Monday, May 20, 2024

The Celtics: Symbols of the Emerald Isle

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Low lie, the fields of Athenry

Where once we watched the small free birds fly

Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing

It’s so lonely, ’round the fields of Athenry.

The chorus of one of the most famous (and covered) Irish songs, with versions from the likes of The Dubliners, Dropkick Murphys, Michael Jackson and many others. 

The song tells the story of a young Irish man deported to Australia after stealing the corn belonging to Charles Edward Trevelyan, a senior English civil servant during the British occupation of Ireland and the devastating potato famine of the mid 19th century, a desolate period of starvation and disease that caused over a million deaths and the mass emigration of a million more Irish men, women and children.

It was this mass emigration that sent Irish people all over the world, but particularly across the Atlantic to Canada and the USA, as well as across the Irish Sea to the United Kingdom.

Particular areas of settlement were the east coast of the US and western Scotland, notably Glasgow, and it was here where the Irish culture and identity bled into the new environment over a number of decades, with the establishment of a diaspora that integrated itself into its new homelands whilst also guarding a strong sense of identity and patriotism towards the old country.

Here, in this environment, the foundations were laid for two world famous sports teams, Boston Celtics basketball team and football team Celtic FC. Over the years, they have come to embody cultural Irishness as beacons for those who descended from those fleeing oppression and who felt a sense of longing for the country of their ancestors, as well as for more recent generations of Irish people who identify with the struggle for independence that lasted throughout much of the 20th century. 

Boston: An Epicentre of Shamrock Culture

Although Irish immigration was spread across the east coast of the US, Boston was very much the hub. From the mid 19th century all the way through until the latter decades of the 20th century, the city became a home from home for those from the Emerald Isle, with some 20% of the city’s current population claiming Irish ancestry.

Indeed, the construction of modern Boston is widely credited to the Irish immigrant workforce, many of whom found employment initially in construction, labouring and domestic servitude, but branched out into the police force, the fire service and education as they gained social acceptance. 

It was upon these foundations of Gaelic blood, sweat and toil that the Boston Celtics were founded in 1946, ironically inspired by rival city New York and their Celtics team, founded three decades earlier in 1912 and consisting primarily of players of Irish origin. 

Harnessing the popularity of the original New York Celtics team, Businessman Walter Brown founded what would go on to become one of the most successful NBA franchises in history, as well as the pillar of the immigrant community to which Boston owes so much. 

Glasgow Celtic: For the community

As with the Boston Celtics, Celtic FC was founded as a hub for the Irish community, in this case in Scotland. Following the example of Hibernian, an Edinburgh club with deep roots in the city’s Gaelic diaspora, the club was founded in 1887 by Irish catholic Brother Walfrid, seeing the project as a means of alleviating poverty amongst the immigrant population through fundraising for his charity The Poor Children’s Dinner Table. 

Celtic would go on to become one of the most successful teams in world football, joining the exclusive group of just five teams to have won more than 100 trophies and winning the first European trophy of any British club, the 1967 European Cup under the legendary Jock Stein with a team consisting exclusively of players born within a 90 minute radius of Celtic Park. 

Despite its admirable intentions upon its foundation, the club has also been met with considerable adversity, with its anti-British, Irish republican identity causing vitriol, outrage and often outright violence from the London-centric establishment, represented by fierce cross-city rivals Glasgow Rangers. 

To truly understand the Old Firm rivalry, one must first understand how the two clubs diverge on a historical, political, religious and sectarian level.

For the blue half of Glasgow, loyalty is first and foremost to the British crown, hence the overwhelming sea of Union flags at Ibrox Stadium, an expression of the values of conservatism and unionism that characterised the overwhelmingly Protestant Native Scots. 

A trip to Celtic Park, affectionately known by fans as Paradise, is, on the other hand, met with a sea of Irish tricolour, as well as flags of other regions and countries subjected to colonial oppression such as Palestine and the Basque Country. With deep seated roots across the Irish sea, Celtic supporters are acutely aware of the effects of an occupying power, and fervently support what they perceive to be the resistance efforts of those who suffer under it. 

Tensions are never far from the surface in Glasgow, with deep-rooted division played out in a microcosm of football. Further evidence of this could be found throughout the second half of the 20th century, as Northern Ireland became a war zone and innocent civilians collateral damage as British-backed Unionist forces fought with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), causing wounds that have, to this day, not healed in Ireland and amongst the respective communities in Scotland. 

The Celtics of Boston and Glasgow: Different sports, same Irishness

For all their success and worldwide renown, it is important not to forget the historical suffering endured by the Irish people that allowed these two great supporting institutions to be born, grow and thrive. Millions of people displaced from their homes in search of a way out of poverty and colonial oppression, some heading west to the newly founded United States of America, and others heading across the Irish Sea to the United Kingdom, in search of work and the potential for prosperity that was stolen from them in their homeland. 

Today, Irish culture and identity is thriving. The last word goes to the recently departed Irish musician and poet Shane MacGowan, who wrote verses and songs on the enduring legacy of the Emerald Isle as well as the great migrations of his ancestors: 

Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
To a land of opportunity
That some of them will never see
Fortune prevailing
Across the western ocean
Their bellies full
Their spirits free
They’ll break the chains of poverty
And they’ll dance.

The dance continues in Boston, Glasgow and anywhere else where things are just a little bit greener. 

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