Pope Benedict might not have approved of the tattooed Glasgow Celtic supporters waving the papal flags that I encountered on my first-ever Celtic and Rangers “old firm” clash.
Neither would the politically correct have joined in the singing of ‘The Boys Of The Old Brigade” But when the strains of ‘Fields of Athenry ‘ rang out through the stadium the hair rose on my head.
A sea of green scarves and flags and everyone was singing. This was communal emotion on a grand scale, the likes of which can rarely be seen in any sporting ground anywhere . Glasgow Celtic is a phenomenon, and the Old Firm derby against Rangers a ‘must see’ event for every fan of the green.
Built on waste ground in the urban wilderness of east Glasgow where the life expectancy is lower than anywhere else in Britain, the road to Parkhead stadium is strewn with the detritus of urban deprivation and despair.
A lonely tower block is ring fenced by scrubland and shabby bars. A cheerless shopping mall is only partly open. There are no proper streets and one moves on quickly.
But near the stadium the broken down pavements become alive with street hawkers and flag sellers. The Irish tricolor is everywhere along with green scarves and emblems.
"Glasgow Celtic born from famine and repression’ says one banner. ‘The Pope’s Eleven’ says another. There is an unabashed pride in showing everything Irish.
It is as if the Celtic supporter is standing up and facing the naysayer .’Yes my grand father was a Papist Fenian and I am proud of it and proud of where I come from’.
Glasgow Celtic was founded by a Marist Brother from Sligo in 1887 as a means to raise charity for the poor.
It became one of the most successful football clubs in Britain and was the first team , called the ‘Lisbon Lions’, outside Spain, Portugal and Italy to win the European cup.
The club has a fan base of 9 million, including one million in the USA. The supporters have been awarded for their conduct at away matches but more often than not , the old firm derby day marks a huge increase in sectarian violence between the Celtic and Rangers fans, often driven by the events in Northern Ireland.
‘It is all a matter of education’ says my taxi driver, himself a Rangers supporter, when I query him about the violence .‘Especially in the west of Scotland , there is a sense that a lot of the supporters do not know anything about the history and culture of their opponents. This ignorance leads to hatred’ he said.
Certainly in the last few years there have been determined efforts by both sides to combat the violence . Both Old Firm clubs have taken measures to combat sectarianism. Working alongside the church groups and community organisations, the clubs have tried to clamp down on sectarian songs, inflammatory flag-waving and troublesome supporters.
This is good news for all but even so is hard to see how even with enlightenment ,this will be a perfect match . After all the austere followers of John Knox regime would never be bedfellows with Catholic Republicans. But stranger things have happened.
Inside the stadium it is strange enough to see so many tricolors if one considers this as a statement of allegiance to another jurisdiction. The atmosphere is tense when just before half time Celtic score.
There is wild abandon and pandemonium. There is rejoicing everywhere and I am unexpectedly embraced by a heavy set Glasgow girl beside me.
The singing and dancing last all of twenty delirious minutes when Rangers score their first of three. “Cheerio’ Cheerio’ the Rangers fans mock the departing Celtic supporters . It is a sad end for many to a wonderful occasion but as we walk silently and peacefully back through the wastelands of East Glasgow.
I am comforted by the thoughts that there are four of these old firm matches every season. ‘Beidh la eile ag Na Celt ‘I think.
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