself an (more or less) unwelcome teenage guest of the Cumbernauld Celtic Supporters Club in the mid-1970s.

One of a “Band of Catholics”, I travelled the length and breadth of Scotland in a smoking bus full of smokers to watch Celtic away games. Sunday trips were supposed to accommodate mass times.

The older members of the band drank their way through the journey. Miles travelled and levels of drunkenness were in direct proportion – lookout Aberdeen.

And they sang songs about another country, one I had never been to. Songs about belonging somewhere else which seemed to express a feeling of exclusion from or, worse, resentment of the country they actually lived in.

From Cumbernauld to Canada, just one of many places people fled to from the town subsequently voted Scotland’s “most dismal” by its own inhabitants (twice). In Canada, new football (or soccer) teams to follow.

The wonderfully named Toronto Metros Croatia welcomed Pele and Beckenbauer amongst opposition players. They countered with Kenny Aird, formerly of Hearts.

In Vancouver a wee bit later, there was Alan Ball of all people, then Peter Lorimer. Willie Johnson anticipated Braveheart by fifteen years by mooning the opposition bench.

No shortage of big names in the twilight of their careers then. But a few on the way up as well – a young Peter Beardsley running circles round older legs and Bruce Grobbelaar practicing the eccentricity that he would eventually hone at Liverpool.

All in all, some great days out. Tailgate barbeques in the parking lot, kids in the stands. But something missing too! I couldn’t care less if Toronto or Vancouver won, lost or drew. Where’s the paper? What was the Celtic score?

And now back in Scotland thirty years on. An SNP government jumping with the kind of optimism and “can do’ attitude that I admired in North America. Everything, to my eye anyway, so much better, so much more hopeful.

Well almost everything. If the gates were closed on the Old Firm tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed a tear. I’d join a good friend at the Edinburgh City games or get closer to the Tartan Army and play it for laughs.

The only positive thing I can see is that nobody bothers any more with the excuse that I remember from the 70s. Back then just about any excess indulged in by Old Firm fans was brushed away as a “letting off of steam” which would have had (in some mysterious and never-defined way) even worse consequences if a lid was kept on it.

Now might be the time to consider the possibility that without the Old Firm to provide the oxygen of publicity, the thing might just wither and die on the vine. And yes, I know it was a Hearts fan!

So nothing’s changed, as they say, except for the worse. Or has it? The targets were a successful football manager, a top QC and a former Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. The incidents yielded numerous articles, letters and statements from Scotland’s “greatest living historian”, “foremost modern composer”, a bishop or two.

Initially the police wanted to talk to a couple dressed in the standard uniforms of the bottom end of Scottish schemie life. They may or may not have been accompanied by a devil dug. Arrests have now been made in Saltcoats and Kilwinning but nobody has yet been hauled out of Bearsden or Newton Mearns.

I’m not big on the “Scotland’s shame” tag but the fact that the sense of exclusion and resentment has survived thirty years even if it might have shifted to another camp is certainly “a shame”. Not an excuse of course, merely an observation.