In the 1870s, Brother Walfrid, an Irish priest from County Sligo, emigrated to Scotland. It was there that in 1887, at a meeting at St Mary’s Church Hall in East Rose Street in East Glasgow, he founded Celtic Football Club. His intention: to alleviate the poverty of Irish immigrants in the city’s East End parishes.
Between 1841 and 1851, the Irish population of Scotland had increased by 90%. Roughly a third of these immigrants, nearly entirely catholic, settled in Glasgow, where they came to be treated as second class citizens. The narrative of blaming and resenting an immigrant community, a narrative that has been bolstered in recent years by Brexit and organisations like Britain First, was as true of Scotland’s Irish immigrant community in the 19th century as it is true of, for example, East European immigrants in Britain today. Brother Walfrid could not have ever suspected what Celtic football club would go on to offer the oppressed Irish community of Glasgow, let alone the persecuted communities all around the world. But in his very first action of setting up a club to alleviate poverty and suffering, the fate of Celtic football club was sealed. This is not just a football club, it is a community recognised for its solidarity, shaped by its history of oppression, and defined by its love of liberty.
Fast forward to Celtic’s first ever football match. It is May 28, 1888, my great grandad is among the crowd. The season ticket that he had bought was passed on to my grandad who in turn passed it on to my uncle. Fast forward again to 1941. My grandad, Joe Murphy, is 22 years old and playing football in a junior league with St Roch’s. By this point, Celtic was already a part of my family’s lifeblood, ingrained into the beating heart of Glasgow’s Irish community. For Joe, Celtic was everything. Well, nearly everything. His children, my Dad and his six siblings all say that there were three things that he cared about: ‘faith, family, and football.’ And not always in that order, so the joke goes.
In 1941, Joe is playing in a junior league in his spare time while working at a local steel factory. Out of the blue, one day he is told to wait at a church near the Celtic stadium. Who should turn up in a taxi but the Celtic manager at the time. With no explanation given and no explanation asked, my grandad jumps into the car. In the taxi, on the way to Celtic Park, the manager turns to Joe and asks if he has his boots. He wants him to play for Celtic that very same day. Not only did Joe not have his boots on him, but for him to play with Celtic would have been illegal, at least in the football world, as he had not been given the all-clear from St Roch’s. His chance to play for his beloved football club had slipped through his fingers.
Celtic and St Roch’s later agreed that at the end of the season Joe could sign with Celtic. But this was a deal that was reached behind closed doors. And no one told my grandad. When the end of the season rolls around, my Grandad signs with another club, Partick Thistle. Celtic was the only team that ever really mattered, and my grandad had missed his second chance. As cruel as such a trick of fate may seem, it did not stop him from attending nearly every single Saturday match for eight decades. Some loves never die.
When you are on the outside peering in at the world of football, the whole culture seems to be an incomprehensible cult. The passion and utter devotion exhibited by football fans is second to none. Of course, I have always loved the story of my grandad and his near misses. A story that is recounted every year at family reunions and that was eventually told at his funeral. But truth be told, I have never understood the obsession that my family has for Celtic. I’m not interested in football. I have three brothers who love it with their entire being and I can’t bear to be seen enjoying the same sport as them. Whist my brothers went to countless Celtic games throughout our childhood, I went to my first game at the age of 18. I couldn’t find it in myself to care.
But in August 2015, everything changed. Celtic was to play a match against Hapoel Be’er Sheva, an Israeli football team, in a Champions League qualifier game. And it was a match like none that I have ever seen before. When the players walked out onto the pitch to start the game that day, they walked out to a stadium painted black, green, white, and red with Palestinian flags. The sky fluttering with hundreds and hundreds of the flags held above the heads of fans. It was a beautiful declaration of solidarity, an unequivocal statement that ‘we stand with Palestine,’, and an outcry of support for the BDS movement. But the statement did not go unnoticed. According to UEFA, the Palestinian flag is a political statement and to fly even a single flag at a football match may warrant a fine. In the end, Celtic Football Club had to pay £8,619. But it was this protest that enabled me at last to view the club and its fans for what they really were: the crowning triumph of a community that has been enduring suffering for hundreds of years.
