A Celtic State of Mind – Celtic & Politics, Part 4: The Shamrock

The shamrock…

The shamrock is generally regarded world-wide as a harmless symbol, but it has occasionally been looked upon with some distaste in parts of Scotland. For much of Celtic’s history no adornment appeared on the famous hooped jerseys, and for much of that period there was little need for Celtic to change their strip (apart from fixtures against Kilmarnock and Greenock Morton). On those rare occasions, Celtic’s frequent choice was a white jersey (with green sleeves from the mid-fifties onwards) and a large shamrock on the breast. This option first appeared during the 1925/26 season, re-surfaced in some games throughout 1931 and then more frequently from 1948 to 1965. Interestingly, the shamrock did appear far earlier in an ‘unofficial’ jersey that was worn by goalkeeper, John Mulrooney, throughout the club’s Scandinavian tour of 1912. This shirt was a gift, given to legendary striker Jimmy Quinn and handed to the goalie, who wore it with pride throughout the trip. The round-neck jersey looked as though it had been knitted, and it had green hoops made up of shamrocks. An image of this early fashion statement has only recently surfaced, much to the joy and amusement of Celtic’s special band of club historians.

From then on, with the commercial possibilities in the sale of replica shirts, such change strips became less traditional and more suited for leisure wear. However, the shamrock has been a recurring motif throughout the club’s history.

The Irish patriot Michael Davitt (an Irish nationalist and founder of the National Land League) visited Celtic Park several times as ‘a patron of the club’. He was invited to attend Glasgow in 1892 to mark the opening of the new Celtic Park by performing a significant ceremony: “Mr. Davitt after laying the sod which came from Donegal this morning, and which contained a splendid bunch of shamrocks growing in the centre, said that he was delighted to have the honour of laying the centre sod of the new park which belonged to the Celtic club.He could assure them that the prowess of the Celts was well known and appreciated by their countrymen beyond the sea, who were proud to witness the efforts of an Irish team in Scotland…”

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The events seemed to have provoked an outbreak of poetry among the Celtic support,

“On alien soil like yourself I am here,
I’ll take root and flourish, of that never fear;
And though I’ll be crossed sore and oft by foes,
You’ll find me as hardy as Thistle or Rose…”

Shortly after Davitt had laid the hallowed turf with a silver ornamental spade, it was stolen, again to inspire poetry but this time the thief was memorably reviled:

“Again I say, ‘May heaven blight
That envious, soulless knave;
May all his sunshine be like night,
And the sod rest heavy on his grave…”

During those early days in Scottish football many clubs, unfortunately short-lived, named themselves with Irish connotations: ‘Shamrock’ was a more popular one, along with ‘Harp’ and Hibernian’.

After the tragic, accidental death of John Thomson in September 1931, Celtic were presented with a handsome mirror in Waterford glass and etched with an image of the young goalkeeper. Thomson may have been a Scottish internationalist (and had been born in Kirkcaldy) but the memorial had an emphatic shamrock design, and was a feature of the foyer at Celtic Park for many years.

Similarly, the corner flags were emblazoned with shamrocks and a famous photograph shows Jock Stein congratulating Danny McGrain leaving the pitch after his home debut in 1970. A ball-boy in close attendance is seen holding such a flag. Shortly afterwards the SFA, in compliance with UEFA instructions, ordered their withdrawal. The corner flags are now owned by Rod Stewart and are a permanent fixture of his full-sized football pitch in the back garden of his luxurious Essex home.

Perhaps the earliest soccer fanzine was ‘published’ by the Shamrock Celtic Supporters Club in Edinburgh and was sold for sixpence (2.5 p) on the streets outside Celtic Park on Saturdays for a number of years in the early 1960s. This was at a notable period of failure for Celtic and the Board were far from happy at the criticism expressed by contributors totally frustrated since the League Cup triumph of 1957.

The contents were hard-hitting; the targets an unambitious and stagnant directorate, an autocratic chairman, an SFA considered anti-Celtic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Irish, a refereeing fraternity hell-bent on frustrating Celtic players on the pitch, and every edition imbued with a pathological hatred of a highly successful Rangers.

The rabble-rousing content had a certain appeal for many supporters in despair at the failure of the board to modernize. Unfortunately, much of the vitriol levelled was of a personal nature with the chairman (Bob Kelly) and a young player (John Hughes) being frequent targets. However primitive it looked, it was the first fanzine and, before ‘Hotlines’ and the internet, it did offer the supporters the opportunity to vent their frustrations. It was also frequently perceptive, and justified in its views. A common question was,“Where has all the money gone?” In 1963 Celtic Park (and its environs) was dilapidated: “Is it not time that Celtic did something about their terracing and get it concreted the same as a lot of clubs, some of them with a lot less money than us? The terracing in the Jungle is especially bad, so hurry up and get cracking… The outside and inside of Celtic Park should be improved as in parts you are up to your ankles in mud on a wet day… If this is Paradise then we could do with a touch of the other place to warm it up a bit.”

But what infuriated The Shamrock most of all was the supine acceptance of the directors of the perceived injustices apparently regularly inflicted upon Celtic by the SFA and its referees. What caused The Shamrock to decline (and eventually fold) was Celtic’s success under their new manager, a dynamic and fearless Jock Stein. In a memorable phrase, “He largely cowed them into fairness.”

The Celtic shamrock change-strip (which bore a white collar for the reserves and a green one for the first-team) was referred to as ‘The Political Jersey’ and was met with a mixed reception from supporters at the time. There was a knee-jerk reaction in approval because of the colours and the shamrock but from the point of view of design it may be classified as ‘unsatisfactory’. Many felt that there was too much white in the strip and criticized the design, comparing it unfavourably with Arsenal and Hibernian (where the white was the secondary colour). As time has passed, however, the shamrock jersey has become an iconic shirt and many supporters yearn for its return.

Paul John Dykes

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