05 March 2006

Focus: Hoops of hate

Sunday Times

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usHow did the Celtic jersey become such a potent symbol of Irish nationalism, asks John Burns

It wasn’t the first time Celtic fans had come face-to-face with a police riot squad. After the Uefa Cup final in 2003, which the Glasgow team lost 3-2 to Porto, the Spanish police were waiting for them outside the Olympic stadium in Seville.

“They put down their shields and applauded us,” Albert McCready, a Celtic fan from Dublin, recalls. “They couldn’t believe we’d just spent two hours singing, even after we lost.”

The encounter last Saturday in Dublin’s O’Connell Street between gardai and dozens of youths wearing Celtic jerseys was of a decidely darker nature. Fans tumbled out of nearby Celtic drinking haunts to chant “go home, you huns” at the Love Ulster parade, and to throw missiles at gardai.

“It was embarrassing to look at them; it was cringeworthy,” said McCready. “There are people now using the Celtic jersey to show where they come from, and I don’t know how you go about changing that psyche. It is slightly unfortunate, because the Celtic top is prominent-looking at the best of times.”

The green-and-white hoops seem to be turning up in more and more unfavourable situations. In Derry, for example, youths wearing Celtic jerseys and carrying tricolours have taken to congregating at places such as the Diamond to barrack loyalist marchers every summer. “They are only there to provoke a reaction and to cause trouble,” William Hay, a local DUP MP, has complained.

Of course all this jersey-wearing is good for Celtic’s bottom line. Half-yearly figures released two weeks ago showed that while turnover was down, due to the club’s losses in Europe, merchandising was up by 48% to £9.6m (€14m). That’s the equivalent of 280,000 replica tops sold in six months.

But even accepting that it is easier to wear than a tricolour, how did it happen that the jersey of a Scottish soccer team is now the way to identify yourself as an Irish nationalist? And given that Celtic fans are famed throughout Europe for singalong good cheer, how come the green-and-white hoops are popping up at nasty sectarian bunfights?

FOR decades, Irish people have been making the pilgrimage to Paradise, the nickname of Celtic’s ground, Parkhead. But 20 years ago, the fans travelling from the republic to Scotland each weekend could fit into a bus. Now there are upwards of 5,000.

McCready, 40, a Dublin office worker, is chairman of the Naomh Padraig branch of the Celtic supporters’ club in Ireland, one of 20 such associations in Dublin alone. When he started making the weekend trips to Scotland in the early 1980s, all the Celtic fans knew each other.

“It was very much a hard core,” he said. “There’s been an explosion of interest in the last decade. The club’s popularity had grown mainly because of media exposure. A key factor was when satellite TV started showing Celtic matches about 10 years ago.”

Then Martin O’Neill from Derry became manager, Neil Lennon from Lurgan the star midfielder, Dermot Desmond from Dublin a director, and the club became successful after years of playing second fiddle to Rangers.

“The Irish fan base has always been important, but it revived significantly,” said Brian Wilson, author of Celtic: A Century With Honour and now a director of the club. “Celtic were in the doldrums for a while. Ten years ago the average Celtic gate was 25,000-30,000. Now you get 60,000 at every home game. The interest from Ireland has gone up too.”

From the dispersion of Celtic jerseys around Ireland, you’d guess this is a youthful and working-class fan base. But organisers say the support is mostly middle-aged and middle-class, even well-to-do.

“The sort of person you saw in O’Connell Street last weekend is not the sort going on our bus to Glasgow,” said Adrian Hillman, another fan-club organiser. “The jerseys are being bought by people who don’t go to Celtic matches. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Celtic opened a store in Dublin in the late-1990s, and it is now the third-busiest of its 14 outlets. Shops in Belfast and Derry followed. “Roy Keane has generated some amount of interest,” a manager in the Dublin shop said last week.

The availability of the jersey did solve a social problem in Northern Ireland. There had been no easy way for nationalist and loyalist youths to tell each other apart, now Celtic and Rangers tops do the trick.

