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Celtic Soul Brotherhood
Eamonn McCann accompanies The Pogues across the sea to Scotland s centre of Irishness, Glasgow, and enters a complex world of fiercely divided loyalties, joyous celebration and soccer madness.
Eamonn McCann, 14 Jan 1988
Sad, sad thy tale, land of my birth,
Bear witness, wild Gweedore,
Thy children banished o er the earth,
And they return no more
It was the wind that roared remorselessly in from away, far out in the mid Atlantic, that landed us up at last, three or four or five generations on, in the Barrowlands in Glasgow, exulting to the Pogues.
The wind scoured the earth, stripped the soil, scraped at the rocky outcrops, sculpted the harsh contours of beautiful Gweedore, Dungloe, Kilcar, The Rosses, blasting the land until even the potato grew only in nooks and sheltered crannies and the cattle searched for a bite to eat.
Well before the droc-blath spread its blight in 1847, the wind battered triumphantly at the backs of the boys and girls as they fled from dank cottages, that clenched to the hungry, precarious hills. It funnelled them, foot-sore, through Barnemore Gap and on to Derry where they huddled together on the hillside that rose from the harbour, as they waited for the Scotch Boat.
Eventually they built huts there, and then lodging houses, which today, of course, have become pubs. The Gweedore, the Dungloe, and the New Rosses step their way up Waterloo Street. The Gweedore is Derry s only regular rock venue.
Backstage after the Pogues gig the best midfield player bar none in these islands, Paul McStay of Celtic, autographed a stand ticket which he d earlier provided to that afternoon s match at Parkhead against Aberdeen. Back in Derry next day both the Gweedore and the Dungloe put in bids to have it framed behind the bar
The Barrowlands, once we d shouldered our way through the hundreds outside who couldn t get in, seemed at first sight more like a celebration rally for some famous Celtic victory than any sort of gig at all. Of the three thousand jammed in almost solid, overwhelmingly male, about fifteen hundred seemed to sport some Celtic favour, green and white stripes around the head or the waist or held high, aloft, to sway in time to the chorus.
"If you knew! The his-tor-ee!
It s enough to make you heart go sa-a-AD.
We don t care if we win, lose or draw,
Damn the hair we care,
Cos we only know that there s going to be a show,
And Glasgow Celtic will be there."
Every space between songs in the set was filled by some Celtic chorus. "They seem to see the Pogues as the musical wing of the Celtic team," I remarked to Philip Chevron afterwards.
"You should have seen it last year," he rolled his eyes and shook his head to dislodge the memory.
It seems that the Pogues are more than a mite unhappy about the one-to-one identification of the band with Celtic in Glasgow. They ve said in the local press that it s none of their making and they ve tried to discourage fans at gigs from passing up scarfs and hats in the Celtic colours for the band to put on.
"When somebody passes you a scarf it seems unfriendly not to put it round your neck," says Chevron. "But at the same time if we are totally identified with Celtic, there could be other people in Glasgow who d like to come and see us but who feel intimidated. It s good that people identify so completely with the band, feel that the band s expressing something in themselves. But with the Celtic thing there s a sectarian element to it and I would want nothing to do with anything even slightly sectarian.
And quite right. There s nothing narrow or sectarian about the Pogues. On the contrary, the music, like the men who make it, is endlessly accessible, generous of spirit, out-reaching and all-encompassing. The Irishness in it is not surly or aggressive. Nor is it of the sort that invites inspection of its precious authenticity. It s the sort that s flung out to anyone within earshot, open invitation to join in, matteradamn who or what you are an Irishness that couldn t possibly have been produced exclusively for or by Irish people.
The kitchen-hooley exuberance which some have taken to be the band s trademark is unmistakably Irish in its musical expression: but and a good thing too there s nothing distinctively Irish about the feeling itself. Even more so with the sadness and tenderness of Shane s delicately-crafted love-songs. The Pogues? You could take them anywhere.
