Football is inherently defined by the concept of well defined nation states. Clubs play in national leagues that feed into national teams that compete against other nations at the World Cup. Occasionally, however, clubs break this mould and appear to represent an identity that is a little less straightforward. Teams such as Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona have become cultural institutions that go beyond traditional notions of the nation. Glasgow Celtic perhaps fit this role the best – an Irish club playing in Scotland that seems to embody both Scottishness and Irishness at the same time, yet also sits in between these two identities. In many ways Celtic is a club for, and founded by, an inherently transnational people. Founded in 1888 to put food on the tables of poor Irish immigrants in the East End of Glasgow, Celtic has become the identity for a people who were without an identity, detached from their homeland of Ireland and stuck in the often hostile sectarian environment of the West Coast of Scotland. Through the lens of the football club, one can begin to visualize the historic links between Scotland and Ireland, catalysed by the immense movement of people, religious and political ideas in the 19th Century.
Through Celtic, then, we can begin to see how the people and politics of Ireland and Scotland have been inextricably linked. These links are also evident in the history of Belfast Celtic. Belfast Celtic were founded in 1891 as a club for Catholics in Belfast and shared a healthy relationship with their Glaswegian counterparts until, in 1948, sectarian violence forced them to dissolve. In the 57 years prior, they had shared many links with Glasgow Celtic, embodying a similar ethos, a somewhat shared fan-base, a shared culture, and shared players.
This shared ‘Celtic’ identity between Scots-Irish and Catholics in Ulster highlights a wider shared sphere of influence and a shared cultural identity that was not divided by the Irish Sea. It is within this shared sphere that we can observe several transnational actors that link the two clubs, and by extension, the Catholic populations of the two industrial cities of Belfast and Glasgow.
Firstly, we can observe sectarianism, initially imported into Scotland from Ireland, crossing back and forth across the Irish Sea between the two clubs and the two sets of people. The fierce derby between Belfast Celtic and Linfield – the staunchly Protestant and Unionist team in Belfast – became essentially a proxy-derby of the infamous Glasgow Old Firm between Glasgow Celtic and Rangers. These two rivalries did not exist in a vacuum, but rather fuelled each other. The 1948 riot between fans of Belfast Celtic and Linfield was mirrored in the 1952 riot between Glasgow Celtic and Rangers – a point not lost on commentators at the time. The regrettable consequence of the nature of football in this part of the world is that such a phenomenon informs us not just of sporting allegiances, but also of the transnational nature of prejudice. Hatred does not stop at national borders: to understand sectarianism in Scotland, you must widen your horizons to consider the influence of sectarianism in Ireland.
Secondly, in examining the two clubs, we can observe the sharing of cultural and religious identity between the two Catholic populations. Both clubs and both sets of fans shared a commitment to Irish Nationalism as well a strong and unwavering Catholic identity. As with the case of sectarianism, these identities did not exist separately of each other. Both sets of fans swapped imagery, songs and slogans, collaboratively creating an identity not just for the Scots-Irish, but also for Catholics in Ulster who had faced similar prejudices. If you watch Celtic play today, you will visit the stadium, affectionately named ‘Paradise’ and hear the fans sing ‘The Celtic Song’ – all cultural borrowings from Belfast Celtic. Again, this specific example of footballing culture highlights a wider shared culture and identity, crossing the Irish Sea.
Finally, we can observe human transnational actors. The two teams shared fans – whether it be those who crossed over from Belfast to Glasgow to watch games, or those in Glasgow who subscribed to Irish newspapers to keep up with Irish Politics and, perhaps more importantly, the Belfast Celtic score. Players such as Charlie Tully and Willie McStay played for both clubs, becoming not just footballing icons, but cultural icons for the two communities in the impoverished industrial cities of Glasgow and Belfast. To the hundreds-of-thousands who had crossed the Irish Sea looking for work, or escaping famine and oppression, individuals such as Tully represented the very embodiment of the Scots-Irish community.
The aim of this project, then, is to place the Scots-Irish community in a wider sphere, to show that they were interacting with – and integral to – a wider Catholic culture and community across the Irish Sea.