In recent years there has been a debate about the appropriateness or otherwise of certain songs sung by Celtic supporters, both at Parkhead and at away grounds in Scotland and Europe. BBC’s infamous 2005 Panorama programme on the problems of sectarianism in the West of Scotland and in the Old Firm in particular featured a male voice choir singing The Boys of the Old Brigade – the documentary’s implication being that such tunes were out of place at a Scottish football ground. The Celtic Board itself has urged its fans to refrain from “sectarian” songs. Open letters to the supporters and season ticket holders from the club have reiterated this request. This debate has been conducted amongst the fans themselves on various Celtic websites and in print – see Patricia Ferns’ chapter in Celtic Minded Essays on religion, politics, society, identity …and football for example. It is a debate that excites passions. Some feel that attempts to circumscribe Irish “rebel songs” represents an assault on many Celtic supporters’ Irish roots. Some will argue too that such songs, whilst political in nature are certainly not sectarian. Yet others think that in the early 21st century there is no need for “political songs” at Celtic Park, especially when there are so many good Celtic songs to be sung instead.
It is against this background that Celtic & Ireland in Song and Story appears as the first ever volume that this reviewer is aware of to look in detail at the origins of many of the songs sung by the Celtic support since the club’s formation. This of course covers both purely Celtic and Irish republican/nationalist/folk ballads; and in the latter context Daly and Warfield provide the historical context that explains the songs’ origins and precisely why they still have a very clear meaning for very many people. Celtic & Ireland in Song and Story thus offers us a fascinating and detailed account that covers Irish and Celtic histories, highlighting in particular where the two overlap.
The majority of this book deals with Irish history and key moments in the struggle for independence that have given rise to many of the ballads featured in this book such as Boolavogue – the 1798 Rising, God Save Ireland – 1867 Fenian Rising and The Merry Ploughboy – Easter 1916. We learn for example that apparently no one really knows for sure who wrote the words for the famous Glen Daly The Celtic Song, which since its appearance in 1961 is still played today at Celtic Park shortly before kick-off. The story behind Sean South of Garryowen – a raid on the RUC station at Brookeborough, County Fermanagh during the IRA’s border campaign of the late 1950s – is described at length, as are the origins of The Soldier’s Song and how it became the Irish national anthem. One striking element of the book’s final chapter, which provides a chronology of Celtic’s history, events and honours, is the indication of the sorts of songs that were favoured by the fans at particular times. It is hard to imagine today, for example, that the Celtic support would break into Hail Glorious St Patrick or Slievenamon, which were popular in the 1920s. In those days the songs were more obviously Irish than they are today – more folk song than political, perhaps reflecting that reality that the majority of Celtic’s Scottish based support today is now no longer “straight off the boat” but third and fourth generation Irish or indeed simply Scottish. This of course was one of the consequences of the Lisbon Lions, that Celtic were no longer perceived by many as a predominately Irish club. It flattered the Scots’ conceit that a team composed solely of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire lads could conquer Europe.
As noted above this book is written in places from a very obvious republican perspective – “England” and “English” are used when it should really properly be “Britain” and “British” for events post 1707. There are some questionable historical statements too, such as that the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 between the USA and Britain was fought for US independence. It was a squabble over freedom of the high seas; and if anyone’s independence was at stake it was Canada’s. An irony here was that this battle was fought after the peace treaty had been signed in Ghent, the news from Europe arrived too late. New Orleans was a British defeat, not an English one. In fact one of the British army regiments that sustained some of the highest causalities on that day was the 93rd – the Sutherland Highlanders.
Sadly there is no index to the book, but the words of all the songs featured are included in the opening pages along with cross-references to the relevant narrative pages that describe the song’s background. There is lengthy bibliography, which also includes reference to various websites. Surprisingly there is no mention of some recent books that are relevant to the themes aired in this volume, such as Charles Townshend’s Easter 1916 The Irish Rebellion 2005 or Michael Foy’s Michael Collins’s Intelligence War The Struggle between the British and the IRA 1919-1921 published in 2006.
Overall then, Celtic & Ireland in Song and Story proudly tells the tale of Celtic’s Irish heritage and as such any Celtic supporter interested in the history of his/her club really ought to have this book
Dr John R.Walker