Still and all, there s something distinct and different about the way they go over in Glasgow. Something proprietorial in the attitude of the deliriously swaying green-and-white horde. Their pleasure seems deepened and compounded by their assumed special relationship with the band. In the glistening, friendly ruck at the front, a sweat-drenched fellow of formidable aspect interspersed a glorious, brassy version of Rainy Night In Soho , with repeated hoarse assurances that "We love you, Shane!" In the course of the gig half a dozen people checked to be certain that I knew the Pogues were bigger in Glasgow than anywhere else. "Bigger than they are in Dublin, far bigger."
"And what a lot of people don t realise," somebody was good enough to let me in on it, "is that it s great music. Wor-rld class music."
The implication was unmistakable, that Glasgow was entitled to an accolade on this account.
Or at least the Pogue-fan section of the city, which whether appropriately or not, does overlap hugely with the Celtic-supporting section. That s just the way it is.
There was nothing like the Pogues for the great and great-great-grandparents of Celtic supporters to be proud of in Glasgow a hundred or so years in the past. The Scotch Boat disgorged them in splurges on the quayside at Ardrossan, Stranraer or Glasgow: "gulping the chalice of sorrow, and chewing the crust of despair," as the navvy poet Patrick MacGill put it. Some were over only for a season, hired out in job-lots to Scottish farmers for the "tatie-hoking". Others joined up with the migrant army of navvies to build the roads and railways and power-stations. And thousands who had relatives already in situ crowded into Glasgow to compete for unskilled work in ship-building, engineering, rail workshops and construction, creating the biggest single slum in all Europe in the Gorbals, and being treated generally as the lowest of the low.
"They stumble like curs by the wayside, are flung in the ditch where they die,
With never a stone to record them under the pitiless sky;
Never a singer to chaunt them or tell of the deeds they have done,
The passionate hates that pursued them, the battles they fought in and won."
They were in the country that s closest to Ireland but one which in some senses was as alien as any in Europe. Following the Reformation, Scotland had been the most Protestant place on earth. And its Protestantism was commonly expressed as anti-Popery. It is recorded that in 1790 there were 43 societies "flourishing" in Glasgow devoted to the extirpation of Papishness. There were 39 Catholics living in the city.
Scots Protestants tended to put a high value on individual self-reliance and, reasonably, regarded the Irish as pathetically dependent on their priests.
The Scots were also enthusiastic advocates on miserabilism, particularly on Sundays. The Irish were into lepping and drinking, also particularly on Sundays.
Most important, however, the Irish were an economic threat to poorer Scots Protestants.
For solace and safety, the Irish huddled into themselves and created a separate community in Glasgow, much tighter-knit than any other Irish emigrant community in Britain, more intensely aware of its separateness, not only from surrounding Scots-Protestant society but also from the rest of the Irish-in-Britain. Many Glasgow-Irish perhaps an absolute majority had come originally from Donegal, itself the least typical, most isolated county in Ireland.
Celtic s ground, Parkhead, is built around a little bit of Donegal. The club had been founded exactly a hundred years and a month before the Pogues gig, in St Mary s parish hall just around the corner from Barrowlands. The records of the club suggest two main reasons for its foundation. One was to raise money for the St Vincent de Paul Society. The other was summed up by club secretary John McLaughlin in his 1891 report: "Irishmen in Scotland in past years have been made little of but we have lately demonstrated that not only in commercial life can we be successful We have risen to the top of the ladder in the football world. The Celtic team is the pride of the Irish race."
The following year, 1892, the Land League leader, Michael Davitt, a patron of the club, laid the first sod of the new Parkhead ground. The sod had been specially transported from West Donegal.
All of which might sound inward-looking, possibly sectarian and sentimentally nationalistic. In its time and its context it was nothing of the sort. Michael Davitt s planting a sod of Donegal in Parkhead symbolised that a soccer club had become the cynosure of Irish eyes in Glasgow. In the same year back in Ireland the GAA introduced "the ban", declaring soccer intrinsically unIrish, a "foreign game". The Irish in Glasgow, as represented by Celtic, were fiercely determined to assert their separate identity. But they asserted it, not by cutting themselves off from the rest of Glasgow, not by accepting the dictate of what Eamon Dunphy calls "official Ireland", but, on the contrary, by embracing the frowned-upon foreign practice, infusing their own style and spirit into it and thereby doing it as well as or better than the native-foreigners themselves.