For more than 100 years Scottish football had been used as a proxy battleground between the two communities in the province, and that has become more pointed. In 2002, Lennon received loyalist death threats before he was due to captain Northern Ireland in a match against Cyprus. He never played for the team again.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein seems to grab whatever chance it can to attach itself to the Celtic fan base. The party sets up a stall at one pub in O’Connell Street whenever an Old Firm derby is being screened.

Celtic does attract people with ultra-nationalist feelings, McCready admits. “The ingredients are there — just as such people are also attracted to Irish dance and music, and to the GAA. If there’s a gathering with nationalist connotations in Ireland, you do get a fair sprinkling of Celtic shirts, just as at a unionist gathering you’ll see Rangers, Linfield and so on.

“But thousands of people in Ireland support Celtic, not just ultra-nationalists. The number of people wearing Celtic tops during last weekend’s riots probably came to five or six. There were as many Republic of Ireland tops, and there was even some Aston Villa.”

NATURALLY, Celtic has done everything it can to disassociate itself from sectarianism, including banning IRA songs at its grounds. But the club couldn’t escape its Catholic-Irish ethos even if it wanted to, and the tricolour still flies at Celtic Park.

Willie Frazer, organiser of last week’s Love Ulster parade, said: “One side is as bad as the other when it comes to football. It’s being done on the Rangers side too. People have been brushing over these issues and pretending it’s okay.

“But Celtic have a lot to answer for by having the tricolour flying on their ground in Glasgow. If Rangers ran up the Ulster flag, all hell would break loose and they’d be the biggest bigots on the planet.”

Celtic fielded dozens of calls of complaint last week about the prominence of the club’s jerseys in the riots. “These events have nothing to do with the club and those involved don’t represent it in any way,” said Iain Jamieson, a spokesman. “Clearly Celtic would condemn any behaviour of this kind.”

Statements of this kind have to be issued fairly regularly these days. In January, a video was released on the internet of two Celtic players singing The Fields of Athenry at a function in a Letterkenny hotel. The singing was punctuated by chants of “IRA” and “Sinn Fein” from the audience. Celtic issued a statement saying the players, including John Hartson, did not join in any sectarian chanting “and indeed utterly condemn sectarianism in any form, a view shared and fully endorsed by the club as a whole”.

Dr Joseph Bradley, a lecturer in sports studies at Stirling University, feels it’s unfair that the club has to continually combat such connotations. “Those perceptions can be used as a stick against the club by people who want to change things about Celtic and their fans that they don’t like,” he argues.

Bradley points to the bizarre controversy that surrounded the visit of the Tyrone GAA team and the Sam Maguire cup to Parkhead in January. One British newspaper tried to make trouble for Celtic by pointing out that Maguire was an intelligence officer with the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the 1910s.

Maguire simply can’t be a controversial figure for Celtic, which was founded by a Catholic priest in 1888. The original members were in support of Home Rule, against landlordism in Ireland, and sung rebel songs including God Save Ireland and A Nation Once Again at their first meeting, according to Bradley.

“The idea that Celtic is a Scottish football club is not entirely true; it is hybrid in nature. It is an Irish football club and a Scottish institution,” he said. “It is the only club in Britain that has such a strong Irishness at its core. Indeed, there is no parallel in terms of the amount of supporters’ clubs it has overseas.

“Because of the proliferation of Celtic tops, it has become quite easy for commentators to draw incorrect conclusions. Sportswear is now predominant in the western world. In any march, you will find any football top you like. You will also find Nike and Adidas; but you don’t customarily associate the Nike label with hooligans. People are making a bit of a jump with the Celtic tops.”

Wilson insists sectarianism is being stamped out by Celtic. “There’s a lot less problem with it than there used to be,” he said. “Celtic have always, from the earliest days, been a non-sectarian organisation. Anyone who tries to attach or graft anything on that has sectarian connotations is acting very much against the spirit of the club.”

Additional reporting: Carissa Casey

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