Published on 11 August 2013
The littlest incidents and moments in life can tell a much greater story and I was lucky enough to encounter one this week.
During a movie night at a friend’s house we were all suddenly distracted by a strange drawl outside. TV muted and a scramble to the window ensued to witness a very drunk, middle aged man staggering around outside, singing as loud as he could strain his voice, with a growling emphasis on his favourite lines. The song?
“Hulllo, huulllo, we aaaarrrra Billy Boys, hulllo, hulllo…”
He stopped, staggered, grunted.
“We’rrre up to ur knees in Fenian blood surrender or yu’ll DIE…”
It was quite a vision. If we could have stopped laughing for long enough the sight of a middle aged man dreaming in a drunken haze of wading in Irish blood might have been disconcerting – but then the best bit happened.
He stopped in his tracks and turned around to pinpoint where another noise was emerging from. He looked confused, we all listened. In the not-too-far-distance we could hear the sounds of what must have been three or four fairly young kids singing right back at him.
“Let the people sing, their stories and their songs, the music of their native lands…”
Defeated, he threw his hands up in the air and grunted in their direction, to a chorus of giggles, before he slinked away.
What a moment. The old, outdated and outgoing generation of racist stereotypes and the brand new generation of children who have begun life with a sense of their rights. The two songs could not have been more emblematic. One venerated a fascist street thug, Billy Fullerton, and the other is an anthem of hope. Banned by UEFA in 2006, the Billy Boys, like Fullerton himself, is history.
The treatment of Irish immigrants and of their descendants in Scotland is an issue that I’ve been close to for many years. I grew up with a father who was born in Scotland but never identified with a Scottish nationality. He is Irish; he comes from Irish family, he spent his childhood summers back where he considers home and the country he was born in was one he never felt he had a place in.
When he hears the Scottish national anthem, he feels nothing. When the Irish national anthem plays, it’s clear where his heart is. I grew up in a family with a great fondness for Ireland. What’s more, I grew up with parents who could relay stories of the discrimination they faced throughout their lives in Glasgow because of their Irish names.
My mother, a Docherty who grew up in various parts of Glasgow’s East End in the 1940s and 1950s, was a fiery woman. We used to love hearing the stories of how she handled anyone that asked her what school she came from during a job interview.
She left one Englishman stunned during an interview for a job in the civil service when he asked the dreaded question. He got a piece of her mind and my mother had a famous way with words. As it turned out, his question was entirely genuine and she got the job. She had a great sense of justice and in those days it wasn’t easy to stand your ground.
It’s easier for me to stand mine. I was 15 when Glasgow achieved occupational parity in 2001, the milestone which meant those of Irish descent were finally on an equal footing when it comes to things like employment and education. It took Glasgow a full 100 years longer than New York to get there.
When I became of working age I was going out into a world where my name should be under little consideration for an employer – it should be, but given that my name is so closely associated with standing up to the klan in the world of Scottish journalism, it sadly wouldn’t surprise me if my name sounded like too much of a threat to sales around these parts.
But I have a job, a very good job at a business magazine, and I also work as a book editor. It’s through the latter that I’ve been privileged to work on a book about a subject that has dominated much of my life.
Minority Reporter: Modern Scotland’s Bad Attitude Towards Her Own Irish by Phil Mac Giolla Bháin is an important document charting the discrimination faced by Irish immigrants to Scotland and their descendants.
It blows away the myth of sectarianism and illustrates how ethnicity is absolutely central to the cultural problems which still exist in the west of Scotland. While structural discrimination no longer exists for the Irish, attitudinal discrimination, as Professor Tom Devine styles it, is still present.
The book looks extensively at the stand out examples of this discrimination in recent years, namely the Famine Song and the disgraceful treatment of Celtic manager Neil Lennon, who has endured physical attacks and serious threats on his life throughout his time in Scotland. The Irishman has shown incredible strength and Scotland is in his debt.
As a result of my work on Phil Mac Giolla Bháin’s previous book, Downfall: How Rangers FC Self Destructed, I’ve experienced that very discrimination almost relentlessly for the past year.
The downfall of Rangers was a wonderful coincidence. Just over a decade after Glasgow achieved occupational parity, one of the spiritual homes of anti-Irish racism in Scotland collapsed in total humiliation.
The fans who displayed those racist tendencies – many now loyal followers of Sevco and whichever comes next – continue to belt out their old favourites. They recount their fantasies about Fenian blood through the Billy Boys and tell the plastic paddies to go home to Ireland through the Famine Song without a hint of irony.
But that subculture, the ‘klan’ as Phil correctly terms it in a nod to their brothers in racism, no longer feels like a threat. While Sir David Murray strung them along and had them fooled about their entitlement they failed to notice the confidence emerging among the ‘taigs’ – still a favourite term on their message boards – and the cracks that were about to bring their culture tumbling down.
I’m glad my Dad lived to see it and finally feel a sense of justice, and I’m humbled that he saw the day that one of his offspring edited a solid record of the discrimination he and others suffered. While Downfall and the real story behind the Rangers collapse was important, this book really grabs the roots of what Rangers represented for so many in Scottish society and rips them up from below the surface for all to see, and unashamedly so.
And like Downfall, it has a happy ending. The Irish in Scotland no longer sit at the back of the bus. Those days are over, they are gone, and no matter how much the remnants of the klan strive to claw back the old days, their efforts will be futile.
They are on the wrong side of history, equality terrifies them.
Let the people sing!
Minority Reporter is available in all good book shops and online from Monday