The same openness is evident in other areas too. Celtic is certainly a "sectarian" club in that, for all of the hundred years of its existence, it has been based on a community defined by (among other things), religion. And its "Catholicism" has betimes been taken to comical lengths. When in its fifth year of existence the club won the Scottish, Glasgow and Charity cups, committee member Ned McGinn telegrammed the Vatican: "Have won the three cups, Your Holiness." Enraged at receiving no acknowledgement from Rome, Mr McGinn subsequently moved a motion of no confidence in the Pontiff at the local branch of the Irish National League. The INL not being a fun organisation, the motion was defeated.
But Celtic has never been sectarian in the sense of excluding anyone on the grounds of religion. A number of early efforts to make the club all-Catholic as a matter of policy were rejected. (As was an 1895 proposal that no more than three Protestants be fielded at a time. A counter resolution passed the same year still stands "authorising the club to sign and field as many non-Catholics as it wanted".)
None of which would rate a mention even in passing were it not for the presence across the city at Ibrox of a real sectarian soccer club, Glasgow Rangers. Rangers have never employed a Catholic as a lavatory attendant, much less sent one out in a blue shirt. There was a sectarian tradition available, had Celtic ever wanted to pick up on it.
No. It is not true, indeed it couldn t be, that there are two, equally reprehensible groups of sectarians in Glasgow, each with its "own" soccer team, one of which has for obscure reasons developed a curious liking for the Pogues
The type of narrow, nasty mind that couldn t abide a person of a particular religion in a soccer side couldn t, by definition, empathise with a pure, lyrical spirit going arovin for brown eyes!
It isn t an accident or a coincidence that outside Parkhead on the afternoon of the gig, alongside the lads selling match programmes and a local soccer fanzine, there were others offering, for what they re worth, Socialist Worker and the Morning Star. Whereas outside Ibrox, when Rangers are at home, what s offered instead is the National Front s worthless Bulldog.
The type of mind that shouts "I love you" as Shane sings "The morning I awoke/The ginger lady by my bed/Covered in the clothes of silence/I hear you talking in my head/You are the measure of my dreams/The measure of my dreams " cannot surely be only a gear-change away from hatred of other human beings on account of religious belief. Is it any wonder that this was as overcrowded, drunken, rowdy and raucous a gig as I ve ever experienced since I can t remember when? And also as gentle and friendly, blissfully benign an encounter as I ve ever had with people I hadn t known before? It was the type of gig where the fellow beside you who s been roaring out of him for ten minutes feels free to rest his head on your shoulder when there s a brief pause in the set, and says a genuine "thanks" before snapping back into action.
"They are rough and rugged fellows, my companions sworn and true,
And maybe I am rough and rude as they.
But, oh heavens! how they d mock me if by chance they ever knew,
That I hankered for a cabin miles away
The ten-hour shift is laboured, the gaffer s voice now still,
And my thoughts go o er the ocean surge afar,
To the meadow and the river and the laneway and the hill,
And my father s lime-washed cottage in Kilcar "
Of course they are not from Kilcar at all and likely never heard tell of the place, nor from Glenties, Gweedore or Dungloe, but from here in Glasgow. But the Irishness that s in them from far back isn t just incidental either, but part of what they are, and it s not necessarily fanciful to imagine that it s the part that gives them access to poetry and Poguetry, and enables them perfectly plausibly to take pride in the Pogues wor-rld class music.
"There are lots of folks who clamour that the man who strikes the hammer cannot, though he likes, to rise,
From the squalor of the masses to the glory of Parnassus which, I might remark, is lies "
I ve never been at a gig like the Pogues in Glasgow where the mood and the music and all the expectations and underlying assumptions seemed so exactly in tune, never been part of an audience that felt so uplifted and validated by being there.
I ve heard arguments and banter occasionally as to whether the Pogues are most accurately described as an Irish band or an English band or an Anglo-Irish band or whatever.
They are none of these things. The Pogues are a Glasgow band.
We ended with the wildest Wild Rover you ever did hear. And, oh how the wild wind drove us!
(The quotations in the above article are taken from the poems of the navvy poet Patric MacGill, from Donegal.)