A Celtic State of Mind – Celtic & Politics: Part 2

In recent years, many of Celtic’s players have faced severe opposition as a result of the club’s heritage and their own religion or ethnicity: Neil Lennon received a death threat whilst on international duty for Northern Ireland in 2002, which led to him deciding to retire from international football. Prior to this, he had represented Northern Ireland at various levels since 1990 without incident; when Aiden McGeady opted to represent the Republic of Ireland over Scotland in 2004, he was regularly met with boos from opposition fans around the country; and high-profile Roman Catholic Northern Irishmen Neil Lennon, Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt were sent bullets in the post in 2011.

The club rightly continues to maintain an allegiance to its heritage and birthright. Every year, they mark the Great Hunger by wearing jerseys embroidered with the National Famine Memorial Day logo. One emblem that is no longer embroidered on Celtic jerseys every year, however, is the Remembrance Day poppy. This followed fan protests in November 2010, when Celtic ultra-group ‘The Green Brigade’ described the remembrance motif as a “blood-stained poppy” on a series of banners during a league match with Aberdeen. Such atrocities of the British Army in Ireland as the executions of 14 unarmed protesters on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972 were cited as reasons for their refusal to accept the appearance of poppies on to the Celtic jerseys. The club later decided not to wear the symbol on their shirts and instead make a substantial annual donation to Poppy Scotland.

As a Scottish club with Irish roots, Celtic would always find it difficult (if not impossible) to avoid the politics and symbolism associated with Ireland: the songs, the tricolour, and the shamrock.

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The songs…
Celtic’s origins have been told in story and in song and passed down to legions of new supporters for generations. Many of the Irish rebel songs that were once commonplace within Celtic Park have been all but stamped out by the authorities, who even introduced a new Act of the Scottish Parliament aimed at eradicating what they deemed to be sectarian behaviour at football matches. The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OFBA) was an unmitigated failure and lasted from 2012 until it was repealed in 2018. In the modern day, any reference to the Irish Republican Army will still not be tolerated by the authorities or the club themselves, but other traditional Irish chants have also come under unnecessary scrutiny when being proudly bellowed out at Celtic Park over the years.
One such song, ‘The Fields of Athenry’, was a famous example. Prominent Scottish football broadcaster, Gerry McNee made the preposterous claim in the 1990s that Celtic supporters sang the song for sectarian reasons. McNee was shot down by Celtic owner, Fergus McCann, who confirmed that the ballad would not be banned from Celtic Park, but instead it would be sung with pride.

Although ‘The Fields’ was written in 1979 by Pete St John, it wasn’t heard at Parkhead until the late eighties. But how did this song about Ireland’s potato famine seep into the Celtic supporters’ consciousness and terrace songbook? This unlikely tale involved an Englishman (Chris Morris), Scotsman (Peter Grant) and an Irishman (Niall Quinn)…

After twenty years at the club, Danny McGrain – an ex-team-mate of Billy McNeill’s – had unthinkably left Celtic Park. McNeill replaced the seemingly irreplaceable with an unknown Cornishman from Sheffield Wednesday, as Chris Morris was plucked from Hillsborough’s reserves as part of the club’s much-needed centenary rebuilding operation. The image of an overlapping Morris, with his highlighted blonde locks complementing the splendorous green-and-white hoops, became an iconic snapshot of what was an unforgettable season. There is no doubt that the right-back left a lasting impression as an ever-present during the glorious double-winning campaign, but he also left his mark in another unexpected way.

“I remember that Billy McNeill used to come in with a folder, filed full of player requests,” recalled Chris. “We were expected to go out amongst Celtic Supporters’ Clubs almost every weekend. This was something that I’d never come across – that kind of connection between player, club and supporter. One thing that always struck me was the expectation that, at the end of the dinner dance, they would want you to say a few words as a player, and then have a sing-song. I didn’t have a clue what to sing, but Peter Grant said to me, ‘All you need to do is sing the first line of ‘Hail! Hail!’ and the room will start bouncing around you and you won’t have to sing another note.’ That’s what I did for the first few events.

“I used to room with Niall Quinn when I went on international duty with the Republic of Ireland, who I qualified to play for through my mother’s side of the family. Niall was really passionate about his Irish folk songs, and he was always going to these folk concerts, so I told him about the sing-songs at the supporters’ functions. Niall wanted to know what I sang, and I explained that I would sing the first line of ‘Hail! Hail!’ to get the crowd going, but then he said, ‘I’ve got a song for you.’ That was when Niall taught me a song called The Fields of Athenry. When I came back from international duty, every single time that I went to a Celtic Supporters’ dance, which was pretty much every Saturday, I used to sing The Fields of Athenry, and that became my trademark.

“Many years later, long after I had left Celtic, I came back to Hampden to watch a Scottish Cup final. As I walked along the road to the stadium, a few Celtic supporters shouted, ‘Hey, there’s Chris Morris – the man who gave us The Fields of Athenry. It was only then that I realised that the song had become their anthem.”

The Pete St John-penned ballad did indeed strike a chord with Celtic fans in the late eighties and early nineties, and it quickly became a staple part of the Celtic Park repertoire. There are many players who have inspired the ever-creative Celtic fans to fashion songs about them, but it would appear that Chris Morris went one better and actually introduced a timeless classic to the Paradise songbook himself.

Paul John Dykes

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