Football fans are among the most stubborn people in the world. Just try and convince any football fan of any club that their favourite team isn’t the absolute best team in the world. Regardless of objective success or ranking, a football fan will defend their club until the day they die. And if football fans are the most stubborn people in the world, then Celtic fans are the most stubborn of football fans. In the wake of the 2015 protest, The Green Brigade, Celtic’s very own Ultra group, launched a campaign to #MatchTheFineForPalestine. The fans raised £176,076. Over twenty times the original fine. All of the money raised was donated to two charities in the West Bank. And just like that, my love for Celtic was born.
For many, the extraordinary show of solidarity with a country, with a community, that most of the fans will never visit seems curious. Celtic fans and Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have seemingly very little in common. There is a difference in language, a difference in religious demographic, differences in culture and traditions, in geography, in nearly everything. I can think of only one thing that is truly common between Celtic fans with the Palestinian community. Their shared history of oppression. It is the communal experience of being treated as a second-class citizen, of being treated as being less than someone else, of being treated as the feared and hated other. It is a truly powerful thing.
My own prejudices against the sport had blinded me to this whole side of the Celtic football club. One Google search later and I had a heap of examples of Celtic solidarity with Palestine and with other communities fighting for freedom. What happened in 2015 was not an isolated incident of profound empathy; Celtic fans have also supported the oppressed people of South Africa under apartheid, and they have been vocal in their backing of the Catalonian independence movement.
Celtic Park has seen countless banners flown: ‘Refugees welcome, a club founded by immigrants,’ ‘Celtic FC, Born of Famine and Oppression,’ ‘Free Palestine,’ to name but a few. Not only do fans regularly fly Palestinian flags, the club has also organised a charity match between the Celtic fans and a Palestinian team. To do this, the club arranged for a group of Palestinian teenagers to travel outside of the West Bank, a very difficult feat to achieve for most Palestinians.
At my first ever Celtic match, on a miserably cold and rainy night, out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of red amidst the sea of green and white. On a frosty winter’s night, years after the ‘Match the Fine’ campaign and over 3,000 miles away from Palestine, football fans were still flying the Palestinian flag.
A lot of people think that there is no place for politics in football. The Green Brigade, often taking the lead among fans in activist actions, are controversial. Not all of the club’s fans are… well, fans of the ultra-group. Some think that sport should be for sport alone and politics should be left outside the stadium, so as not to interfere with the purity of the game. The thing is, it was never just about football when it comes to Celtic. This is not a typical football club. An entire community has been transformed and defined by the institution of Celtic. From its early days of aiding Irish immigrant families, helping to put food on the table and trying to lift people out of abject poverty, Celtic has stood for more than just football. And now that life has largely improved for the original Irish community, now that the Irish diaspora is spread across the world and Celtic is no longer the small time local club that it once was but an international team with global support (winning the Scottish League a total of 51 times), fans are turning to pass their good fortune on. For the fans who flew flags for Palestine in 2015 and the fans that still do, the liberation of one people is inextricably connected to the liberation of all peoples.
The Christmas Eve before last I was not at home with my family, I was in Bethlehem. A place most Glasgow-based Celtic fans will be unlikely to ever visit; my grandfather himself spent the first 90 years of his living within a 2-mile radius of where he was born. I could not help but feel incredibly proud. I felt proud to be connected to a community of people who were willing to fork money out of their pockets, willing to boldly declare their support for a people and a country that they have no connection to other than that of human empathy which binds us all together. The solidarity of Celtic fans for all oppressed peoples is a rare beauty, and the type of solidarity that this world is often sorely lacking. At a time when our planet is unrecognizable, we would all do well to take a pinch of the Celtic spirit and remember that all we really have is each other.
Image credit: Phoebe White